✓ TIP TO SAVE: Learn if your motorcycle insurance is too expensive!
Compare quotes to save money
Enter your zip to get started.
Cafe racers have become a popular type 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!
Also, I want to mention that I have created a complete video series about how to build a motorcycle from scratch. Click here for more information if you’re interested in the video version!
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.
Space is important, regardless of whether you are using your garage, driveway, shed or other storage area. 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. A self storage unit is a good option. 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.
You can also ask your family and friends if they would let you use their garage or driveway space. 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!).
The Right Tools
It’s important to have the right tools in order to complete a job like this. You don’t need very many tools, but the few you do need should be quality tools. Click here to view my recommended tools.
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 tried a cheap socket tool and ended up breaking a lot of bolts. It’s incredibly frustrating.
Don’t make more work for yourself. Save time and money by getting the right tools. Take a look at what tools you have and evaluate 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.
Talk to other members of your household
Whether you’re married, in a relationship, live with family, or have roommates, this is a step you shouldn’t skip. It takes a lot to rebuild and modify a motorcycle. You must be willing and able to give up some of your weekends and evenings to complete the project.
Talk to your family members about your goals and have an open discussion with them. Be realistic about the time you’ll need to get your project done according to your goals.
You should be open to hearing the concerns and opinions of other members of your household. Your spouse might be concerned about how you are spending your time, or your roommates could be concerned that the garage will be used up for your projects.
Respect the time you have and budget it well. 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. You can read my article about the time it takes to restore a motorcycle.
Check your financial situation to ensure you can afford your cafe racer build. 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). Do you need to convince your spouse that you can buy a motorcycle? You can find my guide here for helpful tips to talk with your spouse and significant other about how you can increase your chances of getting a motorcycle.
It helps to go through each system and parts of your motorcycle that you’ll need to replace and plan accordingly. Because surprises are bound to happen, make sure you add a few hundred dollars to your budget.
If you don’t have all the money upfront, make a monthly budget. You must be disciplined to spend X amount per month or pay period to ensure your financial security and your ability to continue your pursuit of becoming a cafe runner.
Find Your Motorcycle
This is the most exciting part about building a cafe racing bike. If you don’t already have a motorcycle to rebuild, now is the time to go out and find one. Click here to learn what I look for when purchasing a project bike.
I recommend restoring something that was made between the 70’s and 90’s. Because of their simplicity, these types of motorcycles are much easier to repair and convert to cafe racers. They’re also a lot cheaper to buy compared to newer motorcycles.
For your first restoration, I recommend that you restore a Japanese motorcycle. They are the most straightforward type of bike to build. I’ve compiled a helpful guide when it comes to restoring Japanese motorcycles, you can find that here.
You can expand your knowledge if you are more experienced. European motorcycles make stunning cafe racers. But be aware that they are more complicated than other bikes.
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.
Remove Your Motorcycle
After you have brought your motorcycle home, you should now take it apart. Some may argue that this isn’t necessary, but in my experience My experience has been that the bike looks better when it is stripped, cleaned, repainted, and put back on. It’ll feel and look like a brand new motorcycle.
When disassembling your motorcycle, take as many pictures as possible. This is something that you must never 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. It saves time and frustrates so take pictures before you remove anything.
Every wire that you see should be labeled. Spend a few moments to find out where each wire connects and the purpose of each one. You can keep them connected, and then test them to ensure you understand their purpose. Tape the wire and give a description. Never cut wires until you understand what they do.
You must label every bolt that you take off your motorcycle and place it in a 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. You should also make sure to take pictures of the bolts in their places.
One time, a friend tried to fix a motorcycle. He just put all the nuts and bolts in a bucket. One bolt was from the engine. He tried to put the correct bolt back on the engine but he realized he had used too much bolt and cracked his cylinder head.
If you have an adjustable center stand, I would set it up and then have something to lift the most heavy part of your motorcycle so that it balances (like what I have pictured).
To prevent further damage, I recommend that you remove the tank. This is even if you intend to repaint it. Next, take off any large gadgets, such as side panels and windshields. Next, remove the seat, chain, tires, battery, carburetor/pod filters and exhaust. I recommend that you keep your wiring harness on.
After removing your motorcycle from the frame, your seat should be your first priority. You can also make any necessary frame modifications now.
I often shorten the rear hoops of my motorcycle frames. I use an angle grinder for cutting it. Amazon sells replacement rear hoops. 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.
Amazon has some excellent options for motorcycle seat replacements. You need to make sure you are getting the right size It is suitable for your motorcycle, especially if the rear hoops are modified.
Now is the best time to order a custom-made seat. It can take up to a month or more for a custom-made seat to be completed by an upholsterer, according to my experience. If you have this sorted out first, you won’t risk any chance of sitting around waiting for it to get finished; Instead, you could work on other parts such as the seat.
Your tank is the next thing you need to focus on. 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. Although painting a motorcycle tank can be quite simple, it can also be very 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. People usually notice the tank first when they see 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). You should only lightly sand the tank to make 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. Use a sanding block to sand the filler. This will keep your fingers from creating any grooves in your filler.
Priming is next. Priming should be done in very thin layers. You can plan to apply primer several times, approximately 4-5. Once that’s dry, assess any other dents you did not see and repeat using filler and primer.
To ensure that everything is smooth, you can use wet sand and fine sandpaper. Once the tank is smoothed, you can paint it the color you wish. 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). Apply several layers of paint, approximately 3-4.
It is best to do the tank during your rebuild, so that it can cure while you work on the rest. Click here for more information on how to paint your motorcycle tank.
Mount New Tires
Mounting new tires is a great idea. Some may be skeptical about buying tires online but I’ve never really had a problem with it. You should ensure that the site is reliable and that you are purchasing the right size. (You can verify the size of old tires. My list of recommended motorcycle upgrades includes the tires I recommend.
For your tires to be mounted, bring them in to a local tire shop. I recommend this before you apply any paint to the rims. If you’ve never seen how tires are mounted on rims, you’ll know why it’s smart to wait to paint.
To remove the old tire, the mounting machine will scrape the rim. Any previous paint will be removed 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. You can then wrap paper towels or newspaper around the tire to stop any spraying. Allow the rims to dry for at least a day so that the paint can cure. Don’t place them back on to the motorcycle just yet.
Paint or clean the frame
Now that everything is off your bike, except for the engine and the wiring harnesses, it’s time to look at 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.
The most important step is to prepare the frame To make your frame look incredible. The first step you’ll need to take is covering everything on the motorcycle you don’t want to paint. You will need to wrap tape around your wiring harness and engine. Make sure that the tape is tightened. Over spray has a tendency to get into places that you don’t want. You must be very thorough.
Use a wire brush to clean all crevices and cracks in the frame. Also, remove any oily or dirt-laden parts (mostly the bottom).
Start by using 150 grit sandpaper to do a rough sanding 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. To stop rust from spreading, you’ll need to sand the spots until they are bare metal.
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, However, I am certain that it still has grease marks. This includes any hand prints you’ve made.
You can now 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. You should apply multiple coats (4-5), to ensure that you reach every corner. Let the paint dry for a few days.
Once the frame paint is dry, you can put the tires back on the bike and tighten the brakes. This is the most exciting part about building a cafe racing machine. The bike looks almost like a motorcycle but it looks much better. Click here to see my guide on how to paint your motorcycle frame.
It is time to get your motorcycle engine fixed. Take your engine to a shop for a rebuild. 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.
Multiple issues can occur with a motorcycle’s engine. but the most common engine problem I’ve run into is worn down piston rings This is especially true 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. It means that oil is seeping from the rings, and the gas coming out of the carburetor is causing the 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 many methods to clean your motorcycle’s engine. It all depends on what type of metal it is.
Cast-aluminum, which is a common metal motorcycle engine, looks and feels rough. It can be cleaned with a scotch brrite pad and soapy hot water. This will remove any grease or grime that has built up. Cast-aluminum engines cannot be shined.
However, the side engine covers are made of block-aluminum, which can be easily polished up. Here is where I spend the majority of my time cleaning the engine. Due to drops, older motorcycles may have a scratched-up side engine cover.
You can polish the engine covers with 60 grit and 150 grit. 220 grit. 400 grit. 600 grit. 1000 grit. Use a metal polish after sanding to give the side covers a new shine.
Take photos of the carbs before you remove them from your engine. This will help you to know how to put them back on. Many people try to place them incorrectly or even backwards. Obviously that won’t work.
You should not attempt to rebuild your carburetor without a guide. There are many parts in a carburetor which can be lost or hard to find. Some carbs have screws that need to not be turned all the way. Others may require certain thread counts.
You can find forums and guides online that are specific to your motorcycle’s carburetor. Each one is unique. These forums will give you step-by-step instructions on how to disassemble your carburetor and what rebuilding kit to buy, as well as how to put it back together.
An ultrasonic cleaner is also recommended to clean your carbs. These can be bought online, at local home improvement shops, or in 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 Panels, Handlebars, Handlebars and Fenders
This is the right time to attach your lights, instrument panel and handlebars. 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 is no such thing, “a” “universal” Speedometer or tachometer
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 indicate the gear ratios of these instruments. This is an example of a “4:1” Ratio is the ratio of how many times the gear inside an instrument rotates for each rotation of the wheel. False readings can be caused by a speedometer and/or the tachometer that are universal or of a different ratio.
Install Battery and Wiring Harness
After you have assembled all of the electric components, connect them to the source of power.
Get a cheap test light So you can use it for knowing when you have power and where you should have power. Also, you can print out a wiring schematic as well as view some videos about how you can track down electrical problems.
This is often the hardest part of rebuilding a motorcycle. Even for experienced electricians, the electrical components can seem a bit confusing. A friend or coworker who is familiar with electricity and wiring can help you to hook up your electrical components.
Once everything is properly connected, you should hide as much of your 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.
It is vital to pay attention when exhaustion occurs as it can make or break a cafe runner.
Sometimes I reuse the same exhaust pipes as the bike, but sometimes I get newer smaller ones to make the exhaust system look cleaner.
You’ll need to remove the exhaust pipes and examine them to make sure there aren’t any holes in them. Because of the heat that runs through them, exhaust pipes can become brittle and more likely to rust if they are located below the motorcycle. Repair any damage.
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.
Once your tank is dry, you can put it on your motorcycle. Although this is an easy step, be careful. There’s nothing more frustrating than installing your freshly painted motorcycle tank and scratching it while you install it.
To secure the tank, screw in the bolts. Next, connect your fuel line to the tank’s fuel valve. You can now add gas to the tank. In case of emergency, I would not recommend filling the tank to its full capacity. Your petcock should be turned on “on” If you do have one.
Before you attempt to start your motorcycle, make sure your handlebars are not rubbing against 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.
The moment has arrived: it’s time to get your cafe-racer started! 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.
Quality Check/Install Seat
If your upholsterer did your seat professionally, you should have it done now. Before installing it, make sure you do a quality control on your cafe racing machine to ensure it looks as you expect.
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. You can clean it up by following the steps and making it look exactly how you want.
You can now add the final touch to your chair. Voila! Your cafe racer is now complete!