Making art from old bike parts: A chat with Drew Evans of Chainbreaker Studio
One cyclist's trash is another cyclist's treasure.
One cyclist's trash is another cyclist's treasure.
What happens to old bike parts once they reach the end of their usable life? That old chain or cassette you’ve just replaced; those old brake rotors you don’t need any more? In most cases, they probably end up in landfill. Sometimes, the metal might end up being recycled. Occasionally, though, someone finds an even better use for those old parts. Someone like Drew Evans at Chainbreaker Studio.
Based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA, Evans collects old bike parts (among other things) and turns them into remarkable pieces of fine art. You might have seen his work on Instagram – he regularly posts videos of himself working on his next creation, and photos of the finished products.
We got in touch with Evans to chat about how he got started in the fine art space, what’s involved in turning old bike parts into art, and much more. The following Q&A has been lightly edited and restructured for fluency.
CyclingTips: How did you first get into using old bike parts to make sculptures?
Drew Evans: I had an idea once – I was going to do the trim around my kitchen [with old bike parts]. I went to the bike shop up the road and asked them if they had any junk that I could take and he said ‘yeah’ and so I took it.
Still, I’ve never done that [the kitchen trim]. But then I wound up doing the same kind of style out on the gate on the side of my house, which is the first thing that I made out of bike parts. And it’s there still. And then I put an archway made of wheels over it. People slow down and look at it when they go down the road.
I had been a welder for a long time before that, and I wanted to make stuff out of scrap metal and parts. And I’m also really into biking and working on my own bike.
What sort of welding jobs did you do in the past?
I worked a bunch of different welding jobs like fabrication in plants and also building grain elevators and agricultural stuff and climbing big towers. It was an interesting job.
You’re making art full-time now right?
Yeah, I’ve been doing it full time for a couple of years. Well, last year for like half of the year, I did a bicycle repair service because there was super huge demand and the bike shops had a month or two for waiting time on a tune-up. I just started doing that outta nowhere; I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew how to do mechanic stuff, but I didn’t know as well how to do business stuff. I’m still figuring that out!
When you decided to make art for a full-time job, what was that like? Was that scary or exciting?
Yes, it was definitely exciting. Also terrifying. But you know, having way too much optimism is a good thing sometimes! “Alright, I’m going to do this and I’ll figure it out as I go.” But as I said, I did the bicycle repair thing too and I do a welding service sometimes. Like I welded together a snowblower earlier today for a neighbour. But mostly what I do is the art thing, probably 95% at least.
But yeah, it was a lot of a learning process, especially trying to sell something that people don’t actually need. Not everybody needs artwork. Nobody actually needs it so you’ve got to be pretty clever about it.
Where do you get the materials for your art? Do you get a lot at bike shops? I saw that you get some from scrapyards too, right?
Yeah, Goldfinch Cyclery here in Cedar Rapids – they’re super awesome. They call me when their scrap metal bucket’s full and I just bring them an empty bucket and just take their full one. And they’re super happy for me to take it away because it’s just kind of a chore for them to get rid of it. So it’s really a win-win.
I got a bunch of stuff from the bike collective too. We have this non-profit bike shop in Cedar Rapids here in Iowa that I volunteer at sometimes and then help clean out the basement sometimes too. And then I get a bunch from a couple of other bike shops in Iowa City: World of Bikes, the Bike Library, and The Broken Spoke – he was super happy to see me last time. And I filled up the entire truck. It was awesome.
I started with making stuff primarily out of bike parts, but now I’ve been exploring some different materials, which has been an interesting kind of challenge. Doing stuff out of bike parts, you can market to people that ride bikes and not necessarily just people that are into art or whatever. And that’s why I still do a bunch of stuff made out of just bike parts but yeah I do some stuff out of nuts and other hardware. It’s really interesting to explore different materials and stuff, especially out at the scrapyard – there’s so much fun stuff up there.
Once you get a bunch of old chains and sprockets home, you have to clean them all right?
Yeah, I process them. I did so many different iterations of chain cleaning because it’s been such a pain in the butt to figure out how to clean them well. So I tried at least 10 different solvents and a bunch of different heating methods.
Right now I have a method where I preheat them in a water-based solvent and then when they’re nice and warm, which really softens the grease, then I take it to my parts washer and kind of clean everything off because it tends to get the stuff on the inside out better.
But it’s always a work in progress. I thought about getting a dishwasher to try doing that to see if I could just put a bunch in a dishwasher. But I wouldn’t want to use one that I use also for food!
When you’re creating a new piece of art, do you start with the raw materials and think “I could make something cool with this”? Or do you start with an idea and then try to find the materials for it? Or is it a bit of both, depending on the piece?
A little bit of both. I’m all over the place. I usually have an idea in mind, but I just try to do different stuff. My idea in the beginning doesn’t always line up with the finished product, which is great. It’s a wonderful surprise sometimes – most of the time. Sometimes it doesn’t work out as well but that’s the nature of trying new things.
But usually I have somewhat of an idea in mind of “Alright, what am I going to put down on the table today? It’s going to be some kind of radially symmetrical mandala thingy”, but I usually have five different things going on at once.
I’m sure they all take different amounts of time to do, but just as a ballpark figure, how long would it take to make your average piece of art?
This tree would probably take … OK, first cleaning and then forming it. I did five of them at once, and two of them were much bigger than this. And I did all of those in like three days of labour I think.
I’ve also gotta grind off all the sprockets and then I put those in the oven to change their colours. And then after everything’s done, I’ll do a final cleaning.
I’ll drop it on the floor a couple of times to make sure nothing falls off … It actually does work. Because it’s really bad if things break in shipping and on the customer’s end. That sucks. I’ve had that happen a couple of times and it’s not fun. Or it’s just a pain in the butt. It’s better to make them sturdy.
Then I’ll clean it all up with acetone and then I’ll put a clear coat on it. It’ll either be clear epoxy or lacquer, depending on what’s below. Lacquer tends to dry a little faster and be good on a little bit more contaminated surface. Enamel, not as much – it bubbles a little bit more.
You mentioned changing the colour of the metal. Is there a particular temperature you need to aim for to get certain colours?
My oven at home is not the most accurate but your temperature ranges between 500 to 550 Fahrenheit (260-280 ºC). Well, it starts at about 450 ºF (230 ºC) and then it’ll go from gold to like a red to a blue and then when it’s cooked or overheated, then it’s a grey that’s a little bit less bright.
You can only go one way with it, but it’s kind of cool because if you did too much, you can just grind it off and then restart it because of an oxide layer you have made from heating the metal.
It’s steel that can be coloured like that right?
Yeah, steel. Brake rotors must be a little bit different though because they have a higher temperature – they must be a different alloy. But the sprockets are all just steel more or less. They’re all hardened steel and various types of that.
They’re very hard too. The only way I cut these any more is with a plasma cutter. You can’t cut with anything like a blade. Oh, you can cut them with an abrasive disc too.
For people that aren’t familiar with welding, how are you actually putting stuff together? Can you provide an overview of the welding process?
OK, I use an arc welder that has a wire feeder. It’s basically an electrical current that runs through your gun and into the piece and then it makes a bright flash because all the resistance in the circuit as it’s arcing through the air creates the heat to melt the metal.
What I use is called MIG [metal inert gas] welding. It’s pretty akin to a hot glue gun; it even kind of looks like one, or like a caulking gun. And [the metal] just comes out the end. It’s a pretty simple setup.
I started with TIG [tungsten inert gas], which is a lot fancier and intricate, and it takes a lot more dexterity [with TIG welding, the welder feeds a filler metal into the weld area with one hand while using the welding torch in the other – ed.] And I thought it was the preferred way but if you’re welding on greasy bike chains, it’s not the preferred way. So I MIG everything and it’s like 10 times faster. But, yeah [MIG welding] also leaves a bunch of crud on it too so you’ve got to clean that up afterwards. TIG welding is a lot cleaner.
You mentioned you’ve got a welding background. Do you have an art or sculpture background?
I’m working on it! I mean, three years of trying to make it as an artist, I guess? Aside from that, no, not really. I didn’t start trying to learn fine art stuff until a couple of years ago.
I don’t know, I try to learn about everything, but my main focus is … I’m trying to learn how to do figure sculptures because those are promising and challenging. Visually challenging too, and interesting and a lot of fun.
What makes them so challenging?
Because our brains are highly tuned to know what people look like and what looks weird in a person, especially faces – they’re way hard because our brains can detect subtle differences and if a face doesn’t look quite right …
Much more than, say, like a tree. You can make a tree however you want, and it’ll look like a tree even if it looks goofy or whatever. But yeah, figures are hard.
You mentioned earlier that you’re a cyclist – what sort of riding do you do? What do you ride?
Well, the one bike that I ride right now is one I made myself at the United Bicycle Institute (UBI), a year ago right now, out in Ashland, Oregon. I built a titanium-frame bicycle. It’s just a pretty standard touring bike.
Actually, according to everybody else, it’s old school because I was the only guy in the class to do V-brakes. Everybody else did disc brakes. Everybody else did thru-axles; I just did like the regular drop-out axles.
But that’s kind of how I like it, because I kind of like going on longer rides and stuff … and using spare parts actually is what I really like doing. So it’s hard to find disc brakes and spare parts, but I could find V-brakes all over the place.
Tell me more about the framebuilding course. How did you find it?
Since I’ve been an avid cyclist and then also a welder it seemed like something that I really wanted to do was to build my own bicycle. So I looked up on Reddit people talking about what somebody that’s interested in framebuilding should do.
It seemed like something that does take some specialised equipment. Because I’m usually, nine times out of 10, apt to try to teach myself things. But this one, especially with titanium, too – because I’ve never messed with titanium before – and it’s a much more finicky metal. Even in my shop now it’d be kind of hard to work with because you do need a lot of specialised equipment. And having a framebuilding jig is really nice too, and if you buy a professional one they’re a few thousand dollars. So they had all that there.
But then, I looked up different framebuilding classes around the US and there’s not a whole lot. Actually, the one at UBI was the only one that was more than just a one-on-one thing. And there were only six guys in my class.
But yeah, it was super cool to go out there, and we went through the whole process of designing a bike and how the fit works. There were a couple of guys there that had never welded before, so they more focussed on learning how to TIG weld. Since I already knew how to weld, I kinda tried to focus more on frame design.
We were there pretty much from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon every day. So it was 40-something hours a week for two weeks. It was super cool though. I learned a whole lot.
I’ve still got the bike. It got stolen once and then I got it back a couple months later. I am really happy I got that back. It was pretty heartbreaking. I mean, I did leave it outside the house overnight. I don’t do that anymore.
I think I’m going to tear it down to the bare frame again and polish the whole thing to a mirror shine because that’ll be a fun project. And mostly, I just want to mess with polishing titanium. I have just started polishing part of the frame just when it was sitting there, and it looks good. So I’ve got one shiny spot.
Can you see yourself making more bikes in the future?
Oh, probably. I would need to get a mill. It would probably be more of a hobby because you’ve got to be pretty devoted to it to really make a career out of framebuilding and one only has so many hours in the day! I really like doing sculpture stuff, so I’ve decided to focus on that.
I like that I know how to make a bike, and I could, and I do want to make more of them in the future for sure.
What’s next for your sculpture business? Have you got goals in mind or particular things you want to work on?
Oh, yeah, I want to build bigger. I want to build larger things, more works of public display, and build sculptures for Burning Man or similar kinds of things. I used to see so many cool sculptures on Instagram and stuff and they have some amazing artists down there, so that would be a cool thing to do. But then I also want to teach other people to make stuff, because I enjoy sharing the knowledge.
And I’ve been devoting more time to making videos lately. Especially because now my Instagram is monetised. I was doing it for free before and now if I get more views, it means I make more money, which is really great motivation to just put out all kinds of videos. And just throw things at the wall and see what sticks.