Sunday, January 16, 2011

Make your own Balance Bike

4/16/12
The blue one is the homemade balance bike.

There's no better way to learn how to ride a bike than a balance bike (or toddler bike). That's one of those little bikes with no pedals, no training wheels, and no brakes that you see more and more lately. They are good for early practice learning to stop, go and make good turns in a park or playground, way before your kid ever tries out intersections and stops on a sidewalk ride.
This is a homemade balance bike, though you can't see it well, ridden by this
2 1/2 year old all the way from the Art Institute past North Ave,  in
Chicago's Bike the Drive a few years ago.  I think he got up past
the zoo (about 4 1/2 miles) and then he rode in the trailer and fell asleep.

Our now-10-year-old played around with one for a few months back when he was 3, then suddenly hopped on an older friend's Batman bike and roared off on his own around the park. Other kids we know have done the same. Our 6-year-old liked the balance bike so much he wouldn't get off it, and he refused to take a pedal bike long after he was able to ride up and down our sidewalk on his own. The 2-year-old isn't quite big enough to fit on it yet but he calls it his bike already.

You can get them as adaptive bikes for grownups, old-fashioned velocipedes, or for kids, made out of hardwood plywood in fancy toy and stroller stores. Even Target has them. There are a few metal ones for kids now becoming available. The wooden ones that are common are light enough to pop under one arm and carry back from the park if your small person gets tired of riding, and many have a limitation built into the steering to prevent the wheel from turning so far to the side that it causes a fall. None that I have seen have any brakes, so they are only for use in flat or slightly sloping places that are safe for kids to be running around. Playgrounds are good, parking lots and sidewalks downhill to big streets are not. Kids this age can't (in my opinion) really use brakes that well anyway yet. The bikes are toys and teaching tools, not real transportation. Yet.

The original wooden balance bike for kids that we know about, the Like-A-Bike, was made by Kokua, a wooden toy company in Germany, and was probably priced to provide its manufacturing workers a living wage, health care and a safe working environment. In other words, it was way too expensive, but it was the only one for a long time. It was made better than most others are now. You can still get one.

I guess that many clever penny pinchers in the bike or toy industry realized that by copying the design and getting it built elsewhere by people without those protections, the bike would be a lot cheaper, and the manufacturer could get a great big nice profit and the consumer could save $50.  I can't think of another reason why these things cost as much as they do considering where they are made now.

But you aren't limited to those choices. How about a recycled one? It is really easy to make your own if you have friends with old bikes, access to a used bike store that carries children's bikes, or a cheap 5&10 nearby that has tiny pink and blue kids' bikes with roughly 10 inch wheels (though that isn't recycling really). You need only a wrench or two, a chain tool, and pliers or something to bend wires, on most bikes, or unscrew the thing that holds the cranks on (the bottom bracket) on others. Eyes glazing over? You can just take your chosen bike to your favorite neighborhood bike shop and ask them to take off the cranks and chain for you. But let's say you have your tools ready:

This is a cheap lightweight baby bike with
10 in wheels and solid foam tires bought new
for $10 at the Maxwell St Market and
adulterated as described in this post. 
Look how his R foot is flat on the ground
(low seat!) and he can step comfortably with
the other foot.
First, make sure you are wearing stainable old clothes, then go to the store or junkyard or thrift shop or Working Bikes and pick out the bones of a little metal kid's bike that takes your fancy. You just need the frame, wheels, seat and steering to work - it doesn't need pedals, cranks, chain or brakes. I suggest getting a really little one that's lightweight enough to want to carry it home from the park, maybe with 10 inch or 12 1/2 inch tires.

(If you need a bigger version, for an older kid or a grownup to learn how to ride a bike for example, you can of course use any larger bike instead. Remove any gearing, but I'd probably leave the brakes on. The rest of the post assumes you're building a bike for a small child.)

Make sure it's small enough for your child to fit on it (bring the child with you?) and put his or her feet down at a comfortable angle to the ground.  Remember, your small person will be walking with big, long steps like Groucho Marx while resting weight on the bike, so the seat has to be a lot lower than he or she would need it if actually bicycling. It takes them a few tries to get comfortable enough to actually rest their weight. Note that homemade balance bikes don't have the built in limit on the steering, but that hasn't been a problem for our guys so far.

If the bike is covered with stickers and brand names you don't like, check that they are removable before you buy - most in this class of bikes are easily peeled off. Or, with a little reflective tape you can make a nicer design than what it came with anyway. Black bikes look good with yellow stripes - a bumblebee bike! Multicolor - a rainbow bike! And so on. You can put a big piece of reflector tape over the picture of Tinkerbell or whoever if you think she's not a good role model for your child. Make the bike look appealing and cool for your kid.

Take off any training wheels. Next, remove the non-drive side pedal. It should have a 15 mm wrench size, and it's threaded backwards - with the wrench pointing up turn it toward the back of the bike like tightening a regular bolt- and use penetrating oil if needed. This is a good time to use a real wrench, not an adjustable one. Then break the chain with a chain tool. Or a chain saw. Just kidding. Remove the chain and set it aside. (A big pliers can mangle a chain apart too; a hacksaw won't usually work well.) You won't likely need it again, but who knows? You can take off the chain guard now, too.

Most of these little kids' bikes, if not all of them, have a one piece crank shaped like a Z with the chainwheel stamped on, like the old Schwinn "Ashtabula" cranks. You can usually find out how to remove the cranks by looking at the non-drive side - there is a bent wire retainer or a (probably backwards threaded) screw-on nut that holds the crank bottom bracket, such as it is, to the frame. Remove it and loosen the other side if you need to, then remove whatever you can of the bottom bracket. Often on those we've done this is just a piece of plastic on each side with a hole in its center. Greasy metal ball bearings might jump out at you if someone built it a little better than that. See the pictures for an example. Now, hold the drive side pedal arm, the one with the chainwheel, and move the zigzag crank out of the bottom bracket opening of the bike until it's free of the frame. Clean up the grease, if any.
1, loosens clockwise!

2, crank arm with outer nut removed - see the washer?


3 Under the washer (fits in that slot!) is another backwards threaded thing. This is the cone.

4, The cone comes out, also clockwise, by hand or with a screwdriver or punch


5. The ball bearing cage just slides out (goopy grease!)

Ta-Da! It's off. Now (when the chain and guard are off) you can ease the
cranks out of the frame by pushing them through from this side and wiggling them.
Remove any brakes too, if desired. You may need to reattach the plastic bottom bracket covers or put some duct tape over the holes or glue in corks or something so nobody gets scraped. Adjust the seat to be low and comfortable, pump up the tires and you are done.

It might not be birch plywood, but it's not bad either, and it's waterproof enough to be left outside. If your kid ever needs it, you can reverse the above steps and reinstall everything. Set the pieces aside now.
If you reassemble it, this is the order. Use new grease, and it tightens backwards!
Get a helmet that fits your kid, grab your new balance bike, and head to the park!



PS:

4/10/12: Recently we've noticed that a lot of people who come to this site are looking for ways to make one of those wooden bikes. There are instructions on line, I think. But since kids often learn how to balance within a month or two, after which they are ready to ride a real bike, you might consider saving your woodworking effort for a project that will be usable for a longer time. It'd be a shame to spend time making something handmade and beautiful if Junior isn't going to enjoy it for long.

20 comments:

  1. Love it, thanks for this! We're a few months away from needing one yet, but Jasper just PETS them every time we're near one-- he's a boy who loves bikes, unsurprisingly. I'm sure looking forward to getting him under his own power, even just for play.

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  2. Wow, I'm impressed that the little guy biked the drive so far on his balance bike! Go him! :)

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  3. Very cool. I've seen a few friends start their little ones on balance bikes when they were 2. The success story I see most often is a little guy down the street. He graduated to pedaling by the time he was 4 and very quickly reached the point where he could do 5-10 mile rides. Now he's quite a confident rider for a 5-year-old.

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  4. It's true - a balance bike is really a great way to get on two wheels, in our experience.

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  5. What we did is just take off the pedals, lower the seat as much as possible, and leave everything else. It's really easy, and also easy to reverse when your child is ready to start pedaling. The arms for the pedals are still there, but they don't tend to bother the kids. Both our boys started this way.

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  6. Hi Sylvia-
    I've never left them on before but that sounds interesting! J.

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  7. Great instructions - thank you so much! Trying to get our 6 year old daughter to ride a bike - did the stabilisers but she still can't get her balance on 2 wheels - hoping our modified bike will work. Kath

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  8. I hope it works - take her to a place with almost no hills and go for a stroll with her as she sits on the bike and walks. We like parks and university campuses because there's paving but not much traffic. As she gets more comfortable maybe she'll start coasting a little between steps, and when she gets going fast and lifts her feet up you know she's got it! It takes a few trips, perhaps, but there's no rush. Good luck, and let us know if you have any tips to share afterward.

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  9. Hi, Thanks for easy to follow steps - was thinking I'd have to saw the crank off!!

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    1. Glad you found it useful. Hope you enjoy your new balance bike!

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  10. If your pedal cranks are not one piece like our example above, perhaps the fun post at http://loopframelove.blogspot.co.nz/2011/07/deelite-ful-balance-bike.html can explain how to remove the cottered cranks of 1970s bikes.

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  11. Just wanted to say thanks for such detailed instructions on making a balance bike. I ended up taking off just the pedals which worked great (someone mentioned doing that in a post). We live in the mountains, so learning on the flat or slight incline is sometimes hard to find, but the balance bike definitely did the trick. My daughter is 7 and after two days on the balance bike she is now able to ride a bike - pedals and all! Yay! Thanks so much!

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  12. Hi Anon-
    Thank you for the very nice comment! Congratulations on your new rider. I hope she is proud and excited. Hopefully the fun has just begun! J.

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  13. Thanks for posting this! We only took the pedals off of our 7 year old son's bike, and lowered the seat way down- which seems to work out fine. He went from being dependent on training wheels and unable to keep up with his best friend, to zooming around on his bike saying "watch me balance Mom!". Unfortunately his first attempt at using a bike with pedals and all ended in disaster when my husband who was running beside him tripped and landed on top of my son, splitting his lip! I think with the balance bike he will regain confidence quickly though. I found this post because I want to make one for my 4 year old who is a tiny girl and can barely pedal her heavy Schwinn tricycle, and also for my 19 month old son who goes so fast on his little 3 wheel push trike that we put a helmet on him. We can't afford to purchase an actual balance bike so I'll be hunting for some used toddler bikes to convert! Thanks again.

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    1. I'm glad to hear about this working with a bigger kid too. Sorry about the injuries.
      We had good luck with that roughly $15 toy bike in the pictures - 10 inch foam tires and lots of plastic but probably ideal for a 19 month old, and lightweight enough to carry bike and rider back from the park. But I bet you can find an option as least as good near you.
      Thanks for the comment.

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  14. Terrific blog – we thank you. I was too lazy to write something like this up, so I direct people to your post! I wandered in here trying to explain to a co-worker about balance bikes.

    This is a picture of the ugly duckling that I made in 2006 (my first home brew!) for my then 4 year old. It took her a week or so to master the skill, and then I gave her the new bike I had hidden away as a prize for being so brave. http://i1060.photobucket.com/albums/t456/Fibber2/Misc%20Photos/Image01.jpg

    This little 10” wheel donor came from a yard sale, and I think cost me all of $4. Since then I’ve made a good dozen of these bikes from local dump finds (free) for giveaway to friends in all sizes (10”, 12”, 16” & 20”, both girls & boys frames). Why a 20”? There are plenty of big 10 year olds that have never learned to ride, and are too embarrassed to try!

    A few suggestions: Duct tape around the protruding rear axle stubs to avoid ankle gashes. A $10 set of knee pads / elbow pads / fingerless-gloves from Toys-R-Us (along with a helmet) goes a long way towards avoid scrapes and blood. They will fall – you have to expect them to dump the bike a few times, but if there is no injury they get right back on and keep going!

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  15. Your 4 year old used one of these for a week then moved on to a pedal bike, the same happened with one of our kids pretty much, and another one didn't want to change. Interesting how different kids are.
    Good work with the larger version. We recently suggested doing this on a full size bike to an adult acquaintance who didn't know how to ride. Hasn't tried it yet.
    Pads and padding are never a bad idea. You can always find a use for them again if they learn to ride a unicycle!
    Thanks for the nice note.

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  16. This is great advice. I taught a niece to ride this way, but we practiced on a slight decline so that it was easier for her to glide along and practice balance.

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  17. Not being the handiest of people, I just spun the pedals off the cranks for my older girl (who was very nervous about riding for a couple of years): she could use her feet to push the bike around but without worrying about banging her legs on the pedals and I didn't have to remove the chain or bearings. Took her about two weeks to figure out how to glide along and we put the pedals back on and two days later she was riding fine. Did the same with the younger girl's bike but she's taking a little bit longer time - by next spring, though, I fully expect her to join her big sister and I on many a nice ride around town!

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  18. We just linked back to you! Thanks so much.

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