Walking into Renovo’s SE Portland bike shop, the first thing you notice is the smell. No stinky rubber and metal here—instead the showroom smells of maple, walnut, and ash. Handmade from various hardwoods, getting your hands on these artisanal bikes is about to get a whole lot easier.
Once available only by custom order, this year Renovo released its first premade, ready-to-ride wooden frames, meaning soon more bikes will roll out of the woodshop and onto streets all over the world. And it all started one summer in a Portland garage.
In 2007, Ken Wheeler, an engineer who made composite airplanes, was studying different materials when he and his son decided to build a wooden bike. They pressed strips of sandwiched plywood into a frame and tested it to see if it would ride. A year later, the idea took off as a full-fledged business.
“A lot of people think that this is a woodworking project, but it’s an engineering project,” says Wheeler, “I’m no woodworker—I couldn’t make a desk or a bed—I’ve never made anything out of wood except for bikes.”
Since 2008, Renovo has built more than 600 bikes, with annual orders backlogged by the hundreds, and Wheeler says custom became too cumbersome. “We got a record 138 emails from a customer specifying his bike—somebody has to answer all of those.” he says with eyes rolling.
After selecting the most popular woods and styles, Renovo introduced its 2015 line of nine ready-to-ride bicycles that Wheeler predicts will cut production time from a year down to weeks. Customers choose their components to complement frames with names like the “Elwood” for city riding and the “Bad Ash 29er” bikepacking model.
Hollow and a pound or so heavier than carbon, Wheeler advocates wood as a natural shock absorber that makes for a smoother ride—and Renovo designs for the rugged, the roadies, and all types of riders. They’re breathtakingly beautiful bikes, but Wheeler says that for business, fine craftsmanship can be both a blessing and a curse.
“The beauty is a little bit of a problem because it’s the bike quality and ride that’s beautiful—the looks are just a bonus,” Wheeler says, “They’re all rigorously tested and sealed with the same stuff as airplanes. You can have that bike in Death Valley in your van in 130 degree heat and go out and ride your bike—they’re meant to be ridden.”
Right now, Renovo’s ready-to-rides must be ordered directly, but Wheeler says deals with distributors in Japan and the US are in the works. So next time you’re in Southeast, or see Renovo in a bike shop window, be sure to stop in and smell the rosewood.
2005 SE 8th Ave