The Challenge of Prototyping

This week has been interesting, by which I mean challenging, by which I really mean difficult. I've been in the throes of prototyping. I'm doing a headlight surround and fairings that I've never done before and that means doing things over and over as I figure out what will and won't work.

For example, I've been through three different ideas for how to mount the headlight surround. None of them have really worked and they've taken a lot of time to make. Yesterday I finally had an idea that will be clean and relatively easy to make. That means I'll be going through round four on the mount. 

Today I realized that the headlight surround itself was made in a much more difficult way than was necessary. It was made from four individually shaped parts which were welded together. I could simply have shaped it from a single piece of aluminum and had a better shape that would be stronger and much quicker to make. I'll probably end up making it over again because I'd also like to refine the shape a little bit.

I've made the parts that attach the headlight to the forks of the bike twice already and now I think they need to be made again. Each time I learn something. The second mount looks good but I didn't allow enough room for the headlight to mount without interfering with the fork mount. Oh well...

I've also been struggling with making and attaching the mesh grills that will be the front of the fairing. I made very complicated and time consuming mounts to use slick Dzus fasteners only to find that the parts are too thick to work with them. I've torn apart all the work, filled all the holes and ground them down. I even made one of the grills all over from scratch because it had gotten banged up in the process of fitting the Dzus fasteners. It was a very slow process to cut out this mesh opening by hand and smooth all of the edges. This morning I thought of a way to make the parts cleaner and sharper in a fraction of the time. I need to make a template from wood and use a router to cut out the parts in one quick process. Oh well, better late than never.

None of this is easy to do. It requires a lot of patience to keep doing things over and over but I'm committed to a polished finished product. Next time will go much faster. It's just that I'm feeling a lot of pressure to make this bike fast and get it on the market. It's very expensive to go through all the learning that I've had to do and I'm using money that I had hoped not to use. Otherwise I wouldn't mind doing this. It would almost be fun.

Polished Aluminum Tanks

Ah, the polished aluminum tanks. They're probably the most dramatic and distinctive feature of my bikes. They look fantastic, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to get there. For almost the last two weeks I've been working on the tanks for the Grand Prix bike. I've alternately been excited and worn out. Hopeful and discouraged. It's that hard to make these things. 

The goal is a perfectly formed and perfectly polished surface, but along the way you have to go from a flat sheet of aluminum that you've banged on with a mallet and welded and ground down to an apparently perfect surface. In between is a lot of patience and effort. 

Starting out is kind of fun. I've gotten so I can form the parts of a tank pretty efficiently. Within a day or two you can see the basic form of a tank take shape. But then comes the welding. That introduces a big seam that has to be ground down, and it changes the shapes of the parts. All of that has to be corrected with a mallet, a pick, and a lot of sanding. After a day or two of work you can feel like you'll never get the tank smooth and straight. Imagine taking a sheet of aluminum and randomly beating on it with a mallet and then using that same mallet to remove all of the dents you make with absolutely no evidence that they were ever there. It's that hard. 

Except  that it's actually a lot harder. Not only must you remove any evidence of any dents or dings, you have to make perfectly uniform and smooth curves that flow into one another and into flat surfaces without any imperfections. The tiniest of imperfections will show up in the reflections on the tank. 

Anyway, after nearly two weeks of working on the tanks, I finally polished the oil tank yesterday and all the effort and anguish is worth it. It's the best I've ever done. It's almost flawless. Beautiful smooth surfaces with flowing curves. And the polish is excellent too. That's another skill that you might think would be easy but it's not. You have to balance the right amount and type of polishing compound with just the right amount of pressure and you have to go over the tank again and again. But, as I said, I finished the oil tank today and it's all going to be worth it. When the gas tank is done, it should be spectacular and the most prominent feature of this bike will be done. 

Endurance and Persistence

If I had to name one quality a motorcycle builder needs it would be persistence. Determination. Dogged determination. Building a motorcycle is a big undertaking. It takes a long time. There will be many challenges along the way. Things will go wrong, or maybe even just less than perfectly. Maybe that frame tube is bent just a degree too far. Maybe you've spent days grinding a frame until every speck of rust is gone and every weld is smooth. Or you've been sanding and polishing an aluminum tank for days and it's still not done.

Persistence! That's what it takes to make a beautiful motorcycle. I guess you could cobble together an ugly motorcycle with less persistence, but even then it takes a long time. It's persistence that allows you to refine and correct, to start over when necessary, to keep sanding, to keep working on tiny dents or scratches until they're gone, to keep polishing until the tank glows. 

I guess if I were to generalize from this, I'd say persistence is what allows you to accomplish just about anything of consequence in life. Almost nothing worth accomplishing is easily done. But just because it's no easy doesn't mean you can't do it. Just persevere.

For the Love of Craft

That's what this all comes down to for me. Shaping, welding, filing, sanding and polishing. I love it. Start with a flat, lifeless piece of aluminum and start pounding on it, curving it, making it organic. Smooth it a bit with the English wheel and evaluate the shape. Not quite right? Needs a little stretching here. More curvature, a little tighter curve on this edge. Trim it with the shear. Keep refining and refining until it's very close to the form I need. Then make another piece and weld the two together.

Now you're starting to get somewhere. That weird curved piece is becoming a tank, a fender, a fairing. A few more pieces and you've got the basic shape. Now it's time to do a little metal finishing. Grind down that weld, file it with the vixen file. Sand it a little. Now you can see the bumps and ridges created while forming. It's time to tap and tap and tape with a metal spoon or wooden slapper. Tap down that bump, raise up that dent. Now sand a little more. Ah, it's starting to look smooth and elegant, assuming I've conceived the part well. 

This part is more than a little tedious but you're driven on by your vision of the finished part. You work over every square inch of the part, starting with the big dents and bumps and working down to the small ones. Double check that you still have the overall shape right. Are there any big flaws that you've missed while working on the small ones. Is this side the same as the other side? Is that curve flowing? 

And it's not just metal shaping that I love. I love welding too. It's a pure craft, a tremendous skill. You're controlling the arc of the tig gun like a musician. More heat, less heat, move over here just a little to get the metals to flow together. You're melting and then dabbing the filler rod into the puddle of molten metal. A little bead forms, you move the torch down a little, melt again, dab again. You're trying desperately not to wobble with the gun. Don't slow down too much or move too fast. Keep adding rod as consistently as you can. What a dance! Does anyone every write about welding in this way. Well, it's how I feel about it. I love it. 

A Living Thing

Today I wanted to do a little experimenting with shooting some GoPro video and I'm glad I did. I shot a short video of starting the bike and riding out of the driveway and it captured for me some of what I feel every time I get on the bike. And that feeling is that the bike is a living, visceral thing. 

 I believe the primary reason it feels that way is because the engine is a Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 engine. It has that inimitable lumpy idle and guttural rumble that make it a Harley and I love it. The more I look at, listen to, and ride this bike the more sure I am that the Sportster engine is the choice I want. Sure, I could put a refined Japanese in-line four cyclinder engine in it. It would probably make more horsepower. It would be refined, silky smooth and maybe wind up to a bit of a scream at the top end but it would never have the vitality of that lumpy Sportster. It shakes the bike from head to toe at an idle. It smooths out pretty well as the revs rise, but it shakes the headlight, the handlebars, and the brake reservoir vigorously as it sits on the side stand. And it makes you feel like you're about to try to tame a beast when you get on it. 

It's a pretty fair beast on the road too. This engine has a lot of torque. Not as much horsepower as a higher revving engine, but lots of torque and it's torque that makes a motorcycle accelerate. This thing gets up to speed pretty nicely. Just a handful of seconds to get to 70 or 80 mph. It has great passing power too. Passing cars is effortless. You just twist the throttle and before you know it you're along side and flying past. It's addictive. 

This bike is all about a simple, maybe even primitive appearance. It harks back to a much simpler era of motorcycle. No electronic aids, no high revving 150 hp engines. The Sportster engine is perfect for it. Simple bike, simple form, simple engine, great character. Perfect.