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.