Modern Technology and the Builder


One of the things that disturbs me the most is the number of people I run into at swap meets and other events who want to build a bike but can’t seem to get started because they don’t have the ‘TOOLS’.

This has been going on for decades and it’s one of the reasons I started the site to begin with. Folks need to understand that at one time none of us any had any fancy tools in our garages. A lot of us were lucky if we had some wrenches and a power drill. That’s about what I started with but I had something that’s absolutely vital to a potential bike builder and that’s a burning desire to build stuff. If you’ve got the fire in the belly then a lack of tools won’t be standing in your way. Without that ‘fire’ then all the tools in the world will never make you a builder.

When I started out I remember that the biggest problem I had was in not having a fancy drill press. No way could I afford one so I did the next best thing and scrounged up enough money for one of those ‘hand-drill press stands’.


The one pictured here isn’t the same one I started with but’s it’s very similar. I buy these every time I find one at a garage sale and then ‘reconfigure’ them for specific things I need done in my routine building operations. I think I’ve got about eight different models right now. Each one is set up to do a particular function for the parts I make the most often.

In some situations these old fixtures are more versatile than a ‘modern’ drill press. They can be ‘shimmed’ and ‘jockeyed’ to give amazing accuracy so don’t laugh at em.

The next ‘big-ticket’ item was a belt sander so I just rigged up a cheap carpenters model much like I’ve shown in the snapshot below.


This ‘system’ works just as well as some $200 bench model but of course it does take a lot longer to remove a lot of material.

Cutting parts is always a problem. I will admit than when I first started I did manged to buy a nice gas welding/cutting setup. I flame cut all of my parts and dressed them up on the sander and cheap little 6-inch bench grinder. Years later I learned the advantages of the reciprocal saw and this changed my whole approach for ‘garage-based’ fabrication.

I had worked in shops that had metal cutting band saws but I knew that there was no way in hell that I’d ever be able to afford one so the recip-saw became my substitute.

Most people think of the recip-saw as a carpenters tool. These saws didn’t even exist when I was a kid. I think I saw the first one around 1972 or so.

In several articles on the main site I’ve shown how a person can cut very complicated parts in steel plate up to one-inch thick with nothing more than a recip-saw and do it pretty quickly. I now have a metal cutting bandsaw but I still use the old techniques quite a bit for one-off parts.


For thin material I use a regular old saber saw with a good blade for stock up to a quarter inch thick.


By the way none of these shop tools need to bought ‘new’. I buy most of my tools at garage sales which is great since you can usually find some of the ‘good’ older tools made prior to the use of ‘plastic’.

In my personal opinion the best ‘invention’ since ‘sliced-bread’ was the so-called ‘mini-grinder’. Back in the old days all a person had with respect to hand-held grinders were huge, heavy 7 to 9-inch disk grinders intended for heavy industrial applications. I think Bosch was the first to come out with a 4-inch grinder. Makita didn’t yet exist as a tool company in the states, at least their products were yet imported. I’ve got at least 8 mini-grinders and they are used almost hourly in the type of work I do. Thankfully they are very affordable nowadays.

In a similar vein another extremely handy hand tool is a ‘die-grinder’. Today these are very reasonably priced either the pneumatic or electric versions. I use them constantly and like most stuff you can find them at garage sales on a regular basis.

The thing I get the most feedback about is on the subject of drill ‘large’ holes in thick materials. For the garage-based builder there really isn’t a cheap alternative to owning a milling machine unless you can ‘adapt’ your particular part to using ‘bi-metal hole saws’.

We have never made a single part that has been posted to the main site using a milling machine. Where large diameter holes are necessary we have used a standard ‘hole-saw’ in the drill press.



There are limitations to be sure. The holes you need to bore have to be the same as the size of saw bits that are commercially available and the accuracy of the resulting holes have to be in the range of somewhere around .035-inch tolerance. For the average ‘Chopper’ project this is a ‘realistic’ objective. You can ‘drill’ holes in steel up to 1.5-inches thick relatively quickly using these ‘bits’ and they last a lot longer than you might imagine. I have saw bits that have probably drilled over two dozen holes and they are still as sharp as when new. (Milwaukee Brand).

Until you can afford a milling machine this is about the best that you can accomplish using a drill press. Of course for ‘small’ holes, anything less than around 1-inch diameter you just use standard ‘drill-bits’.

The next ‘big-ticket’ item is usually a tubing bender and we’ve posted at least three different sets of free plans for tube benders. The most popular has been the so-called ‘Bend-O-Matic’. This bender can be made from materials available at any building supply store for about $60 and be configured to bend almost any size of tubing up to 1.5-inch in diameter. It uses the dies available from JD-squared.


Even if you build the ‘frame’ yourself you’ll still end up with about $300 invested in the bender once you get a set of dies. When I was first starting out finding money for a bender was a huge problem but I scrimped and saved and finally bought a ‘real’ JD2 model 3 with a set of dies for 1.25-inch tubing. I’m pretty sure this was around 1973-74 as the bender was new on the market. It was the best money I ever spent and I used this bender almost every day up until 2012 when I sold it to raise money to move to Texas.

I’ve said this about a thousand times, but a good tubing bender is one of the few tools that you can buy that will make you money day in and day out if you advertise that you have one. A good bender with a lot of dies and an old Lincoln Buzz Box will make you money no matter where you ever go. Those should be the last two things you ever let go of.

Anyway most of you readers can visit the main site and see a lot of stuff we’ve built over the years using some pretty elementary tools.


A good set of Springer Forks is easily obtainable with common garage tools. Forks like these used to built by almost everybody who had a Chopper. They aren’t ‘rocket-science’ by any stretch of the imagination and used to be considered a ‘beginner’ project by most builders back in the old days. These forks were built using the same tools we’ve outlined so far.

Girder forks are even easier to fabricate.


Sorry for the poor picture but this was all I had.

The point I’m trying to make is that anything is possible, even with fairly primitive tools if a person has the desire and the patience to put their efforts towards the task. Waiting until you have a whole shop full of expensive machine tools just to build a bike is completely unnecessary.



This roller was put together for less than $1500 and the forks and frame for the 200mm tire, were made with the same tools we’ve described previously. All of the parts are swap meet bargains. The ‘motor’ is just one of those plastic mock-up versions I use for doing layout work when frame building.

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