The Handbuilt Revolution – Hugh Owings

Hugh Owings had no idea the motorcycle he was building to finish out his college degree would launch a business.

But as people saw what Owings crafted for his senior thesis at Appalachian State University, they reacted immediately. Owings documented his project online, and as he transformed the plain old Yamaha into a sleek new bike, he started hearing from folks who wanted more information.

After graduating and spending a few months in a soul-crushing job doing machining work, Owings decided to use his last paycheck to have a box of custom parts made. He’d designed the parts for his college thesis bike, and he was still getting requests. He figured if they could sell, he’d be onto something. “I sold out of parts in a month,” Owings said. “It just blew up from there.”

That was about two years ago. Today, Owings, 32, and two employees — Tevan Morgan and Bryan Pulliam — are making parts and rebuilding engines out of a cluttered, dusty shop called Hugh’s HandBuilt at the back of Asheville’s Riverview Station. His sales have more than doubled since he started, and Owings is content to make his own way guided by a few simple principles.

Owings wants to teach people to do their own work, create new products and have fun along the way.

“I get much more pleasure seeing people make something themselves, rather than doing it for them,” said Owings, who always thought he would be teaching a high school shop class, not running a custom motorcycle shop.
The Yamaha XS 650

How’s this for a niche business: Owings doesn’t work on motorcycles in general. He works on just one type of bike, the Yamaha XS 650. It was a popular model manufactured from the late 1970s to mid-’80s. It wasn’t a great looking bike, and it’s engine wasn’t the smoothest. But it got the job done for millions of riders who wanted to get two wheels on the street and go.

The XS 650 had one asset that appealed to many shade-tree mechanics — it’s basic design was easy to work with. The bike has remained popular with tinkerers, and when the economy tanked five years ago, bikers stopped buying expensive motorcycles and started getting interested in building their own.

That was clear with the college bike, Owings said. It was the first motorcycle he’d ever built, though he had worked on car engines and fiddled around with some metal fabrication and welding.

“I think I was just inspiring people to do stuff they’d never done,” he said.

Owings takes the teaching aspect of his work seriously. He has little time for people who want him to build them a bike. Instead, he would much rather show someone how to bend a piece of metal and let them figure things out from there. And the Yamaha XS 650 is the perfect bike for that.

“It’s kind of like getting a plain piece of notebook paper. It’s something you can do anything with,” Owings said.

While he makes and sells a variety of custom parts, Hugh’s HandBuilt is known in the bike world for rephasing engines.

“We can modify internals for engines. We change the firing patterns” to create higher RPMs and a smoother-running engine, Owings said. “That’s what put us on the map.”

Customers from around the world send Owings engines to remake. Owings also sells kits for people to do it themselves.
The art of motorcylce maintenance

As much as he loves “wrenching” on an old bike, Owings gets as much or more satisfaction out of connecting with fans online. He’s active in a variety of online forums, and he keeps customers informed through his blog. Owings gets a kick out of customers sending him photos of themselves working on bikes on a kitchen table or in a crowded garage. And he’s recently been receiving packages from customers wrapped in “onesies” (Owings and his wife, Courtney, just had a baby girl, Rebecca.)

“I’ve got the greatest customers,” he said.

The connection is real and has led to steady business, one that could grow quickly. But Owings wants to do things on his own time. Owings spelled it out in a 10-point blog post he titled “Hugh’s Personal Engine Building Philosophy.”

First on list: “Don’t rush me. I enjoy building these engines, but if you think a large sum of cash or a checkbook is going to put me in a hurry, forget about it.”

Owings said he’s not afraid to put on the brakes. He’s also not afraid to charge a premium for his work. Sometimes slowing down production helps boost demand. And if you “work too cheap, you get cheap customers,” he said.

It was his grandfather who instilled his independent streak, Owings said. Growing up with his grandad in Murphy, Owings said he watched him do everything. “My grandfather told me it’s not about how much money you make, it’s how much you save by doing it yourself,” he said.

“That kind of screwed me,” he said with a laugh. “He never showed me how to do anything. He showed me how to think, and I think that’s lacking today.”

That do-it-yourself work ethic informs Hugh’s HandBuilt.

“We’re not building stuff to show it off. I’ll ride bikes I work on until their dead,” he said. “There’s no greater feeling than riding that first mile on that two-wheeled death trap you just rebuilt. You never forget that.”
What: Owner of Hugh’s HandBuilt motorcycle shop in the River Arts District.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial design and product design, Appalachian State University.
For more information: Visit his website at www.hughshandubilt.com and blog at www.hughshandbuilt.blogspot.com

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