Home » I Built An E-Bike Entirely Out Of Trash

I Built An E-Bike Entirely Out Of Trash

Trash Ebike Ts2
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Those of us who are perpetual tinkerers know that sometimes we find projects and sometimes projects find us. The Trash-E-Bike, aka the IEB (Improvised Electric Bike) was a project of the latter sort. I never asked myself, “Can I build an e-bike out of trash?,” and though I eventually answered that question in the affirmative, the project was not especially planned. Instead, the IEB grew, bit by gathered bit, not unlike fast food wrappers and discarded plastic bags collected against a chain link fence by an afternoon breeze.

As a bicycle enjoyer, I find myself riding along LA’s urban rivers all the time (we have two besides the famously concreted LA River). In a city built around the automobile, the river paths offer a place where you can ride for miles and miles without ever encountering a car or a stop light, and, depending on which sections of the rivers you ride, you even get to experience a bit of actual nature in the form of herons, ducks, songbirds, rabbits, coyotes, turtles, and frogs.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Alongside that natural splendor are the many things cast off as useless by our society, three-wheeled shopping carts, half submerged vans, people with untreated mental illness, and bicycles in various states of disassembly (most of which have been left there by the homeless folks).

Last summer, when a friend of mine purchased a bare bicycle frame from Craigslist and told me he needed a fork and handlebars for it, I suggested we go down to the river and see what we could find.

Stubbed Toes And Incredible Bargains

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Of the two rivers I live near, the Rio Hondo (Spanish for wide river) seems to be the better one for finding interesting discarded stuff. My friend and I rode our bikes down there, keeping our eyes trained on the brush and trees that line the river’s banks. We soon came upon a site with piles of bicycle and bicycle parts.

As we picked through the rusty, and sometimes burnt bicycle frames and parts, a man emerged screaming and limping from the nearby bushes. I didn’t know what else to do in the moment besides ask him if he was all right. He said he was and that he had just stubbed his toe while trying to jump across the river (in actuality, the Rio is not very Hondo). Then he called to another man living in a nearby tent, who emerged, shirtless and sporting a dark and gnarled scar that reached from his belly button to his breast bone.

I asked the scarred man if the bicycles and parts were his. He said no, but that they belonged to his friend, who lived a little further down the river but was away buying groceries. He asked if we were looking for something specific, and I pointed out a partially stripped Bridgestone frame we had been looking at and a large wire basket. He said we could have both for $5. What a deal!

Back at my place, my friend and I disassembled the bike frame and its fork from each other, and my friend left with the fork and handlebars. I was left with a frame I didn’t need and that was too small for me. I almost put it out on the curb for one of the junk men to pick up, but then I started to wonder if I could make the bike frame bigger. Inspired by a book given to me by a friend, I decided to give it a try.

The Incredible Expanding Bike Frame

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If you look at bicycle frames, you’ll notice that most of them are built around a triangular core. That triangle can be made larger by increasing the length of each side, and if they are lengthened by the right amounts, the triangle’s three angles will remain unchanged. So, if I were to chop each side of the frame’s triangle in two and weld in some more tubing, I could make the frame whatever size I wanted it to be. I would never have the heart to do that to a nice frame, but for a dinged-up river frame that cost less than $5, why not give it a try?

My angle grinder made very quick work of the chopping, and some scraps of electrical conduit I had in my garage slip fit inside of the tubing that made up two sides of the triangle pretty well. The third side was made of wider tubing that didn’t match up with any of my conduit, so I went to the local scrap metal place. There, I found a piece of tubing that was the perfect diameter and it cost me a dollar and change. Total cost for the bike so far? About $6.25.

With some math, I figured out how long to make each side, and welded everything together. Just like that, I had a frame sized for me.

The River’s Bounty

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Up to this point, I still hadn’t decided to build a bike. Expanding the frame had just been an experiment to see if I could do it, but then my friend gave me back the handlebars and fork. Now I felt like I should actually try to finish the bike, at least just to see if it was rideable. I went back to the scrap metal place for more tubing so I could extend the fork to match the now-bigger frame. Total cost: $8.25.

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With project cars, it’s all the little pieces that end up costing the most (this is why I 3D printed parts for my truck). The same is true for bikes. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on brakes, wheels, derailleurs, and all the other bits I would need to make the Bridgestone frame rideable. So, I went back down to the river. One day I found a rear wheel, but its bearings were seized.

Another day I found another rear wheel of the wrong size with good bearings. I swapped the good bearings into the other wheel, and now I had a rear wheel for my bike. On other days, I found a seat and seat post, a partially burned beach cruiser with a good set of handlebars and handlebar stem, pieces of chain, brake components, and handlebar grips. Each in turn was added to the growing bicycle, which I had still spent less than ten dollars on. I wonder if Dr. Frankenstein felt this good building a human out of free parts.

A Big Find

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The main piece I still needed to finish the bike was a front wheel, and for months, this eluded me. The bicycle graveyards had dried up. I considered just buying a wheel, but decided to be patient and see if one would turn up. I set the bike aside and put it out of my mind.

I was on a ride a few months later when I spotted a wheel lying in the dirt next to the bike path, not far from where the Bridgestone frame originally came from. It was not any ordinary wheel though. At its center was an electric hub motor.

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I had considered building an e-bike more than once over the last few years, but the expense of the motor and battery had always put me off.

Since the motors are a big part of the cost of building an e-bike, I grabbed the wheel and rode home, doing my best to not crash while clumsily holding it with one hand and steering my bike with the other.

A Brief Explanation Of Brushless DC Motors

The wheel had been lying outside during a particularly rainy couple of weeks, so the first thing I did was open it up to see how it looked inside. Some water had gotten in, but not a lot, and there was only a tiny bit of rust. I left it to dry and began researching what I had.

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At the center of the wheel was a 36-volt, 250-watt brushless DC (BLDC) motor coupled to a planetary gearbox. (I also happened to have a 36-volt battery that a friend scavenged from a rental e-scooter someone had left broken down near his house, so I was off to a good start.)

Some motors, like brushed DC motors, will just run when you connect them to a power source. These motors make use of a commutator, an electromechanical device that switches the path electricity takes through the motor’s windings as it runs. That switching action keeps the motor spinning by constantly moving the magnetic field generated in those windings. Commutators are old technology, dating back to the early 1800s, and they’re robust, but they also have drawbacks. The commutator is a source of friction that reduces the motor’s efficiency. It also creates noise, sparks, and ozone gas, and the carbon brushes that conduct electricity into the commutator wear out with use.

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BLDC motors, which are now found not just in e-bikes and e-scooters, but also power tools and electric cars, eliminate those disadvantages by replacing the commutator with electronics that do all the work of switching the path electricity takes through the motor’s windings. BLDC motors are quieter, more efficient, and require less maintenance than their brushed counterparts. The electronics also operate more flexibly than a commutator, which makes it easier to change the speed the motor runs at, and even make the motor run in reverse.

E-bike controllers that include those electronics can be had as cheap as $11 on AliExpress, and e-bike and e-scooter parts are pleasantly standardized, so finding a controller that connected with both my battery and motor was easy. I opted to spend a bit more and got controller that came with a display and a wiring harness for $50, including tax. Total cost: $58.25.

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A few weeks later, my package arrived, and, as promised, the controller neatly plugged into my motor and my battery. I twisted the thumb throttle and breathed a sigh of relief as the motor quietly whirred to life.

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I had tires and tubes I had found by the river, but they were sketchy from laying out in the elements, so I went to my local bicycle shop and bought a new set of tubes and tires. At $80, this was the most expensive part of the build. Total cost: $138.25.

Trying And Naming The Bike

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I was excited to try out my new e-bike, but I didn’t have a good way of attaching the battery to the frame. For a test ride, I strapped the battery, housed in a 4-inch drain pipe, to the bike with bungee cords. When I posted a picture of the bike on my socials, friends joked that it looked like a suicide bomber’s bike, and said not to leave it unattended or someone would call the bomb squad. My brother dubbed it the Improvised Explosive Bike, or IEB, and I started calling it the Improvised Electric Bike.

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Tidying up the wiring with some 3D-printed pieces and some hose clamps made the bike look a lot less like a threat to public safety, and cost me another $4. I couldn’t find a decent set of shift levers along the rivers, so I bought a set for $12 on eBay. Total cost: $154.25.

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At this point, the bike was basically complete, and everything felt secure enough that I felt comfortable taking out on a real ride, and the results were impressive, at least to me. On flat ground, the IEB is capable of going up to 22 miles per hour—faster than really feels comfortable to me— and that’s without me even pedaling. I think that’s pretty good for something made mostly out of scavenged parts.

Future directions

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I will admit that I spent more money than I intended to on this project, but it still cost only about a quarter of what a used e-bike would cost, and only a small fraction of the price of a new e-bike, and it feels good to know that I sourced the majority of the bike from parts left to rust in the dirt and bushes.

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I plan to continue making upgrades to the bike as I find other parts. The most recent addition is a set of wire basket panniers I welded together out of a smashed dog kennel that was lying on the side of the road. Total cost for that side-project: $3 for a bag of hose clamps.

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Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
11 days ago

This has some of the same feel as Atomic Zombie’s projects. While I have reservations about welding conduit into a frame I appreciate the ingenuity, and the faith that a weld won’t fail and pitch you on your face at 20mph.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
11 days ago

This is all kinds of awesome!

Headfullofair
Headfullofair
11 days ago

Very cool looking build! Congrats on the electric wheel score. That can be swapped into a lot of interesting frankenbuilds.

I am a little worried about the bicycle frame failing. The frame is butted, so the tube is thick at the joints and thin in the middle. You’ve cut it at the thin part. It’s also a made a heat treated steel that loses its strength when welded.

That said, steel is nice because it usually bends before breaking. Be mindful of weird creaking or wobbling. Get some fun out of this bike and start looking for the next bike corpse to revive!

Headfullofair
Headfullofair
11 days ago
Reply to  Headfullofair

I should add: I’ve cracked plenty of bike frames and this is a whole-hearted endorsement!

Oswaldo Rodriguez
Oswaldo Rodriguez
11 days ago

Hondo actually means deep

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
12 days ago

Great article. As a professional bicycle mechanic for 26 years I have built stuff with scrap too. I built a tallbike out of 2 frames and conduit with my kids during covid lockdown. The seat is up at about 6’4” and it’s super easy to balance and ride. Everyone smiles at you, probably because they think you are a crazy circus clown out of make-up and are actually nuts.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
12 days ago

Nice build 😎

I took a little more easy route (but not the easiest) and ordered a powerful China ebike kit (from Germany) and stuck it to my fastest bicycle: It’s an absolute monster, and still the cheapest ebike in the city!
https://www.instagram.com/p/C4swzRmoeJt/

Last edited 12 days ago by Jakob K's Garage
Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
12 days ago

Those extended fork welds in bending worry me. I don’t really understand why you’d extend them because bigger frames don’t have longer forks. Sudden fork failure is the thing I’m most scared of when riding.

That aside: I love bike content. I do 3,000 miles a year of the most law-abiding considerate cycling, but everyone I know hates cyclists (some with good reason). So I know it’s niche.

My problem with making bikes out of old parts is I don’t know how to stop. I’m on 8 bikes now with another 1 and a bit in spares laying around. If I didn’t slow myself down by building my own wheels I’d have dozens by now.

When I finally converted to disc brakes for off road I looked at my pile of v-brakes, cables and shifters and knew it was going to turn in to another bike.

Andrew Vance
Andrew Vance
12 days ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

If the conduit goes inside a ways on both ends, it’ll be fine. I think the author said it was slip-fit, at least for the frame.

Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
11 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Vance

Yep, it’s slip fit! The conduit extends about 2 inches beyond the welds on each side

Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
11 days ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

Look at the geometry of the bike. If I had not extended the fork, they would be too short for the larger frame.

Commercial bike builders make the head tube longer on their larger frames. That wasn’t an easy option for me because it would have required changing all of the angles in the frame.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
12 days ago

Finding cheap or free bikes isn’t hard if you live in a big metro area like LA. I’ve gone through several that were given to me or that I found on the sidewalk with a big “FREE” sign on them. Many were in excellent condition too, some only needing a wash to look if not new then kinda new, maybe a new cable, grease and/or brake pads and a tune up. I’ve had to pass up many, many more because they were not my size, not my preferred type but mainly because I’ve only got so much room. The good news for projects like this one is steel framed mountain bikes are readily available.

A lot of bikes are disposed of for very fixable reasons. Anything from a misaligned derailleur, gummed up cables, a slightly bent rim, squeaky brakes a desperate need of grease or the owner just doesn’t want it anymore for whatever reasons.

So while it’s great you were able to resize the frame to get what you wanted I think with a bit of effort and patience you can get a correctly sized frame along with wheels, fork, brakes, handlebars and all the rest for not much more than $5, maybe even less. Beware though of the stuck seatpost. That can turn your “bargain” into a PITA.

Last edited 12 days ago by Cheap Bastard
Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
11 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

I could have just looked for a bike, but half the fun was taking the bike apart and welding it back together!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
11 days ago
Reply to  Emily Velasco

Of course! Welding and brazing are both good skills to develop.

On the old lighting site one of the stories that inspired me to start my own collection was the story of an 80’s era Schwinn Cimarron rescued from the mean streets of NYC. That bike soon broke a seat stay and was brazed back together by a pro rather than being thrown away. That was not cheap. So I appreciate those with the skills to DIY as long as its done well.

Here4thecars
Here4thecars
12 days ago

Great story! Let’s have some more of this, please!

LongCoolLincoln
LongCoolLincoln
12 days ago

This rules so freaking hard

CTSVmkeLS6
CTSVmkeLS6
12 days ago

Very cool nice way to reuse discarded stuff. Going green! Biketopian??!?
What vehicle do you drive? That’s important too

Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
11 days ago
Reply to  CTSVmkeLS6

2010 Honda Fit with a stick shift! It’s pretty much the perfect car for my needs

CTSVmkeLS6
CTSVmkeLS6
11 days ago
Reply to  Emily Velasco

An interior packaging miracle machine, and stick – sounds good!

Plesiomorphus primitivus
Plesiomorphus primitivus
12 days ago

Cool build. A caveat for the conduit in the frame – that stuff isn’t really that strong, so be careful!

Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
12 days ago

The folks at Atomic Zombie build all kinds of crazy bikes using conduit and it seems to work for them. I wouldn’t use it for building a downhill bike or anything, but it should do for something like this

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
11 days ago

Its not but the middle parts of the frame are the least stressed. That’s why frame builder can use butted tubing to save weight.

Autopizen
Autopizen
12 days ago

Love this article. More like this please.

Emily, would love an update about how it performs, if you decide to tinker/modify/upgrade, etc. Thank you.

Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
12 days ago
Reply to  Autopizen

Will do!

John Hower
John Hower
12 days ago

Kudos, Emily. Very interesting piece.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
12 days ago

Those that liked this (I did) will probably like Recycled Recumbents, been following their progress for many years.

https://g.co/kgs/b78vap2

Gene1969
Gene1969
12 days ago

It looks great! I’m glad to see you’re around creating and innovating.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
12 days ago

Extending a cr-mo Bridgestone frame with electrical conduit is a little weird, but it’s awfully hard to beat the price and the DIY sensibility!

Emily Velasco
Emily Velasco
12 days ago
Reply to  Widgetsltd

Building an e-bike out of bike parts I found down by the river is weird. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture here

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
12 days ago

I like the article! I am in the process of taking my new e-bike and changing it from belt drive back to chain driven, so that I can get gears. I just want to use it as a normal bike much of the time, but the hills around here make me want gears.

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