Custom Motorcycle: Zak’s Harley Ironhead

There’s a reason why Zachary Gallo used the word necessity when referring to his 1985 Harley XLH custom.

It’s a word he used often when describing his custom Harley Ironhead. Actually the regularity in which he used the term we found, well, alarming. His mods were done “out of necessity,” he tells us. Ok Zak, please continue.

Custom Harley-Davidson Ironhead motorcycle
A nice look at the clutch side of this custom Harley Ironhead.

And as though this weren’t enough, Zak resorted to making claims so audacious that they just had to be a shameless attempt at hyperbole: the project itself was “a build of necessity.”
But, Zak wasn’t exaggerating! It’s absolutely necessary to replace your tank, controls, and bars after getting them busted during an unfortunate altercation with “a defenseless mailbox.”
It becomes all the more necessary when your swingarm and strut mounts are ripped from your bike after entering a curve too hot.

All this happened to Zak’s Harley Ironhead. “It felt like the right thing to do as it was my only vehicle at the time,” Zak remembers. That’s more he could say about what was in his toolbox (read: it was empty). When asked about what tools he used, Zak said, “You’re gonna have to ask my buddies Bernie and Ray and my dad. I stole everything I could from those guys. I had nothing at the time.”

Custom Harley-Davidson Ironhead motorcycle oil tank
A little chatter on the oil tank of this custom Harley Ironhead.

Much like a person recovering from a major accident, Zak’s busted Ironhead spent a good deal of time in bed. Well, in a spare bedroom—minus the bed. “We’d already moved the bed out of my buddy Chris’ bedroom, so I just kind of sneakily rolled my bike in there. Like a gentleman,” Zak adds. Aside from sparks “singeing a couple of posters,” building there was a positive experience. “We actually have a lot of funny pictures of me shooting sparks all over the room and piles of parts everywhere,” he says. “It was rad being able to wake up and just start wrenching and drinking beer with my bud.”

It was here, in the unlikeliest of spaces, where Zak’s bike acquired anything but a dull name: The Purple Moose. “It used to have a huge 6-1/2-gallon purple tank,” Zak explains. “That, combined with the apes, made it look big and obnoxious, like a dumb moose.”

But, as you can clearly see, there’s nothing purple about this bike. The very absence of this particular color explains why it’s now known simply as “The Moose.” It also reveals how much Zak’s mentality evolved throughout the build.

The Moose soon began changing not because Zak kept crashing it—or because parts would break or fall off (though that was a major contributing factor)—but because Zak caught the bug. You know, that bug. The one that always gets us when we’re our most vulnerable. The opportunistic little bastard. “I’ve been removing everything that doesn’t make the bike move forward,” Zak says. “That’s the fun part.”

Now the bike changes seemingly every season. “I’m not really married to any one thing about the bike besides the motor,” he reveals. It was during this transition when Zak realized he needed an actual garage, especially since he planned to do some structural welding. “I figured I should probably use something a little bigger than a Harbor Freight buzz box,” Zak recalls.

That was when The Moose lumbered into Bernie’s garage. There, Bernie and Zak’s other friend Ray welded the hardtail to the frame’s halo. “I didn’t even attempt this because I didn’t want my bike snapping in half while cooking down the highway,” explains Zak. That’s a legitimate reason. Plus, everything he’d welded until that point had broken off. Zak originally thought it was because he sucked, but it was actually because he used a cheap $100 flux core welder.

Luckily, the dropseat that Zak welded hasn’t fallen off despite being his first major mod. “I figured I needed to jump right into the deep end,” Zak says, though he basically just jumped into a kiddie pool since the tail section “lined up perfectly.” (Zak did, however, have to weld a bracket for the seat-stay brake caliper and a self-made plate for mounting the rear fender and struts.)

He struggled quite a bit more when searching for compatible parts in general. (Zak described it as a nightmare.) “I shredded a bunch of gears and splines in my tranny,” he adds. Zak also shredded his bank account when looking for an offset drive sprocket. (Zak either literally purchased “a hundred different” sprockets or it just felt that way.) “I couldn’t find one spaced enough to get my chain straight,” he continues. “And 99 percent of the sprockets wouldn’t fit on the splines of the final drive.” Welding a spaced sprocket over the stock piece allowed him to use the necessary parts off each. “This thing makes no sense,” Zak says.

He also spaced out the intake manifold and his curved intake so the latter would work with the carb and velocity stack. “That thing is like a piece of artwork to me,” Zak says of the intake. “When I’m riding, it gets ice cold and covered in condensation.”

Custom Harley-Davidson Ironhead motorcycle
This custom Harley Ironhead has a classic stance.

While Zak may like his intake getting icy, he doesn’t feel this way about where he builds. When winter came, The Moose plodded over not into Chris’ spare bedroom, but into Zack’s living room. “I was living the high life then,” Zak says, what with the TV, carpet, and kitchen being right there within reach. “The Moose fit perfect right next to my couch.”

There, Zak got to work on his motor. Mikey V at Twin Tech may have built the heads, but Zak tackled the bottom end. He might as well have been tackling the entire New York Giants’ offensive line though. “The parts are not all interchangeable, so it took a lot of guessing and checking with everything,” he reveals. “I did a lot of angle grinding to make $#!+ work.”

He’s also done a lot of spray painting—with a lot more on the way. But, for now, he’ll stick with his Krylon and pinstripes, which getting straight “was a pain.” And for all The Moose has been through, it rides “surprisingly awesome.” Let’s just hope it stays that way. The bike hasn’t crashed since becoming The Moose, he told us, before proceeding to knock on wood. We’re gonna knock on some wood, too. Ride safe! RC

Custom Motorcycle: Tom’s 2001 Custom Harley Sportster

We’ve said it before, and now we’ll say it again: We’re all about inspiring you! — to get into your garage and customize the hell out of your motorcycle.

Inspiration. That’s pretty much why Tom Kelly, of Bentley, Essex, England, started customizing and built this custom Harley Sportster. “My influence was just all the other guys who’ve done this before,” he says. “I guess they have the same feeling as me by doing it. They admire the guys who did it before them.”

2001 Custom Harley-Davidson Sportster
The sun’s hitting this custom Harley Sportster just right

It’s even harder to fight this “it” when your old man has been afflicted with the same insatiable thirst to build. For someone who recalls his past as living in his dad’s workshop, you shouldn’t be surprised that it was more or less Tom’s destiny to follow the way of the wrench. “My dad has been building bikes for years,” Tom adds. With that comment alone, it should come as no surprise (again) that while this is Tom’s “first proper build,” customizing is not new to him.

Tom has been almost literally taping bikes together since he was a youngin’, his first build being a “part-Honda, part-Kawasaki” custom, which he made from bits of “what you have when you’re about 6 or 7 years old.” And guess who Tom turned to for parts? Yup. His pops. But not in the conventional way. “I customized the hell out of it in the way of Gaffa [duct] tape seats and bars, which I pinched from my dad’s custom bike.”

2001 Custom Harley-Davidson Sportster
Tom’s riding the road of inspiration on his custom Harley

But this bike ain’t no Honda or Kawasaki. And there’s nothing close to tape on this sweet thang. It’s a 2001 Harley Sportster 1200C Custom, which Tom bought last year in March. Oh, and did I mention that Tom bought the XL from his dad? I didn’t? Well, he did, and it was completely stock, too (which sure surprised us, seeing as Tom’s dad likes to build). It’s as though the universe was trying to get Tom in the garage.

Since Tom had yet to try his hands at a proper bike build, Tom’s ambitions for his XL were modest … at first. “I had the intention of light customization,” he says. “Tidy up some wiring, shorter rear shocks, single seat. But one thing led to another.” A whole lot of things. In fact, Tom said at one point, “I promise you, everything has been done on this bike twice. I admit that I often change my mind if something doesn’t look 100 percent perfect.” Definitely not light customization now.

2001 Custom painted Harley-Davidson Sportster gas tank
Custom paint and graphics adorn this custom Sportsters gas tank.

While still in “light customization” mode, Tom stuck to his original list by swapping out the stock shocks for Burly Slammers (the fact that there are no Slammers now should tell you something about Tom’s incessant need for perfection, plus, duh, this XL is now a rigid) and fitted a side-mounted plate. But by the time he installed a springer front end, Tom finally admitted what he probably knew all along — he was going to make this a proper job.

And proper in Tom’s book means fabwork. Lots of fabwork. The next thing Tom did was make the rear wheel completely from scratch. And guess who helped him? “The rear wheel was all me and my old man,” he comments. From then on, the mods kept piling on, which included making all of the adjustments, fabricating and mounting “lots of little brackets here and there,” mounting the fenders and tanks, customizing the oil tank, and fabricating the rear brake with a hanger setup. “The back brake was a huge headache,” Tom says. “I also learned that horseshoe oil tanks don’t fit brilliantly on Sportys.” And since Tom is a leatherworker by trade, he naturally had everything to do with how the seat looks now. But even though Tom has done a great deal of the work himself, he made sure to give a shout out to his buddy Knocker, who was there for basically the whole build. “Everything that needed more than two hands, he helped with,” Tom says.

When it comes to the paint, he commissioned Simon, Phill, and Steve from The Paintbox. “They’re probably the nicest guys and conduct their business in the coolest manner,” Tom says. “With some of my ideas and their talent, they did it all for me. It’s without a doubt, the jewel in the crown.”

After the bike was all back together (done so more than once), Tom had the guys from So-Low Choppers hardtail it. “They know their stuff,” Tom says. And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. What’s up with Yakety Yak? Made possible by his good mate and sign writer “Matt the Brush,” as well as another buddy who lent Tom some whitewall tire paint, the name Yakety Yak comes from a certain point in a movie (a film you should’ve all seen by now, according to Tom, and I wholeheartedly agree) when The Coasters’ song by the same name is played. For those of you who are perpetually trapped in your garages, you’ll understand why Tom chose it. He explains: “In the film Stand By Me, the older brothers “Ace and Eyeball Chambers” play mailbox baseball while hanging from the back of their convertible, listening to the song Yakety Yak on the radio. Just that jovial feeling they get from doing what they do is summed up for me by the sound of that song. Riding bikes is jovial to me,” he says with a laugh.

2001 Custom Harley-Davidson Sportster exhaust
A good look at the ridged tail section and custom motorcycle exhaust.

But despite how much he enjoys riding, the bike is, as of this writing, off the road. “I’m making an entirely new oil tank from scratch,” Tom says. “When I do things that I’m not completely happy with, they play on my mind. I knew I could make a better job of the oil tank so I’m doing it already.” The moral of the story is if you love riding as much as Tom does, then you’ll probably love wrenching just as much. Only one way to find out … cue inspiring music! RC

Custom Motorcycle: Dad’s Custom Triumph Bonneville Transformed

Joe Keene (we’ll call him Papa Joe) asked his son, Brandon, to fix a Bonneville that Papa Joe had purchased himself the year before. “Somebody had already turned it into a chopper by welding the hardtail, but it was on crooked,” clarifies Brandon.

Sure, Brandon’s dad may have had the means and skillset to do the mods himself, but here’s the thing. Papa Joe likes riding, but only when the number of obstacles he has to overcome includes inserting and turning the key in the ignition, turning on the fuel petcock, pulling the choke, setting the kill switch to run, squeezing the clutch lever, and pressing the start button. Adding any more to that cumbersome list would just get too much in the way of actually riding the damn thing. And customizing a motorcycle to make it roadworthy presents a whole host of extra impediments to work through.

Luckily, Joe’s son likes riding and getting a non ridable bike to the point where it becomes ridable (partly because he enjoys working in his two-car garage since it puts him “close to the fridge”).

Knowing this, the task of getting Papa Joe’s Bonneville there naturally fell on Brandon. Of course, if this had been Brandon’s project from the start, he would’ve purchased a Tiger instead of a Bonneville, since he likes the single carb.

At least this Bonneville is kickstart-only. And at least the only other thing Papa Joe asked for were front and rear disc brakes. This meant that Brandon pretty much had free rein over the entire project.

Well, kinda. As Brandon says, “I try to make every build different than prior builds.” Until then, he’d customized a 1972 Triumph 650, 1978 Honda CB550, and 1973 Honda CL350 in varying styles. Plus, he already had two 19” rims, which made sense to use on his dad’s bike. So Brandon really only had one choice if he wanted to keep up with not doing the same build twice: a boardtracker-style bike.

Naturally, the first thing Brandon did in his garage (after filling his nearby fridge with food and drinks) was cut off the bike’s rear, not just because the first owner botched up the hardtail, but because Brandon always makes his bikes rigid. “I like the chopper style,” he says matter-of-factly.

Brandon didn’t hardtail the bike all by himself, however. “A family member helped because I wasn’t ready to weld at the time,” he reveals. This brother/nephew/uncle/grandfather/or some in-law quickly came to Brandon’s garage with a TIG welder and secured the rigid end to the bike, along with welding some tabs and mounts later on. (Most likely, this male family member also taxed these services by raiding Brandon’s garage fridge.)

Brandon then got to work with the very few tools he owned, which include a side grinder and a Sawzall.

Brandon started by reinstalling the engine into the now non-crooked hardtailed chassis, but only after he had removed the heads to fix some leaking pushrod tubes. Now it was time to install those 19-inchers, which he just so happened to have lying around. “I can’t recall where they came from,” comments Brandon. “I just had them.” Since the wheels come from a Suzuki, Brandon thought it made sense to use more parts from the same manufacturer. He later found some forks, levers, and a front brake from that family. Surprisingly, Suzuki parts look good with other Suzuki parts, so he added more: a rear brake rotor and caliper.

Hoping to evoke the spirit of a boardtracker, Brandon wanted to gear up his dad’s bike, so he fabbed custom spacers and an aluminum adapter for a sprocket that he first installed on the front wheel. But since that sprocket is now on the back of the bike, we’re guessing Brandon wanted more bottom end and faster acceleration.

Brandon also handmade many other parts, including the fender struts and license plate bracket. When asked why, Brandon replied simply: “Stock sucks!”

By the end of the build, Brandon had done enough mods so that the bike truly didn’t suck. And we’re not just basing that assessment solely on his earlier sentiment about stock, but because it’s truly a great-looking ride.

Despite having customized the Bonneville for his dad and not himself, Brandon actually gained a lot from the process—and not in some intangible way that would prompt him to say something like “It made me feel good” or “The build made me a better son.”

After Brandon completed the build (and emptied the fridge in his garage), his wife, Amy, came up with the idea of entering the Triumph in the Smoke Out Rally’s ride-in bike show in North Carolina. It was a good suggestion. Out of the 85 bikes that participated, this Bonneville was one of only seven winners.

But Brandon’s luck didn’t end there. The rally’s organizers invited him back to compete the following year in the amateur chop-off, to which Brandon obliged by entering a 1999 Sportster—and won first place. (Brandon chopped the Harley XL, too.)

While that’s all fine and dandy, what does Brandon’s old man think of the boardtracker-styled Bonneville? Brandon says his dad loves it. While undoubtedly true, Brandon also shared what his father said the moment he laid eyes on the finished product: “Looks like all comfort was sacrificed for style.”

For some strange reason unbeknownst to us, we think that’s exactly what Brandon was going for. RC

Custom Motorcycle: DIY Kawasaki KZ400 Bobber

Those of us who reside in the Northern Hemisphere share the misfortune of being more than mere acquaintances with nearly perpetual winter, unlike our southern friends living in areas that are much less susceptible to inclement weather. It’s during these snowy months when we Northerners are forced to put down the kickstand for what seems like an eternity.

But we have endured! A resourceful bunch, we have made the best of these trying times by tinkering away in our garages.

But not all of us are so lucky. Garages are a rare commodity for most people, and even those who may have one still find themselves in situations that force them to become even more resourceful by venturing into more unsavory spaces, like a basement.

This happened to Peter Baldwin when chopping his 1979 Kawasaki KZ400 LTD at his parents’ house. They may have a garage, but they don’t have a garage with heating. And since Peter lives in Minnesota, this becomes a major problem come winter. As Peter says, he needed to escape the Minnesota cold. And he did—in his parents’ basement. “Building in my garage is preferred,” he says. “There’s plenty of room and it’s well-lit.” In comparison, their basement is a 12′ x 12′ unfinished room that’s not only “pretty tight” but filled with stuff. “I had to clear out an area for the build, but I still didn’t have a lot of room to lay out the parts,” Peter remembers. “But at least it’s heated.”

Ironically, even when the weather was nice (meaning when Peter wasn’t exiled to the basement), he couldn’t just walk a few paces and, voilà, be in the garage. He could only go there during summer break, as he was still in college, about an hour away. “I didn’t have much time to build during the school year,” he says. “Most of the work was done during the summer while I was home on break.”

College created another obstacle. “I had a job that helped pay for the build, but I also had to earn enough money to make it through school,” he says. “So I had to build on a budget.”
This meant he had to do some repurposing, such as making the front fender a rear fender (we’ll get to that later). The budget also steered Peter toward this particular Kawasaki. “To be honest, I found a good deal,” Peter says. “I bought the bike not running from a guy on craigslist who’d owned it since 1979.”

Peter made this transaction in July, during his summer break, so he began customizing almost immediately in his parents’ roomy garage. Even before the purchase, Peter knew he wanted to hardtail whatever he got, so he first stripped the KZ and chopped the rear subframe. To temporarily get the proper stance, he made two 4″ extension aluminum plates—each drilled with two holes—and bolted them between the frame and swingarm. “This allowed me to keep the rear wheel square with the frame while I mocked up the stretch and drop I wanted,” Peter explains.

Once completed, Peter was ready to weld on his fabbed hardtail. But welding it on was one thing. Actually making the damn thing was a whole other story. It wouldn’t even have been much of a story to tell, either, if Peter had a tube bender—which he didn’t. With one, Peter would have only had to cut out four pieces of 1-1/8″ DOM steel tubing. But since he didn’t have a tube bender, Peter had to cut out eight pieces of tubing. “It took me two tries to get the fitment right,” he explains. “And I had to cut the welds off and refit and reweld the frame back together.”

Peter ultimately wanted to attain a chopper-style build, and he was already well on his way there by going rigid. To actually get there, Peter chopped as many parts as possible. He also relocated the battery by mounting the modified box to the cross tube on the bottom of the frame. This consequently lowered the center of gravity, too, improving handling.

For everything he didn’t chop, Peter originally wanted to keep stock. But that changed upon learning that the front brake was locked up and the carbs ran a little rough. “Instead of spending money to repair the subpar, 40-year-old brakes and carbs, I decided to spend a little bit extra to get modern brakes and a new carb,” he says.

Peter described this as an opportunity. It also provided plenty of other opportunities, such as fabbing numerous 1/8″ steel brackets.

For the carb, he made and bent one so it would bolt properly to the frame. (He also bent a license plate bracket so it would install around the rear axle before securing it with the axle nut and screwing the plate to the mount.)

Meanwhile, the caliper’s two mounting holes wouldn’t line up with the bike since the caliper was larger than stock. While Peter found a mounting hole on the fork to bolt the caliper to, he had to make another bracket that bolts into one of the stock caliper mounting holes.

At this juncture, much more assembling needed to be done, but the fall semester was about to begin. So Peter put the build on hold and went back to college. Soon (but not soon enough), Peter returned and was ready to resume his work. But this time, there would be no garage. It was winter, and the bitter cold had banished Peter to his parents’ basement.

There, Peter realized he needed a new rear fender. But rather than purchase one, he took advantage of the fact that he’d already chopped the front fender and moved it to the rear. Peter then modified the front struts and fabbed a bracket that’s bolted to the bottom of the fender and frame.

Working in the basement, he also installed many parts that weren’t originally made for KZs. This led to a lot of modifying, including a seat that Peter bolted through a hole to the “front” rear fender and another self-made bracket welded on the frame.

Additionally, another “Peter bracket” that’s bolted to the bottom triple clamp supports an aftermarket headlight, while the front and rear of the tank are bolted to two others that Peter welded to the frame.

Peter cleaned out the wiring in the basement, too. But he didn’t powdercoat his bike down there. He didn’t do it anywhere, for that matter. “The paint was really the only thing that I outsourced,” he says. “I think quality paint is something worth spending money on.”

Luckily, it seems as though Peter may never have to work in that or any basement again. Now graduated and employed, Peter is looking for a house of his own—with a heated garage. “I’m glad I don’t have to work in the basement anymore. It was just too small to get a lot of work done,” he says. “But it was all I had, and I was able to finish the build. I would work in there again if I had to.” Spoken like a true DIYer.