When Ronn Nelson moved in next door to John Witt a few years back, the Delta band saw and lathe he brought with him created an immediate opportunity for friendship. With their garage workshops about five feet apart, it didn’t take long for these woodworkers to discover their common love of the craft. But the discovery was just beginning.
They really started collaborating when Ronn’s grandson turned one year-old, and Ronn decided to make him a rocking horse. Having made horses before, he wanted to try something different. He’s the first to admit that his first “rocking motorcycle,” built completely out of pine, was pretty awful. He turned to his neighbor, John, who said, “we can do better than that.”
John was a former biker and former owner of two Harley Davidson motorcycles. He had given up biking years before when he got married (that’s a whole other story) and wanted to create a very realistic wooden bike. The two decided they wanted to make it look as much like a classic motorcycle as possible, while still using the natural colors of woods.
One trick for John, who did much of the design work on the project, was to make it look a lot like a Harley without making it a direct copy of the Harley design. If he did the latter, he knew he would run into trouble with Harley Davidson’s lawyers. So he changed the design on the motor and the handlebars, and the two went forward.
The wood they decided on was walnut. In fact most of the body, from the back wheel all the way to the fork, is one piece of 8/4″ walnut. So it’s solid. Ronn says, “You can imagine what this thing weighs.” The whole bike is doweled together (with the exception of a couple of screws to mount it to the rockers).
The handlebars were the next challenge, and John admits that it was the toughest part of the project. They wanted to use birch to emulate the chrome and tried all manner of bending and steaming to get the handlebar shape. None of it worked. They finally laminated 38 strips of birch edge tape together to create the piece they needed.
It took a year to build and design the rocking motorcycle, but the woodworking neighbors were finally satisfied with the result. The Ventura County Fair (in California) was also satisfied, and it gave John and Ronn the first place and Director’s Choice prize in 2000.
It’s not unusual for woodworkers to live near each other, but the way Ronn and John’s work habits meshed together was pretty exceptional. Each preferred to do the things on the project that the other one disliked. It was a perfect fit. Ronn did the rough cuts of the pieces and turned the hand grips and headlight. He would then send the bike over to John, who preferred doing the routing. John then handed it off to Ronn, who did the finishing, and then got it back to do the assembly. John tended to work on weekends and Ronn preferred to work at night after finishing his day job. “The things that I like to do,” says Ronn, “he doesn’t.”
The only bump in their journey was actually selling the bikes. Neither quit their day jobs, but they thought that they might be able to make a small business out of building these rocking motorcycles. They built a total of 13 of them before realizing that, because of the cost of the materials and the time it took to build each bike, the price was higher than most people wanted to pay. They primarily marketed their bikes at the Del Mar motorcycle races and, while they got a lot of positive responses, few of the bikers actually bought them. Most buyers were Harley owners who bought them for their grandchildren.
So they went back to the drawing board and designed a new rocking bike that would be made from painted Baltic birch plywood. This more reasonably priced bike is starting to take off. For example, an editor, who interviewed the duo for Easy Rider magazine, recently bought one for his son.
Both Ronn and John belong to the the Conejo Valley Woodworkers’ Association.
– Bob Filipczak