Motorcycle Building On a Budget:
Custom motorcycle sales soared during the booming economy because custom bike builder shows like Orange County Choppers and West Coast Choppers became wildly popular, which inspired many people to buy show bikes and slick choppers. But soon after the popularity of these 'reality shows' died down and the recession hit full force, the custom bike business took a huge dive.
Hardcore bike builders who pieced their bikes together by hand with used parts were always around. But with the down economy, many would-be custom bike owners took it upon themselves to build bikes on a budget, and therefore, settled for used parts.
It's easier to find parts now thanks to the Internet. Back in the day, you'd be calling your friends and breaking out the Yellow pages (even out of State Yellow Pages) to find parts. Salvage yards are a little secret amongst bike builders. If you take a stroll through a motorcycle salvage yard, you'll discover that it's a whole new world of possibilities for bike builders.
With the combination of buying used parts online and taking advantage of motorcycle salvage yards, you can build a nice bike for relatively low cost. That's what this guide is all about. I interviewed experts in the area and put together a resource of motorcycle salvage yards and building a custom bike and I hope you find it helpful or inspirational.
First Step: The Design
Before even going to a salvage yard to locate parts, you need to have a plan. But, that’s the best part of building a customer chopper; freedom to make a vision come to life and not hope it shows up in some showroom.
David Prukala, owner of Poppa Wheelie’s Cycle: Performance and Repair in Bear Creek, Pennsylvania agrees
"The best part about building a custom motorcycle? It says it itself- custom!" he said. "The way the handle bars and seat are positioned for your own comfort, how high or low you want the pedals, how low you want the seat to sit to the ground and how wide you want the rear tire, how many lights you want on it and what paint scheme you want."
Know What You Are Looking For:
Mike Hansen, manager of Fremont Cycle Salvage in Fremont, California, agrees with Prukala.
“There is more to choose from when you are looking in a salvage yard. You can see something and say, ‘Hmmm. Maybe that will work,” he said.
Every detail, from basic to intricate, needs to be planned out. You don’t have to have a detailed blueprint (however, blueprints are highly recommended if you are building your own frame), but it is important to know what you are looking for. After all, it is hard to reach a goal without one in mind. So, look at magazines, books and the streets to get an idea of what you want.
“You first need to draw what you want, or if you are not artistically inclined, take pictures and adapt them. You can even cut and paste with a computer,” Hansen explained. “You will sometimes have an idea from looking at another bike, but will want to change a few things.”
Hansen also said you need to analyze what you are using the bike for. If you plan to just show the bike, your needs will be very different than if you plan to ride it.
“If your bike is for show, you can get ridiculous - it can be horrible to ride! But, if it is for riding, you need to plan the geometry of the frame, have safe brakes, and pretty much have it ready for the road to take curves, makes turns. You know, so it conforms to the natural states of the road,” he said.
Hansen’s point is important. A bike that looks great is one thing, but one that will keep you and your passengers safe is another. So, your design must take into consideration your needs.
Once you do, you can go shopping! And, to build the most economical bike, the place to go is to salvage yards.
Prukala agrees. “First of all, parts at salvage yards are a lot cheaper. And second of all, you can find parts no one else may be able to get. Also, you can actually physically pick up the part, look at it and make a decision there.”
An Overview of the Salvage Yard
The skinny on salvage yards is this: They buy bikes for parts. They strip down the bikes and separate the parts and place them in bins, where they are stored until people looking for parts purchase them.
What once was someone’s king of the road is now disbursed to several dozen bins throughout a large salvage yard. Parts that are more valuable when separated.
People sell their bikes to yards rather than in the paper because they can make more money. "The bike’s individual parts are often worth more than the bike itself,” said Prukala, adding that this can mean that there could be some parts in mint condition, such as a gas tank.
Someone may sell a perfectly good bike to a yard simply because he wants something bigger and better—or is building his own—and would rather get paid right away, then wait for the right offer to come in off a newspaper ad.
Hansen adds his view. “You could buy a bike for say $10,000. If you were to buy each part individually, it could add up to $30,000 in retail,” he said. “That is the drawback to totally starting from scratch.” Hansen said this is why so many people are buying parts from salvage yards.
Hansen gave an example. Someone crashes a Harley and the front end is damaged. When someone finds it at the salvage yard, they can buy it cheaper and customize the rest of it.
“You can start with a rolling chassis and engine- that’s more advantageous,” said Hansen.
So, if someone bought every part individually, it’d really add up.
Prukala agrees. “Building a chopper from a mixture of used parts means that each part is customizable.” You will read about this further into the report.
When you are ready to shop, a good place to start is looking at your local salvage yard. Some large places can actually be a one-stop-shop for your build. Other times, you may have to look further.
Fremont Cycle, according to Hansen, is a one-stop-shop sort of place.
Salvage Yard 'Connections'
“We can accommodate anybody,” he said. They own several stores, and are connected to hundreds of other salvage yards through online hotlines. “We also sell some used parts on Ebay.”
Hansen added that if salvage yards know what they are doing, they will also be linked to these on-line part locators, allowing you to get everything you need, it not at, but through your local yard.
“If you can’t find it in the salvage yard, they may be able to get it from other dismantlers. There are different avenues so you don’t have to run around from place to place,” Hansen said.
So, with the click of a mouse, your local salvage yard grows from a local parts room, one with aisles across the miles, leaving you with many choices.
On-Line Auctions: A Virtual Salvage Yard
As Prukala stated earlier, when sold separately, parts can be worth more than bikes. And some owners decide to capitalize on that on their own.
Since they are not a salvage yard, they are not going to have people just stopping by to look in their garage, so what they may do to sell these parts is advertise them in a local classified paper, or to reach the masses, whip out a digital camera and place the parts on eBay.
Prukala admits that he got himself addicted to eBay when looking for a part for an ATV. He, at first, did it for convenience, explained the young bike ship owner, but now, it’s a different story.
“It’s fun, and kind of challenging, bidding against other people. It’s exciting. And once you win an item, you look forward to receiving it in the mail, making you anticipate putting the part on even more,” he said.
While most items are up for auction, many individuals as well as salvage yards and dealers have set up stores through eBay, which sell parts at fixed prices. Which can still be a bargain. One example is Sport Cycle and Salvage, and eBay stored and ‘real’ salvage yard in Philadelphia. The owner has an eBay rating on 1503, which means that is how many customers he has satisfied.
At press time, a quick eBay search of ‘motorcycle parts’ turned up 100,355 results. To narrow it down, we searched for ‘chopper’ within that category to find over 1670 parts. (That’s not counting a few onion choppers that appeared!) When we typed in ‘used’, we came up with over 2000. And, a search for ‘Harley parts’ turned up 17,000+.
Tips for Finding Used Motorcycle Parts:
Of course, when you are doing the searching, you will be looking for specific parts too. Keep in mind, that the numbers of items will fluctuate constantly! If one person tears apart one bike and lists all the items, the number of available parts could jump in the hundreds. That said, there would always be items available! Auctions only last from 3-10 days.
- Tip #1: Keep in mind what days you are looking. Many people, who are smart, will list auctions that end on the weekends. This means more people are looking. You will find more parts available on these days. Knowing that, look also during the week. People who are not savvy sellers will list whenever they can, leaving less people to bid on parts, meaning better prices for the savvy buyer. Just a little Ebay inside information!
- Tip #2: do keep in mind shipping and handling charges that can come about from ordering parts online. The larger the part, and the more unusually shaped- the more it will cost. Perhaps, although the list price is a steal on Ebay, you could find something similar at a yard within driving distance where there would be no delivery charge. You can see where an item is from, and you can search for items that way as well. So, perhaps you can even locate, bid and win on parts near you, and also save on shipping that way.
Custom Motorcycle Poll
Build From the Frame Up:
After you know your design, you’ll be able to move forward with getting the parts and starting the build. According to Prukala, this is the order that you should build in:
- Tear down- for chroming and painting
- Customize aesthetically
- Wiring/Battery and other electrical components
Now that you have your checklist, let’s take a look at these parts individually.
Long and Wide:
As with building a home, a chopper must start with a frame, which will become your rolling chassis. You can either build a frame or purchase one. Since this guide is about using salvage parts, you can purchase a frame from a yard and make modifications.
But if you are building a chopper, an important task in modifying the frame is changing the angle of the head pipe joint where it attaches to the top frame rail in the front frame down tube.
“This can be custom made to your liking. You can change the angle of the head unit to make the shocks come out. It’s called changing the rake,” said Prukala, explaining how you can take a normal bike front end found in a salvage yard, and make the front wheel come out, chopper style.
Hansen added that the trend in customer chopper building is “long and fat.”
“Long in the frame, fat in the tires,” he said. Tires and rims will be discussed in more detail later in this guide.
Modifying the frame is a mock-up process; meaning pieces are being put together to get a feel of the end result. This means, that during the build, you may be assembling several times so that you can make modifications to your other parts.
During this mock-up of the frame, you will want to put on the triple tree, which is where the shocks and handlebars mount. Once on, you can go ahead and mount the shocks, front and rear tire and brakes. This step is also crucial to ensure that clearances from the ground to frame are made. Usually, no less than four inches is acceptable for your safety.
When your frame becomes your rolling chassis, it will include the frame, rake, front wheel, rear wheel, front suspension, front and rear tire, front and rear brakes and fenders. Now you will have a glimpse of what your bike will look like.
Tires & Fenders.
As Hansen said, most chopper motorcycles will have a fat tire in the rear, most commonly 250, but up to a 300.
In the front, the tire is more narrow, usually a 130. It is very important to make sure the tires, after mounted on the rims, do not rub against the fenders. Alignment is also important.
“Make sure that your tires are spaced evenly with your frame, and that everything lines up,” said Prukala.
The fenders will keep debris from hitting the bike, and will keep you from getting splashed. But, the fenders are also for show! They are an item that will have a great impact on the look of your bike, so choose ones that will, when painted, reflect your scheme well.
Some choppers do not have front fenders (like some bobber motorcycles), but this is an option to showcase your own taste.
After the frame mock-up is made, the next step is to install the engine and transmission. Or in other words, the parts that will make it run!
When purchasing your engine, do not just take someone’s word that it will run. You will want to inspect all internal and external parts, such as pistons and cylinder head, make sure the case has no cracks and that includes a carburetor. If not, that will need to be purchased separately.
“If you are building a chopper, you will most likely want to go with a Harley engine and transmission, which can be found in salvage yards,” said Prukala.
After putting in the engine and transmission, at this point, you will insert the primary case, making sure it lines up right with the engine and transmission. The primary drive is the gear reduction system used for transferring the power from the crankshaft to the clutch. Also, make sure that final drive system, a chain or Gilmer-type belt going from transmission to rear tire, is lined up.
After your engine is installed, there are some other parts that you will need to install for the mock-up before you can forge ahead with the exhaust, such as the battery tray oil tank, foot rests, brake pedal and clutch levers.
The exhaust system is next, as it is needed to make your bike legal and run well. You will need pipe, and as your design probably calls, you will need to bend it.
For this, you will need to have access to welding equipment and pipe bending equipment. If you do not have access or the skills, you may need to outsource portion of the build to an exhaust shop.
You will attach the pipe with mounting phalange to the engine’s cylinder head, and it should be bent, however you designed, to come out to the rear of the bike. You will use welding brackets as they are needed.
The rest is accessorizing! It is important to build the mock-up of your gas tank and handlebars at the same time, as the placement of both greatly will affect each other. Following, we will look at the accessories:
Gas Tank. You can either purchase or put your skills to the test and make or modify a gas tank.
“Building your own gas tank is a very unique skill, and takes a lot of unique equipment, such as a metal thumper to flatten and shape the metal,” said Prukala. “Since this is very time consuming, if building your first chopper, I would recommend buying one. You can still make some modifications in mounting.”
There are a variety of gas tanks, hundreds of styles that are sitting in salvage yards waiting to be used. You will have to take your design into consideration, however, since your handlebars could hit the tank when turning. Again, this is why the build is in a mock-up stage.
The gas tank is often a predominant part in your chopper’s style, so this is important. The gas tank sits on the frame’s main pipe. You can mount this in a variety of ways, depending on how high or low, or far back or forward you want. But, use caution, as you still need room for your seat!
When you get to this point, you will want to sit on your bike (keep in mind you will not have the actual seat on yet), to get a feel for the handlebar position.
“When you are sitting on the bike, you want to make sure that you are comfortable holding the handlebars,” said Prukala. “Or sometimes, you may sacrifice comfort for style. It’s up to you.”
There are many types of handlebars to choose from, and you probably already have your chosen from your design. Some handlebars are set wider apart, while others are more natural. You can go high, you can go low.
“It’s totally your preference,” said Prukala. “A good salvage yard would have any kind you can imagine. And, you can even modify that.”
Next, you need somewhere to sit. Once you decide the comfortable position for your seat, you will want to choose your style. There are saddle seats, which are narrower. And, there are other varieties that keep comfort in mind. Remember, if this is going to be a show bike, your comfort may not be something to consider. If you will be riding often, and with a passenger, your needs may differ.
Once you have your seat picked out, you can get it reupholstered, and choose the color, material and texture that best fits your design.
Other Accessories. After your tank, seat and handlebars are mounted; you will add some final components to complete your mock-up. These include headlight, taillight, turn signals, hand controls, mirrors and tag bracket.
Reassembly and Finishing:
After the mock-up is made, you will be able to make any adjustments that you need.
“You try to put everything together, make sure every piece of your puzzle fits, and take it for a test ride,” said Hansen.
When you are happy with what you see, you get to disassemble. You are taking the bike apart to make it shine! That will be covered further in the next section. But, once complete, you still have some building to do.
After your chopper is chromed and painted, and reassembled, you will need to begin the electrical work, which includes installing battery, and running wires through the frame to all the components, such as headlight, taillights and other accessory lights.
Once that is all done, you are ready to take a test drive, troubleshoot, and make any changes. Then- you are ready to hit the road!
Chrome and Airbrush:
Making Your Bike Look New!
When you first considered deciding between building your own chopper out of used parts, or buying one new- one of the factors that rolled through your mind was probably the aesthetic value. “How could parts from a ‘junk yard’ make a bike look great?”
The answer is simple! It’s called chrome! You know, Trace Adkins’ catchy 2001 hit? Chrome, as well as painting and airbrush design will make your bike sparkle and shine!
After your chopper is built to your specifications and liking, you will disassemble - yes - you must take it apart and build it again! But, you are taking it apart for chroming and/or painting.
This is something key. The blood, sweat and tears of putting together a chopper than runs great and rides smooth is a challenge, and ultimately, the most important part- otherwise, you could not ride!
But, the part that makes the bike stand out, and your total vision come to life, if the final touches. Touches like chrome, paint, airbrushing and decals. This is something that you cannot get from a salvage yard.
But, you can rest assured that the money you saved buying used parts left a cushion for a great paint job.
Check your local listings for houses that do chroming, coppering, painting and airbrushing, as well as check our resources section at the end of this guide. You can also ship parts off to chrome platers and painters.
There are many places that specialize in different styles, so choose one that fits your design best. You may want to ask for references, and really look at their portfolios and investigate their process to make sure their standards meet your needs.
So perhaps the parts you picked out of the bins were not the prettiest things in the world- but after they are dipped in chrome, baby, it’ll shine like new.
After you ride and/or show your motorcycle or chopper, it is important to keep up with detailing, to maintain that freshly painted look.
Caution! What to look for when buying used parts:
Since you are buying parts from a salvage yard, most likely, the bike may have been wrecked. Because of this, you must proceed with caution when salvage shopping.
“You’ve got to know what you are looking at. Be careful and make sure it is usable,” he said, adding that parts could be slightly bent if they came from a wrecked bike.
Another caution to watch out for is your wallet. Although building using used parts is far cheaper than buying new, there could be a lot of cost incurred.
“Your first project will have a lot of trial and error, so you may spend a little more money,” said Hansen.
Prukala adds that there are some things that you just cannot get from a salvage yard.Things like tires.
“Some of the fat tires, they are pretty new and cannot be found in salvage yards yet,” he said.
Hansen agrees. He says his company sells used tires, but in the case of choppers, they may not have what builders are looking for.
“For most scenarios, people will go with new wheels and tires, especially for the fatter ones. The 250 tires for the most part cannot be found in salvage yards,” he said.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
What Kind Of Bike Do You Want To Build?
FMCCompany on July 10, 2020:
I am starting to build a Trike with a VW ass end and Chopper front end. I have already started working on the design and I have a frame already built. I am buying all of my parts from Biker Brothers and Friends as well as Salvage Yards.
And Danwinright is right, Salvage yards aren't as easy on the wallet as one might think...
Danwinright@gmail.com on July 17, 2019:
Hate to burst your bubble. Salvage yards aren't as easy on the wallet as you might think. A special construction title means the first year its registered.a salvage title generally wont let you have full coverage insurance. Theres alot of technology to building a safe motorcycle.if you dont have the knowledge or specialized tools ,you're better off buying new or used. Sorry man . Sometimes the truth hurts
Imran khan on June 06, 2019:
I want a chopper
Raf on March 14, 2019:
I’m looking to build a bobber type chop. Simple and clean
filthys dream on January 30, 2019:
I'm on ssi and would like any input on building my first chopper at a low budget anyone out there
Jeremy Martin on December 28, 2018:
Need help ! Im ready to build my first bike I bought me a 74 sportster every nut and bolt was taken off this bike ,mot,trans This is my very 1st harley ive oned(im 42 and wanted one since i was 10!)I no i took on a big job when i got this im mechanicaly incline allways work on my vehicles small and big jobs by my self butt never a bike What would b your best advice 4manual? Im not going to take it somewhare and tell someone to fix it i want ntto learn it.2 qa I love the 70s style wat can i do to my front end. To get the look i want i rathet not hav 2 by a springer front end i herd something like glider? Whats the differemce is it about show or comfort short riding or going a long distance i hav no clue?I had bought a old school king and quin seat from the 70i think when i get it all done it will b awesome SPECIALLY BECAUSE I BUILT IT! I cant tell you how much i would appreciate any advice at all its ben long enough for my dream to come true
Jetsoo on October 22, 2018:
I found an entirely home fabricated bike I am trying to ID. It's huge, has double triple tree with power steering assist, 1962 v6 Buick w/2 speed auto trans. The story is that the plans were in Popular Mechanics in the late 60's early 70's. where can I send pics?
Mada Bandy on September 10, 2018:
We’re defined a motorcycle mechanic in Florida Tampa
roxhayes on August 21, 2018:
I’d like to build a motorcycle same style as a HD Fatboy or Exile Fat Bloke. Is there a style/type associated with those wide, thick bikes?
isiah on May 09, 2017:
can i make a bike like yours because it is cool lil moco is cool
Maddox on April 19, 2017:
Can i make a sport bike like that too?
Wat on March 22, 2017:
Says shovelhead engine... shows a knucklhead engine... what gives
jim on July 30, 2016:
I was kinda wanting to see what the average cost of building a bike from salvage parts would be.I know it may vary from bike to bike but maybe just some kind of ballpark figure, or how much of a difference in buying used parts compared to new.thanks
Aaron on July 20, 2015:
I want to build a bike that is low but not long