During this rebuild project, I’ve done plenty of hard things.
I slaved over the engine with brushes and chemicals to prep it for paint. I banged up my hands tapping out bearing races, struggling for each millimeter of movement.
I’ve made mistakes and wasted time. I’ve broken bolts off deep in the crankcase, cracked my piston, and busted bearings.
But the hardest part of this project has been handling the days when I flat-out don’t know what to do next. Days when it’s been weeks since I last touched the XL, when each day without progress leaves me sick to my stomach.
Working on this build has made me realize that sometimes following a difficult path is easier than not knowing where the path is at all.
The strange inertia of motorcycle projects
When I have a goal, something clear to work toward, it’s okay if the work is frustrating or tedious. At least I know I’m making progress. Every small success makes it easier to keep going.
It’s like scraping the burnt gaskets off the cylinder head. It was frustrating, ridiculous work, but flaking off even the tiniest piece gave me the resolve I needed to keep scraping.
It’s a kind of mental inertia: the very act of achieving something makes it easier to take the next step.
Of course, inertia works both ways. When I get stuck, when all my plans are foiled by missing parts, missing supplies, missing tools, I can feel it pull me down. I tell myself it’s okay to forget about the build, just for today, just for this week. Before long, I look up and wonder where the time went.
It’s hard not to berate myself for the lost time. I’ve made it so far already, shouldn’t I be past this kind of wayfinding?
But that’s not how it works. I’m learning as I go, and every new chapter of this project is an unknown. It’s unrealistic of me to expect that after I finished the engine I’d automatically know how to shape fenders. This isn’t a video game.
Rebuilding a motorcycle is a project of patience and persistence — especially if it’s your first. To get through, you have to stay with it, and keep making progress, even small progress, whenever you can.
A summer of slow steps
April was fast and magical. It was the last “good” month I’ve had for rebuild progress. In April, I finished rebuilding the engine and put it back in the frame.
In May, I busted up a lot of bearings. I had done a lot of wheel bearings by then, so I thought I knew what I was doing. But when you’re learning something new, there usually comes a moment of over-confidence. And in that over-confidence, you start making mistakes.
First, I busted a steering stem bearing by trying to install it with a pipe that was slightly too big. The pipe caught the outer ring of the bearing, and the bearing exploded spectacularly.
Next, I ruined a needle bearing tapping it into the swingarm. I had assumed it was the same method as all the other bearings I had installed … but no.
I installed the first one, then decided to check in case I had missed something. All the YouTube tutorials screamed at me — “Please don’t tap in this bearing!”
Hello, Partzilla? I’d like to order some new bearings, please.
In June, I realized one of my suspension linkage parts had been forgotten in the bottom of a box, and hadn’t been powdercoated. In July, I finally got my steering stem bearings sorted, which meant I could install my forks. I also found a high-temp engine paint that was a near-perfect match for my copper, so I painted my valve covers and exhaust headers — just for flair 😉
But I still needed that linkage part before I could put my wheels on. For months, getting the bike back on two wheels had been my finish line, so I held out, waiting to achieve that goal.
I knew I had two general tasks ahead: electrical and metalworking. But I didn’t know where to start with either, and I still didn’t have my linkage part back. With every day I grew more frustrated, more discouraged. Finally, I admitted it to myself: I needed help.
As you probably know by now, I’m a member of Matt McLeod’s custom motorcycle community (and, full disclosure, an affiliate). So I wrote a post explaining my situation.
The next day, I got a response from Matt, with some tips on cleaning up my wiring harness, and some resources from his Metalworking 2 course to look into so I could start working on the metalshaping.
There are still a lot of unknowns in this project, but at least now I know what I’m going to do when I get back out in the garage this weekend. And at least I know I have support when I need it.
Don’t make your project harder than it needs to be
One of the reasons I started this project was because I wanted to prove I could tackle a big, challenging, and impressive project, all on my own. But now, I’m starting to think that mindset might be leading me to be too hard on myself.
Building a custom motorcycle for the first time, without any prior experience, is hard. And that’s okay — I want it to be hard. I want to earn it.
But when I get so stuck that I start to get discouraged, that’s an inertia that can end a project. And the most important rule for finishing a motorcycle project, or any big project, is to keep going.
If you’re considering your first motorcycle rebuild, don’t underestimate the value of having a mentor. It’s been the top recommendation in two of my articles about vintage motorcycles for a reason.
No YouTube tutorial, no manual can take the place of asking a real, live, knowledgeable human for advice.
As for me… well, let’s just say the rest of my year isn’t getting less busy. But I’m confident that with a little help, I’ll make some great progress with the XL this winter.
I don’t want to jinx it but… I’m coming for ya, One Show 😉
Ready to start your own custom motorcycle project?
If you don’t know anyone with motorcycle build experience — or you don’t want to irritate the ones you do know 😉 — Matt’s Krank Engineering community is an excellent resource that I wholeheartedly recommend. In addition to giving advice over his forums, Matt provides beginner-level courses to help newbie builders learn the skills they need to build their first custom motorcycle.
Plus, when you join his community through the link below, part of your membership will help support the RIDEWELL blog. Thank you!
Being an affiliate for Matt’s community helps me continue to create quality content for readers like you. If you’re interested, you can read more about my affiliate policies here.
Beth Porter says
Congratulations on your engagement!!! That’s so exciting!!
You’ve made an excellent point with the momentum of a motorcycle build. I can easily get discouraged when I think about exactly how long my project bike has been in the shop — and that it was running before I put it there! But I’ve learned a lot in the process and I’m always eager to learn the next thing and grow my skill set. The key is keeping focused on the end goal and keeping the intermediate goals achievable.
Thanks for another great article, Loryn!
Thanks so much, Beth! You’re right, intermediate steps are the way to go. I think this really hit hard because my original immediate goal kept getting pushed back… so I panicked. And then the panic spiraled. But it’s okay! Matt and Jordan helped me get back on track, and last night I opened up my wiring harness to clean it and found some spots for improvement.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who has to keep herself from remembering that her bike was running just fine before she decided to tear it down… hahah. I’d love to hear more about your build in the Kustomizers group! 😀
That. Was. Awesome. You’re a great storyteller ?
Thanks Matt! You’re a great teacher 😀
Your last post left me wondering “why the heck do I wrench”? I spent the rest of the night really thinking about this and it opened up a can of worms. I really started asking myself why I am the way I am.
Now you so elegantly and emotionally break down the process. I have found my zen state while working recently. Then, after the jobs done, is a great time to reflect on what I’ve achieved and what i have learned.
This post was the perfect reflection after reaching a totally bare frame today.
This is awesome, thank you. I’m so glad my stories have struck a chord with you. It’s not always easy to write about my own shortcomings, but when it connects with readers like you, it makes it all worth it. Thank you so much, Marty! Keep wrenching 🙂
Through all the slaving, the hand-banging; the broken bolts; the cracked pistons; and yes, even the wasted time, there is one underlying theme in all of this – in the entire RIDEWELL blog for that matter: You have made tremendous progress.
And through it all, you’ve learned one of the most valuable lessons of personal and/or professional life: Mentoring Matters!
As the old African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Thank you, as always, for bringing us on this journey with you. Truly grateful. ??
Ride on; and Write on, because you’re Right on!!! ??
Thank you so much, Ohene! It feels slow sometimes, but I know that someday I’ll look back and see how far I’ve come 🙂