How I Got Started
Experimenting with bikes and re-exploring bike history

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So you want to build a bike in the worst possible way... 
My epiphany came when was trying to make a large castor wheel for a parade float.  I drilled a hole in a scrap of redwood 4x6 lumber and mounted an old Campagnolo bike headset in it.  I installed an old bike fork through it and attaching a wheel to make a BIG castor wheel.  But many other possibilities emerged.  I was also immediately captivated by the incongruous look of an old piece of lumber sporting a fine headset and supporting a fork and wheel.

It reminded me of antique wooden boneshaker bikes from the 1800's and even older wheeled wooden swift walkers or Draisines that I have seen in museums and bike books.  It made me realize how easy it would be to build bikes now that we have ready access to headsets, Bottom Brackets (BBs) and wheels.  I realized that the recumbent (laying back with feet out front) bike frame design was an easy way to use a single piece of wood for the main frame with no joints.  I could simply use a piece of plywood on each side, taking the place of seat stays and chain stays, to support the back wheel.

The sight of my fine Campagnolo headset on a pice of lumber was and enabling event.


This is my CAD system (Cardboard Aided Design)

I sometimes use it ahead of construction for laying out ergonomic issues, handling geomety issues and chain line mangement. Picture shown was for rear captain tandem layout.

Note the sticks representing steerer tube line setting a 2" trail and sticks showing chain line to front cranks. My cardboard foot is on a stick crank and has a background cutout of the area swept by my foot while peddling.

Excerpts from a PaloAlto Weekly newspaper article:

In the garden of bikes and garbage

Palo Alto employee turns junk into funky bicycles

by Bill D'Agostino

Let's take a trip into Tom Kabat's backyard. Go past his wife's garden -- into "Boy Land," where Kabat creates zany bikes from unusual materials.

"I get to do what I want back here," Kabat, 45, said.

It is here, amidst the pile of found lumber and tossed-aside home furnishings, where Kabat builds his "funny" bicycles using such items as driftwood, skis, bedposts, even a thrown-away crutch. The self-taught inventor has made seven so far, each a different size and configuration.

"There's a real medieval feel about them -- the buzzing of the wood into the grain," said Kabat, a Menlo Park resident who works for the City of Palo Alto's Utilities Department. "This is what the knights should have been riding into battle."

Kabat is a trained engineer who works as a resource manager, helping the city manage its energy contracts, but his true passion is bicycles. He didn't have a driver's license until he was 28, has a broad knowledge of cycling history, and continually updates his sketchbook of future creations.

His family of three only owns one car, saving them $3,000 to $4,000 a year, he estimated. "We plan to retire a couple years early on it."

It was his wife, Carroll, who named the bike-laboratory "Boy Land."

"She said she'll leave me alone if I stay back here," he said in his droll voice, perfect for his frequent wry quips.

The ideas for the bicycles come from a variety of sources, including commercial bikes, historical ones and the inventor's own whims.

Most have used wood to keep the pedals and the tires in place. The first was made of an 8-foot-long redwood 4-by-4, with pink handlebars. The pink handlebars on the first bike prompted Kabat to build a manlier mechanism for his second effort -- which he calls "the midlife-crises macho machine." A chucky and clunky vehicle, the bike was made with shocks and sharp lines.

The next veered in a new direction, and was an attempt to see how small he could make one. There is also "the beach coaster," which was made from a driftwood log on a Mendocino beach and is topped with a Hawaiian-style seat. Another was made of "the great wood that grows in dumpsters" -- plywood from the strange and unusual "futon tree," Kabat said.

The most traditional-looking bike is made of an old ski, a bedpost and a curtain rod. The rider sits on the back of a ski, which hangs in the air unattached to the bike's rear.

The latest creation is an homage to Dursley Pedersen, a bike inventor form the late 19th century, whose seats looked like mini-hammocks.

Only in Palo Alto would there be enough affluence to subsidize a bike maker from cast-off home improvement supplies, noted Amanda Jones, an avid bicyclist and the city's commute coordinator. She recalled that a sawed-off piece of eucalyptus, a nonnative tree, was used for one of Kabat's handlebars, typical of the city's environmental spirit.

"Tom captures Palo Alto pop culture in his bicycles," Jones said. "All he would need is a mountain lion icon on the front of the bike and he would be really cutting edge."

Kabat began building bikes after the 2003 May Fete parade. His 10-year-old daughter, Amelia, "flew" in the parade riding a contraption he made out of a former hang-glider and a bicycle.

While constructing the device, Kabat drilled a hole into a piece of wood to see if he could hold a tire. It was surprisingly easy, he said.

Kabat, a Monterey-area native, got into bikes in high school, thanks to his friends. In the summer of 1976, when Kabat was 17, the group traveled across the country on their racing cycles, traveling 60 miles a day. It was an 80-day adventure, during America's centennial year.

"I've been a bike tourist ever since," he said.

Kabat was so devoted to two-wheel living, he didn't get a driver's license until he was 28.

"I didn't feel the need to drive and didn't feel that comfortable managing a car, so I put it off," he said. When he went to school at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he slowly brought his clothes and possessions strapped to his bike.

Today, in the Kabat family's backyard shack, there are dozens of bikes and bike parts strewn about. "It's fun to have a bike for every purpose" -- like racing, touring, goofing around and going to work, he said.

When Kabat rides his homemade bikes to work, it's to the appreciation of neighbors -- including some who have copied him and tried to create bikes of their own -- and co-workers.

"What I love is going down into the bike room to park my bike," Jones said. "It's like an art gallery."

Strangers, though, give him a variety of looks. Children are awed and appreciative. Women his own age, though, just laugh out loud, he said.

He suspected many are thinking, "'Thank God he's not my husband.'"

Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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