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How To Build a Cafe Racer On a Budget

11 Aug 2014

cafe racer on a budget

When you are thinking about building a Cafe Racer, there are 10 steps to consider. 

Step 1: Know your budget (and perhaps stretch it a bit)

We all know, when you start with a 500$ project, you will end up around 750-1000, if you do not overdo it too much. You can easily go from 500$ to 2500$, but this isn't what we want. We want to build a cafe racer on a budget! So be honest to yourself and hedge about 80% of your budget to be on the safe side.

Step 2: Choosing a Bike

There is a reason why people tend to like Honda CB's for building a cafe racer. They are reliable, cheap, there are many parts for sale, and they do already have a lot of "cafe racer style " parts on them.

For example (I know, I know, I used Paint for this, but hey, all low-budget!)

cb500 cafe racer

There are many other options, but when you choose your bike, it will help if most of the parts are already there.
A 250$ bike, which looks cheap, can be expensive when you need 1000$+ on extra parts... So, take a look at step 1 once again!

Next to that, make sure that other expensive parts like chains/sprockets, tyres, suspensions, etc. are also in a decent or good condition. They can set you back a few more bucks than that you are comfortable with.

So, make sure that if you start building a cafe racer on a low budget, make smart choices from the very start.

Step 3: Planning

Make sure to plan out your idea before doing anything.  This will give you an idea what work will have to be done, get a budget set for what parts will cost (or at least what parts are needed) and will hopefully keep you from biting off more than you can chew.
Also, make sure that you schedule the outsourced parts (if you have any) first. Other people have busy schedules, so anticipate this.

Step 4: Parts and Materials
What you are going to need is going to depend a bit on the bike. Besides bits and pieces each bike needs individually to make sure it is mechanically fine, the things all bikes will probably require include;

- Brake lines (steel braided is preferable)
- New oil (coolant if its liquid cooled)
- Tyres (if they are more than 6 years old, or close to it, or if they look worn out or bad, replace them)

Brake lines and a brake flush is a good idea for any bike, brake lines are only good for so long and 30-year-old rubber lines are no good. Same with tires, unless they have been replaced in the last 5 years and have good tread left, they should be replaced. Change all the fluids.


Things needed for conversion will depend on taste but common parts that are changed include:

- The seat
- The lights (headlight, indicators, tail light)
- Air filter
- Gauge cluster
- Handlebars
- Exhaust
- Paint

Overall items that will be needed for the build:

- A fairly well-stocked tool chest (sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers, various sizes bare minimum, tin snip were used a lot)
- Paint + Primers, etc.
- Car edge protector/moulding
- Electrical tape
- Heat shrink tubing
- LOTS of crimp connectors
- A can or 2 of brake cleaner
- Paper towels
- oil
- Automotive tape
- Sandpaper
- A car jack helps if you remove the engine
- Polish compounds (a small tube will suffice unless you know you have LOADS of chrome)
- New gauges (new to the bike)
- New oil gaskets
- New headlight
- New signals
- New taillight
- New mirrors
- New Grips

Step 5: Delicate Parts
Before heading to the next step, make notes of certain parts that are delicate and designate a special, safe spot for these. These parts will include a radiator (most bikes have them whether liquid cooled which has to have one, and air/oil cooled which can have a small rad for the oil), the carbs should be careful with, plastic fairings (even if you don't intend to put them back on, these are worth good money if you decide to sell them), the gauge cluster (unless its really knackered already).

Step 6: Preparations

Well, you have already seen many cafe racer pictures, movies and have read the first 5 steps over here, but there is much more to prepare for!

Before proceeding, grab a camera, start snapping photos. The more, the better. One because then you can document your build, but you have pictures to refer back to when trying to reassemble or ask for help on the internet! Also, it’s not a bad idea to buy a box of Ziplock bags and a new roll of masking tape to label and put bolts in so if you take a pile off you know where they go back.

Remove as much from the bike as possible that is easy (plastic, gauges, handlebars, seat, lights, horns). We want to try to get it down as much as possible to assess.

Try removing it down to just a rolling frame with the engine in the frame (take it out if you need to or want to) and the wiring harness (again, unless you want to remove the harness and can put it back. Harnesses are pretty easy to put back).

If you do plan to remove the engine, this is a good guide for removing it on the cheap. Try to use more padding then this guy though, be a bit gentler;

Otherwise, try this method:

The second method really helps for putting the engine back in! With the first method, try and get 1 or 2 other people to help put the engine back in while the bike is still upright. Trust me, putting a 750 motor back into a frame by yourself is not fun at all, and you will be sore for a week.

Wiring harnesses (if you plan to take it out) are usually bundled nicely and are easy to see how they go back. Take pictures though! most of the time all the plugs and wires are colour coded, so even if you have 2 male connectors of the same type of plug, they are usually different colours, and go to the other plug that colour matches.

Step 7: Frame Cutting
The title can be frightening. Most bikes have their frame extend out over the rear wheel to support the seat and the lights back there. This is usually too long and will need to be cut.

grinding on a cafe racer frame

It is very important to measure twice (or more) and cut once though! Think this through before cutting unless you can weld bits back. You don't want to take too much off. We suggest figuring out how long the seat and cowl have to be, possibly adjusting them and cutting the frame at a location that is easy to cut, that will end just before the cowl, or just after.

Again, be very careful you don't cut off anything important. Check where your shocks mount to and make sure you aren't taking the mounts off with the cut, or anything else vitally important or structural.

Step 8: Paint, coatings or Just Cleaning?
Once you have a bike apart, it will usually be dirty (the older, the dirtier usually). Try washing everything off, does the paint on the frame looks good? Just because it’s dirty doesn't mean the paint is all bad. If your paint looks brand new other than a few spots, sand anywhere the little spots of paint have come off, if they have rusted, sand until the rust is gone and you’re down to the bare metal. Sand a bit further than where the rust was. Clean the areas off with solvents, then with water, dry and paint. Also, use a clear coat to seal the deal.

If a lot of the frame has surface rust, a lot of paint is gone, you may have to remove everything from the frame and have the whole thing soda/sandblasted and repainted (yourself or professionally). There is no point in leaving problem areas that aren't problems yet only to have them become problems. You will also need to remove everything if you want a painted frame (TACKY! Unless you have a Ducati or Bimota with a red frame, then it's legitimate).

sanding cafe racer

This will also apply to the tank (since it’s really the only painted thing going back on). Will a good buff and polish make it look like new, or is the paint really faded, scratched, dented? If the tank is dented, definitely fix that. If it’s a big dent, look into a new tank or see if you can seal the tank off and hook up a pressure washer to it and use a hydroforming technique to push the dent out maybe? You could also try using tie-down straps around other parts that you don't want to push out, as to not deform the tank. Don't worry if the knee dents they come out all the way, just enough that a little body filler can smooth them out. If its small and shallow dent, body filler is your friend.

Since you are customizing the bike and the tank is already off, you will probably want to paint it anyhow. The most important part of painting a tank, well 2 parts actually. Don't sand down to bare metal unless you are using body filler on a dent, the factory primer is far better than your spray canned primer, so taking it down to bare metal will mean rust coming through down the road. Taking it down for body filler in one small area isn't too bad, but be sure to wipe clean really clean before priming and do a good job priming. The second thing, prep work is key. Spend hours with fine sand paper smoothing the primer and what not. If you don't, you can see striations in the paint even though its smooth as a baby’s ass. And the clear coat won't fix that.

This step also applies to individual parts.

Step 9: Reassembly

Reassembling everything before doing the seat is a big help. It makes sure that you don't build the seat only to have something in the way later and having to modify it. As well, you can then mess about with mounting as the seat may need to come off occasionally, it’s nice if it’s not too hard to take off.

Doing a stylized bike is fairly straight forward before the seat, it’s just reassembling it with original parts and new/aftermarket parts. Some aftermarket parts won't fit, or some new parts won't.

Test fit things before putting them on and test them with a few other pieces, especially aftermarket parts. Rather than putting something on and taking it off again and again, if you test it you can usually get stuff put on once and not have to undo it again.

Being that its reassembly and parts may have been painted and what not take your time as to not scratch paint, and undo work you have done already.

Now at some point, you will realise, this thing COULD be ridden as is. DON'T DO IT! It may be tempting to take it for a test drive but don't. By this point you have long since drained the oil, she will be dry, you may have missed a vital component (brakes maybe!) so it’s best not to drive it until it’s finished. However, test everything as you go. Once you get to the, I COULD drive this stage, fill the fluids and turn it over though. It is easier to fix something now while it’s accessible rather than later, but don't do anything stupid. Feel free to pull it slowly out of the garage in first if you want to check all the drive train is connected though.

Step 10: Enjoy!

Don't forget you are doing something great! You are building a cafe racer on a budget.
It's your own creation, it's unique and it will teach you a lot.
It may be a struggle, but now it's the time to start enjoying the build, and later on, the ride!

PS: Don't forget to double check your cafe racer the first 1000 miles on little errors.
PS (2): If you need some extra inspiration, check out how these guys are building their Cafe Racers!

cafe racer fun


The How To Page at Café

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