One sunny summer day when I was a kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old, I was sitting on the front lawn of my childhood home on 41st Ave in Vancouver, waving goodbye to my uncle as he drove away in his blue car. As he often did, he had come to visit and bring us some hot cross buns, always quickly devoured by us four energetic kids. As I was sitting on the lawn, barefoot, a bumblebee landed on my big toe (my daddy toe, as I used to call it, and still do). My parents had told me that bumblebees don’t sting, but as I waved goodbye to my uncle and my toe wiggled a little bit, the little buzzing ball of fuzz stung my daddy toe. I was not impressed, and duly made this known by profuse crying, as was my reaction at that age to most things unpleasant.
Fast forward a couple decades, and shift the scene one city block southwest: I wanted to build up a bunch of bicycles while I was in Vancouver this past spring, but I had less spare time on my hands than I had planned, so in the end I was only able to complete two projects. The first was a custom red and white single speed freewheel built with my brother as a gift for my sister, which turned out really nicely.
For my second project, I decided to build a single speed freewheel bike for myself. After thinking about different colour schemes for a while, I decided on black and yellow. When I mentioned the idea to Ben at Our Community Bikes, he immediately replied “Oh cool, you’re building a bumblebike!” A great name if ever I heard one, the bike had been baptised before even being born!
I began by searching for used black rims to build the wheels. At Our Community Bikes I found one fully built 32 hole black rear wheel with black spokes and black hub, and a 24 hole front rim. Down at the Pedal Depot I found a black 24 hole front hub, and I bought the black front spokes and spoke nipples from Jett Grrl down on Union Street. It was really tough building the front wheel – working in my bedroom, I had to re-lace it about 5 times before I got it right!
Next, I took a secondhand frame and got out my angle grinder to remove the labels and most of the paint. Before:
I did the same to the front fork:
As with my sister’s bike, I spent a long time spraying thin coats of paint onto the frame and fork and waiting for it to dry:
I also made a BumbleBike decal and bumblebee logo for the bike, and got a sign-making place to print them as decals. Unfortunately, despite several coats of ink, the yellow still came out relatively translucent, so the colour of the decals doesn’t quite match the yellow on the rest of the bike:
Rather than think about packing, half of my last day in Canada was spent putting the BumbleBike together. It still needs brakes, different cranks, and I have to fix the rear wheel alignment, but it’s neeearly rideable now:
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Vancouver in early March was to buy an old 52cm bicycle frame with fork and handlebars off craigslist. The frame and fork had been partly sanded to get most of the old paint off, and I spent hours making the surfaces as smooth as I could with sandpaper at my parents’ home. I then went out and started buying new and used parts to turn the frame into a real bike, including several cans of spray paint. It took a few weeks of tinkering but, on the day we had a family party for my sister’s birthday, my brother and I were able to put the bike together and surprise her with it. This post is a bit text-heavy, but there are photos at the end if you want to skip the explanation part.
Building a single speed bicycle from parts isn’t too difficult; it just takes time and a willingness to learn. I built a touring bike for myself in 2009 so I figured I’d try building my sister a bike for her birthday. Her old mountain bike was completely the wrong size for her and was in bad shape, so I wanted to build a lightweight machine that would be fun to ride.
To start, I sanded the frame and fork down until they felt smooth enough to paint, not worrying that in some places the surface was down to bare metal while in others the paint was either green or yellow (the frame had clearly been painted more than once in the past). The first layer of spray paint was the grey primer, the base coat.
After a bunch of layers of grey, I used painter’s masking tape to cover most of the frame, leaving only the lugs exposed. I then painted the lugs white, but I have to admit I didn’t do a great job. The paint went on pretty heavy, with drips running down in places and sticky paint easily chipping off in others at the lightest touch even hours later. I did my best to fix the mistakes and then sprayed clear coat over that, and left it to dry for a few days.
Unfortunately, when I removed the tape I found that white paint had made its way under the tape in a bunch of places! With too few days available to sand down and fix the mistakes, I chose to leave a bit of grey primer showing around each lug and focus on painting the rest of the bike red. That turned out to be much easier, either because I was more careful or because the red metallic paint was much more forgiving than the white paint had been.
I also decided to try painting the chainwheel white to add to the aesthetics of the bike, even though the paint will most likely chip off quite quickly once my sister starts riding the bike.
While the frame, fork, and chainwheel were drying, I went to a paint store to buy some sign-writing enamel paint which is supposed to be great for painting on metal with a paintbrush. I planned to buy some ivory-coloured paint to cover the remaining grey areas, turning the bike into a three-toned bike instead of my original two-tone red-and-white scheme. Much to my dismay, it turned out the type of paint I wanted is no longer readily available in stores as it’s a bit of a specialty item; people buy it online from the manufacturers these days. With no time to waste waiting for that, I headed home and asked my dad for advice.
My dad gave me a good tip: spray paint can be sprayed into a small container, then applied with a brush! I had no idea, but I tried this with the grey primer and it worked! It’s a bit finicky, as the liquid paint that results from spraying into a little container is not very thick at all. It runs quite easily, but I got used to it and managed to cover all the white paint that had found its way under the painter’s tape. With this done, I decided I liked look of the grey primer as the third tone. I sprayed a bunch of layers of clear coat over the whole frame and fork, then left them to dry overnight – the next day would be our family party for my sister.
While the frame slowly got its colour, I was also working on building the two wheels. After all, a bicycle without wheels isn’t very practical. To build a bicycle wheel, you need four components: a rim, a hub, a bunch of spokes, and a bunch of spoke nipples.
I bought two white Halo Aerorage rims, along with two white Origin8 Elimin8er tires, from Tracy at Jett Grrl Bike Studio, then headed up to Our Community Bikes on Main & 17th to sift through their bin of secondhand hubs. I found a Campagnolo Mirage front hub and a Shimano Tiagra rear hub, and with guidance from the amazing staff at OCB, I learned which measurements I had to make in order to calculate the appropriate spoke length for the two wheels I wanted to build. That done, I bought some spokes and spoke nipples from a store I won’t name (because in the end I wasn’t too happy with the quality), and plunked myself at home in front of the computer to search for YouTube videos of how to build a bicycle wheel. I found one, followed the instructions, found it not very easy, but got one wheel laced in the middle of the night.
When I took my laced wheel to Our Community Bikes to finish tightening all the spokes and truing it (removing the wobbles), it quickly became apparent that I had made some mistake and would have to start all over. This ended up happening with both wheels, and I had to buy two new sets of spoke nipples because I had broken a bunch of them in my failed attempts at wheelbuilding. Instead of returning to the same unnamed store, I went back to see Tracy at Jett Grrl and asked for advice; she builds excellent wheels, so I was confident taking her advice and buying some higher quality spoke nipples for my second attempt with each wheel. This turned out far better, and I finally succeeded in completing my first two bicycle wheelbuilds (they’re not quite perfect, but at least they’re pretty!).
In order to find a suitable white saddle and white pedals to fit with the colour scheme, my brother started calling around to different bike shops in Vancouver. He lucked out on the second call, and together we went to Dunbar Cycles to have a chat with the very friendly guys there. They just happened to have a returned white Fi’zi:k saddle, as well as some white Giant pedals that had been on a display model. The handlebar I got is a black riser bar, so we used white handlebar grips from MEC, plus white handlebar tape from MEC, to make it fit right in. Our Community Bikes had sold me a red KMC single speed chain to match the frame colour, and Jett Grrl had sold me white brake cable housing. I bought Tektro brakes and brake levers, plus a single speed cog and spacer kit from The Bike Doctor.
Dan and I began assembling the bike a little after noon, when I suddenly realised that the nice secondhand bottom bracket (pedals connect to cranks, cranks connect to the bottom bracket so they can spin) I had found was the wrong type and wouldn’t screw in to the frame! I zoomed off yet again to Our Community Bikes where the staff helped me find one that would fit, while Dan continued putting things together.
It took us about four hours in total to put all the pieces together, but it worked!
Check out this video of us surprising my sister with her new bike:
We told my sister that we had a surprise for her, so she had to cover her eyes and walk out the kitchen door, down the steps behind the house, to where a bicycle was parked. We got her to put her hand on the bike seat then open her eyes: ta-da! Her old bike had sloppy red stripes of spray paint on it! We told her it was all tuned up for her, since she’d been wanting a new bike which would be too costly, and asked her to grab a rag from the basement bathroom for us to wipe the rain off. When she walked into the bathroom, her brand new single speed bike was staring back at her.