‘You take it out for a ride and people shout, “Nice paintjob!”’ laughs Dai Williams, one half of Silva Cycles. ‘I’ve ridden a few sportives on it and it’s always funny to see the look of confusion flash across someone’s face when they realise they’ve just been overtaken by a guy on a wooden bike.’
Alongside co-builder Guy Munnings, Williams has been crafting hardwood bicycles for the best part of a decade. Their creations fuse modern geometry and tube shapes with traditional woodworking techniques, resulting in some truly one-off bikes.
‘I actually started off trying to build a carbon frame,’ says Williams. ‘I experimented with polystyrene moulds, but soon found they melted away from the heat of curing the epoxy resin. That led me to try wrapping a balsa-wood frame in carbon. After a while I thought, “Let’s just skip the balsa and carbon and see if it’s possible to make a bike from hardwood.” Before long I’d come up with the first version of the Celero.’
Williams equipped that first bike with components stripped from an old single-speed and dubbed it the ‘Una Celero’, meaning ‘single speed’ in Latin. He jokes that he half expected it to collapse on its maiden voyage, but instead he ended up being surprised by its strength.
‘I started hopping off pavements with it, almost to the point of trying to break it. It was practically bombproof. That’s when Guy came on board and we started to think that maybe we were onto something.’
Munnings takes up the story: ‘Our kids were in the same year at school. I was just about to finish rebuilding my house and needed a new project. I think a couple of beers were involved during the initial conversations, and we thought, “Well, how hard can it be?”’
After some Googling of wood-related words and phrases, they settled on the name Silva and got to work building more wooden frames in Munnings’ garage. So far, they’ve produced bikes including a beach cruiser, a commuter, a fixie and this refined, fully geared version of that first road bike.
Naturally, when designing bikes for the consumer market, saying, ‘I bunny-hopped it off a curb and it didn’t snap in half,’ isn’t going to be enough to satisfy regulatory bodies. So in order to see just how strong their hardwood frames were, Munnings and Williams put the Celero through the same International Organization for Standardization (ISO) tests that all modern road bikes must pass to be deemed fit for sale.
There are five individual tests that simulate different types of stress. It’s standard practice to use a different frame for each, but the pair decided to use the same one for all five.
‘They couldn’t break it,’ says Williams. ‘Eventually it was the aluminium dropouts that sheared off after the frame surpassed double the required standard of 100,000 cycles. Even after all of that, it’s still rideable.’
A key reason for the Celero’s strength lies in the choice of wood.
‘We mainly use ash,’ says Williams. ‘They used to make car frames out of the stuff, and it’s what a lot of planes were historically made from too.’
Another factor lies in Williams’ and Munnings’ belt-and-braces approach.
‘A lot of brands are shaving everything down for lightness,’ says Williams. ‘Whereas because we’re using natural materials, we decided to over-engineer it and carry that extra bit of weight. This particular one weighs about 9.5kg.’
‘Each bike is made up of more than 40 pieces of wood,’ says Munnings. ‘We decide on the pattern, then we’ve got our template pieces that we use to rough-cut the shape. Next we bond the bits together to form the two halves of the frame, and then it’s a case of taking off the corners, rounding it a little bit and sanding.’
‘We also root out the middle so the tubes are hollow,’ adds Williams. The two halves are then joined together and we bond the metalwork and insert conduits for the internal cable routing.’
The pair says it takes roughly 100 hours to build a Celero, although that’s not including the time it takes to cure the chainstays and seatstays, bond everything together, sand it down and give the finished product its 11 coats of two-part marine varnish.
‘It’s the same stuff they use on the hulls of wooden boats,’ says Munnings. ‘You have to leave 24 hours between each coat. This is when it really goes from being a lump of wood to something that’s almost glassy smooth. You see the wood grain coming out, almost like flames down the side, and the finished product starts to emerge.’
It’s a lengthy process, but one that Williams and Munnings believe is worth it for the superior ride feel of a hardwood frame. ‘Strava reckons I’ve hit 58mph [93kmh] on it,’ Williams says. ‘Absolutely solid. No concerns whatsoever, whereas I’m always glad to get off the bike after hitting similar speeds on a carbon frame.
‘Timber is a natural shock absorber. It’s a much smoother, quieter ride and it just feels bombproof. Not that we’re trying to compete with high-performance bikes because we’re never going to, but in terms of looks, strength and ride feel, I think we’re up there somewhere.’
• This article originally appeared in issue 138 of Cyclist magazine. Click here to subscribe