Any semblance of journalistic objectivity was abandoned the moment I held one of Dan Coyle’s “treepieces.” This was by far the most beautiful bicycle helmet I’ve ever seen.
Whereas the vast majority of safety helmets are made of polycarbonates and thermoplastics and “expanded polystyrene foam,” Coyle Design and Build makes helmets from a far more organic and renewable resource: wood.
Hewn from a variety of Northwest tree species, Coyle’s helmets display the unique characteristics of the individual trees—the Douglas-fir grain evenly spaced and colored, the redwood mottled with burnt oranges and browns, the oak burl helmet all warbled color and roiling lines.
To top it all off, they’re made right here in Corvallis. Most of the wood is salvaged; the fir comes from a small local lumber mill. Coyle splits his time between a partner’s shop in a barn in King Valley (where he uses a CNC router to do much of the initial shaping) and Oregon State University’s MU Craft Center.
“I’m really indebted to Scott Leavengood at Oregon Wood Innovation Center,” he tells me. “Pretty much everybody I’ve talked to and worked with up at Richardson”—home of OSU’s Forestry Department and Lab—“has been incredibly helpful.”
Coyle picks up a helmet made of dark maple, polished to a shine. “When I was going to school (at OSU),” he says, “I made my own wooden glasses. They were pretty goofy, so I stopped. And then one day a friend called me up, told me how a company in Portland was making wooden sunglasses. ‘They stole your idea!’ he told me. I laughed, but then later, I got to thinking about it—I’d been making my own kayaking helmets with a chainsaw, and people always asked about them: ‘Dude, where’d you get that helmet?”
“I figured maybe I had a good thing going.”
He does have a good thing going. As far as either he or I can tell, nobody has ever attempted to make and sell wooden helmets before. As stated on his website “We are really pioneering the use of this material in this application. We feel wood has not been used this way…Working with organic materials is harder and slower in many ways, but that extra work and time does create benefits that cannot be recreated in the mass production process of synthetic products.”
Of course, it’s one thing to speak of the “soul” inherent in hand-crafted wood products; of the “inspired connection” with nature that designing and creating such products has granted one Dan Coyle of Corvallis, Oregon. Most customers, if they’re considering spending over three hundred dollars on a kayak helmet (they’re not cheap), however beautiful or unique or pioneering it may be, will want to know one thing: is it safe?
The short answer, Dan tells me, is yes, they are safe.
The long answer, not surprisingly, is more complicated. For one, there is currently no certification process available for testing custom-built products, whether they’re made out of plastic, foam, wood, or cotton balls. The certification standards were designed to regulate only mass produced, and therefore identical, products. At this point, each of Coyle’s helmets is unique; every one of them will, however minutely and hopefully inconsequentially, differ in the way they absorb a blow.
But absorb they will, Dan assures me. In the course of a seemingly well-rehearsed but convincing fifteen minute spiel, he details Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, impact drop towers, wood grain cells, harness systems, foam density, and other nuances of impact-protection science. (More safety information, including “drop-test” videos, can be found on his website: www.coyledesignandbuild.com)
Having apparently resigned himself to the likelihood of justifying the safety-standards of his products for the rest of his life, Coyle is otherwise optimistic about the future of his young company. He received good publicity and feedback from the two trade shows he’s attended. He’s still focused on research and development—he envisions his product line growing to include paddling, snow sports, equestrian, and climbing helmet models—but pouring much more time into marketing and business development. He seems happy.
“The best, for me,” he says, as I make my way out of the craft shop, with one last look of longing at his helmets, “is at the trade shows, when somebody picks up my helmet, turns it over in their hands, and just says ‘thank you.’ Not because I’m selling him a helmet, but because he’s inspired, in whatever way. It’s happened a couple of times.
For me, that’s the best.”
by Nathaniel Brodie