Before You Start
Before you start a chopper-building project of any kind it is essential that you obtain a complete set of the Harley-Davidson shop service manuals going back to at least 1965 if at all possible. Having the complete set back to 36 is even better if you’re at all serious about working on, or building choppers. Along with the service manuals you’ll also want the corresponding Parts Manuals that contain very excellent exploded view drawings of every conceivable assembly that the factory has ever built. Third party manuals like Haynes and Clymers aren’t worth very much in comparison.
If you don’t have these reference manuals at your side you will be posting messages on the Internet chopper tech forums almost every day and believe me the answers contained in the manuals will usually be a lot better than the answers you’ll be getting from forum visitors. There are exceptions and the technical advice on our own board and the Horse magazine forums are both populated with some very talented and skilled builders that are willing to help people out.
Next to the factory manuals, manufacturers catalogs are an excellent source of reference. You’d be amazed at what you can learn just by browsing through the material, sometimes given away for free, from companies like J&P Cycle, Custom Chrome, Jireh, Paughco and others.
It is pretty impractical to start a chopper project without at least a minimum assortment of the various books that have been published on the subject and in a like manner it is also fairly important to have least scanned the Internet and saved the links to the hundred or so good Chopper building sites that are out there.
To my way of thinking if you are not serious enough to do some fairly deep up-front research on the subject you probably aren’t dedicated enough to get the project off the ground to begin with. Many of the people who frequent our discussion board have literally spent months in doing the basic research and acquiring the minimum of reference materials long before they get to the point of buying tools or ordering materials.
You’ll no doubt realize that I’ve ranked having manuals and catalogs at the top of the list of things to have before you start a project but the second priority is to have a dedicated space available where you can work on the project.
When I started out several decades ago I was living in a small rented house that didn’t have a garage so I made my dining area into a workshop for the bike. Needless to say I was divorced about ten months after putting a frame in the dining room so you can get some idea of how well this scenario might go over at your own house.
I know of people who have crammed an entire cycle machine shop into a 8x12 foot storage shed and I’ve seen some pretty impressive full-service shops that are shoehorned into 12x20 foot spaces and from my own experience I’d say that you’ll need at least that amount of space if you want to build up a chopper and do all of your own welding and minor machine work. At one time our shop consisted of a 60x120 foot metal building but right now after retirement I’m confined to a 20x20 foot garage with a work area that's about 14x20 feet. This area contains all of my tools plus the frame jig and one ‘roller’ at a time. As you look through the photos in the manual you’ll get an idea of my setup and also notice that it changes over time and also changes with certain aspects of frame building and assembly so keep in mind that the shop has to be flexible and re-configurable.
When I was living in Alaska my shop was actually a canvas tent-like structure about 12x24 feet in size built out alongside the house and heated with portable propane heaters during the winter. I built the framework from electrical conduit and this arrangement worked as well as any solid-walled shop I’ve ever had.
You will have to adapt you shop space requirements to your unique individual situation but don’t be afraid to improvise if you have to. The important point is to have a certain amount of space that is 100% dedicated to the bike project where you can leave things set up and undisturbed while you’re working on other non-bike related projects.
The third item on the agenda is tools.
My high school auto shop teacher told me long ago that to do good work you had to have good tools and I agree completely now that I can afford them. In those days the ultimate hand tools were made by Snap-On and even thought they are probably the leader in the hand tool industry today other manufacturers have caught on and are starting to made similar products.
What made Snap-On so popular was the fact that their tools were very highly polished, streamlined, chrome plated, perfectly balanced and had the feel of a fine surgical instrument.
They were made to very fine tolerances and fit into tight places that other tools couldn’t possibly reach. They were also incredibly expensive but they had no comparison or competition and were, and still are, the choice of professional mechanics everywhere.
Competitors have caught up to a limited extent and there are several tool manufacturers that today offer products approaching the look and feel of the Snap-On line so shop around but don’t be cheap when it comes to buying hand tools because you’ll end up paying out more money in the long run on cheap tools that you could have spent on getting good ones to begin with.
I have a completely different opinion about portable power tools.
To my way of thinking most portable power tools like drills and grinders are ‘expendable’ equipment and I usually buy the cheapest stuff I can find, use it until it breaks, and then buy another one. Buying high quality portable power tools doesn’t seem to pay out in the long run as the cost and time involved in ‘rebuilding or refurbishing’ a good high quality saw for instance, once it starts to break down, doesn’t work out to be as economical as you might expect.
On the other hand ‘stationary’ power tools like drill presses, mills, lathes, bench grinders, sanders, polishers and band saws should be the best that you can afford because they will usually last two to three lifetimes and they do hold their value and are considered capital assets or investments.
We’ll talk more about specific tools and equipment in later sections of the Handbook but for now just keep in mind that you do not need a huge tool selection to get started. The picture below shows a Leafer top tree and the top tree from one of our Old School Springers.
Both of these parts were cut from steel blanks with a regular old reciprocal saw (sawsall). One piece is 3/4-inches thick and the other was cut from 5/8-inch material. The holes were cut with cheap Ace Hardware hole saws mounted in a very small old garage sale drill press. Smoothing and beveling were done with a Black and Decker 3x18-inch belt sander. Sanding was done with a standard type sander. The parts are not polished yet but once they are cleaned up they will be very nearly as nice as parts cut with a milling machine.
If you sit your mind to the tasks you'll find that virtually nothing is impossible to do with a simple tool selection and some good old American ingenuity.
Do you have the will and drive to see it through to the finish?
Having the manuals, materials, supplies, shop space and the parts is one thing but having the burning desire to stay with the project, perhaps for a few years is another thing.
In my opinion at least 50% of all potential Chopper projects that people think about building never reach completion because they are never started to begin with. I've talked about this situation in several areas of the site but I've decided to expand on the problem in more detail since it is a stumbling block for a vast number of site visitors.
How many times have you said, or heard a friend say, that the 'project' will get started once they have the perfect donor bike or once they have enough tools, or once they have some space to work in or once they have more money. Most of the time none of these 'trigger-points' will never occur in the lives of the average person. None of us will ever have enough money or enough tools or enough space or enough parts.
If you really want to build a Chopper you have to start today and you have to start with what you have on hand no matter how meager that may be. Even after all of these years of running this site I still run into people who find it hard to believe that a person can make chopper parts using nothing more than a reciprocal saw, drill press and a belt sander. To build frames you also need a bender and welder or at least a friend who has access to those more expensive pieces of equipment.
If you're just starting out with the basic tools you can fabricate all of the motor and tranny mount plates, axle plates, springer, girder or leafer trees and other flat parts without breaking the bank.
Getting started on a project is one thing but seeing it through to completion is another story altogether.
Out of the remaining 50% of projects that do get started at least another 25% never get finished. The reasons for such a high failure rate are many and we discuss these issues in other sections of the manual. The principal reason is of course financial and we’ll get to that shortly but the secondary reason is simply a lack of desire. Sometimes people just plain loose interest in the project.
You have to be completely honest with yourself and deeply examine your motives for wanting to build a bike. Do you really want to build one just for the creative satisfaction or is it that you just want a motorcycle to ride? Do you think building a bike from scratch will save you money? Perhaps just buying a cheap ‘rider’ will satisfy your Chopper-urge.
Once you step past the threshold you’ll have to commit a good part of your paycheck to the ‘project’, not to mention a huge amount of your time. How will this commitment on your part set with the family or the wife?
If you and the other people in your life are willing to commit all of your spare time, and spare cash, over the course of the next one to two years then I’d say you’re ready to build something.
Skills and Work Quality
Another potential stumbling block that holds a lot of people back from working on a project is a fear of not being able to do quality work. Most people actually underestimate their own skills and are their own worse critics. Of course it goes without saying that a person won't be developing what basic skills they start out with unless they hone those skills by building something. For example most folks think that the big-name professional builders can do better work than the average amateur. This isn't true at all. The snapshot below is a close-up of the neck welds on the bike that Jesse James built for the latest television show.
Most people who visit our site can already make better welds than the ones you see here so don't let the 'appearance' of your welds hold you back. If you're getting good penetration with your welds that's all that is needed. Don't worry about how they look. Eventually you'll become a master of the craft if you continue building.
The picture below illustrates the typical level of craftsmanship coming from Sugar Bear who is considered to be about the best Springer maker that has ever lived.
In my opinion there is nothing all that special about the craftsmanship seen here that our site visitors cannot equal or even better. I could go on listing photographs of the workmanship on a wide variety of custom bikes made by the big names in the industry but I think the reader can understand the point I am trying to make.
Never underestimate your skills and do not let a lack of confidence in your skill-set hold you back from starting a bike project.
Defining Your Objectives
I’ve noticed many posts and responses to other posts on our discussion board where it seems pretty obvious that a lot of people are having a problem with truly defining their objectives when it comes to Chopper building.
If the goal is to build a frame for your own ride it doesn’t make much sense spending years learning how to weld properly if you’ll never build another frame but on the other hand if you want to build frames for a living then you have to spend the time necessary to learn fitting and welding until it’s a mastered art and this takes a lot of time and practice, years in fact before you can call yourself a real welder.
I always have to remind people that a huge number of very talented and successful Chopper builders have never bent a single piece of tubing and can’t weld worth crap but they can do design work and they know how to use the talents of outside contractors or hired staff to get their bikes built and there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing that since it’s the final product that’s important.
It is the very rare individual that can master all of the arts of doing the design work, pattern and template drafting, bending the tubes, fitting the tubes, welding the frame, fabricating the tanks and fenders, building the forks, building the motor and transmission, assembling the component parts, making seats, doing the prep and final painting, then the wiring and final completion of the bike.
Learning and perfecting all of these various skills takes decades of time and this is why there are so few real hardcore chopper builders out there in the world today. Most of these people acquired their skills because they had to, not because they wanted to.
Life is to short to attempt learning everything yourself which is why it’s so important to network with other folks who have some of these unique talents needed to get a bike together and after all of the years I’ve spent building bikes and being involved with bikes I cannot find a single instance where a really good ride was put together by one single individual which brings me back to the central point of this section.
You cannot build a good bike without interaction from other bikers. Good, bad, or indifferent, you have to have the input and help of other folks to get a project off the ground and finally rolling.
And once that bike finally moves on it’s own the real design work begins as you refine it, tune it and modify it to make it fit into the ideas you initially had which usually don’t even surface until you’ve had a chance to ride the final scooter.
Choppers are indeed pieces of art tailored to the specific requirements of a particular rider and it is that particular final amount of customization for a particular rider that really makes a chopper distinct from just another so-called custom mass-produced bike.
Becoming a Custom Builder
I couldn’t think of a really good or descriptive heading for this section of the manual so just follow along this train of thought for a moment as in some instances what follows is a critical part of being able to define your objectives.
I get a huge amount of email from a wide variety of people asking how they can become a ‘Big-Name’ builder. In fact since we first started posting material on the Internet I’ve received exactly 3027 emails as of March 1, 2006 specifically asking that question.
Unfortunately it’s a very hard question to answer since each individual will have his or her own definition of what constitutes a ‘Big-Name’ builder.
I am only assuming here but I imagine that the core of the questions revolve around gaining national notoriety up there with folks like Jesse James, Billy Lane or Indian Larry and the likes.
I personally think that having such an aspiration is healthy and beneficial since it tends to foster design experimentation and personal skills development but I have to warn people that for every ‘nationally recognized’ custom builder there are hundreds if not thousands of small-time designer/builders out there around the country who are actually doing better and more original work but haven’t been ‘discovered’ (no pun intended) yet.
To site just one example there is a builder located in Central California who consistently wins best of show every time he builds a bike but I can almost guarantee that you can’t tell me his name. All parts on his bikes are handmade and he only does one or two each year and he has a six-year waiting list of customers.
To my way of thinking this guy is a ‘Big-Name’ builder and he’s very financially successful with a small but stable business and he stays true to his own values and design concepts, not being influenced by fads or gimmicks but he has only shown his work regionally and has no ‘national’ recognition at all. Actually this suits him just fine, as he doesn’t want any more exposure than he’s already had. In fact he refuses to have any of his bikes featured in magazines as he thinks most Chopper rags are to commercial and actually hurt the art form more than they help it.
There is s huge difference between being a ‘Big-time’ builder and a being a ‘Celebrity’ but for those interested in becoming celebrities we’ve include a reference to a ‘Builders’ public relations agency on the resources page who handle some of the Chopper television personalities you’re all familiar with.
If you happen to have the right ‘looks’ and the right ‘personality’ an agent can indeed make you famous even if you just build bikes from bolt-on parts with some custom paint as many builders do on a regular basis.
I can almost guarantee that if you have the right ‘persona’ a good agent can make you very famous and get your work pictured in all of the popular magazines in short order but on the other hand we have to ask ourselves if it’s worth it.
Fame is fleeting and the public has a very short memory when it comes to celebrities which after all are just entertainment but they have a very long memory when it comes to peoples ‘reputations’. Fame and reputation are two completely different aspects of a single thing; one is short term and the other long term.
You can get famous very fast and very easily but it takes decades to build up a reputation that is enduring. To my way of thinking the difference between the two viewpoints is ‘quality and consistency’.
If you consistently do quality work for a long period of time in any field of endeavor you will eventually become famous whether you want to or not.
This is all just food for thought but since I’ve had so many prospective chopper builders asking the question I thought I should at least give the matter some exposure since it all goes back to defining your objective.
I’m pretty old school and traditional in my own niche and to me building bikes is just a nice way to pass some time and meet some good people. To me it’s not a job or a profession but just a way of life that’s very hard to describe to somebody who hasn’t been there.
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