Chopping firewood is a popular summer pastime for many Finns and Ilari Alaruka is no exception. In 2014, the founder and CEO of Wood Innovations Finland was splitting birch trunks at his home farm when the idea hit him. Alaruka envisioned a very different use for the high-quality birch than just firewood.
“I was in primary school when I fished out an old bike from River Kokemäenjoki [in southwestern Finland] for the first time. I repaired it and sold it to a classmate,” Alaruka recalls. “I continued restoring old bikes throughout my studies and built a career in the forest industry. Then came my ‘eureka’ moment: what if I combined these two skills to make a wood-framed bicycle?”
A year later, Alaruka and four of his friends set up Wood Innovations Finland to turn this idea into reality. The company’s first product, Wiilubike, was wheeled on to the market in summer 2017 targeted at design and eco-savvy city dwellers. The bike’s frame is made out of pressure-formed plywood birch, which acts as a carbon sink (stores carbon dioxide) and adds a personal touch to the bike.
“Each bike is unique because the grain pattern is different in every frame,” Alaruka explains.
Ode to the forest
However, bending birch to create a smooth bike frame isn’t as easy as riding a bike. It took Wood Innovations Finland two years of product development to get the bike just right. In particular, wood’s tendency to ‘live with the seasons’ and lack of necessary stiffness proved challenging to work around, but the company solved the issues by developing a proprietary structure for the frame.
“We thought we’d start with an easy wood product, a bicycle,” Alaruka laughs. “We are working with an atypical material and for a single bike we have close to 200 rows of bike parts listed on a spreadsheet.”
But solving challenges is part of the fun for Wood Innovations Finland. From the start, the company’s mission has been to raise awareness of the versatility and value of timber, as well as to provide an ecological solution for the serial production of bike frames.
“We want to show how wood can be used for products that it traditionally hasn’t been used for. We want to improve the appreciation of wood materials,” says Alaruka. “[Wiilubike] brings the forest into the city in a more visible way as a truly practical product.”
But don’t expect to run into Wiilubikes everywhere just yet. Wood Innovations Finland has made just 50 bikes so far this year and is focusing on its home market following a new marketing partnership with Finnish furniture retailer Isku. The next step is expansion to nearby countries Sweden and Denmark and eventually to the big biking markets of Central Europe.
Alaruka stresses the company isn’t in a hurry. It wants to explore the possibility of introducing new models, including a wooden e-bike, and maybe even entirely different wood products. In the end, what matters for Wood Innovations Finland is using wood to promote active lifestyles.
“A bike is a universal product. Everyone has some kind of a biking memory. It would be a major achievement for us if our wooden bike could get more people excited about biking,” Alaruka concludes.