For more than a decade, here on The Kneeslider, you’ve seen builder after builder create motorcycles that were stunning examples of creativity and ingenuity, solving problems and building bikes you might have thought impossible, yet there they were. Shaping and welding metal, machining parts, making new engines from old or from scratch, the work and the bikes beautiful to see, yet … something began to gnaw at me, are builders in a rut, doing what could have been done 50 years ago instead of pushing and expanding their skills to take advantage of new tools and technologies? Maybe it’s time to change direction. Let me explain.
Maybe you shouldn’t be “that guy”
Working with your hands is one of the most rewarding activities possible, using the tools you were born with to make something out of nothing. It satisfies the mind, it nourishes the soul, but some of it is beginning to remind me of the retired guy with a woodshop in his garage. You know the one, (maybe you?) he has a table saw and band saw and lathe and planer, routers and a drill press, and almost every tool from the Garrett Wade catalog, and he builds wonderful tables and chairs, cabinets and clocks and toys for his grandchildren, all absolutely beautiful, no two alike and a monument to his skill and dedication to his craft, but it’s the “no two alike” part that gives him away. He’s “old school” and that doesn’t always work in his favor.
Can you make me one of those?
Point to one of his projects and ask him to build you another one just like it and, after a pause, as he considers the time and effort involved, he’ll agree, but it will take him almost as long as it did the first time. Each part needs to be painstakingly laid out and measured, cut to size, precisely fitted together, trimmed, planed, nailed, screwed and glued, and after all of that, it will still be slightly different than the first one. It’s the mark of hand crafted work they say, but what it really is, is an indication of how hard it is to make two projects exactly alike with hand and power tools, no matter how carefully you measure twice and cut once.
Is precision and speed the new skill set of today’s craftsmen?
If, instead, during his first build he had spent some time setting up tool paths for a CNC router, the router could have then made a precise set of all of the pieces he needed. Once assembled, he would have had all of the same pride of accomplishment as any fine woodworker, but he would also have tool paths saved and ready if he wanted to make another one. No digging up drawings, no rebuilding jigs or fixtures, just place the lumber on the table, load the appropriate settings and pour a cup of coffee, turning out as many of those cabinets or clocks as you might want, today, tomorrow or next year, every one exactly like the first one.
If you’re turned off by the idea of using automated machinery like that, you’re feeling what the old cabinet makers felt when they saw the first table saws and planers ruining the “purity” of the work, but sooner or later, they came around. Today, operating a table saw is a basic workshop skill and very soon, CNC routers will be thought of the same way. If you take as long to build another piece as you did when building the first, you’ll soon be thought of as a novice or lacking the skills any pro should have. (I’d like to change the words here slightly, to say “your skills will begin to appear outdated.” An expert in the old school methods would be unlikely to appear to be a novice. ~ Paul Crowe)
Skills for today, not yesterday
The capability of very high quality and very precise, low volume production exists right now. It’s not a dream, it’s reality and it’s becoming more and more affordable so your garage workshop can turn into a small factory. The skills that used to be the mark of a craftsman are evolving into a whole new set. A craftsman today needs to know CNC tools, modern materials and how to layout parts so he can make multiples that are interchangeable. He doesn’t have to, of course, but if he chooses to be old school, the value of his work and his skills will be limited.
“But I like doing it the old way, it relaxes me.” Perfectly understandable, it’s your comfort zone, but remember when we talked about time spent practicing to get better? You don’t get to be an expert by constantly doing what you already know how to do, you become an expert, a true professional, by deliberate practice, learning the hard stuff you haven’t done yet. That’s how you grow.
Electronics is a great example
When I learned electronics many years ago, there were still a lot of vacuum tubes around, circuits were made of discrete components and even after transistors replaced tubes, those components didn’t do anything until assembled into a circuit. Now, solid state, digital electronics come on a chip with millions of transistors each. The circuits are already built, the functions built in and if you want to modify the circuit, you don’t replace components, you rewrite a line of code, check the output and rewrite again as necessary. It takes seconds instead of minutes, every time.
The skills an electronic technician had in those days are rapidly becoming, or already have become, obsolete. The technician may be as sharp as ever, his skills may be top notch, his knowledge of the equipment second to none, but the world around him has moved on, and though many of us may miss those days, no matter how much we enjoyed troubleshooting to component level, that part of the old skill set, is no longer needed. A hobbyist may find the old skills useful rebuilding some old gear from decades ago, but the electronics hobby today is filled with Arduinos and Raspberry Pi microcontrollers.
Don’t recreate a 50 year old workshop
Equipping a garage workshop with those tools you wanted years ago only creates a working museum, fine if that’s what you want, but hopelessly out of step with the technology of the world as it is. Many workshops years ago were filled with the best tools available at the time. If there had been a better tool, many of the craftsmen working in those shops would have had one. There are plenty of museums around, maybe in the garage down the street, but if you’re going to build a workshop of your own, whether young or old, build a shop with today’s tools so you can learn and use today’s skills. You can still buy a lot of brand new old school tools, but why? If you’re young it would be a huge mistake, you need skills for today, and if you’re a lot older, it’s up to you, but going old school locks you in the past and those old skills are declining in value.
So how does this translate to motorcycles?
Stop building customs and start building prototypes.
The Kneeslider has seen the incredible trip custom motorcycle builders have taken over just the last decade. We’ve seen a LOT of customs, but the well of original ideas for new customs seems to have run dry. It’s time to change direction.
It’s time to take advantage of all of the new tools and new technologies and to start building motorcycles as though you’re planning on putting them into production, because you could. Stop building motorcycles with a “one off” mindset to show you march to a different drummer and, instead, try to design and build a motorcycle that people would buy because it works really well, looks really good, gets great mileage, carries a lot, goes anywhere, is extremely tough and reliable, is safe, easy to ride, easy to learn, easy to fix, easy to change into a different configuration, goes really fast, or some combination of all or a few of those or of some other characteristics not listed.
Think like a designer who wants to serve a particular set of potential buyers and build a bike for them. Don’t build for yourself, use your ideas and skills to build something with wider appeal. Maybe, create a kit, which really stresses the idea of making multiple interchangeable components and requires a whole different mindset than the “strip off some parts and wrap the pipes” guy. We’ve seen all of those, we need something creative, useful and new, and the builder will dramatically expand his skill set in the process.
This kind of prototype building is far more difficult than it seems. Building one of something is a lot easier if you don’t say what you’re building or show it until it’s done, sorta like playing pool and making that lucky shot you didn’t call before hand. Ever see a custom bike that “just turned out that way,” instead of being the result of a plan?
Raise the bar, call the shot, make something as though it’s going to be the first of many. It may not be, but it could be if someone asked. We have the technology, we just need some builders. Who’s going to step up?