WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — We are surprising slaves to conformity when it comes to the materials used to make things. An armoire made of bicycle parts? That would just be silly. But what about a bicycle made from an armoire? As it turns out, a bike hewn out of wood is a ride that some people pine for.
For the most part, form has rigidly followed function in bicycle design, with increasingly featherweight wonders forged out of materials ranging from aluminum to titanium. But a pair of San Jose, Calif., woodworkers — one a self-taught genius, the other his interpreter to the real world — are turning recycled Honduran mahogany, cherry and maple hardwoods into cycling’s most splendid splinters.
At Masterworks Wood and Design, Bill Holloway, 49, and Mauro Hernandez, 33, are an artistic odd couple who have carved out a unique place for themselves in cycling’s peloton. They have built 10 bikes — all cruisers, with a pedicab in the works — that are made almost entirely of wood, and look like a Harley enthusiast’s idea of an elaborate weathervane. The original sapling in this fleet fleet, called the Defender, is their entry-level model and costs $5,500. Other models, such as the Interceptor, which has a pirate theme, and the Cherry Bomb, with flames carved out of wood, run as much as $7,500.
The bikes are considered “green” because the wood used to make them is not. The pair spends countless hours tracking down the most beautiful used woods they can find and repurposing them for their rolling works of art. The craftsmen are so environmentally friendly they’ve been featured on the TreeHugger.com website. Relying on a network of arborists — who let Holloway and Hernandez know when an ornamental Chinese pistache is about to be turned into mulch, or a redwood has been uprooted from a traffic median — they use old-growth “urban wood” to create heaven on two wheels.
The pair worked together at a wood shop that Holloway ran for a designer of upscale homes, and forged an unlikely partnership. Hernandez lived in Mexico City until he was 10, and had been a manager at a Target before he met Holloway. “I knew nothing about woodworking when I started,” he says. But he had mad skills as a draftsman, so Holloway taught him how to sculpt a piece of mahogany. Hernandez helped the visionary craftsman realize his potential as an artist.
“He comes up with the ideas,” Hernandez says, “but it’s hard for him to get them down on paper because he doesn’t have an artistic background.” Holloway could narrate a vivid description of the bike frame he had in mind, but his sketches were crude stick figures. “I’m a dreamer, so I have a lot going on in my head,” he says. “What’s always held me back is getting out the crazy stuff I design. If I tell Mauro something, he can draw it and add something of his own.”
They opened their own woodworking company in June 2008, just as the economy was going into the woodchipper. Holloway lost his house in San Jose that year because he hadn’t been paid in months. The design firm they worked for went under still owing both men money, so Masterworks actually started life in the red.
“It’s been real tough,” says Holloway, standing amid a mountain of lumber stacked in the unheated 4,800-square foot shop, where reclaimed grape stakes mingle with old floorboards and discarded furniture. “I want to be one of a kind, but in today’s economy it’s killing me because it’s expensive.”
All around the sawdust circus are delicate hand carvings by Hernandez, elegant kitchen cabinets and ornate doorways. It has all been lovingly executed, but the work devours so much time that the custom shop is barely profitable.
“I hate cookie cutter work” Holloway says. “I like to be original, to do things I haven’t done before. That’s who I am. But it shoots me in the foot. Many times I’ve wished I could be like normal people.”
Growing up in San Francisco, Holloway got all his joy from riding a bike or skateboard, and fixing them when they broke. “I was an adrenaline junkie,” he says. “When I was in high school, if I wasn’t risking my life, I wasn’t happy.”
A friend with whom he used to race bicycles suggested he combine his passions and attempt to build a wood bike. “Once you put something like that in this guy’s head, he won’t stop thinking about it until something comes out,” Hernandez says. A plywood prototype took about 85 hours to assemble, which is still about how long it takes to make one. Along the way have come refinements, such as the handles — once fitted out using hockey tape, replaced now with hand-sewn English leather — and one bike that has a carved skull gear-shift.
The bike’s inner frames are built around a high-grade multi-ply mahogany imported from England, which provides both strength and flexibility. An expensive Brazilian rosewood oil is applied to seal the finish. Holloway took an early model on a 25-mile rain ride, and after giving it a quick polish, the bike looked as good as new. Thanks to the fat Kenda Flame tires — fiery little tongues of tread make them look cool and hot at the same time — Holloway has completed a 50-mile ride on the curved wooden seat, and lived to tell the tale.
“You don’t take this bike to the store and leave it sitting out front,” he says. “It’s a cruiser, not an errand-running bike. It’s meant to be taken to the boardwalk, ridden for 10 miles and that’s it.”
The seat, which looks like a slightly modified Eames chair, was what caught the eye of Bob Williams, a retired music teacher in Pleasanton, Calif., who owns one of the three bikes Masterworks has sold. “I could never get the seat big enough to be comfortable,” Williams says. This has a swooping, curving narrow bench that you straddle, and it even gives support to your lower back. At no time are you getting pinched anywhere.”
Williams also likes that the bike turns heads. “It’s very beautiful to look at when it’s sitting still,” he says, “but even more so when you’re riding it. It’s art.”
After experimenting with a variety of kickstands, Holloway abandoned the idea as too utilitarian. Instead, he created a stand that resembles a small painter’s easel, strengthening the working slogan for the business: Art you can ride.
A complete lineup of MasterWorks’ wood bikes can be seen at woodbicycle.com.