Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Project Trike

The family and I were at the fancy-schmancy kids' store in Fiercetown a while back for an Asian Mommies event, and among the many other beautiful, stylish, and unconscionably expensive items on display was a very sweet looking tricycle.  As a formerly passionate cyclist, and a sucker for cool design, my interest was piqued.

The machine was made of plywood.  Not cruddy old plywood like your uncle's tool shed, but sleek birch with sexy curves and a lustrous finish.  Like an Eames lounge chair on wheels.

My heart sang as I saw that the kids also gravitated toward it, wrestling for a chance to climb aboard.

It was a rainy day, and after the rest of the Asian Mommies left, we were the only customers in the store.  The woman at the till indulged us as the twins took turns crashing through the racks of high-end baby clothes.  They showed both enthusiasm and aptitude for propelling themselves on wheeled contraptions.  I could not have been more proud.

The genius of this trike's design is that it converts from three wheels to two when the kid is ready to have a go at riding a balance bike (that's a bike without pedals, thought by Euros and snooty Americans to be a better way than training wheels to prepare kids for riding a real bicycle).  And when the kid gets too big for the frame in its original configuration, you simply disconnect it from the fork and flip it over so it describes an upward arc rather than a downward one, providing another eight or so inches of stand-over height.  A child could ride this thing from under two years old until they were ready for a full-fledged bike.

The downfall of this rig, as I saw it, was its price tag:  $250.00 for the basic two-wheel bike setup, plus another fifty for the kit that allows you to use it as a trike.  And there's no way we could get away with buying just one.  So we were looking at a $600.00 investment on toys that the girls may or may not have had an enduring interest in.  Clearly, this was not going to happen.  But...

That thing is made out of wood, I thought.  I know how to make things out of wood.

It's not the first time that thought had occurred to me. 

Often, when I see some tasteful wooden toy set that's much more expensive than its garish plastic counterpart, I think:

I could make that. 

Then I consider the price of the material and the hours it would take me to make the toys, and I realize that it would make more financial sense to just pay the twenty bucks for the toy.  Or put it on a wishlist for a relative to buy for an upcoming birthday.  Or just buy the seven dollar plastic version.

That's one of my misgivings with the whole DIY movement*:  it seems oddly elitist.  It's like camping.  Very few people who ever had to sleep outside go camping once they can afford to live in a house.  Likewise, people who grew up unable to afford store-bought clothes or toys don't generally handcraft anything when it's available at Target for ten bucks.  They would rather earn money doing their jobs, and spend their precious free time hanging out with their families. Presumably. 

Nonetheless, I wanted to build something like these bikes for my kids.  (I also want to take them camping.  Because I'm an elitist who has never experienced real hardship.)  I figured that, valuing my time at the price I can command for a remodeling job, I could probably break even.  Plus, it would be fun for me and make me seem really, really cool if it worked out.

* Even though I'm in awe of people like Mike (Cry It Out) and Jim (Sweet Juniper), who make amazing things for their kids, mostly out of old junk


I've been building houses and parts of houses and remodels and additions on houses for a living since I was eighteen years old (a long-ass time ago), with some hiatuses for college and grad school, and an eventual blending in of a teaching "career" in the last seven years or so.  In that time, I've made a point of mocking the lily-palmed desk jockeys who so "admire" people like me who "work with their hands."

All the while, of course, I've secretly reveled in the romanticizing by others of my not-really-very-glamorous vocation.

And I'm at a point now, with my house mostly dialed in and my days filled with baby-wrangling, that I actually find myself gazing wistfully at my neglected table saw and nail guns.

So I decided that it was time for me to launch my first real dad project.

I felt (and still feel) a little weird about just straight up stealing someone else's design, lock, stock, and barrel. But this trike/bike was exactly what I wanted for my kids.  I didn't see any way I could improve upon it, and it wouldn't make any sense to sacrifice any of its features just for the sake of kidding myself that I was doing something original.

So I ripped off someone else's design.  (I'm not mentioning the company I ripped off; but if you've shopped for balance bikes, you probably know who I'm talking about.  If not, you can email me and I'll provide links for you, because they seem like an outfit that deserves your custom.)

I drew sketches based on my memory of the trike I had seen in the store, and tried to scale the dimensions and glean technical details off of the company's website. I'm not particularly proud of that.  But, if anyone from the company in question happens to read this, just remember that intellectual property theft is the sincerest of flattery.

I ended up deviating from their design in a few areas, notably the axles (I had to improvise since I don't have the machines necessary to make metal hardware) and the seats (I made mine like motorcycle seats to keep them as low to the ground as possible for our dinky kids).  But still, they are basically reproductions.  Okay, knockoffs.

I'll go into more technical detail here, for those of you who aren't already bored to tears.  But what follows is the quick and dirty overview of making the bikes.


Building toys is not exactly the same as building houses.  I have a garage full of tools, but they're all the kind that you can put into a pickup and haul to a jobsite.  I don't have any of the stuff that you used in Woodshop, if that still existed when you were in high school.  I don't have a lathe, or a drill press, or a bandsaw, or a bench sander--all of which would have been helpful for this project.  So I had to fake it sometimes, the way you do on a jobsite.

And my experience with woodworking doesn't always translate precisely into these smaller scale projects either.

For instance, the frame of the bike has multiple curves in it.  I've built curved things out of wood before.  Like the two-story turret on a house overlooking the Sebastiani winery in Sonoma, CA.  But to bend the plywood around the frame of the turret, I used a telescopic forklift called a Lull, with a twenty foot hydraulic boom.  While the principle is pretty much the same for bending plywood in walls, furniture, and toys, the techniques differ significantly.  So I had to do some research.  Thankfully, the internet holds all the answers.

I started the project during the second week of December, hoping to be done by Christmas.  Not like the twins knew jack about Christmas, but I thought it would be fun to include the trikes/bikes as part of the festivities.

Once I had a pretty decent idea of how to go about building these things, I had to find the materials.  It took a few trips to Home Depot, a specialty lumberyard, a couple industrial hardware stores, a few thrift stores, and some sketchy meetings with people who were selling their kids' bikes on Craigslist (I bought them just for the wheels) before I could get all the parts together.

I managed to get the frames built and most of the hardware installed before Christmas.  I ended up spending a little over a hundred bucks on material, almost half of which was on a sheet of birch plywood that I used for the forks.  The good news is that I still have enough of that sheet to build a baby gate out of.

As far as my labor: well--I would have had to charge about a five hundred bucks apiece to make building these suckers worth my time, financially. 

One of the bikes in two-wheel mode, and one as a trike

While building them, it occurred to me that bikes this cool deserved a custom paint job.

So I contacted a friend who happens to be one of the smartest and most talented people I've ever known, and she agreed to populate the bare plywood of the machines with paintings of adorable animals.

Dig the yellow naugahyde seat w/fringe.  Made from a thrift shop garment bag.

Giving the delicate artist enough time to create the mobile menagerie pushed the rollout beyond Christmas Day, which...really didn't matter at all.  The unveiling took place on New Year's Day, and looked like this:

Clearly, I was a little more excited than they were.


Since the great unveiling, we have gone out for rides in The Park every day except for the two times it has rained.  

As seems to be the case with everything, the girls arbitrarily try on different attitudes toward riding their trikes from one day to the next.  On Monday, Cobra will be indifferent, and Butterbean will be deadly serious about racking up piles of miles.  On Tuesday, Butterbean wants to be carried  while Cobra tears up the sidewalks.  Learning to ride trikes is one more exciting, sometimes stressful aspect of their worlds, and their reactions are unpredictable.

Butterbean cruising around the park.  She's very focused.

For the most part, though,  the bikes have been a big hit, and have become part of their vocabulary as well.  When I let them know that it's time to go play ("đi chơi!"), they respond by saying (approximately), "Bike? Bike?," quickly followed by "Hat? Hat?"  These girls are all about the accessories, so the pink helmets ("hats") are as important as the bikes themselves.

I could go on with a dozen or so darling anecdotes about the girls and their trikes, but I'll restrain myself and just share one.

We were doing a lap around the park, and both of the girls were happily cruising along as I coached them.  We came to a pretty good sized hill, and the girls charged right at it. I figured that I would easily be able to prevent them from getting into any trouble by descending the hill backwards, in front of them, ready to block them if they got going too fast.  I may or may not have been trying to capture it on video.

Anyway, Cobra made it down first, with a little assistance from father-of-the-year.  But meanwhile, Butterbean had veered off into a patch of iceplant and ended up pinned under the trike with the handlebar boring into her cheek.  I rescued her as quickly as possible, and looked back at my other charge, who had managed to topple her trike while I dealt with her sister.

Of course I was concerned primarily that both of the kids were all right; but I also was afraid that the episode would shackle them with a lifelong bike aversion.  I needn't have worried.  Cobra was unfazed, poking around in the dirt next to her overturned vehicle.

And Butterbean, sporting a perfectly circular abrasion next to her mouth from the rubber grip on the handlebar, started thrashing in my arms as she called out between sobs: "Bike!  Bike!  Bike!"

That's my girl.


We happen to live next to the coolest park in the world, which counts a velodrome among its many attractions.  A nice lady who coaches there said I should bring the girls one Saturday morning.  So we did.  Here are some of the pictures my wife took.

Sprint!  Sprint!  Sprint!  Stay on her wheel!  

Dude is totally jealous of the yellow rims
Cobra breaks away on the inside




  1. You are a proud Daddy!... How are their little legs holding up? Damn, u can build, dude!. lol next project is a playhouse, or tree house, or??

  2. I'm not sure if I'd expect to see Sir Chris Hoy or Cadel Evans on one soon,but they still look fantastic.

    I don't do DIY,I do PSE(pay someone else)so I'm very envious of your creative talents.

    Here's a quick bit of info about another man that made his own bike.Broke the world hour record on it as well.

  3. The trikes are great. You did a fantastic job.

  4. Your trikes look really awesome! I assume that it ended up being cheaper to build them yourself than to buy them? I don't think that's elitist at all. I look at all these designer dresses and think "I can make that." And it's usually much cheaper. I feel like the DIY thing grew out of the recession.

  5. You are the man. Love the bikes and love the pics of the girls racing at the velodrome! Clearly I need to take my kid to our local velodrome for similar pics!

  6. This is the coolest thing I have seen all year. Easily. You rock! And they look like so much fun!

  7. Dude. DUDE. Those trikes are awesome. I'm deeply impressed with your mad carpentry skillz. I mean, I was impressed before, but these are great. Butterbean and Cobra will be the Daughters of Anarchy cruising around on those. They need leather jackets now.

    Seriously. I couldn't put something like that together with a gun to my head.

  8. Love the velodrome pix! Can't wait to see you build a wooden camper for the girls next.


  9. Between the girls, your writing, and you and your artist friends' creations, I don't even go to Cute Overload anymore. I come here.

  10. I know the store-bought wood trikes you're talking about and they're pretty neat but yours are really cool!

  11. WHOA. WTF, broseph? Are you serious? That's some straight up wood working/crafty talent you got there. So impressed. They will love this later in life. You're a good daddy.

  12. Awww man they look so cute on their bikes! As a lily-palmed desk jockey, I really do admire your skills. And just how sweet it is that you would do this for your kids.

    But as an artist and a perfectionist, I feel the nagging tug of noticing things I could have done differently or better. Like I forgot the front wheels wouldn't cover up the fork, so I didn't paint all the way down. And there really should be something on the back of the sissy bar!! Did you lacquer them already? If so, maybe I will figure out a way to affix more art on top of that and do some pro bono work. I just want them to have the best, and you put so much work into the bikes that nothing should mar their perfection.

    All in all, though, well done! Oh, and thank you for the exceedingly kind introduction you gave me.

  13. Oh cummon, man! As if I didn't already think you were manly enough - then you go and pull off a wood working project for your kids and then proceed to write a sweet little story, and then add some fun pics on top of it. What will you do next?

    Seriously though, very clever. Kuddos

  14. These are super cool. I'm in awe! Here's hoping you can share your wisdom Mike so he can make one for Michaela!

  15. Those turned out amazing. You are one of the coolest dads ever.

  16. Was not what I was expecting when we were all guessing your secret project! The trikes look great though!

    My only concern? Is there enough padding on the homemade seat? (If you have ever fallen off your bike seat and hit the bar you will know what I am getting at...)

  17. You may be an elitist, snobby American who has a mildly excessive attraction to birch but you are also one of the coolest dads EVER.

    Remember, it isn't really idea theft since their version ranges between $250 - $300 and your version, with the custom paint jobs, are priceless.

  18. There is nothing but pride to be had over being able to build those. That is freaking awesome- I am very serious. Well done.

  19. Niiiiice. Is it too late for you to be my dad too?

  20. That hero thing from yesterday just exploded threesome! What awesome talent. They look totally like girly bad-asses on those trikes. You are such a great Dad, I am envious.

  21. Man, those girls are cute. The bikes of course are death traps. Awesome, awesome death traps.

  22. That is awesome. I can put a nail in a piece of wood. Sometimes without bending the nail too.

  23. Oh my God. Nice job! Those are some of the cutest things I have ever seen in my life!

    visions unto myself

  24. @KBF--Their legs are fine. Sometimes they get a little worked up emotionally though. There have been tears. I would totally build a treehouse, if only we had a tree! Playhouse is definitely on the list though.

    @jacks--I know a guy who makes things out of carbon fiber. Do you anyone would ride a carbon trike in the Tour? I'll check out the link when I get a chance. Sounds interesting.


    @Jessica--I think I mentioned this in paragraph 47 or so (I meant to anyway), but the material was cheaper, around 100 bucks all told. But if someone were paying me the going rate for a good carpenter, it would have been way more expensive than the storebought bikes.

    @Mel--Thanks! I bet your velodrome has "open to the public" days too.

    @Mike--Thanks a lot, man!

    @DiPi--Daughters of Anarchy. Has a nice ring to it. And that makes me...Anarchy? I like that too!

    @Michelle--Thanks. Wooden camper, huh? Maybe hollowed out of a single log? Sounds good.

    @Marcie--Every day is cute overload here. With a little whiney overload sometimes. Thanks!

    @IzzyMom--The store-bought ones are totally cool! I probably would have just broken down and bought one if we only had one kid.

    @Robin--Thanks, brah!

    @Anisa--You think YOU feel nagging and tugging! Every time one of the kids gets frustrated riding, I'm trying to figure out how I screwed up. The graphics look awesome! I did lacquer them, but we could probably sand it down a little to add more. I don't know though--they look great to me. Thanks again for the art!

    @CK_L--Next, I will microwave a burrito, drink some PBR, and write some posts about poop. Thanks for the comment!

    @Music--I'd be glad to help him out if he wants to build one. I have all kinds of ideas about how I would do it differently, given the opportunity. I hear (from Mike) that Mike is very handy!

    @Karen--Thank you! I will ask you to repeat that when the kids are ten years old.

    @Mrs. K--The seats are pretty squishy. Under the naugahyde are rolled up pieces of fleece blanket. Plus, we use cloth diapers, which are twenty times thicker than the chamois in a pair of bike shorts!

    @Nari--Thanks. Yeah, I figure even after the kids outgrow them, or the bikes fall apart, they'll still be good as art.

    @Jack--Thanks. I'll try to be proud without feeling like a douche for doing so!

    @VEG--Oh. They ARE girly badasses. Believe me. Thanks!

    @Blogger Father--I don't know. How old are you? Do you eat much? Can you fix computers?

    @Homemaker Man--"Awesome Death Traps" would be a great name for a toy store! Thanks!

    @Cpt. D--would you be interested in an internship, by any chance?

    @Kara--Thanks so much!

  25. Whoa. Those wheels are the bomb dot come.

  26. What an awesome, crafty idea... Even though it is a stolen one. Eh, as long as they liked it. Love the artwork on the bikes!

  27. The trikes are amazing - I need to get me one :)

  28. You are an awesome dad! You did an amazing job. Also, those photos are the cutest thing I've seen all day. And I saw puppies today.

  29. Everything is adorable and impressive! I'm jealous of your skills and of your daughters for having such great parents!

  30. Wow. Those are pretty awesome. Dad of the year indeed. Your daughters got the jackpot.

  31. Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn!

    That is all.

  32. Fantastic job on it all. just great skills and an inspiring project.

  33. Those trikes are okay. I hesitate to say more than that because of all the ego-boosting comments you've received. Seriously though, they are impressive, I wish I had those mad skills. Read you went to Langley High. I'm a Robinson girl myself though I took Berkeley over UVA just to be different. Well, that and I didn't get accepted to UVA. Oops, sorry M&D! Happy New Year, Beta Dad, from the gals at Gen X Moms.


    @M--yeah, I'll take credit for banging them together, but the guy I blatantly ripped off is the real genius.

    @Paul--Thanks! You have some pretty decent parents too, as I recall.

    @OTO--Thanks a bunch! Well, I don't know about "the jackpot," but at least they'll have plenty of weird homemade toys.

    @The Holmes and Allan--Thaaaaaaanks.

    @Ruth--Thanks for the reality check. Also, I went to Robinson in grades 8-9. You got into Berkely but NOT UVA? Wow. UVA must be more exclusive than I thought. I'll bet I'm older than you though. They used to let anyone in.

  35. Awesome job man. Well done. They look great.

  36. I love the pics with the grown up bikers juxtaposed with the girls in the foreground. Amazing trikes and many many likes!!!

  37. At first I was going to say something witty about how you and my husband should hook up because he's always like, "I could make that!" but then when I saw what you made, I was like, "Wow, that's fantastic! I want one for my kids!"
    Terrific! Love the pics of the kids on the bike track!

  38. never heard of a balance bike in my life. Mind = blown.

    she looks like shes having a blast on the trike tho :)

  39. We taught our three little girls to ride two wheelers with both training wheels and the balance method. The balance bike--we called it a "push bike"--is definitely the way to go. The key is the tiny bike--it has to be low enough to the ground so the child can plant her feet, feel secure, and push. Learning to balance just happens while she is having a blast. Terrific bikes you made!

  40. The trike are really cool. Have you considered making more for sale. I bet you could make a nice business out of them!

  41. Meanwhile... for Bossy's next trick, she will arrange the pillows under her head.

  42. Awesome andy you have found your calling...Harley push trikes for kids with style..I like the vellodrome perspective. Kbrownell

  43. Push trikes are kick ass! Great job and keep writing!

  44. Those are fantastic, and I plan to take a woodworking course soon ... a bit late for my boy who is turning 4 momentarily, but I'm sure I could hang one on my wall?

    A design suggestion, based on the experience of having two children on trikes at the same time ... maybe you could have a slot to insert an upside-down hockey stick in each (canadian solution, obviously) for those longer walk when one or the other doesn't want to ride on her own steam?!

    I can't wait to make one ...

  45. You have a gift my friend. Knowing an actually useful trade + getting the pride of making something with your bare hands + pleasing your children immensely = TOTAL DAD WIN.


Don't hold back.


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