Making the most of metal doesn't have to be a full-time job
October 9, 2007
Robert Warnett didn't take many vocational classes in school, never spent much time reading about welding or fabricating, and never had a job in a shop. However, he made quite a few friends in the fabricating industry and made a hobby out of fabricating. Being a hands-on type of guy, he has capitalized on the knowledge and experience he has acquired over the years to do something that many people only dream about doing. He builds custom motorcycles.
He has a big, booming voice that matches his stature, a New Jersey accent, and a passion for motorcycles. No, you won't see him on television, he isn't Paul Teutul Sr., and he has nothing to do with Orange County. But he loves choppers. He has modified quite a few motorcycles over the years, and he has built three from scratch. He has a fourth on the way.
His name is Robert Warnett, and he is living proof that you don't have to be a full-time fabricator to get a big kick out of making metal do your bidding.
Like most people who love to work with their own two hands, Warnett started by tinkering with bicycles and things when he was a youngster. While many of us took things apart to see how they worked, and for the challenge of putting them back together, Warnett had a slightly different take. His creative streak showed up early.
"I just loved to take things apart and put back together, usually with my own slant," he said. "I took bicycles apart and changed things around. When I got my first car, I changed all kinds of things just to make it my own."
Warnett dabbled like most dabblers do. He didn't accumulate an extensive amount of experience in any one area, but he did a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Took auto shop in high school. Hung out with Harley-owning co-workers at his first job. Later got a job pushing merchandise at an auto parts store.
His early rides—the bikes of his childhood and the cars of his youth—eventually led to motorcycles. Despite his early ventures in modifying his rides, he didn't do anything to his first few motorcycles.
"I rode mainly stock import bikes, but I always said if I ever got a Harley, I would make my own," Warnett recalled.
Then, a single magazine article changed everything.
"In 1988 I was reading an article in a biker magazine," Warnett said. "Over the course of several issues, the article showed the step-by-step progress of a custom bike. After the first or second installment, I said to myself, 'I can do that.' That's how it all started."
Build It Well. It begins with a design. Warnett dreams up the basic structure of the bike, such as the shape and contours of the frame, the rake angle, the fork length, the bends in the handlebars, and so on.
The second step is building the frame. Warnett doesn't have all the equipment and expertise for this, so he farms out this step to a shop that specializes in building motorcycle frames.
"Custom motorcycle builders already have everything necessary—they have drawn-over-mandrel tubing, they have the castings, and they have all the fixtures and clamps needed to hold all the frame components in place."
His favorite shop is The Wrench, which is run by fabricator and custom motorcycle builder Brad Ruel. Ruel augments his skills by hiring good talent. "He's got a kid who could weld wings on a fly," Warnett said.
After The Wrench is finished putting together the frame to Warnett's specifications, Warnett takes over. He sets up the frame in his garage and goes to town. He starts by making a few functional parts, such as gussets that brace and strengthen the frame. Meanwhile, if all of the preliminary steps have gone well up to this point, Warnett has (1) ordered all the parts he wants and needs; (2) spent many weeks waiting for the shipments to trickle in; (3) waited a few more weeks for the rest of the parts to finally get to his house; (4) made a few phone calls to track down any stray parts; and (5) unpacked, inspected, and inventoried everything.
Warnett uses some parts just as they come, such as the gas tank. No modifications there. But many parts have an ordinary look to them, so Warnett goes to work to make them more compelling. Even though he knows what he wants and he's handy with cutting and welding equipment, modifying parts isn't for the faint of heart.
"It's one thing when I'm cutting a front fender that I paid $25 for. It's quite another when I am cutting on a rear fender that I paid $650 for," he said. "It's a bit risky, but it's what it takes to make a truly unique motorcycle."
In addition to modifying conventional motorcycle parts like fenders, Warnett welds tabs onto the frame so he can add unconventional parts. He decked out his latest motorcycle with some parts he fashioned from diamond plate.
"I like the way diamond plate looks," he said. "It gives the bike a rugged, industrial look." His latest bike has diamond plate on the neck, swing arm, oil tank, and front end.
Warnett likes his bikes to have an uncluttered look, so he keeps many of the controls out of sight.
"It has everything you'd want—horn, directionals, you name it—but you won't find the switches for any of those," Warnett said. "With the exception of a kill switch, all the controls are hidden."
Warnett uses small hand tools with cutting, grinding, and sanding attachments to do much of the fine work. In fact, at times when he's running short on options and long on patience, he's been known to use small hand tools for big jobs too.
"The rear struts that hold the rear fender to the bike come with all the holes drilled in them, but they're just lengths of round 1⁄4-inch or 3⁄8-inch stock. There's nothing wrong with them, but they're plain. So I cut them out. I didn't have an angle cutter at the time—I was using basic hand tools—so I sat down with a Dremel tool and a little 1-inch fiber cutting wheel, and cut them out. Then I sent them out to be chromed. It probably took three days to cut them out and sand all the edges, but it was worth it—everyone who looks at the bike digs those struts."
In addition to outsourcing the frame, Warnett gets some other help along the way.
"I designed the taillight bracket for that bike. I drew it all out on cardboard, then cut it out to make a complete template. It had all the features I wanted and all the angles for everything, and I took it to a guy with a plasma cutter. He cut it all out and welded it in place for me."
With regard to the power plant, Warnett thinks less is more, partly because he left New Jersey and now lives in a warmer climate.
"I didn't go with a big monster motor," he said. "They can be problematic. Down here in Florida heat is your biggest problem, and so are vibration and simply having too much torque. The motor I have here puts out 105 horsepower, and for a 600-pound motorcycle, that's more than enough. Many frames these days have a single down-tube—that's the tube that runs from the neck down to the base of the motor—and that's a good look, and it can be fairly sturdy. But you don't want to put a big, heavy-duty motor in a frame like that. Some guys build bikes like this, and if they ride them once in a while just to show them off, they'll last, but I ride mine frequently and I ride it hard. My motorcycle is no trailer queen."
He bought the motor from S & S Cycle Inc., La Crosse, Wis.
"S & S has been making high-performance motorcycle parts for years, and several years ago they started building motors," Warnett said. "And they build a really good motor. They hold up, they run well, and they put out a decent amount of power. Some other companies put out the same size motor with more horsepower, but they just don't hold up. I am not interested in buying a motor that after every 500 or 1,000 miles needs new gaskets, or needs fasteners torqued down, or needs whatever maintenance done to it. I have had this one on the road for 2,000 miles, I ride it frequently, I ride it hard, and it doesn't leak. All I have done is change the spark plugs and the oil."
Despite purchasing most of the items and having motorcycle shops do some of the work, Warnett gets a lot of satisfaction from knowing that the finished motorcycle is his own concept and a product of his own hard work.
"I don't do all the work myself, but I have a hand in every bike I build."
In addition to the shape and form of the bike, Warnett's other signature touch is the color scheme. He actually uses twice the number of colors that Henry Ford's early automobiles were known for.
"My two favorite colors are chrome and black!" he said.
Build It Fast. "I saw a contest on the Speed Channel," Warnett said. "The rules were simple: You have 30 days to build a bike from the ground up. On the last day, if the bike starts and runs, you keep the bike."
The television network provided all the parts, all the tools, and all the materials necessary. It even had a master builder to provide some guidance and to help the participant navigate around any potential safety issues.
Despite free parts and materials, the contest came with a substantial financial commitment. In addition to taking time away from work and saying goodbye to a paycheck for a month, the contestant would have to travel to California at his own expense and provide his own room and board for the 30 days. Despite these hurdles, Warnett applied. Although he wasn't selected, the challenge appealed to him, so he set up a timer in his garage so he could track the number of hours he spent fabricating his bike.
"For the show, they allowed contestants six hours a day, four days a week, for four weeks. That's 96 hours. I finished mine in 90 hours."
Build It Best … on a Budget. Going from concept to finished project should be a straightforward process, but like most hobbyists, Warnett has found that it isn't necessarily so. Even though the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, fabricating a motorcycle means wandering down a winding path. Warnett starts with a detailed concept in mind, but the motorcycle might turn out to be a little different from the original concept.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of what's available … or affordable," Warnett said. "Often I have an idea in mind, and when I get to a store, the question is, 'What do you have that I can afford?' How it turns out depends on the amount of time, money, and energy you put into it."
Even so, Warnett feels that the limitations are few.
"I don't compromise on too many things," he said. This became clear one Saturday a few months after his most recent bike was finished. He and some friends went to a motorcycle show. Warnett rode his third creation that day and, even though he had no intention of entering it in the show, he later thought it over and decided that the small entrance fee would be well worth the money … mainly because he would have a better parking space inside the building instead of one out in the parking lot.
He and his friends wandered around the show and looked at all the bikes, went to the swap meet to look for parts, and made a day of it. Later they went to watch the judging. Warnett was surprised when he won the Best in Show award.
"I went up against a couple of heavy-duty builders, and when I won the trophy, they gave me some dirty looks, and I loved it," chuckled Warnett.
In his three decades of modifying and building motorcycles, Warnett has seen a few changes in the industry, and more are on the horizon.
"The aftermarket motorcycle business is changing," Warnett said. "I wouldn't say that it's dying, but it's getting more and more difficult for small shops to stay in business anymore. The Environmental Protection Agency is getting heavily involved in aftermarket motorcycles, and the constraints they put on these guys hurt them.
"For instance, in 2008 all new motorcycles must have O2 sensors in the exhaust systems. If you have an O2 sensor, you must have an electronic control module to monitor the O2. level. I would say that, in the next few years, nearly every new bike on the road will have electronic fuel injection, and there are many EPA certifications you will have to go through when you build a bike. They will even have specific decibel levels.
"There's a lot of stuff you have to do now to keep them street-legal and comply with the EPA, and rather than invest in all the necessary equipment, many small-bike-shop owners simply closed. At the same time, this made it good for the other guys who spent the money on the additional equipment."
Still, the industry has been good to Warnett, and he hasn't forgotten that he is indebted to other motorcycle fanatics.
"Everything I learned, I learned by doing, watching other guys, asking a million questions, and scrapping a lot of parts."
In return for everything Warnett has gathered from other people in the industry, he is glad to give something back—sometimes with help, sometimes with advice.
"I pitch in every now and then at Callahan's," Warnett said. "A couple of the guys there are going through the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute and taking the various classes to learn how to repair, build, or whatever. These guys sometimes grumble about having to go to school, and having to do homework, and everything else, and I said to them, 'Look, you're going to learn in three or four years what it took me 30 years to learn. And you'll probably know more than I do when you get finished.' So I encourage those guys to stick with it."