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Hugh Owings from Hugh’s HandBuilt talks about Hotrod motorsickles, doing it yourself and cold beer.
Thursday, Apr 7, 2011 10:48 am
Hugh Owings from Hugh’s HandBuilt talks about Hotrod motorsickles, doing it yourself and cold beer.

Hugh’s HandBuilt is a motorcycle shop located in Asheville, NC and is owned and operated by Hugh Owings. Hugh is one of the young builders that I’ve been wanting to interview. It’s always nice to get a fresh perspective on things and that’s just what I got out of this interview. We talked about everything from Hot Rodding motorcycles to beer recommendations. Hugh is really doing some cool stuff up in the mountains of NC, so take a few minutes and check out what he has to say.

TCR: What’s the story behind Hugh's Handbuilt? How did you get into building motorcycles and fabricating parts?

Hugh: “I'll start with the 2nd half of this question.  When I turned 16, my grandfather gave me a broke down old car with a blown engine.  I fixed it up with his help, and ever since I've been a bit of a self-taught gearhead. A few years later I got into the 4x4 Off-Road scene, and started to realize that the parts being sold were extremely limiting to the style of 4 wheeling I wanted to do, so I taught myself to weld and fabricate as the needs of my Off-Road toys grew out of the "Bolt-On" category and more into the "One-Off Custom" kinda stuff.   I decided to go back to college at the age of 27, and sold off all my Off-Road toys and gear to pay for it.  I had an old Jeep Wrangler that was beat down and someone traded me a Motorcycle for it.  I'd never ridden, but everyone else in my family had.  My Grandfather rode and hotrodded his motorcycles, my Father built his own Harleys when I was a kid, and my Mom even rode.  At this point, my younger brother had already been riding for several years.  I guess it was just a matter of time. I learned to ride on that bike, and just like all my other vehicular adventures, I decided I wanted a custom bike.  I needed a project for my Senior Thesis Project in the Industrial Design/Product Design program at Appalachian State University, and a custom bike was the perfect fit.   I started off with a lowly old XS650 that was in need of everything.  Being a Design Student, I couldn't just "assemble" a bike with aftermarket parts and call it mine.  I designed every last piece from sketches to final design.  I pushed the limits of my fabrication skills and design skills for sure.  I was very happy with the outcome of my first build, but it was cool that others were diggin' it too. So I graduated, got a day job, and hated it...  I took a few of my designs and started offering services and parts on the side.  It’s just blown up from there honestly.  I quit my day job, started designing and prototyping more parts, bought some equipment and have been busy ever since.  Hugh's HandBuilt was honestly born overnight.  I had done some cool engine work that had been getting lots of attention, so I started offering modified engine parts on exchange.  Then I started to offer some of the small parts I designed for that first bike, and it just kept growing.   There have been a few other builds for friends and family as well, so I used those opportunities to hone my skills and ability to produce parts and products.”

TCR: What is your niche? What sets you apart from other builders, what is your specialty?

Hugh: “I hate to say I have a "niche", but the XS650's have been my bread and butter.  They are cheap to build, and with lots of folks offering parts for them, it’s a no-brainer to build one.  I mean, guys are building custom bikes for less than $3,000 and they are NICE bikes.  With the economy the way it is, you see a lot of guys ditching the high dollar build, but still wanting to have a project to tinker with.  This fits the bill.  As far as other builders that work in this Niche, I like to think that I don't have a set style of build.  I don't get lazy and just build the same bike over and over with a different paint job.  Maybe it's the Designer in me, but no two of the bikes I am building/working on look the same.  I dig that.  My specialty is finding solutions to a problem.   I find a way to fix a common problem, and make it affordable and easy to install for the guy working in his living room with a small set of hand tools...   Things like my Charging System swaps, or my Solid Riser Bushings, Brake Pivot Kits, or even just something simple like a Gas Tank mounting bung that can be installed using basic shop tools.  I also specialize in Customer Service.  Sounds silly I know, but it’s something that I take great pride in.  I probably answer over 100 emails a week, as well as get involved on all the forums and blogs that pertain to these bikes.   I take the time to do major Tech Articles for some of the major forums I am on as well.  I take a complicated process, and can break it down into clear and easy steps so that anyone can do it.  Not all of this is for profit, but rather to get people in the garage building for themselves and getting their hands dirty.” 

TCR: What can you do at your shop, what services do you offer?

Hugh: “Here at my shop, I can do just about anything.  I can build complete frames, or just tail sections, rakes, etc... on my frame jig.  I can lace wheels, polish aluminum parts, machine custom parts, build engines, make handlebars, build seats, bend tube, mod gas tanks, you name it, I can get it done.    I don't do oil changes, tires, or other maintenance though.  I like to keep it creative and fun.    I can do all the CAD work to create files for Laser Cutting, CNC machining, water jetting, etc...  So if you need a custom part drawn up in 2D or 3D, I can get a quote on having it made. I work closely with several of the local places that offer those machining and cutting services.  That said, most of the small run stuff I make here in house 90% of the time. I offer lathe services, and general fab-work of course with TIG and MIG capabilities.   I'm also a big supporter of the community around me, so if you want something done that I know another local shop specializes in, I team up with those shops to make that happen.  Deep Six Cycles is local to me, and we team up often for brainstorming sessions and send each other work whenever possible. 

TCR: I know you like a good beer, any recommendations?

Hugh: “Well, being in Asheville NC, of course I like good beer!  We beat out Portland last year for the national title of "Beer City USA" so we have a lot of great brew here.  I personally am an IPA fan, and if you get to Asheville, you have to try the local breweries.  Wedge Brewery's Iron Rail is amazing and one of my favorites, but you can't go wrong with any of the local offerings honestly, and most of our breweries and bars will offer tastings for free, so just make yourself at home and try something new.  As far as Non-Local stuff, I am a huge fan of Stone Brewery's Arrogant Bastard and Double Bastard Ales.  And you can't go wrong with the offerings from Rogue either.  But it’s not all beer snobbery in my shop fridge, when the time comes; a little PBR is almost always on standby.”

TCR: What advice do you have for younger dudes who want to build motorcycles?

Hugh: “Dude, I’m not that old yet...  But seriously, anyone that wants to build a bike should.  Get yourself something within your budget, and just do it.  Don't spend too much time online, and more time in the shop.  I'll say this much, go get yourself a decent MIG welder, something you can plug into your wife’s dryer outlet.  Practice on some scrap and maybe find a friend that knows how to weld who likes good beer and food.  Good beer and food can go a lot further than your wallet, trust me on that one.  Go get a decent set of hand tools.  Seriously, even if you've never wrenched before in your life, what’s stopping you?  And be willing to make mistakes, not everything is going to turn out perfect the first time, or even the 5th time for that matter.  When you mess up, take it in stride and laugh a little bit.  Probably the most important thing is to learn and have fun.  And yes, your first build will probably not be perfect, but it will be yours and you can take pride in that.  There is nothing cooler than hitting the road on something you built with your own sweat and blood.  Oh yeah, stock up in Band-Aids, you WILL bleed if you are doing it right!”

 TCR: What does riding a motorcycle mean to you? Why do you ride?

Hugh: “Riding a motorcycle is nothing like anything else in the world.  Riding my 2 wheeled death machines down the road, drifting around corners and doing things no sane person would do with one hand on the bars and one on the shifter just makes me smile.  It depends on my mood or course.  Sometimes I ride to clear my head, other times I ride to take in the scenery and see where a random road ends up.  But more often than not, I ride to see just how hard I can push myself and get that adrenaline rush going.  I'll admit it, I'm a speed junkie.  Not "Modern Sport bike" speed, anybody can be a super hero on one of those things, but hitting the road and pushing 30 year old technology to the limits and even further is something not everyone gets to experience.”

TCR: When all is said and done, what do you want to be remembered for?

Hugh: “I don't have a need to be remembered, I don't have that kind of personality.  I'd rather have my talents and abilities passed on and see folks learning and trying to do something for themselves.   I guess if I had the choice, I'd like to think that I'd be remembered for inspiring people to do this kinda stuff themselves.” 

TCR: Anything else you want to plug? Website, parts, services....etc.?

Hugh: “I'm not one to push my parts/products/services on anyone, but feel free to visit my Blog.  I like to keep it updated about 10-12 times a month, and a lot of the stuff I do can be done yourself with just a little bit of time and ingenuity.  I add lots of tech tips, how-to's and other stuff that applies to ANY build, not just the XS650 crowd. I'm coming out with a new line of universal builder parts as well.   And, if you are interested in building a bike and you think I can be of any assistance, I'm always willing to talk shop or bench race, so shoot me an email or leave a comment on the blog.” 

 A special thanks goes out to Hugh for taking the time to chat with The Carolina Rider.  It’s always nice to see a fellow Carolina boy doing big things and keeping the home grown motorcycle scene alive and well. If you would like to get in touch with Hugh check out his site or give him a call 828-505-8171, I’m sure he would be happy to hear from ya.

 Until next time, keep on Zemplivin and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

                                                      Wesley Ashley


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