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Interview: Aussie Custom Bike Builder, Craig Rodsmith

Craig Rodsmith and his engine-wheeled custom bike 'The Killer'.

I have a frank admission to make. The loutish, greasy-haired and greasy-handed Aussie hooligan you see right here is actually a mate of mine. Ok, don’t judge me. I wasn’t at the photo shoot to advise him not to stick his middle finger up for athe press photo. In fact, there’s a lot of things Mr Rodsmith says and does that aren’t exactly advisable. It’s a little-known fact that he used to be a drummer in a ’70s punk rock band. If he had a PR manager, they’d be dead from stress right about now. 

But you know what? I wouldn’t want him to change a thing. And that’s because despite all his jokes, ‘rough around the edges’ habits and constant c-bombs, he is a genuine, honest and trusting guy who – like alot of Aussies that rise to the top of their fields – has a strong work ethic, an uncanny knack to cut through the B.S. and is just plain talented. Oh, and he also builds killer customs. I chatted with him last weekend.

Craig Rodsmith in his Chicago workshop

Can you introduce yourself?

Yeah. I’m Craig Rodsmith. I’m an Aussie Melbournian who’s been transplanted to Chicago, Illinois. Technically I’m a custom bike builder, but that does sound a little pretentious. I think sometimes it’s better to say I’m a welder, mechanic or machinist. Some people call me a space cowboy. And some people call me ‘Maurice’.

Where are you right now?

Sitting in my palatial Grayslake suburban Chicago apartment. I’m sipping a vodka and club soda. My cat is right behind me. She’s always got my back – and she usually has her claws in it, too. Actually, I took her to my shop for the first time recently. She’s never left my apartment in nine years. She really hated it.

Craig Rodsmith in his Chicago workshop

Tell us about the most irresponsible event of your childhood.

When I was a kid in Melbourne, Australia, I had a BSA Bantam. Everything on it was broken. Broken brake. Broken throttle. Broken clutch cable. But I did have a rear brake. So I turned up the idle screw on the carb and started it up. Then I jumped on without a helmet. Of course, I had no real way to stop so I had to go with it. And go with it I did, right under a tree where a low branch dug a big furrow right thru the top of my skull. I had 17 stitches to close it up.

It taught me a lot, but I’m still a little nuts. I also had a Yamaha RD350 that I rode before I was old enough to get a license. I rode it all over Melbourne and I only got busted by the cops once, about a block from my house.

Craig Rodsmith in his Chicago workshop

Where do your metalworking skills come from?

Where’s what I think it is. I’m a machinist by trade and I worked as a mechanic for most of my life. To machine something ‘properly’ is just following instructions. Mechanics are the same. It’s either broken or it’s fixed. Metalworking is more freeform. It’s not so black and white. It’s left and right brain stuff. It’s an age-old function and form battle and it’s a nice area to play in.

Actually, I’m totally obsessed with form and function at the moment. I love the challenge. I love the difficulty. After doing something really hard, it feels like cheating to take the easy way. That’s why I did the wheel-engine bike (at the top of the page). Because it was a massive learning curve. You can’t just watch a few YouTube videos and have all your questions answered. But in saying that, I also wanted it to look beautiful. So that’s another layer of difficulty.

Craig Rodsmith's engine-wheeled custom bike, 'The Killer'

Why did you decide to start a custom shop?

I didn’t think I ever did. It was something that I’d always done. I had my shop and I was doing repairs to finance my passion for custom bikes. I’ve just always done it. Stock anything kinda bores me and I want to modify it. It wasn’t intentional; it just happened. The Los Angeles-based customiser Max Hazan and I were talking a week ago and we realised that we aren’t like other motorcycle guys. They are our lives, but we just love what we do and we don’t feel a need to fit in. That’s not what drives us. We didn’t set out to be great custom bike builders, we’re just doing what we love. The end result has to look good, but we’re doing it for ourselves. It’s human nature. We want the danger. We want the challenge. We can take or leave everything else that comes with it.

craig Rodsmith's custom supercharged Ducati

Why did you relocate to Chicago?

I came over to the US a few times before I settled here permanently thanks to an age-old story. I travelled to Chicago. Met a woman there. We got married. We had kids. We got divorced. I stayed there. Now I’m seriously thinking about relocating to somewhere warm, but definitely not Florida. Maybe Texas?

As an Aussie who’s lived here for 27 years. The difference over that period is how unaware Americans were about Aussie culture. They had no idea back then, but now they accept us for what we are. We’re like a novelty over here which lets me get away with anything. And you never know how much you love home until you leave it for a decent amount of time. Also, growing up in Australia in the ’70s, I would see a lot of motorcycle mags from America and Europe, and I would see stuff that I’d just want to make. There was no other way to get it.

Think about Burt Munro. He was in New Zealand. He saw Bonneville in magazines. He built a bike. He went there and totally killed it. He had no other choice, and in his naivety he did it bigger and better than anyone else. Americans don’t really see America, if you get what I mean. But Aussies and Kiwis look in from the outside. We have a tiny population and we’re living at the end of the world, so Aussies grow up with a sense of humility. We know we don’t really matter in the scheme of things, so that really drives us to do things bigger and better than we probably should.

craig Rodsmith's custom supercharged Ducati

Talk us through your process for building a bike.

It’s really simple. I can’t draw so I never do drawings. Normally, I come up with an overall concept or a small idea which germinates into the rest of the bike. Take this Ducati I’m building. I had a supercharger and I decided to use it. So the supercharger kind of created the bike. Or maybe I have a bike that I can see as a custom with only a very basic idea of what it will be, but I just do it anyway.

Right now, I’m looking at building a new Guzzi based purely on the tank and fairing shape of their 1950s ‘Bicilindrica’ race bikes. It’ll be forced induction, too. But that original tank and it’s flowing shape will basically inform the whole bike’s design. All I have to do is to make it work.

What bikes are you working on now?

There’s two supercharged Ducatis; a 916 and a Monster. The 916 is being built side-by-side with Hazan’s Turbo Buell. We were both talking and we decided to build our own keepers, so we’re both building v-twins with forced induction. Mine’s about 140 hp. His is about 165, so I’m gonna up the power on mine. Just because.

a detail of Craig Rodsmith's custom supercharged Ducati

And you’ve been a ‘gun for hire’ recently?

Yes, for Revival Cycles in Texas. Alan and Chris – who run the place – are two guys who I like very much. I enjoy hanging out with them and working with them, so it’s something we’re both trying to encourage. It’s not really a big decision; we just love getting out of our own shops and having a working holiday. The irony here is that I thought going to Texas would be a break from the MidWest Chicago winter, but lo and behold, I went there and they had that once in one hundred year snow storm.

Who’s ‘Bobby Haas’ in all of this?

Bobby’s a big financier who made a heap of money in the 1980s. But unlike most of his peers, he’s conscious of leaving a legacy that’s not just a pile of cash. A few years back, Bobby saw my Dustbin Moto Guzzi and he bought it. He then commissioned me to build several new bikes after that. Recently, we released the ‘Leaving Tracks’ documentary, which looks at his life and the Haas Motorcycle Museum that he’s built in Dallas.

He’s become quite the ‘Medici’ character in the custom scene. Put simply, he has great taste and the resources to back that up. I feel that he has elevated things in the industry, which is a very good thing. The museum has really become a place that bike customisers want to have their bikes shown in. It’s raised the bar and invigorated quite a few builders on to bigger and better things.

 Craig Rodsmith in his Chicago workshop

What’s your daily ride?

Ha! My daily rides always end up becoming my new custom projects, so I need to get new ones all the time. The Ducati Monster I mentioned was my daily; now it’s supercharged. I ride them for a year or so, then I think ‘I can do something cool with this.’ Then my Guzzi V9 was a daily ride, but it’s turbo’d, too.

I just picked up a 1957 Maico Taifun 400 twin 2-stroke. I’m thinking it might be a great daily with a little custom work. I only live five minutes from my shop, so it’s a short commute. I’m gonna do something stupid with it. There’s a good chance there will be a lot of polished Aluminium.

What job would you be doing if you weren’t a bike builder?

A truck driver. I actually did that for a while. Music is my other passion but I love driving, so I’d be a truck driver. Hendrickson trucks and International Trucks were both based here in Chicago so that’d be the home state choice, but I’d just have a regular R-model Mack from Pennsylvania.

 Craig Rodsmith's engine-wheeled custom bike 'The Killer'.

What would you say to someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

Drink heavily. No, I wouldn’t say that. What I would say is don’t set out to make money. Do it for the passion. Do what you want to do. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do. Don’t try to please other people, just please yourself. Life is about being happy, and it’s very hard to achieve if you rely on other people to provide it for you.

Watch Craig on YouTube here.

*All photos courtesy of Grant Schwingle