Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi

侘寂. Imperfection is sometimes a strange kind of perfection. We’ll see a hot rod, motorcycle, or bicycle and it is such a terrible thing in the details but in that, it’s fantastic. Producing something like that takes time, wisdom, and a little bit of luck. Knowing just what blemishes bring out the soul of something and leaving them to effect the piece isn’t what just anyone can do. It takes understanding.

Wabi-sabi is tricky for anything but especially in bike making. It still has to work and efficiently enough that riding it isn’t an undue hardship. Every now and then we see one and it’s a joy. In a sea of shit bikes and trash of a bike party, one bike will stand out as genius. On a show floor littered with bikes with $4k paint jobs, the bike with the burned powder coat edges from some post paint modification may be the real star. It’s not a perfect bike..or even good but it’s so rad. It may be the raddest bike in a whole show.

In the world of wheels, we use a different term, ‘rat’. Rat rod, rat bike, these are vehicles that have a deep patina, they were usually created in a more pragmatic, problem solving of the moment method rather than having the vision of a final plan and choices made for that purpose. They happen. They are the result of the accident of the movement that gets cast into the mix and stay.

There’s a big difference between a shit bike and a piece of art. Shit bikes are just gross. A pile of mismatched parts that don’t work together is something any goon can produce. It has no direction or flow. It’s novice work. When you look at it, the last thing you’ll want to do is ride it. I think that’s the real big difference here. A shit bike is a bike you really don’t want to ride and a wabi bike is one that you really really want to.

I’m terrible at this. I stress and sweat every detail. I try to consider every choice and make all my work as best as possible. This means I’ll end up getting it right…or wrong. There’s little room to land in the middle. It’s even harder to move to a different scale. A wabi bike can rust and it just gets better. It’s tires are near fully worn and that’s pretty dope.

Making klunker bikes lends itself to this. They aren’t high performance bikes. They need character to be great. Most folks will start to bend tubes where they don’t need to be bent but should be. They’ll use coaster brake hubs and maybe even some old mechanical brakes. It’s a good platform for exploring imperfection. 

Maybe this is why so many builders are doing klunker bikes these days and why people get drawn to them. High performance bikes do all start looking the same, like Formula 1 race cars or MotoGP race bikes. Engineering and physics dominate the designs and there are few ways of mixing solutions that still work as a whole. This is the world I tend to play in. With a klunker or wabi bike, all that goes out the window. A builder has total freedom to do what they like, silly or otherwise. Does the bike spark joy? Who cares if it goes fast.

In recent memory we look at Burnsey’s bike with the ‘Huffy’ fork that he showed at NAHBS this year. As I wrote, it was the best of the show and it was filthy. I just wanted to get drunk and ride this bike around town trying to score.


Another bike that is of note is Darryl Skrabak’s randonneur bike. This was a mind blowing bike of the kind few see. Not for me in any way but I do see the genius. This bike represents years of work.

Il meglio è l’inimico del bene” – Voltaire