Want to build a custom motorcycle? Embarking on a build is not for the faint-of-heart! But you wouldn’t be here reading this if you thought it was too hard.
I’ve found my place in the motorcycling community helping others to learn the skills to customise their own bikes.
I think you can only be successful if you have the open mind of a student. To learn from others. The experts. Your peers. Your friends. To watch. To listen. Always aiming to apply some new skills, tips or tricks.
There are no shortcuts. There are no quick wins. Its expensive. Its exhausting. It sucks up all your spare time (and probably some of your sleeping time).
Its immensely satisfying to learn something new. To apply those skills to something physical. To use your hands to create a one-off part for your bike.
If you’ve got that photograph of your dream bike as your computer wallpaper (that’s one of my wallpaper’s above).
If you feel that burning desire to use your hands on your bike. If you’re sketching designs and details for your bike.
If you’ve got all your build ideas on a Pinterest board. If you obsess over a few specific Instagram accounts.
Well. Its time to stop talking or wondering.
And time to start doing.
I believe anyone can build their own custom motorcycle. I believe you should enjoy that sense of satisfaction that comes from creating something with your own hands. I believe you don’t have to pay someone else to do it.
But how are you going to get started?
I’ve got some pointers. Keep reading.
I’ve got a detailed Skills Inventory you can check out. But lets go over the highlights here.
Extent of modifications
First step is determine what you’re technically capable of right now, and how long before you want to be riding this custom bike. You can take one of two approaches:
1. Make minor modifications to your project bike over time, and keep it on the road the whole time.
2. Make drastic modifications to your project bike, meaning it will be off the road until you finish.
This is probably the first decision. If you are feeling at all unsure, then go for option 1. Once you’ve modified one bike and learnt a heap of new skills, you can apply them to a more complex build! Rinse and repeat on build #3. And so on! You might even end up running a shop doing this for others! How do you think all the small custom shops started?!
The project bike
At some point, you have to decide what bike will be the basis for your customisation. Maybe you’ve already decided it will be an air-cooled BMW, or a 70’s CB-Honda, or a Harley Davidson. Regardless, here are a few things to consider:
1. Older bikes are, generally, less complicated, therefore relatively easier to work on, both mechanically and electrically.
2. More common older bikes seem to have more information and more parts available.
3. Rare old bikes, are, in my opinion, reserved for masochists. Parts and information are limited.
4. Any bike with a carburettor (before fuel injection) has potential. Fuel injection adds a level of complexity for passing emissions laws that you don’t really need in a custom build.
Once you’ve decided on the donor bike for your project, use an inspection checklist to make sure you know what you’re getting into with that Craigslist special!
Eye is in the beauty of the beholder, but of course some bikes simply look a whole lot better than others. Some of us with design skills (not me) can sketch out their bike and get the proportions just right.
Have a look on the web for a drawing of the frame for your project bike. Scale off it and sketch the wheel sizes you might want to use on another sheet and cut them out. Put them next to the frame where they might be located. Sketch in a tank and seat. That’s a good start!
Research and planning skills
Most people are pretty comfortable with the Google machine, and can find answers to most of their questions. However some sources are more useful than others. If you are sold on your project bike make and model, a dedicated forum for that model is the best source of specific information. They’re not hard to find.
And websites like BikeEXIF, Pipeburn, Return of the Cafe Racers and Chopcult can be a great source of inspiration and knowledge. Plus there’s a million Instagram accounts reposting the same photos, so, you’re sure to come across the perfect bike online somewhere.
For my top recommendations for technical books to add to your collection as part of your research, check out this article. Sometimes the best condensed, curated and detailed knowledge comes from a book.
Once you’ve got a picture in your mind, it helps to get it on paper. Or screen. Planning your build out will give a greater chance of success.
Engineering for motorcycles
There are heaps of engineering topics to learn, if you want to learn them. Some extra knowledge will ensure you enjoy your build, and help you get your modifications right.
Then there are topics like properties of metals, shop products and fluids, bearings, torque, lubrication, fasteners (bolts), threaded inserts. We’ll cover these in future articles.
Technical drawing is a topic that might sound odd amongst all these other topics. But if you’re fabricating parts for your bike, the ability to design and draw them before you start making irreversible cuts in expensive materials is very useful.
Cool motorcycle shop equipment
A build platform is very helpful, and beats working on cold concrete in the middle of a cold winter. These can be constructed simply from hardware store timber (construction pine and plywood is great).
There is plenty of other stuff that will be useful, but is not essential right away. However, high on the list I would definitely put an air compressor.
What tools do I need to work on my motorcycle?
Working on a motorcycle will mean you get intimate with hand tools. Wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers and a crate full of other tools will become your friends. You’re going to start collecting tools. This can become an addiction. I have a theory that “the tool you don’t use is better than the tool you don’t have”. You will have plenty on your Christmas list. For the next five years!
If you’re working on American cycles, imperial sized wrenches and sockets will generally be required. For Japanese and European bikes, metric sized tools will generally be required. Note I said “generally”. There will always be an exception and you’ll soon search out and find those specific tools that you need for your bike.
Working on motorcycle mechanical systems
When you get a little more experience, you might decide its time to overhaul your engine.
Maybe its running rough.
Blowing a lot of smoke.
Or leaking a lot of oil.
No problem! Older model bikes are pretty simple (compared to modern machines) so they’re skills you can learn.
Working on motorcycle electrical systems
I meet lots of people who seem intimidated by electrical systems on their motorcycles. But the electrical system is no more, and maybe even less intimidating then complex carburettors, for example. With enough skill, you can easily tackle electrical systems, especially on older motorcycles.
You should invest in a digital multimeter for taking voltage measurements. These can be very inexpensive, and quite adequate for occasional use while working on motorcycles.
Welding & fabrication on your motorcycle
Benchwork is the use of basic hand tools to shape and form metal into shapes that you need. If you are building a custom with many “bolt-on” parts, there is a chance you finish your build without ever picking up a scribe, hacksaw and file. But if you need (or want) a custom number plate bracket, relocate your speedometer, make some custom rear-set pegs, or build a complete fairing out of aluminium for a salt lake racer, you’ll need to start with metalworking tools and benchwork skills.
Once we have painstakingly shaped a piece of metal on the bench, you generally need to perform some other “operations” on it. You can cut, bend, shrink and stretch metal. Drill holes in it. Tap threads into it. Bolt, screw, rivet or weld pieces together to form more complex assemblies. All of these operations are required to give you a part with the desired form and function.
When you’ve really got to step it up, you can start making more radical changes to your bike with some fabrication and welding skills.
Welding is another complete skill and field of study, but you can definitely pick up enough to do some customising of your motorcycle. A quality welding machine that will weld both ferrous and non-ferrous metals will probably cost in the vicinity of $1000, so it is a significant investment.
Shiny bits: paint & polish on your motorcycle
Almost every customised bike project is going to need paint, powder coating or polishing to deliver that picture you have of your finished project. Preparing surfaces for these finishing techniques is essential if you plan to paint or polish yourself, or if you want to save some money not having to pay your paint or powder coat guy to do this step for you.
Once your bike parts have been stripped, cleaned, welded, sanded and otherwise modified, its time for the final finish and reassembly. Its surprising how much can be achieved in the home workshop with aerosol cans of paint.
Chassis & frame modifications
When its got to be REALLY custom, you end up staring at the frame…
“What needs to be chopped off and welded on to make this look right?”
Once you’ve got some metalworking and welding skills, its definitely possible to start with some basic chassis modifications. Maybe its as simple as welding on a frame hoop for your scrambler or cafe racer.
Or maybe you want to go all out and build you own frame!
Can you do it? Of course you can!
You just have to start.
Take a tiny step.
Maybe print out the pic of your dream bike. Stick it up over your computer. Stick a copy up in your shop.
And then take another tiny step. Set up a saved search for your ideal donor bike on your local classified site.
Rinse. And repeat.
Not sure where to start?
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