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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.