Steed: Built to Ride

Live to Build, Build to Ride: Potholes on the road to riding your own creation

Tech Tip Index

For every motorcycle, there's a reason to ride it. There are many more reasons to ride a bike beyond just the transportation. More personal reasons to ride can include the escape from the daily grind, recreation, image, attitude, self-expression and pride. Even with the threat of three-dollar a gallon gas looming on the horizon, there are NOT many people who decide to buy a big heavyweight motorcycle to save money. But for some strange reason, I hear people saying that they want to build a bike to save money. I'd like to use a page or two to weigh a few of the things you may want to consider. Hopefully, if I've done my job here, you can make a logical, not emotional, decision to build vs. buy your next bike.

I don't know the exact statistics of people who watch the TV show "COPS", and then decide it would be fun to join the police force. For that matter, I don't really know any stat's on how many people watch the bike building shows on the Discovery Channel, and then decide to build a bike. One thing I do know is that these programs certainly have increased the mainstream presence of people interested in motorcycles, and then thinking the first step is to go out and build one.

This exposure is all good, but bike building is not for the novice. The whole, "Bike in a Box" phenomenon is a myth perpetuated in the highest form. There's just not one "kit" out there that will include every single component, nut and bolt that you're going to need to build a bike. On top of that, I haven't heard of one of these kits that include instructions.

Have you ever gone to Sears and bought the out-door grille and tried to assemble one of those yourself? The "BBQ in a Box" comes with instructions. If you've managed to put the backyard broiler together with limited cursing, and didn't have any parts left over, you've passed the first step towards mechanical inclination. But, on the other hand, if you think the grille is a confusing and daunting task best left for the guys in the backroom at Sears, and you'd rather pay the extra $50 to have it assembled, please don't even begin to read further.

Stop right here. Building a bike is not a good idea for you.

On the other hand, if you're the guy that goes over and helps the neighbor finish his do-it-your-own-damn-self project, keep reading.

The first step in any project is to establish where you want to end up. This is called planning. If you buy a chassis that is designed for a 180 width tire, and you have the budget to spend $2000 per month on parts, you need to keep a close reign on your wallet. At month 10 you've just about spent your $20,000 budget, and then the next new hot 250 or 300 tire chassis becomes available. There's no way that the new fat-tire is going on your 'old cool' 180 chassis, and you're about out of money. The frustration level builds, and then you start to part-out your unfinished bike on eBay to regain some of the money you've outlaid on your old-tire chassis, but nobody wants it. They're all looking for the hot-new 300 chassis for a deal on eBay. In the mean time you're not riding. On top of that, you're $20,000 in the hole and it's just getting deeper, and you've still got to find someone to paint your project.

This is starting to sound like a real money pit. My advice is not to make the mistake thinking you'll be buying parts for next year's completion date, and end up with what you ultimately want. This scenario rarely happens. New and improved, better, bigger, fatter, trendier components come out all the time. Which ones are quality and which ones are just fluff?

I hear these stories every day. If you can't afford to purchase all your parts at once, don't start. Just take your cash and put a down payment on a bike that you want, and make some monthly payments on it while ride. You heard it here first, OK? Financing a bike is much better than buying a bunch of parts that sit in your garage. You can ride a complete bike while you're making payments to the bank. You can look at the parts in your garage while your buddies are riding. You make the decision.

So if you're still reading, and still want to build your own bike, here are some more things to consider.

Do you realistically have the skills and tools to build your bike, or are you going to ask your neighbor or local shop to finish it when you get in over your head? None of these options are going to save you any dough in the long run versus buying a bike outright. It takes more than wrenches and tools. It takes lots of knowledge that is not readily available in any service manual or tech tip in a magazine. Lots of guys go to trade schools and spend thousands of dollars to learn how to just service a motorcycle, and still do not have any clue on how to design and build a complete motorcycle from scratch. There are many nuisances that if overlooked while assembling your chosen motorcycle component, can lead to catastrophic failures resulting in injury or death. But, if you build it, hopefully, you'll know what it takes to fix it on the side of the road.

Let's assume that you don't have all the specialty tools required to build a motor or transmission. So we'll also figure that you're going to purchase a motor and transmission pre-assembled. What kind of warranty are you going to get with these pre-assembled motors or transmissions? If you put one oil line on in reverse order, you can burn up your engine. Incorrectly adjust your clutch and burn out your primary drive. If you don't know what or how to do a shifter prawl adjustment, you'll never have a smooth shifting transmission.

There is a lot of printed information regarding the use of Loctite and Anti Seize compounds, but it takes lots of specific experience to use them correctly to build a reliable, serviceable bike. Who's standing behind your level of craftsmanship when a component fails? At least when you purchase a new manufactured bike, you'll be getting the piece of mind that comes with a warranty.

Wiring a machine is a whole other world from the normal mechanical issues of building a bike. Electrical components and computerized ignitions require skills to understand how to solder and route wiring components in a durable manner that will not leave you stranded on the side of the road. Even if you're a good wrench, it's a rare ability to be able to understand all the issues involved in wiring a bike.

How are you going to insure your home built bike? Most insurance companies will not insure home-built machines for anything other than liability insurance. If your bike gets ripped-off, you're out of luck, and out of a ride.

What is the resale value of your home-built bike when you're ready to move on? No matter how much you love your machine when you finally get it done, you probably will take a bath on it when you decide to trade up. There's no established resale value on your custom bike unless a federally licensed manufacturer builds it. Federally licensed manufacturers are listed in the Kelly Blue book or the NADA book. They've gone the distance to prove that they build safe reliable bikes that will hold their value. Who can prove the value of what you're building when you're ready to sell it? Unless you're prepared to buy an extra large plot at the cemetery so you can be buried with your home-built bike, be prepared to take a licking when you sell it.

Right about this time you're probably thinking, "This guy writing this builds complete bikes for a living, so he's just trying to scare me." Well, besides selling complete bikes, we also sell frame kits, rolling chassis and whatever it takes for you to do-it-yourself. There's just so much marketing of parts and accessories, and now TV shows that make it look so easy. I find it frustrating to see people make uninformed decisions when they want to get on a bike and ride. We spend hours on the phone explaining to people how to complete do-it-your-self projects, because we stand behind the products we sell. If you're buying discount parts from the Internet, who's going to assist you when you get in a bind?

I still believe that the riding is what it's all about, and if you intend on riding, get riding. I spend all day thinking about bikes, designing bikes, and working on bikes. I wish I were out riding a bike right now, but I'm taking the time to make sure you think about what you're getting into before you start a project without knowing just a sampling of the major pitfalls, and none of these are going to save you any money unless you've got some major skills. If you're ready to take on this type of challenge, and bask in the afterglow of self-accomplishment by riding what you've built, more power to you. That's how I got started.

Keep the rubber side down.
- John at Steeds