Bikeshop Fame Rides on Machine Tools

July 5, 2006
A Mill and Lathe Help Create Rolling Works of Art and a Popular TV Show.
A Built by Thugs builder runs the shop's Bridgeport mill.

A custom taillight is one of the parts Built by Thugs produces on its Hardinge lathe.

BUILT BY THUGS IS NOT A TYPICAL run-of-the-mill specialty bike shop. While the fully functional Santa Monica, Calif., shop does turn out custom-built "chopper" motorcycles that might cost $100,000 or more, it also stands in as the set of the Speed Channel's popular TV show called "Build or Bust." For both of these endeavors, the six bike builders at Built by Thugs are overall machinists and craftsmen, and they rely heavily on machine tools to create their rolling works of art.

"We've got a Bridgeport Series One MillPWR knee mill and a Hardinge ( HLV toolroom lathe, along with a TIG welder, a MIG welder, a plasma cutter and a bandsaw," says Scott Gillen, the brains behind both the custom bike shop and the TV show. "The mill and the lathe are the two biggest pieces of equipment we have, and you need such equipment if you're a serious custom motorcycle shop."

Gillen says it was easy to learn to operate the machines, and that was vital because the TV show involves contestants or "wrenches" — people off the street with limited skill sets when it comes to tools, machinery and the shop environment — that need to quickly get up to speed and produce usable parts. However, in the skilled hands of the shop's builders, the machines create and accurately reproduce a lot of the aesthetics — tapering, knurling and such — that give each Built by Thugs bike their one-of-a-kind looks.

Shop mechanic Michael Barragan and a fellow mechanic who goes by the name of Thick use the mill and lathe everyday for machining such parts as foot pegs, shifters and shift knobs. Barragan says the lathe is smooth and fast, and its Acu-Rite ( digital readout provides precise tool positioning, including cutting to zero readings. The machine's variable speeds allow Barragan and Thick to run it fast for polishing parts, then slow it down for delicate turning operations.

The lathe accommodates multiple tooling that helps with the shop's constant job changeovers. And, after recently receiving an upgraded chuck, the lathe runs truer than it didwhen the shop first got it. A preloaded spindle on the machine also eliminates end and radial play for even truer turning, and dual dials mean the shop does not have to switch back and forth between inch and millimeter increments.

A dovetail, hand-scraped, full-bearing carriage and the machine's bedways provide maximum tool rigidity for optimum accuracy. And, independent variable electric feeds let Built by Thugs do multiple operations and on-the-spot rate changes without wasting production time.

As for the Bridgeport mill, it is pretty much the same story, according to Barragan. "It's a straightforward machine, cuts with amazing accuracy and repeatability, and its 3-axis digital readout is easy to use."

The mill packs a 3-hp fully balanced motor and nickelplated motor shaft that requires no lubrication, and the machine's airflow-cooling design uses no external fans. The system keeps heat buildup in the spindle bearings, belt and quill area to a minimum, which reduces distortion and inaccuracy.

Barragan trains the shop's other builders to use the lathe and mill and makes sure everyone is running safely, correctly and not trashing the shop's tooling. He does the same with the Build or Bust contestants.

THE PREMISE OF BUILD OR BUST IS TO SELECT ONE contestant/wrench from the thousands of applicants who want to build their dream chopper. That contestant then teams up with a master builder who helps to get the job done. If the wrench completes the build — the bike has to start and do a "burn out" by the end of a 30-day period — he or she gets to keep the bike. If they fail, they go home with nothing.

Gillen says the shop lets a wrench go to work on their bike if they have a basic idea of what they want to build and have some knowledge of tools such as the lathe or the mill. But if a wrench has just an idea for a bike and is a novice in most skills, a shop craftsman will run the machine tool and help to direct the wrench. However, at some point, the wrench has to jump in because the whole idea is that they build the bike themselves. Wrenches who show up claiming skills or knowledge they do not actually have are immediately sent packing.

"This isn't just any shop," says Gillen. "If a wrench comes in and starts hacking away and breaking taps and dulling drill bits because his only goal is to win a bike, or if he tries to build a kit bike, we know we have a squirrel on our hands, and that's not what we want."

Gillen was just as picky about selecting the shop's mill and lathe as he is in choosing Build or Bust contestants. Besides quality and accuracy, he wanted Bridgeport and Hardinge machines because they are American brands that have been around a long time, he says, and continue to be built in the U.S.

"Since the shop is also the set for a TV show, we could have selected anyone's mill or lathe, and they would have jumped at the chance for the exposure alone," says Gillen. But the shop builds choppers, which are uniquely American, so he did not even consider foreign machine tools.

Built by Thugs gets its American-made engines from S&S Cycle Inc. ( in La Crosse, Wis., transmissions from Jim's in Ventura County, Calif., and frames from a local builder. "We're not building Harleys, but we are creating the bikes that, for decades, people used to build in their garages. So we stick with 'made in America,'" says Gillen.