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Tips for Building a Basket Case

Custom Motorcycle, Harley Davidson, Washington DC, DUNN LEWIS, DIY Garage

Some fear the basket case. Here are a few tips from Tyler on how to resurrect one with confidence.


The torn down motorcycle in boxes. Stripped beyond all recognition. Left in a garage for years on end. Like the sun-bleached skeleton of a beached whale.

“Why!” You cry at the poorly written Craigslist post. “Who in their right mind would do such a stupid thing? And to a pristine, stock [insert rare model] no less!”

One potato-quality photo of a bare frame looks back at you.

I love a good basket case. It’s cheap and I’m broke. It’s a good excuse to do custom work, because the bike is already fucked up. The best part—once the bike is done, you’ll have touched almost every single part, nut, and bolt on the bike. You’ll know close to everything about it. Any issue will be easily diagnosable and therefore easier to fix. And if you build it right you’ll learn the procedure for nearly every service, major and minor. Even big projects like dropping the motor will seem smaller and more achievable.


Tip one: This is not the project in which you learn to work on a bike. If you are starting from zero or close to it, buy a bike that’s running and learn how to maintain it. Remember, the previous owner just took shit apart and didn’t have the knowledge or the time or the resources to put it back together. They would have learned a hell of a lot more just performing basic, routine maintenance.

Tip two: Buy a bike you really want. A T100? The RD350? Whatever it is, you know what a cool one looks like and you want to have it. You’ll stay motivated throughout the project because you’re coming out the other end with your dream bike, dude. I picked an Evo Sporty just because I wanted one for a while--I rode one of The Rumblesmith’s choppers last year and I was hooked. Remember, though, that getting the bike you want can take a combination of great luck and great timing.

Tip three: All the same rules of buying any other bike apply, the parts are just scattered. Look for bad rust spots. If you can, see if the motor turns over. Ask the buyer the right questions. Ask if it ran or not before it was torn down. Ask why it was torn down. Father-daughter project? Just cause? Ask why it never got back together. No interest? Seized motor? There are some projects that you should walk away from. Don’t let the fantasy of owning a beautiful running motorcycle distract you from the fact that what’s in front of you may now be irrevocably fucked.

"Bad" Example

Tip four: Break the project down into small, achievable goals and execute them in a logical order. “Check compression” and “rebuild carbs” are done within hours and both get you closer to a running bike. Same thing for “clean wheels” or “change tires.” Now is the time to do the 10k service interval--most of the stuff is likely out of the frame, so check valves and timing and all that crap while everything is easiest to access. Case in point, I had a bunch of motor work to do on the sportster--verifying cam and ignition timing, replacing some gaskets, etc.--and I waited to do it until much of the bike was all together. Not the end of the world, but it would have been much easier if I had done this work earlier on in my build!

Harley Davidson, 883 Sportster, Motorcycle, Washington DC, DUNN LEWIS, DIY Garage

Tip five: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You’ve already got enough on your plate. No need to tear into a part or a component unless you’ve diagnosed an issue. I’ve noticed people will try to do this especially in regards to wiring harnesses, thinking that since it’s old that the entire thing needs replacing. Not necessarily. If you identify a bad connection, a frayed wire, or a non-functioning component--OK, repair or replace it. If you want to simplify the harness, cut out the components and switches you don’t want. But for the love of god don’t throw the functioning part away and start from scratch. You’re bound to get in over your head, over budget, and past your deadline.

Tip six: Stay organized. Make a google doc with parts & pictures, manufacturer parts numbers, reference images, prices. Record all the work you do and the date you do it on, and the parts you found out you’d need on that day. Record how much you spent on those parts. Keep all the links to all the relevant service manuals, forums, pictures, procedures here. Keep a checklist of work you need to do to get the bike running. This will keep you on track to finish the project, stay under budget, and make sure shit doesn’t slip your mind. And if you ever want to sell the bike, this document can be worth hundreds of dollars to both you and the buyer. A meticulous service record is a great “fuck off” to lowballers. HERE is a copy of my build doc that you can use for reference.

Harley Davidson, 883 Sportster, Motorcycle, Washington DC, DUNN LEWIS, DIY Garage

Tip seven: Ask for help. Quick plug for the motorcycle community here in DC. We’re lucky--people here are friendly, inclusive, non-judgemental, willing to share knowledge and make connections, and excited to help. You need fabrication work? You don’t know how to adjust a carburetor? Ask someone. If they don’t know, someone they know does. One good tip on aftermarket hand controls and cross-compatibility saved me over $300. Real talk, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell I’d have been able to build this bike without the help of DLMC, the Rumblesmith, Street Spirit, friends with trucks and dogs, etc.

Tip eight: Stay motivated. Anything can be fixed with the right tools and know-how. Anything.

I promise.

Harley Davidson, Motorcycle, Washington DC, Custom Motorcycle, DIY Garage, DUNN LEWIS, DLMC, Chopper

All finished!


So when you're sitting in your underwear, browsing Craigslist at 2am, clicking through cheap motorcycles and missed connections - your stomach dusted with crumbs of Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies. When you see the ravaged corpse of a stripped down, neglected, once beautiful motorcycle, just know...

You can do it.

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