Special gravel coverage

Industrial designer, boat builder team up on plywood cargo bike

Posted by on May 19th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Plywood cargo bike-22

Michael Downes is quite pleased
with how it turned out.

When local industrial designer Michael Downes heard that the Oregon Manifest Design Challenge was back again this year, he knew he wanted to enter. Downes, a former bike designer for Giant who now teaches design at the Art Institute of Portland, had a novel idea for the “ultimate utility bike.” He wanted to make a cargo bike out of wood.

Downes pitched the idea to his friend and neighbor Jeff Sayler, a fellow cargo bike fan who also happens to be an expert wooden boat builder “He said, yeah let’s do it!” Downes recalls.

Over the past several months, Sayler and Downes — who’ve dubbed their collaboration Art & Industry — have completed their prototype for the Manifest competition; a striking, Bakfiets-style cargo bike made entirely out of 1/4-inch birch plywood. I ran into Downes the other day and we chatted about the project.

Plywood cargo bike-13

The key to the bike’s strength and ride quality
is the ribbed and epoxied construction.

“The collaboration with Jeff [Sayler] has been phenomonal… We trust each other’s skills. He knows wood structure and I know bikes, so we’ve got this great synergy… It’s going really well.”

“We felt we could get away with using wood more with a cargo bike because there’s not an archetype yet; what a cargo bike is is kind of open right now.”

Downes said he wanted to work with wood all along and that he arrived at doing a cargo bike because a standard bike “would be a challenge aesthetically.” “We felt we could get away with using wood more with a cargo bike because there’s not an archetype yet; what a cargo bike is is kind of open right now.”

Plywood cargo bike-6

Plywood cargo bike-20

Yes, that’s a door knob.
Plywood cargo bike-9

Beginning with the angles and measurements of the classic bakfiets, Downes and Sayler have created an impressive machine. The cargo bin and the main frame are all one piece (“The frame is the box is the cargo bike” is how Downes puts it). The only non-wood parts (besides the components of course) are the seat tube, steering tube, head tube and dropouts.

The plywood was cut out on a CNC machine and then slotted together into a series of ribs that are glued together with an epoxy resin mixed with chalk. The resin is then mixed “into a goop” and “mushed into fillets,” explains Downes. The result is a very strong bike that is also lightweight. Add in Downes’ design skills and you’ve got a very viable bicycle.

“It weighs 51 pounds, which is light for a cargo bike,” Downes says proudly, “It also climbs well and has a super comfy ride.”

The final version will feature many refinements. Downes says we can expect to see hatches and storage compartments in the cargo bin, as well as built-in lights and a sound system for good measure.

Downes and Sayler have a blog that has chronicled their project. Check it out at Boomstik.blogspot.com. These two are just one of many talented teams pushing the utility bike boundaries for the Oregon Manifest Design Challenge. We can’t wait to see what others come up with!

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  • 9watts May 19, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Now all we need is to get the locals making hardwood plywood so we don’t need to import that from afar, and we’re all set.

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  • Alan 1.0 May 19, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    …a standard bike “would be a challenge aesthetically.”


    The only non-wood parts (besides the components of course)…

    Splinterbike – 100% wood and glue everything

    A production, working, wood bike on the Wet Coast needs marine grade plywood for durability in the weather.

    But all-in-all, very cool stuff and seems that Oregon Manifest is fulfilling its role of driving innovation.

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  • kww May 19, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    This is great, monocoque frame!
    A ‘kit bike’ would be awesome!
    If it survives the challenge ride, I predict a winner!

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  • Mike May 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Made entirely out of wood – Except the seat tube, fork and all the steering pieces? I assume the green tube is steel and the linkage is aluminum. So maybe more like 70% plywood and the rest is a mix of materials.
    Very cool looking. First time I have ever considered owning a cargo bike.

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  • METROFIETS May 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Awesome work guys!

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  • Joe May 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    got wood.. haha

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  • dwainedibbly May 19, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Kit bike? Absolutely! I’d really like to see them publish plans as Open Source, and sell kits.

    Is this the bike they’re entering, or a working prototype? I’d love to see them get wood for more of this. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Seriously, though, I bet the linkage could be wooden, maybe the handlebars, and some other parts, too.

    Oregon Manifest is going to be a lot of fun.

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    • kww May 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

      I was thinking more that it would be laser cut and glue/varnish final assy., more than just plans.

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  • Jon May 19, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I would like to see what this looks like after 6 months of Portland weather. Plywood boats involve a great deal of time and effort to paint/varnish/epoxy. They also require a lot of time to maintain in good condition.

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  • Suburban May 19, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Glue-ups are likely beyond the tooling of DIY moms and dads. Plus, the hydrogen gas used to keep it aloft is highly flammable.

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  • marshmallow May 19, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    pfffffft, mine’s paper mache

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  • Jim May 19, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    But will it float?

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  • John Landolfe May 20, 2011 at 11:30 am

    I know it’s just a side product of being a prototype, but on a purely aesthetic level, I like the DIY utilitarian look. It’s a nice reminder that bikes aren’t just high end sporting or fashion accessories.

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  • J- May 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    This is a neat project – I am amazed that they were able to keep the weight down to 50 pounds. If they used marine-grade plywood, and appropriate urethane finishes I don’t think this will have any problem out in the Portland weather. The key is making sure that there is adequate drainage or scuppers at the low points so that standing water does not form.

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  • fasterthanme May 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    I would not want to ride this bicycle at ALL. My partner’s aluminum frame just snapped in half while she was riding. Thankfully she’s ok and didn’t need an emergency room visit. She’s not a curb jumper just a gentle commuter.

    It’s a nice idea but rain, sun and the elements are going to tear that thing apart. Who’s going to pay the medical bills when that one fails?

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    • marshmallow May 20, 2011 at 5:52 pm

      This is designed to hold heavy loads. Maybe your partner is fatterthanme.

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    • Jim May 21, 2011 at 11:19 am

      I would sugest your partner buy an old english raliegh comuter bike with as steel frame, it will last for a century and not break no mater what… Old stuff has character that is desireable these days. Some of the new stuff is just junk with a too big price tag on it.
      I think the wooden bike would be plenty strong enough if done properly. It might take a few trys to get it right, all good things do

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  • michael downes May 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Fasterthanme……………I have to respond to that one. High performance aircraft and boats are built of wood. As are bridges, houses and even cathedrals and they do just fine and some have even stood for centuries. As with any object that experiences weather, maintenance is the key to longevity. Just like a normal bicycle really. The wooden cargo bike, being a continuous composite structure can handle forces very well as stress & vibration are dissipated throughout the bike. The main downfall of a wooden bike is not strength but abrasion and impact resistance which can be substantially mitigated with fiber glass.

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  • fasterthanme May 20, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Someone called marshmallow shouldn’t be pointing fingers. You know jack poop about what you’re talking about.

    Ok Michael go for it. me I’ll stick to steel.

    Frankly if it could have been done, we’d have seen it already.

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    • Machu Picchu May 21, 2011 at 9:51 am

      It has been done, you’re seeing it, and I think I hear you saying you don’t trust wood as a frame material because someone else’s aluminum frame broke. Which makes almost no sense to me.

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  • Tbird May 21, 2011 at 4:05 am

    nice work.

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  • Camilla May 21, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Michael Downes rock!!! Lookin’ shweet!

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  • drew May 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for posting your experiences with putting together this unique creation. Very inspirational.

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  • Psyfalcon May 21, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I would like to ride it. I would not like to be the one to crash it though. If marketed, would there be plans for repair?

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  • boowoo May 22, 2011 at 2:18 am

    Great job guys. I definitely would love to ride it. It surprises me the mistrust of a material used extensively to build machines throughout history. How quickly we forget! I have never ridden a wood bike, I have commuted rain , hail and shine for 5 years on a bamboo bike with no problems.

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  • GlowBoy May 22, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Nice work, and looks great!

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  • DK May 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Have to dodge the lit cigarettes discarded by passing drivers and maybe carry a fire extinguisher? 😉

    Nice to see something out of the ordinary. Keep up the good work.

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  • sabernar May 23, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I saw this riding down Clinton last week. It definitely turned my head. I’m glad to see a write-up about it here.

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  • deborah May 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    sweet bike guys! looks really well engineered!

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