Making things from scrap metal is a labor of love for Paul Firbank, aka the Rag and Bone Man [an English term for a person who collects unwanted items]. The 43-year-old from Margate in England has been crafting objects and items from discarded metal and material for more than 10 years.
Firbank has made everything from furniture and clocks to lamps and lighting fixtures from metal that he salvages from scrap and rubbish yards. One of his latest projects has been to create a one of a kind gravity bike with the support of Red Bull.
“I don’t often make things that go downhill at 60mph,” Firbank freely admits. “With anything I do it’s a case of making things as physically possible as you can, you can make calculations but it’s hard to say how it will work in practice. It was a bit of a learning curve.”
Watch how the gravity bike took shape, from scrap to finished build, in the film at the top of the page.
There’s a driving passion to be creative in Firbank’s make-up
Firbank’s path to creating brilliant scrap artworks wasn’t simple. He started out at art college, then studied plumbing and welding before eventually settling on tattooing. But that didn’t quite go to plan.
“Being a tattooist was a nice way of being creative but at the time I was into BMX bikes and I ended up hobbling around the workshop with broken ankles and mangled wrists. It didn’t fit with tattooing.”
He ended up getting going to work for a company that made frames for pieces of artwork. But because the job was badly paid, Firbank started branching out and making his own art on the side. His partner, Lizzie, persuaded him to display and sell his own artwork and from there the Rag and Bone Man was born.
“To buy off the shelf materials seemed the wrong way to go and quite expensive. I started to look at recycled materials and things I could easily get my hands on. It was a cheaper way and saved machining time; if you found the right shaped object you wouldn’t have to make it. And it was better for the planet to use reclaimed materials.”
At first I pitched making a ride-on vacuum cleaner but that didn’t get off the ground. We settled on a gravity bike
There was nearly a hoover and not a bike built from scrap!
When Firbank was first approached to work on building a bike with Red Bull, he had an interesting pitch on what form such a creation should take.
“Red Bull approached me and asked if I’d be keen on making a bike from scrap materials. Considering that I’d started welding in the first place to make BMX frames I thought this sounded like a good idea. I’d never made a whole bike before, though. At first, I pitched making a ride-on vacuum cleaner but that didn’t get off the ground. We settled on a gravity bike.”
Paul had experience of building a bike. Kind of
Firbank had never made a bike before. Except, he sort of had.
“I made our son a bike when he was aged one. It’s not really a bike, it’s basically a skateboard with a scooter wheel and aluminium tube. He could ride this before he could walk. When he started to stand up and shuffle about it made sense to me that if he had a zimmer frame, he could get about a bit more, and you see that in the film. That was as close as I got to making a bike before this.”
Aeroplane parts gave the project that extra lift
Want to build a really fast bike? Then why not look to the fastest vehicle around? When Firbank got to work on the project, he knew exactly what to base the bike on.
“I already had one of the main components of the bike in the workshop; if you imagine a big commercial airliner, where you have the flap at the back of the wing, underneath it is this mechanical component that controls the flap going up and down. They have streamlined fibreglass [nose clone shaped] to cover this up. I had one in the workshop and I’d started to play with it, and it went from there.”
That’s not all. The World Gravity Bike Association has rules around how big bikes can be. Aeroplane parts are great, but making it too heavy is not. With that in mind, Firbank got to work.
“I used more bits from the aeroplane as they’re really well made out of nice materials. I had bits of aircraft seats which I decided to use to make forks for the bike. It then became a case of trying to find some wheels and build a frame that would work on these forks, that would be strong enough to hold the nose cone thing.”
Physics is important
When you’re building a craft designed to rocket downhill, you have to think about more than gravity. For Firbank, this could have been a painful lesson, had he not tested everything beforehand.
“The bits of aircraft fork were designed to work in one plane. When I turned it sideways it was in compression,” he explained. “I was a bit worried about it so to test it I put one in a 20-tonne press. We tried it and it collapsed at three tonnes. This sounds a massive amount, but if you’re on a bike flying down a hill and hitting a pothole, it’s probably more force than that. We ended up sticking four of these parts together to make the front forks.”
Using reclaimed materials for purposes there weren’t built for obviously has inherent challenges. Even when it comes to taking parts from other bikes.
“We’d also used a spring from a kid’s mountain bike and I had to remake one a bit longer because I couldn’t find one I needed. We jumped up and down and tested it, and knew, in theory, the spring would work. What hadn’t occurred to me was when you pulled the front brakes the wheel would effectively pull the spring apart. I ended up having to make these weird oval stops to stop the spring falling apart.”
Paul had the need for speed
Naturally, a gravity bike has to go fast. How fast? The world record on a bike like this is 78mph down a mountain in Canada.
Firbank and his team had planned to test the bike in Wales but due to local lockdowns, they were restricted to hills in Kent, the county in England where his workshop is based.
“The first hill we went down I was doing about 45mph with cars coming at me on the other side of the road. Which was quite scary. Some mountain bikers came down and were laughing at us. They advised us to go 10 miles further east where there were some better hills. We hit 60mph. If we had a bigger hill I think it would be quite possible to match the world record.”