Steed: Built to Ride

Custom Paint: The Magic is Deep...Under the Clear

Tech Tip Index

Without a doubt, the paint-job on your bike is the first thing that anyone notices about a customized motorcycle. Finishes on motorcycles today run the gamut from bright and wild, to flat-black badass. One thing for sure is the paint on your bike is the most obvious piece of personalization, not just customization. Paint says volumes about how you feel about your machine and has the ability to represent who you are to people you'll be in contact with out on the road.

There is a certain amount of mystery regarding the process of executing a paint job. I'm not going to try to explain the technical process involved in applying automotive finishes, but I'd like to explain the differences between an automotive paint-job and a great motorcycle paint job and it's one word: Detail! You see every inch of a motorcycle finish. People inspect motorcycle paintwork so closely they almost grind their noses into the bikes finish and then have few qualms to ruthlessly point out any flaw they can dig out. They will even rub their fingers across the finish to see how buried the artwork is in clear-coat. A quality motorcycle paint job is more than visual; it's actually a tactile experience too.

Try rubbing your fingers across the finish of a street rod at your local car show and you'll get your block knocked off. But for some reason, the general public has no issue with rubbing their grimy hands into a pristine finish on a beautiful bike. I guess this is the same reason you find people sitting on other peoples motorcycles without asking permission. At the same time, if you jumped in their Lexus to see what their leather upholstery feels like, they'd call the cops. Go figure?

Normally it takes the combined skills of more than one artisan to execute a quality paint-job. Every once in a while you'll find the "jack-of-all-trades" painter to do your job, but the rule of thumb is that the "jack-of-all-trades" guy is usually a "master-of-none". A graphic artist who can create amazing graphics and illustrations is not normally skilled at bodywork or has the craftsmanship needed to spray out a glassy clear coat and buff it to a mirror finish. The painter who prides himself in his abilities applying honey thick paint without gravity taking over usually doesn't have the mindset to prepare the metal for painting, or the skill-set to reproduce a detailed photograph with an airbrush either.

There's one more person who often gets overlooked in this equation, and that's a fabricator. The guy who can do some custom treatments to the metalwork that makes your bike stand out from the crowd is the fabricator. He has a whole 'nuther bag of tricks up his sleeve to pound and weld the sheet metal into a sculpture that winds up being the ultimate canvas ready for painting. Each of these skills; metalwork, bodywork, paintwork and artwork all need to come together to deliver a high quality product. Please notice these skills all have the word "work" as a suffix. These people who have dedicated their lives to doing quality work usually demand a quality fee for their efforts. Hobbyists don't normally do outstanding paintwork, while quality custom paint-jobs by professionals aren't cheap.

Even the use and choice of color makes a tremendous impact on how your bike is received. It's also directly related to the owner of the bike. We did a bike for a major league ballplayer who wanted a black and silver bike with a bright pink stripe on it. That's what he wanted, and he knew he could pull it off. Whether you called the accent color on his bike magenta, fuchsia or pink, you knew that this bike was ballsy and belonged to a guy. That same year we did another bike for a woman who wanted the famous painting of a cherub angel by Raphael rendered on her tank. Both examples used the same pink color as the ballplayer bike, but this time with an angel illustrated on the tank. One glance and you knew this bike belonged to a chick. Even though both paint schemes began by being poured out of the same exact can of Mary Kay inspired hue, it only took a slightly different treatment to end up with completely different result.

Which brings me to the topic of illustrations...I feel that an illustration on your bike should tell a personal story about the owner and have some sort of meaning or substance behind the graphic. I've seen people totally slung up with tattoos who can't make up their mind about what kind of art they want on their bike. A paint job on a motorcycle is a relatively temporary commitment compared to a tattoo, but a similar thought process ought to go into both. If you're going to invest the money in a detailed graphic, don't just get skulls painted all over your bike unless you live and breathe skulls and they have some sort of personal meaning for you. Women's portraits painted on bikes are way safer than getting your girlfriends face tattooed on your bicep, but remember you may have your motorcycle around longer than your girlfriend. There's a sure fire rule: the best way to end a relationship is to permanently emblazon that special persons name or face on your body. The same rule goes for portraits on bikes.

Last year we had a very successful lemon-law lawyer from Pennsylvania commission a Steed bike for him. He's a collector of custom American bikes, and has over 15 high-dollar machines in his garage at any time. He sent us a series of photographs of his girlfriend he took while recently on a tropical vacation. We had several close up portraits of her to choose from to give our illustrator a good feel for what she really looked like before picking one photo to reproduce on the tank. The only hitch to the whole theme of his bike was he wanted her clad in red patent leather with horns and a tail. You know, the sexy devil-girl theme cliché. I cautioned him that he better know what he's doing before he committed to this theme. It's difficult enough to paint a flattering portrait of your loved one on your bike, but to depict her as the incarnation of all that is evil, the princess of darkness could be pushing the limits of a loving relationship. Guaranteed there's going to be some reaction when she finally sees it, good or bad. He told me it would work out either way. If she liked the devil-girl likeness it was cool, if she dumped him over it he could still live with her evil image every day to remind him of her. See, now that's thinking the whole process all the way through to the end. Thankfully she loved it.

The rest of the message here is that if you're going to spend the large wad of cash it takes to end up with a quality executed paint-job for your custom bike, you need to be responsible for the thought and message of what your parading around town. If you want the world to think you're the biggest misogynistic pimp on the planet, paint naked women all over your bike.

One of the artists we use to paint photo realistic portraits for our projects told me about a job he did. His customer commissioned him to paint women all over his bike with anatomically correct hygienically coiffed reproductive organs exposed. The first time this guy proudly parked his bike out in public, he was immediately cited by a police officer for obscenity. He wound up with black electrical tape strategically placed all over his new "personalized" paint-job so the cop would let him ride it home. Was it a personal artistic expression of his favorite pastime, or was he a gynecologist, I don't know? Regardless, it's important to remember that the images you put out for the world to see in public do carry some level of accountability. What you have painted on your bike reflects an image to the public, making a statement about who you are personally. This can be a lot of responsibility choosing what to paint on your metal canvas. It's important to take the time to think the whole process all the way through, visualizing what the feeling and reaction could be like when others are admiring your rolling work of art.

Hopefully in the end you'll get what you're paying for. Quality paint-jobs require expensive processes, materials and the skills of highly trained craftsmen. The cheap paint-job on a nice bike jumps out like a sore thumb. Usually cheap still isn't worth the money you saved on it when you have to strip it down and get it repainted because it quickly became rock chipped or blistered around the gas cap. Be sure to look at the painter's portfolio of work. When you see something you like, take the time to find out who did work, instead of finding someone to "Copy" it. Most people are more than happy to tell you about their experience with the team who painted their bike, whether it was a good one or not.

To ultimately end up with an amazing paint scheme on it will take some serious effort and more than a little ashtray change. It's all magic when it comes together right. This is the reason why people are drawn to a bike with an outstanding finish. Regardless, whether you have a ton of flashy personalized graphics or a monochrome paint-job with flowing lines in the bodywork, when you get it right, it's incredible.

Keep the rubber side down.
- John at Steeds

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