Cafe racers are becoming a more and more popular genre of bike. The old vintage look it has along with it’s simplicity is pleasing to any pair of eyes that see it. If you’re thinking about turning your motorcycle into a cafe racer, you’ve absolutely come to the right place.
I’ve restored 14 motorcycles in my spare time and most of them I turned into cafe racers. Many wonder if they have the capability of pursuing such a goal while others may know a thing or two about mechanics but simply don’t know where to start. Wherever you’re at in your journey, I can answer your questions in this tutorial and show you exactly what I’ve done on all of my cafe racer builds.
Whether you decide to keep this motorcycle as your own or flip it to make a profit, you’ve chosen an awesome hobby. Let the cafe racer building begin!
Find Your Space
You’ll need to figure out where you’re going to work before you start on any kind of motorcycle project. Try to find a place that you don’t mind keeping a little messy for the next few months; rebuilding a motorcycle isn’t exactly the cleanest job.
Whether it be your garage, driveway, or shed, make sure you have enough space. You’ll need more room than you think so plan accordingly.
If you wish to get into the motorcycle rebuilding business but don’t have the space to do it in, you have a few options. First, you can try renting a self storage unit. The average cost to rent a 5×10 storage unit in the U.S. is about $60 per month. To rent a 5×5, the average cost is about $45 a month. You can calibrate the size and see what amount of space you’d need.
Your second option would be to try asking around to family and friends that would be willing to let you use some of their space in their garage, driveway, shed, etc. When I was going to college, I used a friend’s shed in his back yard and restored two motorcycles in it, even in the dead of winter (10 degrees, yikes!).
Have the Right Tools
I honestly cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have the right tools to do a job like this. You don’t need very many tools, but the few you do need should be quality tools. Click here to see my list of recommended tools to use.
It’s important to use quality tools while you’re working on your project motorcycle. I’m not saying you have to go out there and have the most expensive and best tools offered; just don’t buy the cheapest stuff there is.
There’s a reason some tools are so cheap; you could end up doing more damage than good using cheap tools. For example, I used a cheap socket set and ended up stripping a bunch of bolts. It’s incredibly frustrating.
Don’t make more work for yourself. Get the right tools you need to save yourself some time and money. Look at the tools you do have and assess their condition. If you notice a tool that won’t work well later but you know you’ll need it, replace it now because it’ll be incredibly annoying when you’re in the middle of a specific project on your cafe racer and have to run to the store in the middle of it.
Have a Discussion With Other Household Members
Whether you’re married, in a relationship, live with family, or have roommates, this is a step you shouldn’t skip. Rebuilding and modifying a motorcycle takes a lot of time and you must be willing to sacrifice some of your evenings and weekends to get the project done.
Talk with your other household members and have an open conversation about what your intentions are. Be realistic about the time you’ll need to get your project done according to your goals.
Be open to what other household members are saying and what their concerns are. Your spouse may be concerned about the decrease of your quality time or your roommates may be concerned about the whole garage being used up for your project.
Budget your time and stick to it to respect the other household members you live with. This can cause a lot of contention if you don’t and it’s not worth the stress you bring upon yourself if your time isn’t used wisely and in consideration of others. See my article here about how long it should take to restore a motorcycle.
Make a Budget
Assess your finances and make sure you are able to sufficiently fund your cafe racer build (see my article here about the detailed cost). All too often I’ve seen someone assume they have the funds before they get into their project, get started, run out of funds and have to wait til they have more money, have contention with their spouse because of money and a mess out in the garage, and end up selling their project when they were only half way done with it.
Don’t be like that. Make a plan, know how much you’re going to spend, and stick with it. Talk with your spouse if you have one and make sure it’s okay with them (and no, do not try to hide this from them). Are you still needing to convince your spouse to let you get a motorcycle? See my guide here on helpful tips to discuss with your spouse or significant other that may increase your chances.
It helps to go through each system and parts of your motorcycle that you’ll need to replace and plan accordingly. Always add in a few extra hundred dollars into your budget because surprises will come.
If you don’t have all the money upfront, make a monthly budget. Discipline yourself to spend an X amount of money per month or pay period so you can take care of your livelihood while still continuing to pursue your goal of creating a cafe racer.
Find Your Motorcycle
This is one of the most enjoyable and exciting parts about the process of building a cafe racer. If you don’t already have a motorcycle to rebuild, now is the time to go out and find one. Click here to see what I always look for when buying a project motorcycle.
I recommend restoring something that was made between the 70’s and 90’s. These types of motorcycles tend to be a lot easier to restore and convert into cafe racers because of their simplicity and basic systems. They’re also a lot cheaper to buy compared to newer motorcycles.
If this is your first restoration, I recommend restoring a Japanese motorcycle because they tend to be the easiest type of bike to rebuild. I’ve compiled a helpful guide when it comes to restoring Japanese motorcycles, you can find that here.
If you have more experience, go ahead and branch out a little further. European motorcycles make beautiful cafe racers, but be warned that they are much more complicated than other bikes; they are more expensive, use random threads (some have neither metric or english), and the parts are more difficult to find.
Keep in mind that a lot of used motorcycles won’t come with the original owner’s manual. Having one specific to your motorcycle will greatly help during this process so if you don’t have one, I highly recommend using emanualonline.com. It’s an easy and affordable tool to access your motorcycle’s manual quickly.
Strip Your Motorcycle
Once you have purchased your motorcycle and brought it home into your work space, now is the time to strip it completely down except for the engine (I find that engine removal is unnecessary, some are thorough and remove it anyway). Some may argue that this isn’t necessary, but in my experience I have found that the motorcycle looks so much better when you strip it, clean it, repaint, and put everything back on. It’ll feel and look like a brand new motorcycle.
Always remember to take hundreds of pictures while you are disassembling your motorcycle. This is something you absolutely cannot forget! You may take off a part and think you’ll remember where it goes, but when you’re putting it back on a few weeks or months later, you will have no idea where it goes. Take pictures before you take anything off, it saves so much time and frustration in the end.
Label every wire you see. Take a few minutes to identify where each wire connects and what it does. It helps to keep them connected and test them out to make sure you know what their job is. Wrap some tape around it with a detailed description about the wire. Never cut wires before you know what they do.
You need to put every single bolt you take off the motorcycle into a labeled plastic baggie. Again, you may think you’ll remember where each bolt goes, but you’ll soon find that your motorcycle has a lot of bolts and you will never remember which ones goes exactly where. Again, make sure you keep taking pictures of these in their place as well.
I once had a friend who attempted to restore a motorcycle and just threw all of his bolts and nuts into a bucket. One of the bolts was from the engine. He tried putting what he thought was the right bolt back onto the engine, only to find that he had used too long of a bolt and cracked the cylinder head.
If you have a center stand, I would engage that and also have some sort of lift under which ever part of the motorcycle is heaviest to keep it balanced (like I have pictured above).
I would first start with taking off the tank to prevent inflicting any more damage to it even if you plan on repainting it. Next remove any large gadgets such as windshields, side panels, etc. Next should be the seat, chain and tires, fenders, battery, carburetor, air box/pod filters, exhaust, lights, and instrument panel. I recommend keeping your wiring harness on.
The first thing you focus on after stripping down your motorcycle to the frame is your seat. Now is also the time to make any frame alterations you need.
Very often I would shorten the rear hoop of the motorcycle frame. I use an angle grinder to cut it short. You can easily find rear hoop replacements on Amazon. You may need to modify the hoop a little, but that’s what it’s for. If you don’t have a welder yourself, take your motorcycle in to get the new hoop welded on.
Some find that they want a two-seater cafe racer so they don’t bother modifying any part of the frame. That’s completely fine, too.
You can also find some nice motorcycle seat replacements on Amazon. Just make sure you get the right size suitable for your motorcycle, especially if you alter the rear hoop.
If you plan on having your seat custom made, now is the time to do it. In my experience, it usually takes several weeks or up to a month for seats to get finished by an upholsterer. If you have this sorted out first, you won’t risk any chance of sitting around waiting for it to get finished; instead, you can work on other parts of your motorcycle as your seat in being made.
The next task you should focus on is your tank. If you’re a bit intimidated about repainting your tank, especially if it has some body work that needs to be done, you’re not alone. The good news is, painting a motorcycle tank is actually relatively simple, but quite time consuming.
If you’re willing to be patient with the process, you will create a stunning tank that will for sure be an eye-turner. The tank is usually the first thing people notice when they look at a motorcycle.
If you plan on changing the color of the tank, there’s no need to completely sand it down to metal (unless it’s obvious that some spots need to be sanded down to metal). Make sure to just roughly sand the whole tank and get it smooth.
Next you’ll need to fill in the dents with filler or bondo using a plastic scraper. Follow the directions according to the filler you use, you’ll probably need to wait a certain amount of time before you sand your filler. Make sure to sand your filler using a sanding block, this will prevent any grooves made by your fingers.
Next is priming. Do very light layers and plan on doing several layers of primer, about 4-5. Once that’s dry, assess any other dents you did not see and repeat using filler and primer.
Now is the time to wet sand with fine sand paper to make sure everything is smooth. Once you have deemed the tank to be smooth, you can start painting the tank the color you like. Again, do light layers, about 4-5. Once that’s dried and you like how it looks, spray your tank with a 2-part clear coat (NOT a single part clear coat). Do several layers, about 3-4.
I recommend doing the tank at this point during your rebuild so it has time to cure during the time you spend on the rest of your motorcycle. For more information about how to paint your motorcycle tank, click here.
Mount New Tires
If you have new tires to mount, now is the time to do it. Some may be skeptical about buying tires online but I’ve never really had a problem with it. Just make sure the site is credible and you purchase the right size (you can check the size on old tires). The tires I recommend for motorcycles can be found in my list of suggested motorcycle upgrades.
Take your tires in to a tire shop to have them mounted. I recommend doing this before you do any painting on the rims. If you’ve never seen how tires are mounted on rims, you’ll know why it’s smart to wait to paint.
The mounting machine scrapes all the way around the rim to take the old tire off and again to get the new tire on. Any paint that was done previously will be scratched and chipped.
Once your tires are mounted, go ahead and paint your rims if that’s what you are planning. Sometimes I keep mine chrome if I’m able to get it to shine with some water and steel wool. If they don’t look very good, painting them will give a fresh look.
It’s easiest to put some paint tape on the tire and underneath the rim lip just a little. Then you can put some paper towels or paper around the tire themselves to prevent any over spray getting on them. Let the rims sit for a day or two so the paint can cure. Don’t place them back on to the motorcycle just yet.
Clean and Paint the Frame
Now that you have everything off your motorcycle except the engine and the wiring harness, now would be the time to pay attention to the frame.
I generally end up painting my motorcycle frames black because that’s how they came in stock, but you can honestly use whatever color you feel works best with your motorcycle.
Preparation on the frame is the most important step you can take to make your frame look amazing. The first step you’ll need to take is covering everything on the motorcycle you don’t want to paint. Wrap and tape around your engine and wiring harness and make sure the tape is secure. Over spray has a tendency to get into places that you don’t want. Be completely thorough about this.
Take a wire brush and brush in all the cracks and crevices on the frame and brush out any parts that have thick, caked-on oil and dirt (usually the bottom).
Now begin using 150 grit sandpaper and do a rough sand-through on your frame. You don’t need to get to bare metal, just sand it enough to scuff it up so the new paint will stick. If there are any spots that have rust, then you will need to sand down those spots to bare metal before you paint to prevent the rust from spreading any further.
Now you’ll need to wipe down your frame with a wax and grease remover. You may think you’ll get all the grease off while sanding or wiping it with a wet cloth, but I assure you that there are still spots with grease on it. This includes any hand prints you’ve made.
Now you can prime your frame. I usually like to use the green self-etching primer if it’s down to bare metal. If it’s not, go ahead and use a regular sandable filler primer.
Once that’s dry, go ahead and paint the frame with your desired color. It’s okay to use a high quality spray can rather than powder coating. Do several coats (4-5) to make sure you get everywhere. Let the paint cure for a day or two.
Once the frame paint has cured, now you can place the tires back on to the motorcycle and fasten the braking system. This is a really cool part about building a cafe racer because it begins to look like a motorcycle again, except it looks so much better than it did before. For more information about how to paint your motorcycle frame, see my guide by clicking here.
If your motorcycle needs any engine repairs, now is the time to do it. If you need an engine rebuild, take it into a shop and have them do it for you. It’s annoying having to tow a motorcycle that isn’t running, but at least you have the wheels on it to push it around.
There could be multiple issues that can happen with a motorcycle engine, but the most common engine problem I’ve run into is worn down piston rings (this is especially common for older motorcycles).
If your motorcycle ran before you started taking things apart but noticed it blew out a ton of smoke, that’s a sign that your piston rings need to be replaced. That means that the oil is seeping by the rings and is getting blown up with the gas from the carburetor and is blowing out all that smoke.
If your motorcycle ran great before you took it apart, all you’ll need to do in this step is clean and shine up your engine. There are various ways to clean your engine and it all depends on the type of metal your engine is made of.
The most common type of metal motorcycle engines are made out of is cast-aluminum which looks and feels a little rough to the touch. You can clean it by using a scotch-brite pad and soapy water to wipe off the grease and grime that builds up on it. Unfortunately you cannot shine cast-aluminum engines.
The side engine covers, however, are usually made from block-aluminum which can very easily be shined up. This is where I spend most of my time cleaning on the engine. Older motorcycles will usually have scratched up side engine covers due to dropping the bike.
You can shine up the engine covers by sanding them with 60 grit, 150 grit, 220 grit, 400 grit, 600 grit, and 1000 grit. After sanding, use a metal polish to really give the side covers that brand-new shine.
Before you take the carbs off your engine, take pictures of it so you know exactly how to place it back on. People often try to put them on incorrectly, even backwards. Obviously that won’t work.
Do not rebuild your carburetor unless you have a guide showing you how to do it; there are many small parts to a carburetor that are easy to lose and hard to remember where they go; carbs also often have screws that should not be turned in all the way, rather some need certain thread counts.
Check online for forums and repair guides specific to your motorcycle carburetor as each one is different. These will be able to give you a step-by-step guide on how to take apart your carburetor, what rebuilding kit to purchase, and how to put it back together.
I recommend also using an ultrasonic cleaner to clean your carbs. These are generally inexpensive and can be found online, at home improvement stores, or auto stores. You can place all the carburetor parts in an ultrasonic cleaner once it’s all taken apart; the cleaner will break apart all the gelled up gas.
Install Lights, Instrument Panel, Handlebars, and Fenders
Now is the time to install your lights, instrument panel, handlebars, and fenders. Don’t worry about hooking everything up to the wiring harness just yet. Just place the lights where you want them to be and label the wires attached with some tape so they’re easier to identify in the future when you do hook them up to the wiring harness
If you end up buying a new speedometer or tachometer, be careful of buying ones that state they’re “universal.” There really is no such thing as a “universal” tachometer or speedometer.
You can identify the right tachometer and speedometer on your motorcycle by looking in your owner’s manual or looking on the back of the old ones which will have a ratio such as “4:1” or “600:1,” etc.
These numbers are the gear ratios inside these instruments. For example, a “4:1” ratio means for every one rotation of the wheel, the gear inside the instrument will rotate four times. A universal or different ratio speedometer and/or tachometer installed will give you false readings.
Install Battery and Wiring Harness
Now that you have all of your electric components in place, hook them up to the sources of power.
Get a cheap test light so you can use it to know when you have power, where you should have power, and print off a wiring diagram as well as watch some videos on how to track down some electrical problems.
This is often the most frustrating part about rebuilding a motorcycle. The electrical components can get a little confusing even for those who are experienced. Have a friend or co-worker come over that knows a little bit about wiring and electricity to help you out while you hook up your electrical components.
Once you have everything hooked up properly, try to hide as much of the wiring as possible. I usually use some zip ties and tie them to the frame underneath the seat where you can’t see it. That’ll give your cafe racer the sought-after wireless look.
Exhaust is important to pay attention to it because it can really make or break a cafe racer.
Sometimes I use the same exhaust pipes that were already on the motorcycle, or I order some new smaller ones to give a cleaner look to the exhaust system.
You’ll need to remove the exhaust pipes and examine them to make sure there aren’t any holes in them. Exhaust pipes are susceptible to holes because of the heat running through them and are more prone to rust with them being on the bottom of the motorcycle. Make any needed repairs to them.
Exhaust pipes tend to be a bit ugly due to the heat that’s constantly going through them, so I frequently use some exhaust wrap to cover any potential cosmetic issues. Make sure there aren’t any gaps between pipes when installing new exhaust as that can later cause issues and be extremely loud.
Now that your tank has cured for a while, you can now place it on your motorcycle. This is a simple step, however, make sure you are extremely careful as you do so. There’s nothing more frustrating than installing your freshly painted motorcycle tank and scratching it while you install it.
Screw in the bolts necessary to keep the tank in place. Next, connect the fuel line to the fuel valve on the tank. Now you can pour some gas into the tank. I recommend not filling up your tank completely in case you need to remove it again for whatever reason. Make sure your petcock is turned to “on” if you have one.
Before you try starting your motorcycle, slowly turn your handle bars from side to side and make sure they do not bump into your tank. If you notice it’s too close for comfort, adjust your handlebars so they won’t collide with your tank while you’re making future turns.
Now is the moment of truth: starting up your cafe racer! It will probably take a few tries to get your motorcycle started because it’s trying to work out some of the dust that may have gotten inside some of the systems while you took it apart.
Install Seat/Quality Check
Your seat should be done by now if you had it professionally done by an upholsterer. Before you install it, do a quality check on your cafe racer and make sure everything looks the way you want it.
During this step, I’ll usually find a small spot on the frame I missed or a wire sticking out that I don’t like. Take the appropriate steps to clean up everything and make it look the way you want it to.
Now you can add the final touch: your seat. And voila! You just rebuilt your own stunning cafe racer!