A few years after I returned from Guatemala I tried to revive my then defunct blog, but with a new twist- it wouldn’t be just about my own experiences, I would feature other HPM people. I named it Bicimakina, bought the dotcom, and started deep Googling.
In the field of human-powered machines, obscurity prevails. There exist a handful of disparate players stretched out across the globe, challenging to identify, even harder to contact.* Thus, the deep Googling. Like dozens of pages deep, the 50’s and beyond. I found some fascinating projects, things that perhaps few other gainfully employed humans had ever uncovered. One of those projects was Featherwood Frames.
Featherwood Frames, the brainchild of David Flowers and Brett Nagafuchi, is easily one of the most unique human-powered projects I have ever seen. Using a variety of muscle driven machines the duo created custom wooden eyeglasses, one pair at a time. I say “created,” because, unfortunately, they are no longer in business. (Though I, not-so-secretly, hope that they’ll get the band back together). Cough, cough.
In addition to some familiar human-powered woodworking devices like a pedal-powered scroll saw and a carpenter’s brace (a hand-cranked drill), David invented a pedal powered (with arm assistance) power-take-off device. Power-take-off, or PTO, is a term most commonly associated with tractors; a spinning shaft that a multitude of devices can be plugged into and run off of. David’s PTO is a converted exercise bike that he machined a 90 lbs. flywheel for, and then connected it to a flex shaft (a flexible rotary drive shaft). The flex shaft, in turn, plugs into any number of low horse-powered devices, ideally ⅓ horsepower or less.
This stroke of low-tech genius, invented and fabricated by Dave, allowed the pair to operate over 10 different formerly-electric pieces of machinery:
Large Bandsaw (not easily)
Small bandsaw (much better)
1" belt sander
4" belt sander
Allow me to geek out for a minute here- what I just described is considered the holy grail of human-powered machines. Everyone wants a machine that can perform multiple tasks. Considering how large (i.e. bike sized) any powerful HPM is, the ideal is to have one machine that can do all of the things. Makes good sense, right? Well, there’s a problem with that. Since humans don’t generate that much power (sorry folks) it is crucial to maximize efficiency. Maximizing efficiency usually looks like building one machine around one task. There are all kinds logistical reasons for this, which I won’t dive into right now. Suffice it to say that this level of specificity is part of what has kept HPMs on the fringe. Sometimes you get lucky and you can combine similarly situated tasks into a single machine, like a food processor and a blender. But you are constrained by the axis on which the drive spins, and how you connect what you want to operate to it, gear ratios, etc.
The beauty of a flex shaft is that it easily plugs into a variety of devices. Because the shaft is flexible, the axis becomes irrelevant. It also allows you to have some distance from your power source, aka hacked exercise bike. Now this introduces a fascinating element that few other HPMs have- the need for multiple people to operate the machinery.
After some sleuthing, I managed to dig up some contact information for Brett and David. Both were generous enough to jump on the phone with me for a series of phone calls. Here's what I found out about their project, it's origins, and the possibility of a revival.
ME: Tell me more about your interest in, and experience with permaculture, and how that influenced the design thinking, process, and products created through FWF.
DAVE: The Featherwood Frames project dovetailed well with many permacultural principals relating to efficiently catching and storing energy, local over global, etc. It was almost as if we were starting with those principals and seeing how creatively we could work within them to end up with wooden eyeglasses. 'High thought, Low Tech' was a motto we kind of unofficially adopted which helped us look for ways to simplify the tools we were using or learn other novel ways of achieving the same effect through some other means. We really still had a long way to go, as far as dependency on sand paper and other industrial materials goes, but we made it pretty darn far and i'm proud of that!
BRETT: It came into my sphere by way of plant medicine and general forest nerdery. Permaculture has always been about lifestyle choices to me more than just a design practice. That said, with FWF we didn’t necessarily refer to specific sets of principles to guide our trajectory. Our main objective was to create an environment, process, and product that we could feel good about. For us, that was an operation that netted as little embodied energy as possible. Permaculture tenets absolutely apply, but we didn’t have them up on the wall.
ME: I know that some of the tools you made required both you and Dave to operate, can you talk about the dynamics of cooperation in using the machines? What kind of a learning curve did you have to really get into a good flow with the process?
BRETT: Haha. Yes, a good deal of the process required us both to be present. If i remember correctly, we had labels on each machine with rpm parameters. That would be translated over to the tach on the bike and we’d pedal away. Once the pedalist was up to speed, a top secret signal would be relayed to the tooler, then you would just pedal into the sunset across the cornfield.
DAVE: Personally, needing to work together to use some of the tools was a unforeseen perk of how the project unfolded. Our cooperation for using either of the duplicators was necessary since so much energy was needed. Our the learning curve mostly related to fine tuning the machines until they were dialed in and accurate, then it was a matter of taking turns pedaling. I remember trying to do all the heavy biking in the morning before the wood stove got going to warm up while the concrete floor was still cold. But even then the wood seemed to tear out less when it was warmer. There was always ways to refine the process. Brett and I's working relationship evolved into him working more on the eyeglasses and internet side of the project and me on the pedal power and materials, tho we shared most of the common responsibilities.
ME: Tell me more about the concept/vision of creating a working model for small-scale, local machining operations.
BRETT: We would often muse over brews about running a saw mill to cut lumber for local builders from local trees, or make furniture, or whatever. The possibilities are endless, really. I think i can speak for us both and say that, if nothing else, we hope that FWF has served as a model of an alternative means of production, whatever that product may be.
DAVE: This is good question Ive been thinking on since I first read it...The ideal of having local folks making things that would otherwise be shipped from China/wherever, was a driving motivation and vision when I first starting making the frames. Also, using discarded "industrial overflow" in the form of bicycles and such added to the vision and the belief that so much shit has been made already, lets stop trying to make the next super exciting gadget and reassemble the parts considered outdated. I love the aesthetic of a DIY space, with so much creativity densely packed into various niches. Ive likened walking into a shop space like that in the past to the difference between walking in a monoculture cornfield and someplace with major biodiversity. Soon after early on, though, midway through probably, I realized that wooden eyeglasses are pretty damn fragile and from an efficiency standpoint, not all that practical. People liked wood because they were really light weight and "organic" looking, but fixing them when people invariable sat on them or whatever became sorta a nuisance and bummer. Brett and I then started looking into making eyeglasses out of stainless steel bicycle spokes with some wooden accents, which still held onto the original vision and were just as light weight, DIYish yet sleek and mega durable and a helluva lot faster to make. I made a few and they ultimately were a success, tho the retooling and momentum of the business sorta trampled that effort. A small scale local machining operation has to remain flexible and financially viable, is what I'm trying to say....and while we were surprisingly both for quite awhile, we ultimately weren't enough to move into something like bike spoke glasses that wouldve been a lot cheaper for the average person to afford and didn't feel like we were just making novelties for rich people. Dont get me wrong, I would gladly take their money and redistribute it toward my life projects, but I increasingly feared that fragile human powered wooden eyeglasses as we had envisioned it served to assuage personal guilt than actually inspire people toward change to which the principles of permaculture strove. But then again, what do I know?!?! Personally, i wish i had planted as many trees as I had made glasses haha. Do I think human power machines have a place in a small scale machining effort? yeah, and i hope it to be more than just in a novelty sorta way. Using human powered tools to make things and actually compete with other high tech machines will only work if the beauty of the process is transparent and small business is appreciated as much the final object that's being made AND people are willing to pay for that (or if the concept of embodied energy enters public consciousness and is cared about).
ME: While FWF was running was it ever a full-time job for either of you?
DAVE: Most of the time it was a full time job for me tho I did use the shop space to facilitate other interests as well, like art when I felt inspired or carpentry when months were slow for us. On paper we needed x amount of glasses per month to satisfy our already meager means, tho we often struggled with meeting that quota or estimating what our needs really were. It was a labor exhaustive process and without much prior business experience or capital to put into investing, we often were paid very little for our effort - at least in US currency. I consider the project as a whole a net gain without hesitation. Early on I was trying to operate on gift economy, but again, easier said than done.
BRETT: Our time was certainly full but the rest is more fairly a matter of perspective. We made enough to stay alive and enjoy doing it, but Dave did attempt burning his own excrement once during the winter to get the wood stove going.
ME: If a market opened up for FWF to live again (and thrive!), would you jump back in?
BRETT: That’s a tough one, mainly because it’s unlikely that a niche would actually develop. The beauty of human powered machines and other low-to-no impact practices is that they empower people in the broadest sense. But I don’t necessarily see them playing much of a role in an economic sense, at least not in a highly developed economy. There would have to be some kind of collapse or major paradigm shift for these things to become common place. That’d be nice!
DAVE: Making livable wages? Somewhere between probably and definitely, but only if the bicycle spoke eyeglasses could be ironed out. I've thought about unpacking the tools and getting a set up going again but I'm in a weird transition period of life without an adequate space to unpack. And Brett lives in vermont! So that's a looong flex-shaft, haha.
*The dearth of information about human-powered machines and the people who build and use them was the main motivator for establishing Bicimakina as a resource on the web!
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