We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate. The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being. For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film. HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet. Yann Arthus-Bertrand, GoodPlanet Fundation President.
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.
“Wouldn’t it be great to build motorcycles for a living?” I’m guessing the thought has crossed your mind while working on your own bike.
It’s kind of like saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to climb Mount Everest?” Of course it would, depending on your tolerance for discomfort—and even disaster.
In the few years that Classified Moto has been my livelihood, I’ve experienced highs and lows. I’ve felt pride, joy, fear and camaraderie. Plus the occasional overwhelming urge to punch someone square in the face.
Through it all, I’ve learned without a doubt that I’m an expert on nothing. Ironically this is probably the most valuable knowledge I’ve acquired. More on that later.
But: full disclosure here. Chris asked me to contribute this article, and I wasn’t going to turn him down. Maybe this becomes my first advice: If you get the chance to appear on Bike EXIF, take it.
THE 3 ESSENTIAL TRAITS If you want a shot at building a successful motorcycle business, I believe you need three traits: Creativity, flexibility and enthusiasm. All three. And although we’re talking about bike building, these traits probably apply to any form of self-employment. (And life in general.)
Conventional wisdom says to run a successful custom bike company you need to be an amazing craftsman, a world-class welder, a master mechanic, and so on. I disagree.
SKILLS v MAKING A LIVING Like it or not, the skills you need to build a motorcycle are not the same ones you need to make a living from building motorcycles.
Today, you need a vision—and the social graces to get good people on board, people who can help you execute that vision. I’ve found that clients who are drawn to Classified Moto bikes don’t care whether John Ryland did all the work, or whether he led a talented crew to get the job done.
It should be your goal to spend your time doing what you do best, and delegate the rest to specialists who do it better than you do.
If you are creative, flexible and enthusiastic, chances are you can round up a set of top-notch craftsmen to help get the builds done. And then other talented folks to help you convey what you’re doing to the public—by building your brand.
ARE YOU A POSER? There’s a bit of a notion afoot that building a brand for your business somehow makes you a poser. If you are going to build your own business one day, be careful before you join the bashing. You’ll be forced to eat crow. And you might also have to ask for advice from the successful ‘posers’ you mocked to begin with.
Yes, if you’re going to attempt to make a living at this, you’re going to have to market yourself in some way. And do it as well as (or better than) you can weld, sew, tune carbs or pull wheelies.
LOOK IN THE MIRROR Building a brand might seem easy, but it’s not just a logo design. It requires a lot of knowledge, and an instinctive feel for stuff you might not want anything to do with.
The most interesting thing? It forces you to see your work from the public’s perspective. You know how awesome you are, no doubt. But if you’re having a hard time convincing the masses of that fact—or even a few well-heeled clients—your bottom line will suffer.
WHAT SORT OF BUILDER PERSON ARE YOU? Start by figuring out what you bring to the table. Are you an order taker, a dictator, a trendsetter, a copycat, an asshole, or an unbridled artist?
Are your bikes easily recognizable? Are you filling a unique demand of some sort? People need a reason to get excited about what you’re trying to sell. So: Will they? Find something that you can be excited about as well, and make that the basis of your brand.
GET HELP Once you figure out your style, partner with people who can present you in the best light. Pay them, trade with them, but get them onboard somehow. In my case, I enlisted my good friend Adam Ewing to photograph all my bikes.
I met Adam when he shot some ads for BFGoodrich when I was working at an ad agency. I agreed to build him a bike and help him promote his own business. His images are one of the main reasons Bike EXIF and other big time media took notice of what I was doing.
Having a strong brand is the difference between staying in ‘hobby’ mode and turning what you love into a career. It’s what attracts customers, creates buzz and, yes, sells T-shirts.
A WORD ABOUT ATTITUDE We’ve talked about the three traits you need to build a business: Creativity, flexibility and enthusiasm. It’s stuff you can adapt to. But there’s one thing that’s harder to influence—your attitude.
If attitude is not the single most important factor in your success, it’s pretty damn close. A handful of builders have achieved success despite what I’d consider to be a bad attitude—the nutshell version being, “I’m God’s gift to motorcycling. My skills are unmatched. Respect me, you idiots.” It’s annoying, repelling and clichéd, and more likely to hinder than help.
Claiming to be “the best” will add another layer of difficulty to your dream of owning a successful custom shop. And this business is difficult enough as it is.
I vote that you err on the side of humility. Admit what you know and don’t know. Know what you’re good at, and what you have no business doing. It will increase your chances of success. It will also make it hard for your detractors to claim you’re a fraud. They’ll still do it, but at least you’ve taken the high road.
This approach also makes it infinitely easier to ask questions and get answers. Plus it falls into the category of being a decent human being, which is nice. In summation, if you have a big ego, lose it.
DOLLARS AND SENSE Building a motorcycle for a customer is not the same as building one for yourself. Your personal projects are labors of love or obsession. (If you even keep track of your time invested, that’s weird and I don’t believe you.)
The parts you buy, the parts you break, the things you try that don’t work—on your own build, it’s all part of the hobby. Like you’d buy bait and tackle for your fishing habit. And you gladly accept those expenses as part of the experience.
When I started Classified Moto, it was not a moneymaking endeavor. To be honest, it was really just the name of a blog I started, chronicling the projects I was doing for my friends and myself.
I did the work for free and my friends would buy their own parts. Then I found myself shelling out more and more of my own money to finish the builds, because I didn’t feel like I could charge my friends for it.
I had no idea that would come to make profits so elusive. I soon realized how hard it is to estimate a custom project, and how important it is to keep track of what you’re spending. It’s the only way to know what to charge. And it’s probably the single most nerve-racking aspect of the job.
My advice? Charge what you need to charge to make it worthwhile. Duh, but it’s surprisingly easy to cheat yourself, because you’re afraid to say out loud what you really need to make.
So screen your customers politely. If price is their main concern, it should be noted. If you are in a position to subsidize their build, and deem it appropriate, by all means, go forth.
Otherwise, ignore the rantings of hobby builders and Blue-Book thumpers who think you charge too much. Ultimately, demand will determine what you can charge. If demand is low, rethink your product offering. But don’t price yourself out of a profit. You’ve gotta make a living after all.
STICK TO THE DAY JOB Let’s assume you’re currently employed. That is great news! I believe it makes you much more likely to open your own custom bike shop than if you’re looking for a job.
In fact, if you’re unemployed and have dreams of opening a bike shop, your first step is to get a job. You will need a steady income, even if modest, to make this work.
I was still working 80+ hour weeks in advertising when I became obsessed with cobbling together bikes. I was starting to see my bank account looking healthy for a change, thanks to selling T-shirts and lamps made of old bike parts. It felt like success!
Then the hammer fell and I got laid off. I decided to take my severance and raid my 401K and step into the void of self-employment. It’s something I would never, in good conscience recommend, despite the way it has turned out.
What I will recommend is that you remain employed and enjoy the security it affords, while working every night and weekend to further your two-wheeled dreams.
This is the twenty teens and there’s no reason you can’t build a virtual presence for your brand without taking a dangerous plunge. Feel it out. Try to make some money while you’re still earning a salary. If it works out and things take off, then you can quit your day job. Maybe you can even buy the company one day, and fire your old boss.
FINALLY: GO WITH YOUR GUT Once it can be trusted consistently, go with your gut feeling. Listen to advice from people who know more than you. Be vigilant with matters to do with money. Stick to the rules and goals you make for yourself. But be ready to throw it out the window at a moment’s notice. Flexibility, remember?
There will be times when your gut says Spend! and your brain says save, for example. Both are probably right. But if you make every decision based on conventional wisdom, you probably aren’t going to make anything mind-blowing.
My gut has told me to make a lamp for Jay Leno, to start my blog on a now-defunct software platform, to will an oil pump into working, and to cut a celebrity a deal on a build.
Most recently, it’s told me to take on a business partner, the great Alex Martin. He wanted to buy a bike but decided to invest in the company—not just financially, but in areas where I’m more than a bit deficient (like math and running a business, suckers!)
Despite the odd failure, I’ve learned to trust my inner voice of dissent when I hear it. And I’ve learned that not trusting it and getting burned is the worst. It sucks answering to yourself in those situations.
So. That’s all I’ve got. I hope it helps.
Actually, I could go on and on, but my gut says don’t tell everything you know.
Check out John Ryland’s builds on the Classified Moto website