Budgeting for your project

The cost of your build (in time and money) is totally dependant on your ultimate plans for the bike.

At one end of the scale, if you are building a bike to practice your skills, you might not want to outlay a large amount of cash. The bike you purchase will probably be a common Japanese brand or a cheap Harley that might have high miles or have some cosmetic wear and tear. You might purchase good quality parts from online vendors rather than high end name brands. You might be happy to put more time, rather than money, into the bike.

A great way to climb the bike ownership ladder is to buy something cheap that you can make changes to cheaply and improve the look of the bike, get the experience and then sell it for little monetary gain as you then buy a slightly better bike to try out your improving skills on. Then rinse and repeat to you get to your end goal (being new skills, or your dream bike, or both).

But if this first or second bike is your dream bike, or something you intend to keep for long time, then perhaps you'll be happy outlaying more money as you’ll have a lot more time to ‘recover’ or enjoy the cost spent. The donor bike may be a more boutique brand, or a much better mechanical and cosmetic example and it makes more sense to spend money on high quality parts to match the bike’s final goal. You may also consider getting more work on the bike outsourced if you are concerned about the quality of your own work in any areas.

What are you likely to spend your money on in a bike build? It's hard to give an idea of specific costs because there is often a huge difference from country to country, but the following is an idea of where the money goes: 

  • The donor bike itself, the same type of bike can vary in cost a lot from country to country depending on the size of the market and what brands of bike are popular.
  • Parts for the bike. Once again, a huge range depending on brand, quality, what is needed:
    - Tires (particularly on old bikes where old tires are a safety concern), pricing is pretty standard
    - Fluids, oils, brake pads, spark plugs (even things such as gasket sets) if servicing the bike, once again, pretty standard prices.
  • Professional help, such as painters, fabricators. This can vary from country to country, but there is generally some relativity with your own wage. Hence a professionals per hour rate is generally more than a salaried workers rate due to the overheads that have to be covered. This rate can often be 2-3 times a salaried workers per hour rate.
  • Registration.
  • Tools and equipment for the garage, including specialist tools. Can vary a lot depending on the quality.
  • Heating, lighting for the workspace. Pretty standard, not something you have a lot of control over other than using LED lights or wearing a jacket.

What might be the costs for a first-time bike, something at low end of the scale that you might flip for a few dollars if you just want to sell to cover your costs after having learnt some stuff on it?

First up, there is such thing as a donor bike that is too cheap. Often, whilst you are thinking you are getting a bargain with a sub-$500 bike, there is refurbishment, mechanical work, missing parts and clean-up that the cost and time of those tasks no longer makes it a bargain.

For a first bike build, aim for a bike with an odometer reading in the range 20,000 to 50,000 miles (30,000-70,000 kms). It's had enough use to make it cheap, but not so much use that its completely worn out. With regards to brands of donor bikes, if the style you are aiming for allows it, try to find something from the Japanese stable with a carburettor.

They are plentiful and so generally cheaper, quite easy to work on, and are well put together. Also, because so many were made there is normally a huge secondhand and aftermarket that services that type of bike.

Single cylinder bikes are simpler and cheaper than twins, which are simpler and cheaper than inline fours.

Any bike with documented service history - meaning the owner spent some money maintaining it and kept records - is worth a little more, as the bike is likely in better condition and the risk to your project is lower.

For that first bike, or a learn and flip bike, you may want to allow $1,000 for the bike and similar amount for parts, paint, 3rd party help etc. If you sell it and you’ve done a good job with custom work, you’ll hopefully get your money back, and perhaps make a little extra to cover some of your time.

That is the ‘cheap’ end of the bike market. But what about a high-end bike?

In terms of costs at the other end of scale for a premium bike with high end parts, well the sky is the limit. But doing it yourself as much as possible will be cheaper than having a custom builder do it (though there is likely to be some trade-off in quality of finish).

Entry level custom bikes from a commercial shop would start around $15,000. A third to half of this is often labor, which you can "save" assuming you can "do it yourself" as well as a professional. High end builds through well-known custom builders quickly climb beyond $50,000.

If you wanted to build a custom Harley Davidson, allow $5,000 to $10,000 for a donor bike and around $5,000 for parts if doing new seat, tanks, tires, lights, exhaust etc. If you wanted to co-ordinate the build but outsource critical cosmetic elements like painting and powder coating you may need to add another $3,000 to the budget.

Prices would be similar for a good example of any good marque of bike, sometimes possibly even more for rarer marques and perceived desirability of certain makes and models.