Building a custom motorcycle seems like an incredibly daunting task, especially when you look at the slew of customs popping up left and right at bike shows all over the country. We talked to Deus Ex Machina’s U.S. Motorcycle Design Director and celebrity bike builder Michael “Woolie” Woolaway about his process and his latest KTM RC8 based supermoto: “The Scrappier.”
Deus Ex Machina has become a fairly well known staple in the motorcycle community. Some know it as a t-shirt brand, others for its massive library of stylish custom motorcycles, and other still as just a cool local coffee shop.
Deus was a movement before it was an apparel and motorcycle company, and it started back in 2006 around a community in Australia who thought creating and customizing was more interesting than just owning. That first Deus compound held surfboard shapers and bicycle builders and motorcycle tinkerers. As the café racer trend began to wane, their tracker-styled bikes became en vogue, and they started refurbishing and re-styling old SR400s and SR500s and selling them for incredible premiums.
The intent with those first bikes wasn’t much more than to get them running well enough to ride around town and then to get them looking cool, so it’s no huge surprise that they got a reputation for being unreliable and not well built when rich guys started buying $2,000 “customs” for $15,000. So much so, that Deus’s bikes actually began to lose credibility to real motorcycle enthusiasts.
So, it isn’t a huge surprise that many people don’t make much note of the white-haired builder in the little motorcycle work shop tucked into the back of Deus’s Venice, California location. A quick glance through the small window that peers into his workspace from the clothing section often reveals nothing more than the image of a surfer, tinkering with a tank or sweeping up shop.
But Michael Woolaway is doing more than cleaning some carbs and adding tracker bars and a high exhaust. In fact, he might be building some of the best (and best performing) motorcycles on the planet.
Looking back, Woolie’s life looks as if it were almost design around building motorcycles. An early racing career (flat track, enduro, GNCC, desert, and 250GP road racing) taught him not only how to go fast, but also what’s necessary to make a bike go fast.
After that, he went to work with his hands. First restoring Ferraris and other vintage automobiles before taking a job on a submarine. That somehow led to building sets for movies like Godzilla, which led to working in lighting which led to a special PSA called “Don’t Vote” for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. There, he met a whole host of celebrities including Orlando Bloom, who arrived on his Ducati Hypermotard which, naturally, wasn’t running very well (those 2008s were all sorts of kinky).
They got to chatting and, since Woolie was already midway through setting one up to run the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb that year, he invited Bloom by his garage to take a look at it. An hour or two spent making a few tweaks to get it running and setup better for Bloom led to a full custom build, which then turned into several more bikes, and then several other bikes for other celebrities like Ryan Reynolds, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen. Bloom was in talks with Deus about a custom bike project and he introduced them to Woolie, and the rest is history.
While Woolie shares a lot of what’s become known as the “Deus design language,” his bikes stray from those initial Australian builds in one major way: performance. While his bikes are often beautiful, the aesthetics are always an afterthought to performance, something Woolie is continually chasing.
One of his most recent, “The 4CYL,” is a BMW S1000R he built for Orlando Bloom. The build took the 999cc, 160 hp sport naked to a whole new level, both in performance and styling and customized it completely for Bloom’s riding style.
While most of us couldn’t gather the knowledge or skill to build anything nearly as incredible as Woolie’s creations, anyone can build a bike and there is a ton we can learn from this master craftsman’s process. We talked with Woolie about the basics of bike building in an attempt to get a better grasp, so you (and we) could follow suit.
Even better, we have an exclusive look at his latest build, “Scrappier,” to help demonstrate how these basic principles came into play.
It Starts With Design
The first tool needed when building a bike are questions. How do you want to use the bike? How do you normally ride? How well do you ride? Find photos for design inspiration, but take into account that making something fun and useful is as important as making something pretty. From there, the most important elements (to design around) are the power plant and the riding position.
For the Scrappier, they had the RC8 and the idea that he wanted it to ride like a supermoto. Obviously, most supermotos are built from the big singles used in dirt bikes, but the riding position was also a huge element and that drove a lot of the decisions with this build.
What You Have, What You Need, And What You Don’t
From there, you have to take a really good look at your donor bike. What parts work well? Which ones don’t? Which ones are conducive to what you want to do, which ones aren’t and, of the ones that aren’t, which can be removed and which need to be re-worked.
The RC8 had lots of electronic systems that Woolie didn’t want to disrupt, as well as an airbox that was mounted exceptionally high and would require some creativity with the tank design and special runners. Once he pulled the bodywork off, he discovered a beautiful Akropovic exhaust he wanted to keep, which meant adapting the subframe to accentuate the bike’s slim waist while hiding the electronics.
Create A Build Sheet
While yours may not look as detailed as Woolie’s, get a list going of the parts you’ll need. Differentiate between ones you can buy and ones you’ll need to make/have made.
Woolie builds a lot of his own parts by hand but, for the ones he doesn’t, he sources parts from small American companies whenever possible. As an ex racer, performance and high quality is paramount, but the builder in him knows the importance of supporting the industry directly.
Math, Math, Math
Geometry is incredible important in determining the handling characteristics of a motorcycle, and length and trail numbers are fairly standard and can be taken from whatever stock bikes inspire the build. Ergonomics are also important, and the builder should take into account both the bike’s intended use as well as their own physical size and stature.
When talking about standard bike length and trail numbers, Woolie mentioned that he uses the Ducati 916 as the baseline for his café racer builds. When it came to Scrappier, he further gave it a supermoto feel by playing with the ergonomics of the bike by raising the seat to help the rider sit closer to the tank. He then added a leather protector to the base of the tank to help keep it from being scuffed.
It All Comes Back To Function
For Woolie, building a custom bikes always comes back to function. That’s the thing that’s going to make it feel special, feel like it’s custom tailored to you.
Turning a KTM RC8 superbike into a supermoto is no easy task, but Woolie was serious about it wanting to function like one. All of the measurements for the length, trail, and riding position came directly from his Honda CRF450R supermoto bike. He did end up keeping the superbike specific rear suspension, but shortened, revalved, resprung and added spacers to the 58 mm Marzocchi fork he got from the Andreani Group to keep the geometry correct.
Every custom bikes is a work in progress. Tinker and then go ride, and then come back and tinker some more. Or, get someone who knows how to properly rage to go test for you and bring you feedback.
Woolie is more than capable of doing his own testing, especially with Deus’s shop located so closely to the Malibu canyons and several race tracks. He pushes every bike to their limits to make sure everything is setup and broken in correctly. He also gets a hand from Red Bull professional stunt rider and all around amazing dude Aaron Colton, who’s not only becoming a reputable bike builder himself but has also become like Woolie’s own son (or best friend, if you ask Aaron about Woolie).
Don’t Abandon The Basics
At the end of the day, motorcycles still need to do several things. Handle well, hold a decent amount of gas, run for a decent distance without breaking down, etc. There are plenty of custom bikes that look pretty, but can’t actually be ridden well or safely, and those are not much more than works of art.
Every bike Woolie makes is meant to go and to go fast. He see’s that as his legacy, but it will only be a legacy if the bikes and their performance stand the test of time.