January 25, 2011

Back to That Engine...

So I stripped the engine down to the bolts, taking lots of pictures along the way (most of them ill lit and poorly focused).  I found the digital camera to be one of the most useful tools in my arsenal at this time.  I would lay the bolts out and photo the configuration to make sure I got them all back in the right holes.

Poorly lit, yet focused. Points deducted for shooting your own toe.

The pistons were pretty crapped up with carbon and gunk.  I’ve heard tell of folks tossing pistons for this very reason, but rest assured; a good wire brush and some mineral spirits will work wonders on a gunked piston.  Same for the valves.

I brought all the aluminum to a local guy who made a living sand blasting old truck engines clean.  He worked me into his schedule for about $70 and blasted my whole engine, piece by piece.  Once I got the case parts back, they looked factory new…almost too new.  I finished them with rattle can VHT high temp engine paint and baked the parts in my mom’s oven.  This, I should note, will not directly improve your relationship with your mom, or her oven, or the house, which reeked of burning chemicals for a day and a half.

 ...And yet from such anguish emerges beauty, like flowers from a skull...or a tattoo of flowers coming out of skulls. 
As shown in the photopragh above, I painted the side covers with silver wheel paint.  It’s rated to 400 degrees and the engine covers seldom get that hot.  Plus VHT is, like, ten bucks a can, and I’m on a budget here.

I honed the cylinders (probably the easiest yet hardest sounding part of rebuilding an engine) and the valve seats and then began the somewhat daunting task of putting the whole kit and caboodle back together.  Somewhere in that process, I discovered that all the contact surfaces on my valve cam and tappets were shot.  I believe these things are case hardened, which means the metal surface is only hard for the first 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch.  The core of the casting is still unhardened steel.  This is actually a good thing for two reasons: one, it reduces the brittleness of the part, yet still allows it to be used in services which require hardening.  Think of the traditional Japanese sword, which is comprised of three different hardnesses of metal for the spine, body, and edge of the blade.  Well, a case hardened cam shaft is just like that…except it’s two metals, not three…and it’s a cam shaft, not a sword.  But still Japanese, in the case of the Honda.

In 'case' there is still some confusion

Second, case hardening gives the consumer a much cheaper product, as it does not require extensive heat treating time and labor in the production facility.  Which leads me to digress: I find it amazing that we can buy these motorcycles brand new for around $5000.  Take one apart some day and just look at all the engineered parts in these things.  It’s incrediculous.

All case hardening nerd-dom aside (and please correct me if I’m wrong on any of the above purported facts) my case hardening on my cam shaft had bit the dust.  I think some joker might have run it with low (or no) oil one day.  The lobes were pitted and scarred, and the tappets (most likely as a result) were all beveled and worn.  I hit ebay and managed to scrounge up a new shaft and tappets for around $40.  Interestingly, they were selling individual used tappets for $30 a pair, but I bought the entire valve cover assembly (with eight tappets installed) off a fine gentleman for five dollars less.  Win.

I kept the original piston rings except for one set (which I broke when trying to remove them.  I’m wondering to this day if I should have just gone nuts and replaced the whole lot of them when I had the engine apart.  However, I had it on good authority (my dad, who used to build and race Fiats in the SCCA circuit) that the rings were good, so I just reinstalled them and wished for the best.  We’ll see.

I resisted a good deal of temptation on this engine.  There were plenty of high compression pistons, racing cams, and big bore kits calling my name.  But as this is my first real build, I decided to run it stock (well, mostly, it has an oil cooler adapter, and the carb might be jetted, but I'm not sure).  When I can get the basic machine purring and whirring, I'll think about throwing in some hop-ups.

At the end of…I think it was a year (I was in college at the time of this rebuild, if memory serves) I had a finished CB550 engine sitting on a board mounted to the unused foosball table in the basement.  The motor was clean, it had good compression, and it looked pretty to boot.

Fig. 21: Pretty

This was all well and good at the time, as I was still focused on building a pretty bike at the time.  But as in all good thrillers, what started off sunny and bright was about to take a turn for the gritty and visceral.

January 13, 2011


My Grandpa Reggie was a great man on this earth.  A machinist at a tool and die factory in Chicago for most of his life.  An immigrant.  A hard working American.  A man who could truely be called a follower of Jesus, not only in word, but most resoundingly, in deed.  More so than I could go on about any machine or movie, I could go on and on about my Grandpa Reggie.

On October 12th of 2008, early in the morning, my Grandpa went home to be with the God he had followed for so long during his hard life.  Let those who view Christianity as a sham hold their judgement.  If you knew my grandpa, you would have seen something real in him which you could not explain by the material alone.  There was the Holy Spirit in him, and it was undeniable.  I wish you could have met him.

Last week, my cousin Tim and I went into the city to visit my grandma and go through my grandpa's old tools.  It was, in short, amazing.  Bits, reamers, v-blocks, micrometers, files, rasps, saws, blades, strange steel implements in small wooden boxes that Tim and I could only educatedly guess at the purpose of.  It all had to go due to space constraints, and we had no problem preserving these priceless and useful artifacts.

A whole lot-a wonderful.  Thanks for letting me borrow the carro mom.

I will say this: they either don't make tools like they used to, or all the crappy ones broke and got tossed, leaving only the good ones behind.  I suspect the latter.

What's this?! No plastic dipped handles? No comfort contour? No foam insert, plush covered grips with shock-absorbing patented polymer Wus-Gard technology?

While I do not yet know what I will use half of the tools for, I am just giddy thinking about what I might think about using them on...if that makes any sense...which it does not.  Perhaps it could best be summed up by saying that I am swept away by the fragrant winds of potential.  I'm pretty much sold on the idea that I will posess a machine lathe at some point in my life.  And also maybe an end mill...Yet even in the tight grasp of material want, one thing that surprised me was how little my grandpa owned as far as tools to get the job done.  It all fit in a space half the size of my garage, which is pretty small once the car is parked in it

 My shop: Inside...

...And out

Every item my grandpa owned was quality, some were even custom made, and he had just enough to get by.  How that goes against the typical American mindset of acquisition (I file myself under that mindset as well, shamefully).

But this is a builders blog, so how am I going to tie this into the world of sparks, metal, and busted knuckles?  By saying this:

There are countless TV shows and websites out there telling you what you can do if you only have________ (usually an english wheel).  I am here to take a stand, to dissagree (disrespectfully).  Whether you're forging a motorbike, or making knives, or planting flowers or whatever, you can make anything you want, by making do.  The dollar solves quickly and stupidly what some time and a bit of brainwork does for (almost) free.  Take this gas tank I fabbed up:

Mordor, meet Mad Max

This tank is rough, people ask me how I'm going to smooth it out (I'm not, because it's AWESOME!) and what color I'm going to paint it (ditto the above parenthetical statement).  How was it made?  With a cheap MIG welder (well, as cheap as they get off craigslist), $20 worth of sheet metal I bought off a dude in an industrial shop, a bit of steel I found on the ground, and an old CB550 gas tank I cut the bottom off of (and almost blew myself up in the process).  It took me almost a year to make, but it was an adventure, and I loved it (when I wasn't hating it).  I also learned a lot about welding, metal forming, and the vital importance of outgassing before hot work.

The bung, by the way, is a vented brass one from bungking.com.  It was the most expensive part on the tank, at $45.

All this to say that you can do it, right now if you're willing to shut down that computer/leave work early/lose some sleep.  You can make things yourself.  Set aside your programmed visions of factory made fodder.  Get rough.  Get ready.  Forget "Pretty" and go for something Breathtaking.

January 5, 2011

Establishing The Dream

During some of the less salient moments of my cubicle job, I had begun doing a lot of image searches.  While the Moto Guzzi Otto is a beautiful bike, one has to have other sources to draw from.  In the beginning, I was staring at alot of screen images like Fig. 3 here:

Fig. 3: A pretty three cylinder Kawasaki done in the cafe style.

Unfortunately, I was spending a lot of time on my parents rear patio looking at this:

Fig. 4: Rust, rock hard rubber, flat tires, corroded dresser bars, and half the parts.  Also, a plastic bag, presumably to protect the engine...from itself.

The CB550 started off mostly complete.  It had a beastly huge king and queen seat on it which contained an entire ecosystem.  I trashed it, having not yet developed a taste for that sort of thing (I'm still not sure how I feel about them).  I pulled the muffers off the pipes, which wasn't hard considering that rust had done half the job for me.  The old battery was toast and I junked it too (but in hindsight I should have kept it for the discount places give you for trading in your old battery. Something to keep in mind for you builders-to-be out there). 
I pulled the carburators after taking the tank off and putting it somewhere. I figured an engine and carb rebuild was in order. I like to get the functions in order before I start fiddling with style. I've heard of folks trying to salvage gaskets (shoot, I've done it myself) but for a nice, clean build, I like to go the full route and buy a gasket kit. It was easy enough to find one online using the model and year listed on the VIN plate (Note: Don't think you're going to get the right gaskets if you buy the wrong year. The Japanese were constantly tweeking the engines on these old bikes).

While I waited for my gaskets to come in the mail from Tiawan or wherever it was these things came from, I brought the engine into the basement and cracked it open. If you can have a friend help you with the first part, you have less of a chance of dying, but if you think you're man enough to carry 200 lbs of aluminum and iron down a staircase, go for it. I did.
Once the motor was opened I was remarkably surprised. Twas remarkably clean for it's age and exterior condition.

 Fig. 5: The tappets and cams looked alright to Demoto from the outset, but that only went on to show how incredibly little he knew about motorbikes. 

Fig. 6: The Clutch was in pristine condition for her age.

 Fig. 7: This was Demoto's first encounter with a shifter mechanism, and it scared him.

Fig. 8: It appeared all gears were presant and accounted for in the transmission...

 Fig. 9: The ignition points left some things to be desired, like a new set of points

Fig. 10: As could be expected, the primary gear was a filthy mess.  You might notice the bare shaft where the stator rotor used to be (it's just above the stator armature lying on the ground).  Expect to need a puller to get that off.  I puller is a useful thing for any shop, but unless you're running a factory, you're only going to use it once in a blue moon.  Spend accordingly.

 Fig. 11: In case you have no idea what a puller is.

...But ripping things to bits is the easy part.  One must remember how to put it back together. 

January 4, 2011

The Beginning (as I recall it)

I came to the concept of the cafe racer less by a driven passion for the style than by a process of elimination.  I didn't like cruisers, I do like tourers (but only for functionality), I didn't like choppers (yet, but that's been an interesting road...), and I certainly don't like sport bikes in their current form.  Unless you want to split hairs and start talking about rats and brats, those are pretty much the styles we have to choose from today, at least for a young man starting out with his bike building career.

The first bike I saw which brought to light how pretty fast can look was the Moto Guzzi Otto Cilindri (sans the dustbin fairing). See Fig. 1 below.

Fig. 1: Front and rear drums, springer front end. Yet history goes on to show us that neat-o vintage styling and a top speed of 290 kph is a concoction of suicide only softened by the adreniline it brings from the glands of it's victims.

I'll be honest, I just liked the gas tank, and the aggressive 500cc V8 nestled beneith it.  Further research into the bike only deepened my love for it.  At 180 mph is was one of the fastest bikes of 1955.  I could go on and on about this bike, but why bother.  180 mph, V8.  What more is there to know?

I'm pretty visual, and things usually start off as a picture for me.  Either in my head, or in front of it.  That being said, I decided to make my own picture of what I would like to build.  Once completed (in my head) it looked exactly like Fig. 1 (See Fig. 1 above).  But you won't believe how hard it is to get ahold of a 500cc Italian made V8 these days.  And if you want that with a titled frame, forget about it.  That's probobly because they only made, like, six of these bikes, and most of them are owned by museums.  There are a smattering of working replicas, but these are all possessed by single, european men in their sixties.
My attentions turned to the Honda CB550 sitting in the backyard of my then girlfriend's (now wife's) house.  She had acquired it on a whim from her neighbor by simply asking for it, then gotten just about every male in her family to wheel it over to her house (on a skateboard, as the brakes were locked with corrosion).  There it sat for about three earth-sun cycles, weathering the typically brutal Chicago winters.  Finally, her father announced that it was going to be scrapped unless someone manned up enough to take it.

I am that man.

Sights being set on the CB550 engine and frame, I made the following composite:

Fig. 2: Note the obvious presence of the Otto Cilindri tank and seat on Demoto's early design for the CB550, and that darling front fender.

I currently had some bids in on a small aircraft oil cooler, and I intended to encase said device in the pictured belly pan for some added awesomeness (see Fig. 2 above).  I lost that bid to a terrible individual known only to me as "dxxxr".  I have not seen an aircraft oil cooler designed to go on anything smaller than a Supermarine Spitfire since.  No worries though, the design changed, and changed...and changed.  But as the old cliche goes; "It was a start".