Throwback chopper fabricator relies on skills, not equipment, to create custom bikes
June 13, 2006
After years of working in fabricating and machining, Shawn McFadden struck out on his own to start a fabrication shop, which later evolved into a custom motorcycle shop. He doesn’t use the latest CNC machines with digital readouts and other state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment. He uses manually controlled machines and ingenuity.
Is metalworking a vocation practiced by craftsmen or merely a set of processes performed by machines? Is it a labor of love or just a job that pays the bills? Is it a matter of reading blueprints and programming machines, or is it more than that?
Visit Submission Custom Machine, the shop of fabricator and machinist Shawn McFadden, and you'll get an earful about the interaction among machines and materials, and the skills of the fabricators who use the machines to fashion finished products. You'll hear him talk about ingenuity and craftsmanship, traits that build on the basic manufacturing skills taught in vocational schools. You'll get some insight as to how artisans approach their work. You'll come to understand that, in McFadden's view, fabrication has to be a labor of love that relies on capable hands and a sharp mind, or it's just not fabrication.
Just by looking at McFadden, who is 33 years old, you wouldn't realize that he uses methods so many in the industry have deemed obsolete. During a time when the industry is looking to get more out of less by using more sophisticated equipment, this throwback cycle artist is paying homage to the brothers who instilled his appreciation for "a dying art" in the only way he can, by keeping it real.
Modern equipment—CNC machines and expensive laser tables—are noticeably absent from his Rockford, Ill., shop. All machines have dials instead of digital readouts and date back to the 1940s or '50s. Endless amounts of scratch paper line his desk and, when he's building, the floor space around his shop because he double-checks every calculation. Even the rock music blaring through the speakers of a stereo in the back room is from the late '60s and early '70s.
Why? Because McFadden learned his craft from old-school guys who worked with metal when lasers and CNCs were not as commonly used as they are today. He learned from the guys who made the parts that they needed because buying them wasn't an option. From the guys who perfected manual operation to an art.
"When I started out working in a machine shop, I was helping a guy who was two years away from retirement. I got to learn all of his tricks, and that made me respect what some of these old-timers were doing. It made me fall in love with manufacturing."
His story didn't begin there, though. Like many students, McFadden took machining courses during high school to prepare for a career in Rockford, his manufacturing-rich hometown.
In the years after high school, McFadden worked at several local manufacturing companies. He started his career with cold heading fasteners, and later held many fabrication and machining positions—welding, grinding, running manual lathes and mills, and operating saws—and still later held positions in sales and production control. He even ran a manufacturer's information technology (IT) department for a while, rounding out his experience. He finally struck out on his own and opened Submission Custom Machine in 2003. He didn't have a large amount of start-up capital, so the initial equipment investment was basic.
"All I could afford at that time were a cutoff grinder, a surface grinder, and a welder," McFadden said. "It just blossomed from there. My goal was to get into the machining end of it."
His experience gave him enough confidence—and contacts—to make a go of it. Initially taking any fabrication work he could get, McFadden later specialized in custom motorcycles.
McFadden uses this rectangular frame as a starting point for all of the motorcycles he builds. He uses this to make sure everything gets aligned correctly.
McFadden acknowledges the ease that CNCs and lasers provide. He knows that shops turning out high numbers of parts need them and rely on them. He realizes that the equipment has made its way into the industry and will likely remain until the next technological advance comes along. He also admits that right now he doesn't need them and isn't interested in owning them. Aside from the financial investment necessary, he doesn't trust them. He doesn't trust anything that can spit out a part with the punch of a few digits.
"If you can draw a blueprint, you can run a CNC, and anyone who takes a three-week class in basic drafting can draw a blueprint. But it takes all of the skill out of it. All of the personality and the soul out of it."
Building a custom motorcycle isn't as straightforward as it seems. Frame design, balance, handling, stability, safety, aesthetics, and the customer's preferences are critical to building a bike, and a custom builder such as McFadden has to keep all of these factors in mind every step of the way. Every decision, every action, and every change can affect any or all of the other factors.
The process begins with the frame, and visualizing how the various bent and straight sections of tube will come together. McFadden does all of the bending, cutting, and notching with a manual hydraulic bender, a hand torch, and a pedestal grinder, respectively.
He doesn't have a massive jig that can keep a motorcycle frame stable while he works on it. Instead, he uses a rectangular frame he made from 1-inch square tubing (seeFigure 1). He cut four lengths of tubing, aligned them so they formed perfect 90-degree angles, and fastened them to the shop floor. And because each bike is unique, McFadden can't use a one-size-fits-all strategy in aligning and fixturing the parts. A student of the old school, he relies on simple tools such as a pencil and paper for figuring angles and a protractor for measuring them, strings and plumb bobs for aligning the parts, and a variety of gussets and braces for holding everything in place.
"We want to get the motorcycle's frame and the drive train lined up, because that's where everything starts. After getting the drive train centered on the backbone, I make sure the axles are square. Then everything else falls into place—fenders, seat, and everything else," McFadden said.
"After I get the rear wheel centered and everything running straight and true, I'll mount the fender and the sissy bars and work my way forward to the seat, to the tank, to the front end, to the handlebars."
McFadden varies his approach whenever the bike calls for it.
"I usually work from the back to the front. Other fabricators work from the front to the back. Some start near the middle and work outward. There isn't one right way to do it, and I don't build bikes the same way every time," McFadden said.
The amount of trail is derived from two imaginary lines, one projected from the head tube and another that runs vertically through the center of the front wheel. McFadden generally shoots for 5 to 6 inches of trail in the bikes he builds.
Although brute force sometimes is necessary, McFadden favors finesse to get the job done. "I let the bike guide me. I know what the customer wants, and I know what I need to do, but I let the bike tell me how to get it done."
The results are custom-made bikes that vary quite a bit in style, design, and price. Regardless of the style and the features, the overriding concerns are safety and rideability. He uses his experience to keep every bike as balanced and stable as possible.
"To change from a stock tire to a fat tire, you have to offset the drive train 1/2 inch to 1-1/2 inch to the left, depending on whether you're running a belt or a chain, and depending on the tire size. When you set the transmission over that far, it kicks the weight and balance way off."
McFadden compensates by moving some of the components on the other side of the bike farther to the right. Another way is to switch to a right-side drive. Depending on the bike design, this can be a better option. However, it requires a right-side drive transmission that comes with a $7,000 price tag.
Another option is a jackshaft, which is a more compact option that doesn't require moving the parts so far to keep the bike balanced. Using a jackshaft gives McFadden a little more influence over the bike because it's a part he makes.
Another critical measurement is the amount of trail (see Figure 2). Based on the intersection of two imaginary lines—one that runs through the head tube and another that runs vertically through the front wheel—the amount of trail influences the bike's steering. Too little trail makes a motorcycle wobble at high speeds; too much makes the front tire flop when turning. The amount of trail is just one more factor McFadden has to keep an eye on as each bike develops, especially because it is influenced by other dimensions. For instance, changing the rear tire's diameter or the fork length changes the amount of trail.
After installing the last of the parts and checking to see that every part fits properly, McFadden sends the frame and other parts out for painting, coating, or polishing. After getting all the parts back, he puts the bike together. Perhaps for the 30th time.
"These bikes go together anywhere from 25 to 30 times, from start to finish," McFadden said. "This is for two reasons: You might run into something you didn't plan for, and you need to make sure everything is going to go together the way it's supposed to. Every time you weld on the frame, you add heat, and it moves and changes. Even a little bit of welding can cause the frame to twist."
All of the assembling and disassembling might not really be necessary, but McFadden's reputation is riding on the bikes he builds.
"You could ballpark it, and it would probably work fine, but that's not the way it should be done. If you're going to do it, do it right. Get it as close and tight and accurate as you possibly can."
McFadden uses a few signature themes on the bikes and accessories he makes. Sharp points are common and show up on this headlamp he designed and manufactures. He has applied for a patent on this design.
Another theme on McFadden’s
accessories are dice, which are
an integral part of this shift linkage.
Finally, McFadden dresses the bikes up with unusual parts, many of which he designed and manufactures himself (see Figure 3and Figure 4).
You may have seen something like this on TV. But while television focuses the limelight on just a few motorcycle fabrication shops, McFadden points out that many other fabricators deserve some credit too.
"Jesse James did a show on the history of the chopper," McFadden said. "The show traced the history of the chopper back to the very beginnings. In the early '70s or maybe the late 1960s, a guy named Dick Allen was in California modifying motorcycles. He made a new type of primary, which is
the drive that goes from the engine to the transmission. He adapted the primary so it could use a big belt he got from a car's supercharger, and he put it on a Harley-Davidson. He also made unique front ends that he dreamed up."
As it turned out, Dick Allen's name is known around Rockford, Ill., too, because he's a Rockford native.
"I mentioned this show to another local machinist who has been my mentor, Byrd, and he knew Dick Allen. Dick Allen developed the very first one of these unique primary drives—here in Rockford. He used to build the same type of front end—here in Rockford. Many choppers have a tube-shaped oil tank. My mentor developed that oil tank—here in Rockford.
"In fact, Byrd was one of the first to put a fat tire on a motorcycle. He took two car wheels, cut them in half, and spliced them together just so he could run a better tire. Back then all they had was those old bias-ply tires, and the fatter wheel let them run radials. It was the only way to do it."
Not that McFadden is against the fabrication shows on television. He appreciates the interest these shows have stirred up among the younger generation today, some of whom are likely to be fabricators tomorrow. But he points out that television's limitation is that it overlooks the many fabricators who have made many contributions to fabricating motorcycles for decades.
"It's big on TV now, but hundreds of guys have been doing these things in little shops for 30 years," he said.
Will any of these anonymous fabricators get their stories told on television? Probably not. But then again, most of them aren't in it for fame and glory. Like McFadden, they're in it for the love of fabricating.
Submission Custom Machine, 3042 Kishwaukee St., Rockford, IL 61109, 815-227-9972, firstname.lastname@example.org