"The Human-Powered Home," by Tamara Dean, is your complete guide to modern pedal-powered, treadled and hand-cranked devices for the home.
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
What if I could harness some of all this energy my
own body produces? An unusual question, to be sure — yet human power is a very
old, practical and empowering alternative to fossil fuels.The Human-Powered Home (New
Society Publishers, 2008), a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Book for Wiser Living, is a
one-of-a-kind guide to human-powered tools gathered from a unique collection of
This book discusses the science and history of human power and examines the common
elements of human-powered devices. For those who are beginning to understand
the importance of a life of reduced dependency on fossil fuels, this book can
be a catalyst for change.
Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Human-Powered Home.
Read more from The Human-Powered Home:
• How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Treadle Sewing Machine
The joy of working outdoors lies in appreciating nature.
But birdsong and blossom-scented breezes are too often extinguished by the
racket and smell of gasoline engines. Peace is the reason, many have told me,
that they opt for human-powered lawn and garden tools. Others add that many human-powered
tools work just as well, if not better, and as quickly as their motorized
counterparts. Watch how long it takes someone to blow leaves off a sidewalk.
Could sweeping them really take longer? Not only that, but human-powered tools
are often more durable. In his book Homesteading: How to Find New Independence
on the Land Gene Logsdon writes, “The [hand-pushed] cultivator makes no
noise, always starts, never breaks down..., needs no gasoline, can be
controlled easily to avoid plowing out vegetables — and mine is at least fifty
How to Make a Bike-Frame
Home gardeners might be
familiar with the twisted back and cramped hands that result from hours of
loosening dirt with a handheld cultivator. A cultivator attached to a modified bike
frame, however, affords the gardener greater power and a more comfortable,
ergonomic position. It also covers more ground in less time.
This plan is inspired by a
bicycle cultivator mentioned in a 1981 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine,
though I’ve created a modified version that’s more durable in some ways and
simpler to construct. The plan doesn’t call for welding skills or supplies, but
if you have them, you could make your cultivator sturdier.
At the time this was written,
commercially available versions of similar wheeled cultivators sold for $85 to
Ease of construction: Fairly easy; it involves minimal knowledge of (or
willingness to learn) basic bike mechanics. For some steps, it’s helpful to
have two sets of hands. Depending on the bike, it might require special bike
Time to make: 4 to 6 hours
Cost to make: $15 to $30, using scrounged parts
Ease of operation: Very simple
Following is an overview of
the steps in this plan:
• First, you’ll disassemble
most of an adult bike by removing the seat, shifters, brake levers, brakes,
crankset, chain, derailleurs and front wheel and sawing off the top tube and
• Next, you’ll separate the
front fork and steerer tube from the head tube and reattach the front fork to
the part of the frame you saved. This creates the cultivator’s long handle.
• Finally, you’ll attach a
cultivator head to the seat tube in your modified bike frame.
• One adult-sized,
steel-framed, single (not tandem) road bike, salvaged. A bike with a wheel size
between 20" and 27" will work. It’s okay if the frame is slightly
bent or banged up. A lower-quality bike can often be dismantled with standard
shop tools, whereas a high-quality bike is more apt to require custom bike tools.
You probably wouldn’t want to ruin a high-quality bike for this project,
• One old, long-handled
cultivator, as shown in Figure 2 in the Image Gallery. In rural or exurban areas these are
common antique-store finds, usually costing less than $10. (In fact, if the
handle is broken or missing, which is fine for this project, you could get an
even better bargain.) However, if you can’t find an old cultivator, you can
substitute a modern long-handled cultivator, given some modifications to this
plan. See the “Variations and Considerations” section at the end of this plan
• Four 1/4"-diameter
carriage bolts, 1-1/2." long, plus matching washers and nuts
• One 1/4"-diameter
carriage bolt, 6" long, plus matching nut
• At least six fender
washers which are at least 2" in diameter and whose center holes are least
1/4" in diameter
• One 6" hose clamp
• One 3/4"-diameter
galvanized steel pipe nipple, 5-1/2" long* (if you’re short, choose a
slightly shorter one, or if you’re tall, a longer one)
• One 3/4" galvanized
steel floor flange*
• One 3/4" galvanized
steel 45-degree street elbow (male-to-female)*
*The size of these parts —
all of which can be found in the plumbing department of your local hardware
store — depends on your seat tube’s inside diameter being roughly 1"; this
is almost always the case, but check yours to verify its size before buying
• Safety goggles
• Permanent marker (in a
color that contrasts with your bike frame)
• Set of wrenches (sizes
will vary to match the sizes of nuts on your bicycle; they are almost always
metric), including open-ended wrenches, socket wrenches and allen wrenches
• Pipe wrench
• Phillip’s head and
• Drill press with 1/4"
drill bit and cutting oil
• Cable cutter
• Bolt cutter or chain link
tool to sever and remove bike chain
• A bike repair stand or
other method of locking bike into place (a workbench and clamps could suffice)
• Lockring tool or pipe
• Optional, if your bike
requires it: Crank extractor tool (or crank puller)
• Optional, if your bike
requires it: Bottom bracket tool
• Optional, if you might
want to re-use the chain: Chain link tool
Steps for Making a
1. If you have a bike repair
stand, mount the bike on the stand and clamp it securely. If not, try finding a
way to clamp it tightly to the edge of a workbench, vertical post or shelf
support. If you have no way of fixing the bike in place, it’s best to have
another person help you steady it during some of the following steps.
2. Remove the bike’s seat,
or saddle. Seats are attached to the seat post with a saddle clamp. Saddle
clamps differ from one bike to another. However, in most cases removing the
seat is a simple matter of removing one or two nuts and bolts or a screw.
3. Next, remove the seat
post from the seat tube. The seat post is the metal tube that fits snugly
within the seat tube and allows you to adjust the height of your seat. Most seat
posts are fixed in place by a binder clamp. Loosen the binder clamp (often this
entails turning one screw) and pull out the seat tube.
4. If the bike has a
kickstand, remove it. Most kickstands are attached to the chainstay, either
near the bottom bracket or near the rear hub. Removing a kickstand might be a
simple matter of removing one nut and bolt that hold the kickstand to the
In some cases, though,
kickstands (for example, those on old Schwinn bikes) require a special tool to
remove them or they might be welded onto the chainstay. If your kickstand isn’t
bolted on, you can either leave it attached (it won’t hamper the cultivator’s
functioning) or use a more drastic removal tool — for example, a hacksaw or an
5. If the bike has an
attached bottle cage, take that off by removing the nuts and bolts that hold it
to the frame.
6. Cut the chain with a bolt
cutter and remove it. If you don’t want to ruin it, use a chain tool to remove
a link pin and free the chain.
7. Next, using a cable
cutter, sever the front and rear gear cables both near the shifters and the
derailleurs and slide them out of their braze-on cable guides to remove them
from the frame.
8. Also use a cable cutter
to sever the front and rear brake cables, both near the brake levers and near
the brakes. Slide them out of their cable guides and remove them from the
9. Take off the shifters and
brake levers. These might be connected to the handlebars, the stem (just below
the handlebars), or on older bikes, the down tube. No matter where, they’re
affixed to the frame with a clamp that’s tightened using screws. In some cases
the screws are hidden under rubber covers. Use the appropriate screwdriver or
Allen wrench to loosen the clamp and then remove the shifter or brake lever. If
the handlebar end grips prevent sliding off the shifters or brake levers,
remove the grips (they’re normally held on with friction). If the grips are
stuck, try holding a wrench snugly around the handlebar just before the grip,
then hitting the side of the wrench with a mallet to nudge the grip off the end
of the handlebar.
10. Next, you’ll release the
tension in the rear brake and remove it. Depending on the type of brake,
releasing the tension might involve flipping a lever, loosening a small screw
or bolt, or squeezing the calipers, then pulling up on the cable that spans the
two calipers. After releasing the tension, remove the brake and attached cable,
if any, by threading the nut off the end and removing the bolt that holds the rear
brake assembly to the top of the seat stays.
11. Repeat Step 10 for
releasing the tension in and removing the front brake from the top of the front
12. Remove the rear
derailleur and any remaining length of the gear cable by removing the lug that
holds the derailleur to the rear drop-outs (the metal ends of the rear fork,
where the seat stays and chain stays intersect). It’s okay to leave the cogset
13. The front derailleur is
attached to the bottom of the seat tube or a nearby braze-on with a bolt and
nut. Remove the bolt and nut to remove the front derailleur and any remaining
14. Remove the pedals where
they attach to the cranks using the appropriate open-ended wrench. On nearly
all bikes, the right-hand pedal is removed by turning the wrench
counterclockwise while the left-hand pedal is removed by turning the wrench
clockwise. In other words, in both cases, you would turn the wrench toward the
back of the bike to loosen and remove the pedals.
15. Next, you need to remove
the crank arms, chain rings and spindle — that is, everything that’s left at
the intersection of the seat tube and down tube. Crank arms are attached to the
bike’s frame via a spindle that goes through the bottom bracket. However, the
attachment can take one of a few different forms depending on the bike. On many
inexpensive bikes, crank arms are made of one S-shaped piece of metal, also
known as a one-piece crank.
These are the simplest type
to disassemble, requiring only the use of wrenches and a flathead screwdriver.
If you do not have a one-piece crank — that is, if your crank is attached in a
more complex manner, consult a bike repair manual, such as Todd Downs’ Bicycle
Maintenance & Repairfor Road & Mountain Bikes or Lennard Zinn’s
Zinn and the Art of Road BikeMaintenance to find out how to
remove it. You might need to purchase a crank extractor tool (or crank puller)
and bottom bracket tool to accomplish this (unless you want to try a brute
force method, which might involve a pipe wrench).
16. Now the bottom bracket
should be hollow. Next, you’ll remove the front wheel. Since you took off the
front brake earlier, you can easily remove the wheel by loosening the axle nuts
on either side of the wheel and slipping the wheel off the front fork. Or, if
your bike has a quick-release mechanism on the wheel — that is, a lever on one
side and a cap nut on the other — loosen the nut and pull the lever outward to
release the wheel.
17. Clamp the frame, by the
seat tube, in a repair stand or workbench. Then use a hacksaw to cut off the
top tube close to where it intersects with the seat tube.
18. Also using a hacksaw,
cut off the down tube close to where it intersects with the seat tube. You
should be left with a modified bike that consists of the rear tire, seat tube,
seat stays and chain stays, similar to the one pictured in Figure 3 in the Image Gallery.
19. Remove the handlebar
tube and front fork from the head post on the part of the frame that you cut
off in steps 17 and 18.
20. Flip the remaining bike
frame so that the bottom bracket shell is on top. Secure the frame on a bike
repair stand or workbench.
21. Next, you’ll attach the
front fork and handlebar tube to the chain stays to create a handle. Hold the
fork and handlebar tube in front of you in the same position it would be if you
were riding the bike. Now rotate it 180 degrees. With its “wrong” side facing
up, slide the fork over the seat stays and hold it so that the fork arms line
up with the seat stays. The fork arms should also bisect the bottom bracket
shell. (As shown in Figure 4 in the Image Gallery.)
22. On each side of the
fork, use the permanent marker to place a dot where an imaginary line through
the center of the bottom bracket shell would intersect the fork. This is where
you’ll drill and insert a bolt. (If you’re welding, weld the fork in place at
the bottom bracket and against the seat stays. This will probably require adding
some material between each arm of the fork and the bottom bracket’s rim. Then
skip to Step 27.)
23. On the drill press,
drill a 1/4" hole through the fork in each place where you made a mark in
Step 22. For safety’s sake, wear protective goggles while doing this and use
cutting oil. To keep it steady while you drill, clamp the fork to the drill
press table. Because forks are tapered, it’s helpful to use a shim between the
fork and the table so that it’s level. Be sure to drill in the center of the
fork arm, since drilling closer to the edges might compromise the strength of
the arm. Also, aim to make the hole perpendicular to the face of the fork.
24. Line up the fork so that
the holes you just drilled match the center of the bottom bracket. Notice the
space between the fork’s edges and the outer rim of the bottom bracket. Insert
enough 2"-diameter or larger fender washers on either side of the bottom
bracket to fill this space. Try to position them flat against the rim of the bottom
25. Insert the 6"-long
carriage bolt through one side of the fork, the fender washers, the bottom
bracket shell, the fender washers on the other side, and then the other side of
26. Add a nut to the end of
the bolt and tighten securely.
27. To doubly fasten the
handle in position, bind the front fork to the seat stays by wrapping a 6"
hose clamp around both. Tighten securely with a screwdriver. (If you’re
welding, weld each side of the fork to its respective chain stay.) The forkhandle
attachment should look similar to
28. Now you’re ready to
insert the handlebars back into the head tube. You probably want them to face
the same way when you operate the cultivator as they would face if you were
riding the bike, which means inserting them into the head tube 180 degrees opposite
of the direction in which they were originally installed.
29. If you removed grips
from the handlebars earlier, replace them now.
30. Setting the bike frame
aside for a while, next you’ll disassemble the long-handled cultivator and
prepare it to be attached to the bike frame. Clamp the cultivator head onto
your workbench. Using a hacksaw, cut off the metal bracket that connects the head
to the wooden handle so that the remaining cultivator head has as near to a flat
top as you can make it.
31. If you are indeed using
an old long-handled cultivator, the tines will be bolted tight between two
metal plates. In the cultivators I’ve picked up, there are four bolts, and the
two outside bolts are spaced 2-3/8" apart on center. This happens to match
exactly the distance between opposite holes in the pipe flange. If the bolts on
your cultivator head do not line up, or if you are using a cultivator head
whose tines are fastened in a different manner, you’ll have to make your own
bracket from two steel plates, measuring where best to put bolts and drilling
holes for the bolts to go through.
32. Remove two bolts and
nuts on the exterior of old cultivator head plates.
33. Attach the floor flange
to the top of the cultivator head by inserting new 1-1/2"- long 1/4"-diameter
carriage bolts through the holes on the exterior. Add matching washers and nuts
and tighten firmly.
34. Now screw the 45-degree
pipe elbow onto end of the floor flange. Use a pipe wrench to screw it in so that
35. Next, screw the 5-1/2"
pipe nipple into the 45-degree elbow. Use a pipe wrench to screw it in so that
it’s tight. The cultivator head and its attachments should look like Figure 5 in the Image Gallery.
36. Unfasten the bike frame
from its stand or workbench and flip it over, so that the seat tube is facing
up and the handlebars are resting on the floor. Insert the end of the 5-1/2"
pipe nipple (and the attached, modified cultivator head) into the seat tube. Tighten
with a pipe wrench. The curved ends of the tines should be pointing toward the
wheel and away from the handlebars.
37. Flip the bike-frame
cultivator over and try it out.
• If you can’t find an
old-fashioned, long-handled cultivator to dismantle for this project, you can
buy new five-tine cultivator heads manufactured by Beaver Manufacturing (for
attachment to their push garden plows) for about $25. Because these are
designed differently than the antique types, you’ll have to adjust the means of
attaching the head to the floor flange at the bottom of the bike frame
• Rather than using an old
cultivator head, one variation on this plan uses recycled bike forks as
This excerpt has been
reprinted with permission from The Human-Powered
Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors,
published by New Society Publishers, 2008. Buy this book from our store: The Human-Powered Home.