Introduction: A Bike for the Desert and for the Water

About: I am an engineer in the automation industry by trade but really like to make things on the side. My interests flit around to cover many things including welding, bikes, costumes, cooking, felting, and more. …
     Last year I decided to go to Burning Man and knew I needed a bike.  Rather than decorate an existing bike I chose to make one that could fit two people and carry anything else I wanted with me.  Also important was durability, I wanted as few delicate parts as possible and to keep it as simple as possible.  As you will see this bike was very successful and I continued to use it around town for the last year.   Now this alone would make a complete subject for an instructable but why stop there?
 This summer I entered an art boat race and decided to make my big bike float.  With the help of a friend we made our team and retrofitted my bike so it can now ride on land and float in the water.

Step 1: Gathering Your Base Materials

     The first step in building a bike like this is to collect lots of raw materials.  I spent about a month cruising junk yards and yard sales buying old bikes that I could use for the frame.  I decided to use bikes with 24 inch wheels because they are abundant and cheap.  I figured with the style of the bike the wheel size would not matter.  I stayed away from bikes with suspension forks and tried to get them with about the same frame size. 
      After I collected a half dozen bikes I picked four of them to use for the four corners of the big bike.  For the rear I made sure the rear triangle dimensions were as close as possible.  I tried to match the front as well.  The pictures show the four bikes I chose set on a chalk outline of the finished bike.  I figured out how much room I needed for the seat, and how big I wanted the bike to be.  I was limited by the dimensions of a sheet of plywood that I would be using for a roof rack.

Step 2: Framing It Up

     After selecting the frames I wanted to use I removed most of the paint with a wire wheel so that I could start welding.  The bikes alone would not give me enough material so I visited the local metal recycling yard for additional materials.  There I found some heavy angle iron for the front cross member and various lengths of 1 - 2 inch black pipe.  This was all very inexpensive as it is sold by the pound.
     For the sides I added some light steel rectangular tubing to make the two sides even after cutting the parts I did not want off the bikes.
     I then noched the angle iron so that it would fit over the two front necks of the bikes and welded it in place.  In the rear I used the bottom bracket and added a heavy metal pipe.  These two pieces were extra heavy so the bike could take the weight of everything I was going to add later. 
     I then added another piece of rectangular tube to finish out the side frames.

Step 3: But How Do I Make It Go?

   I originally toyed with the idea of having each rider pedel independantly but quickly gave that up as too complicated for the time I had.  I also wanted it to be more of a classic car bench seat experience and felt that pedels would get in the way.
   So to make the pedels I started with another bike frame.  This time it was a 80's girls bike with 26 inch wheels.  I was only using from the neck back to the bottom bracket  so I cut the rear triangle off.  The important thing is that the bottom bracket is in line with the outside ones.  On mine the frame is a little longer from the bracket to the neck  but this is ok as I just welded it out past the angle iron.  This middle neck will be where the handle bars go.
     Most importantly, all three bottom brackets had to line up.  I removed all the cranks and repacked the bearings knowing that once assembled I would need to cut the pedals off to get at them again.  For the pedels themselves I just used 1/4 inch pipe and bent it in a pedel shape.  Sort of like a Z shape but with the center virticle.  Using the existing cranks I then welded the whole thing together creating a two person pedel assembly.  Not pretty but effective.
     At this point I was able to check out what it would be like with the seat in.  A friend gave me some seats off her old art car and I figured I would use as much of those as I could.  Looks almost ready to go.

Step 4: Seat and Steering

     At this point I realized that this bike was going to be heavy.  So I decided to use lighter parts wherever I could.  At work we had lots of 1 1/4 inch aluminum bars sitting around so I figured they would make a good frame for the seat.  I cut them to fit across the length of the bike and attached them with bolts.  I used a bit of angle iron welded to the bike frames to give them a good, supportive place to sit.  I had to figure out the best seat height so that riders could pedel and keep the seat from interfering with the rear brakes.

     For the steering I went with a tie-rod assembly.  I made this using 1/8 inch metal plates, threaded rod, and misc. bolts and hooks.  I welded the plates after drilling them onto the undersides of the front forks.  The one in the middle is bigger because it will connect to both tie rods.  I was aware of the Ackerman Steering radius and used that in calculating the angle for the outside steering brackets.  Unfortunitly I measured incorrectly, instead of measuring the angle from the imaginary rear axel between my rear wheels I measured it from the rear support pipe running between the rear bottom brackets.  The first attempt at steering was unusable.  So I cut the pieces off and did it again, this time I just stuck them on straight and used the threaded rod to adjust them.  To this day the bike turns sharper to the right than to the left but at least it turns.

     You can also see in the pictures how I added supports for the bike.

Step 5: Paint, Handle Bar, Brakes, and FUN!

     With the frame and steering finished it was time to paint.  I took apart what I could and taped up what I could not.  I used a coat of primer and then 4-6 cans of spray paint to cover the bike.    After it dried for a few days I reassembled the steering, this time with the addition of an extended handle bar neck so the bike can be steered from either side of the bench seat.

     At this point I was running low on time so I could not fit the bike for gears.  I made two long chains from all the old chains and fitted them on similar sized chain rings and rear gears.  I had some issue with the inside one wanting to fall off so I added a janky chain stay made from metal conduit clamps and electrical tape.  I would have prefered to use chain tensioners off the original bikes but I did not have enough chain to loop through them.  Note: I added them later when building the bike into a boat.

     Well I could make it go, and I could make it turn, but I could not make it stop so I needed brakes.  I used the mounts for the rear brakes still on the bike.  I fitted it with brakes and ran an extra long cable up to the handlebars.  Well without secure locations to keep the cable from moving this did not work well so I just took the cable and ran it along the arm wrest, tying it off around the first vertical frame member.  Presto brakes!  Now this single brake did not work great but was adequate as the bike just does not go that fast.  So when you want to stop you pull up on the brake cable as hard as you want.

     After the important stuff was finished I worked on the extra bits.  I mounted a metal frame made of two metal shelves on the back and bolted an old steamer trunk to it.  This allowed me to carry a cooler and other stuff I may need.  I used electrical conduit to build a canopy and then I was ready to bring it home.

     Since I don't own a truck I had to mount a piece of plywood to my roof racks and stick the bike on the roof.  The lifts at my shop came in handy for doing this.  Unfortunitly I would need to get it off with no lift so I made really long ramps to roll it off with.  Thankfully I now have a trailer so was able to ditch this method of moving it.  With the bike home we tested it around the neighborhood and made final preparations to bring it to the desert.  I finished it the weekend before I left  and the bike ran like a champ for an entire week in the desert.  I used it most of every day, picking up people and riding around.  It worked out great for meeting people out on the Playa and going off the ramp of death on Sunday.  I only ran into one art piece, bending the canopy, got run into by a large metal hamster wheel, and pitched one passenger out the side when I turned to sharp.  She was fine, her head cushioned her fall so I would say it was a success.

     The last picture is of the bike after my kids and I put it into a flat skid on wet pavement.  Guess I need heavy duty tires if I want to do that.  This happened after the bike went to Burning man.


Step 6: New Life for an Old Project. or How to Make a Bike Into a Boat.

     So the big bike was a success.  It worked great in the desert and I used it around town every chance I got.  People love to ride in it or just use it as a couch when it is parked.  As time went by things started to break and the bike got used less and less.  I was thinking of cutting it up for another project when my friend and I decided to create an entry in the art boat races at the Petaluma Rivertown Revival.  Both of us were busy with other things and so decided pretty early on that converting my big bike would be the quickest thing to do.

     I loaded up my bike on my new trailer and took it over to Janelle's garage where we would make it happen.

Step 7: How to Make a Bike Float.

     For this change we needed two things.  Something to make us float, and something to make us go.

      We settled on blue 55 gallon plastic barrels that a friend gave us for float and a paddel wheel to make us go.  We figured two barrels would be enough to float us and so we built removable metal brackets to hold the barrels in place.  We also used cargo straps to really keep them on.  We made the mounts removable so that the bike was not wider than the trailer it would ride on.

     On the side with the chain on the outside we had to add standoffs to keep the barrel from pressing the chain down and immobelizing it.

     We also knew this was not going to be a dry ride so we replaced the padded seat with old folding lawn chairs that matched great.  The pictures also show the cargo tray removed because we need the space for the paddle wheel.

Step 8: Building a Paddle Wheel.

     This bike was built to have a paddle wheel, it has the perfect place on the back.

     To build the wheel we used two 5/8 inch pillow blocks and added angle iron to mount them on next to the wheels.  For the wheel itself we took a trip to Home Depot and wandered around.  In the welding section we found a 5/8 inch shaft 36 inches long that would make a great axle.  In the shelfing department we found some hanging shelf wall mounts that we could cut up to mount the paddles too.  For the paddles themselves we planned on cutting up a sheet of plywood but when we wandered down the flooring isle we found the perfect item.  Open box specials on fake hardwood flooring.  Looks great and we only need to trim the length.  Plus they sold us the whole box for $10.  Total for the paddle wheel was about $30.

     To turn the wheel we added a chain ring to the middle set of cranks.  To do this we needed to cut the peddles off but we have a welder so its ok.  To the center of the paddle wheel axle we added a rear sprocket from a kids bike and welded it in place.  Then Janelle cut and welded all the silver shelf bits on where the paddles needed to be.  Pretty soon we had a wheel that spun.  After running chain up to the front chainring we were in business.

Step 9: We Need a Rudder or Two.

     The front wheels were just begging to be used as the rudder.  We cut up another blue barrel and created hub caps to turn our front wheels into rudders.  Tye-wraps were used to secure them.

Step 10: Time for the Water Test.

     Now there was nothing left to do but stick it in the water and see if it worked.  We loaded it up on the trailer and took it to a lake with a boat launch.  We reassembled it onsite in about 15 minutes and rode it into the lake.  After some balancing we determined that it will work but we need to get more flotation and raise the paddle wheel up out of the water some.  Right now the blades were half in the water and really hard to turn.  Also one of the seats was too old and started to rip so will also need replacing.

Step 11: Final Modification and Launch

     Friday night before the event we raised the paddle wheel up a few inches by adding spacers.  We also added four smaller plastic jugs under the seat.  These were about 2 1/2 gallon jugs.  We hoped this would be enough.  The rest of our time was spent on decoration.

     On the day of the event we arrived an hour early and put the barrels on and redecorated out in the parking lot.  We were then able to ride it in.  The Petaluma sleue is subject to the tides and the tide was low so we left the bike up above the pier and waited for more water.  An hour before the race we got some help and carried the bike/boat, now named Blue Stell Disco, down near the water.  Lauching it was a laugh as we pretty much tipped it into the water and submerged the front half before we could get the rear half off the pier.

     Once in the water we were happy how it floated, it was more stable with the added barrels under the seat and the paddle wheel was a bit further out of the water.  We took her out for a short cruise and everything seemed to work fine.  The only additional thing we added was a tie-wrap chain guide for the rear paddle sprocket.  Out in the river we were slow but we were moving!

     Trouble arose shortly before the race started though.  We started throwing the chain on the paddle and it would not stay on.  During rotation we could feel it jumping and new it would not stay on.  We borrowed paddles from another boat and moved out to sit on the blue barrels so we could keep going.  We eventually discovered that the front chain ring was filling with river crud, it is a pretty nasty river.  After picking all this out the wheel worked better but without lubrication it was just not going to work. 

     Finally the races began and we decided we had come to far to quite so we decided to continue on with just hand paddles.  We were quickly left behind by the other craft and as they circled back around we just decided to interfere with them as there was no hope of ever catching up.  Before we reached the turn around buey we realized that there was no way for us to make it back to the starting line with paddles alone.  The wind had picked up and was pushing us faster than we could paddle, so shoreward we moved.  On shore we tied up our craft and clambered up the embankment and walked back to the starting line.

     Sometimes when you build something it does not work out as planned and this was one of those times.  We could keep working on it and see if we could get it to work but we both decided it makes a better bike than a boat.  We had a great time building it and a great time racing it and being a part of the event and thats what it was all about.  We even picked up some fans who cheered for us as we walked by.  When we were able to pedel the bike out of the event it was with a sense of accomplishment for trying something new and having a great time doing it.

     So get out and build something.  If it doesn't turn out as expected or work well change it.  This is the process of creating something new and failure is a learning experience.

     So I am entering this in the bike contest and in the Hurricane laser contest too.  I have access to welders but a laser cutter would allow me to add some really nice detail work to my projects.  I could make them pretty as well as functional and would love to have that opportunity.  Thanks for voting now seriously, go out and build something.
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Finalist in the
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Hurricane Lasers Contest

Participated in the
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