Let’s cut right into the art of chopping a motorcycle

Here’s a bone stock 94 Shadow VLX

Let’s see what all we can do with one.

There are many methods available to achieve a desireable result, and I will touch on seven of them here. Please note that these methods will work on any bike, foreign or domestic. Aftermarket parts sources listed are for metric applications, if you have to ask where to find aftermarket HD accessories, I probably couldn’t explain. pun intended, there’s more aftermarket support for Harleys than a dozen people can shake a stick at.

First up is the cheap and easy way, and it doesn’t alter the frame so any factory warranties/current retail values on the bike are unaffected. It won’t get you the Easyriders Captain America look, but for fans of his noble companion Billy this will take you far. This first method is one I like to call the inch per inch formula.

What this entails is lowering the rear end while raising the front and nothing more. For every inch you can lower the rear, you can add one inch of fork length up front.

Depending on the design of your bike’s swingarm and suspension (and how much of that suspension you wish to retain), you can typically go anywhere from 3 to 6 inches lower in back. Lowering the rear typically involves acquiring a lowering kit (available in the aftermarket for most mid sized and larger cruisers), modifying (shortening) the OEM shock(s), aftermarket shocks, or swapping out the shock(s) for some fabricated solid rear struts.

The solid strut can be easily made after the suspension is removed, simply acquire some steel (square tubing for mono-shock bikes, flatter stock for dual shock rear ends), position the swingarm where you want it in relation to the frame, measure your mounting points, and drill holes in said metal and voila: instant hardtail. If you really want to get fancy, remove the shock bushings and drill your holes big enough to accept them as this will help absorb some of the vibes.

Granted that rubber bushing will be your only dampning available. but one popular approach to the hardtail mod is to let some air out of the rear tire, some go as low as 15-18psi but I like 20-25 myself. The partially deflated tire acts as a shock absorber, making the ride a little more boingier. That’s a technical term, look it up if you don’t believe me. One final hardtail method is removing the swingarm and suspension and designing your own rigid rear end, welding it to the OEM frame.

Please read my Lowering editorial ( Click for Lowering Info ) for more info on lowered suspension and its effects on handling. And one word of caution on rigid/hardtail rides, forget what you know about proficient cornering. Curves and corners will need to be taken slowly, as any bumps in the road can send your rear skipping and skating along causing a loss of traction. If you habitually try to beat every yellow light in right turns, this isn’t the mod for you.

Bumps and potholes can send your tail skywards too, and rough roads can rattle your fillings loose. All in all this is a barhopper’s mod, but if you’re willing to sacrafice good handling in the name of style, nothing looks cooler than a slammed rear end and a fat tire stuffed up into the fender. Rear lowering kits can be had from numerous manufacturers including Highway Hawk, Scootworks, and Cobra.

One good source for modifying OEM shocks is Sons of Thunder Metric Cycles, and SOTMC and Scootworks also carry hardtail struts for some models.

Now that we have the rear end covered on the inch per inch formula, it’s time to tackle the front. To add fork length you can order fork extensions for some bikes. Fork extensions are simply top caps with a little extra length to them, they replace the top cap with a 2 to 6 inch long piece of sealed matching fork tube.

But for maximum integrity, actual longer fork tubes is your best bet. Forking by Frank has been supplying longer OEM fork tube replacements since the dawn of the chopper age way back when, and you can order any length of fork tube (up to 10 over stock length) for just about any motorcycle in production or not. And one final option to raising the front is going up to a larger front wheel, if you graduate from a 19 rim to a 21 incher this can add another inch to the equation, and few things look better on a chopper than a 21 inch front wheel.

One final word on the inch per inch method, by making these modifications you will be tilting your frame rearwards so your frame rake increases the more extreme you go, thereby increasing trail. Slow speed handling will suffer but freeway rides will be straight and true, your center of gravity is also moved further rearward. As an added bonus straight line stops will be more controlled since the front end won’t dive as hard.

This VLX owner went for the full tilt 4 hardtail slam out back and added 4 fork extensions, with the turn signals covering the seam

The next method to chopping up a perfectly good bike without altering the frame is by swapping out the OEM triple trees with a set of raked trees. In addition to looking great, raked trees add a few extra degrees of slant to the forks. The downside to this is trail reduction, and if you don’t have much trail to begin with raked trees can make a bike very dangerous. Please read my Frame Geometry editorial ( Click for Frame Geometry Info ) for more information on how rake and trail works.

Raked trees are typically available in a +3 to +7 degree range, although I’ve seen some that add as much as 12 degrees of rake. Raked trees by themselves will place the bike into a leaned forward stance, and if you read that Lowering editorial you know that this unbalances the bike in the wrong way.

Hence, depending on what the original rake was before the raked trees were added, and how much extra rake the trees provide,you are going to have to make an inch per inch modification to the bike in the form of either lowering the rear or raising the front, one to three inches on either end being the typical mod here. Please do the research before slapping a set of raked trees onto your bike, there are several online rake/trail calcualtors. I like the ones at RB Racing and Perse Performance.

On my 92 VLX I went with +6degree trees, 4 over forks, and a modified rear shock

Next up on the chopping block is modifying the frame. Please check with your dealership about warranty and retail price values before tackling this mod, as it can serve to void or affect both. This mod will also affect your insurance premiums. remember when you were getting your quote they asked if any modifications were done to the motor or frame?

There ya go. Anyways, this is the old school way of making a chopper (and consequently this is how the name chopper came to be)and is still in use today. Kennedy’s Choppers shows one painless method of adding some rake, but most folks like to extend the downtubes and backbone of a frame when attempting frame mods. What this incurs is cutting the frame tubes, stretching them apart, and inserting a sleeve in between that is welded and reinforced.

This sleeve is usually comprised of a similar diameter tube section with smaller tubes welded inside, these smaller portions are then inserted into the frame. But some welders prefer to reinfoce these extended frame tubes externally, by welding a smaller length of support material along the entire length of the modified frame tube. The end result is the steering head is now positioned in a new angle, thereby increasing rake (and trail).

This is where the aforementioned raked trees really work, since the modified frame already boasts a high trail figure the raked trees serve to bring this dimension back down into a more user freindly neighborhood. And they also give a little more slope to the already slanted forks. Triple tree design becomes a very important factor with a modified frame.

This 88 VT-600 Shadow recieved the hardtail treatment and stretched frame downtubes along with 8 over forks

Now that the three major methods have been covered, the fourth option is to mix and match those processes, which is inevitable. The most extreme choppers out there do just that, the frames are modified for more rake, raked trees are added for both more forking fun as well as making the bike more manageable, and the rear is often nice and squatty to boot.

Obviously this isn’t an approach that you do in steps, unless you have a thick wallet to continually replace parts along the way each time you make a change. Nay, a lot of planning and research goes into each of the previously mentioned methods, so it stands to reason that by combining them that said research increases exponentially. So plan accordingly.

For example, by using the inch per inch formula, you can lower the rear two inches and add two inches of fork length up front. By adding raked trees to the inch per inch formula, you can stick with the 2 over forks and have the front return to a lower position for the ground pounder look or go with 4 over forks to retain the inch per inch stance and more rake/wheelbase. Modifying the frame inevitably demands raked trees to retain a decent trail dimension, and longer forks is also mandated.

The owner of this old school cool chopper didn’t leave many OEM parts untampered on his 2002 VLX

Approach number five is a new one that hit the market recently, a chopper conversion kit. These kits serve to give that combination style with zero mods to the frame, and is actually reversible if for some strange reason you would ever wish to revert back to a stock ride. These conversion kits include a meticulously designed set of triple trees that artificially recreates a new steering axis as well as a new rake, along with a set of longer fork tubes.

All is made to spec for each particular model so the end result is that radical raked and stretched out chopper look and feel. These kits are well designed with safety and quality in mind and they sport superior craftsmanship. That means they aren’t cheap, but you could easily sink the same amount of cash into the combination approach yet all the mathmatics are figured out for you, and it doesn’t take as long to get it all together and go for that first ride.

Check out Seeger Cycle Accessories for info on such kits, they have them available for both Harleys and Metrics.

This guy went with the Seeger kit and 8 over forks along with a ton of chrome on his 89 VLX

Method number six is an educational experience and will cost a pretty penny too. This is the ground-up custom build route, where you go to the aftermarket catalogs for everything. Frames, swingarms, front ends, wheels, tanks and fenders, engines, you name it it’s out there waiting for you to slap it all together to your desires.


But this direction requires as much research as it does funding and construction time, as you don’t want the wrong combination of parts. Just because this set of trees looked good in that magazine and that frame looked good in another magazime doesn’t mean it will work together on your creation. And the final result is a real chore to register, so keep any and all reciepts/bills of sale.

If you can score someone’s half-built project that they gave up on you can jump in where he left off and save a bundle of time and money. A slightly different route would be the kit bikes, or bike in a box. Check out the various HR3 kit bikes in the Custom Chrome catalog, you can get a complete kit that works right and looks good starting at $13,000 and up, that’s less than the asking price of a used Hog.

Getting a title on a kit bike is easier than a custom build, but not as quick and painless as it would be with a factory production model.

The owner of this trick ride shelled out some coin to complete it, but it was well worth the time and effort

And of course the last way to get a chopper is to buy one that is already built. There are numerous factory designed/constructed bikes out there, with names like American Ironhorse, Bourget, Big Dog, OCC, and West Coast Choppers to name a few. Since these are factory built designs, they come with a VIN and it’s no different than buying a Harley or Honda when it comes to registration time.

Or you could even pick up someone else’s ground up custom build, assuming the builder already registered and rides it then it comes with a title. But you’re also trusting his design and construction abilities too, unlike the factory jobs that are professionally done you stand a chance at acquiring someone’s frankenbike that handles like an intoxicated pig on a frozen pond.

Jesse James’ El Diablo serial#002 as seen at Southern Nevada HD, asking price: $70K

In closing there are a few things I’d like to point out about the chopper mod. Do the research before buying your first part(s). Lots of it. Especially concerning rake and trail. Make sure you have everything you’ll need for the transformation before turning that first wrench, after all you don’t want to have the major stuff done and then find out you need a longer brake and speedo line.

This means you’ll be forced to drool all over an unrideable bike while those parts are awaiting delivery somewhere in Podunkville. Having a second bike to ride is also beneficial. Aftermarket parts designed to spec doesn’t neccessarily translate into quick and easy bolt-on simplicity. Expect to run into snags along the way, one company I went with was so far off in every respect with my Shadow I think I would have had an easier time adapting Harley parts.

Aftermarket parts compatibility isn’t the only issue to contend with, in some cases your kickstand ends up being too long and the bike will be parked in a near upright stance, so be prepared to modifiy or exchange that too. While this kind of modification can be easily performed on a beginner bike, it isn’t a beginner mod. A chopper is to the new cruiser rider as a 600+cc supersport is to the new sport rider. They handle much differently. They brake much differently.

They corner much differently. In other words, get some good saddle time in on your first bike before considering a chopper. Besides, with a long wheelbase you’ll never pass the DMV riding portion of the license test when it comes time for the slalom through the cones.

And leave early for work, because while the front wheel may be on time you’ll be five minutes late.

Keep your knees in the breeze.

(written May 2004, all pictures appearing courtesy of the VLX Riders Forum—celebrating three years ont he web this month)

Chop It Drop It

the Second Cut

So you ask, what more could I possibly write about the legendary chopper mod that wasn’t already covered last time around? A lot. Up above, I laid out seven ways to spend your weekend and half your salary too. If you decided to take that challenge and go forward with your chopper project, this article will serve you well.

In part one, I told you how to build it. Now I’m going to tell you how to ride it.

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