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Common Tread

Newman's Knuckle: This build takes "custom" to a new level

Apr 10, 2017

Christian Newman — and his motorcycles — are atypical.

I’d never heard of this guy until this year, and now I stalk him relentlessly online. He started building a bike, hoping to land it into Born-Free, arguably the most important traditional chopper show in the United States. I had to bother him because I'm a social butterfly. At least I think that's what it's called. I found a guy with more layers than baklava. To understand his bikes, you kind of have to try to understand the guy, because he’s … unconventional.

Base jumping
Nopenopenope. Photo by Kate Copper-Jensen.

“I’m from Texas. The land of steers and queers. Since I’m not gay I must be a cow,” he said. See what I mean?

Christian is a vegan, which does not seem to be a popular dietary choice among the filthy fabricators of the world, but he takes the challenge in stride. Mostly. “A box of frozen vegan pancakes was among my top 10 worst life purchases. Frozen waffles transition well. Frozen pancakes? Never again.”

I like Christian’s thought process because he’s good at blending theory and practice, and he’s fairly articulate at explaining how and why he elected to do things in a certain manner.  “I’m a mechanical engineer. Usually when I say that most people say ‘Oh, that makes sense,’ which I think means they must not know many engineers. But I am definitely the dirtiest person at my office.”

Christian’s also never done any drugs nor drank, despite the fact he’s banged on the drums for “shitty harcdore bands.” I can’t change oil without being half in the bag. I have no idea how he’s built multiple bikes stone sober.

Capping off this guy’s claim to unorthodoxy: he used to base jump. “It requires a massive mental commitment, and I can’t effectively do both motorcycles and base.  My last jump was in July of 2015, then later that month a good friend died jumping and that helped push me away," he said. "About that time is when I got heavily involved in this Knucklehead project.“

A drag slick from a car, a 23-inch dirt bike wheel, no front brake... this is Christian's "conventional" motorcycle. Photo by Christian Newman.

Before we get to his very unique Knuck (say that 10 times fast), let's take a quick run through some of his other projects, which, like Christian himself, ain't exactly sane and rational. The "cookie-cutter-est" of them is probably his blue bike. Newman put together a fairly conventional Panhead chopper that’s traditional and clean, but compared to a few of his other scoots, that gorgeous conveyance is kind of forgettable.

Well, that ain'tcher average craigslist CB project bike, that's for sure. Photo by Kyle Cuviello.

At a garage sale, he once found his dad’s first bike, a Honda CB550, which he bought for $12. He turned it into a cut-up, jockey-shifted speedholey one-of-a-kind ‘sickle, and threw an upside-down front end and knobbies on it… just bein’ different.

Turbo Shovel
I strongly suspect this exhaust is not a Screamin' Eagle catalog item. Photo by Dan Venditto.

After that he attacked a short chop that’s significantly different from most of the warmed-over bolt-on machines you’ll see at your local bike night. Christian jammed a Turbo cone Shovel into a rigid frame, also sporting an upside-down fork. Christian split the Shubble’s rocker boxes, hit everything with speed holes, laced up some high-shouldered aluminum wheels, and then showed it at Fuel Cleveland. I mean, there was a little more work involved than that, but that’s the highlight reel.

Christian’s most unorthodox aspect, however, is his regard for his own time — or lack thereof. A dedication to making a bike just the way it should be, irrespective of the labor required, must be liberating in some respects. How long will it take? Only as long as it needs to. I suppose if you're gonna do something, you may as well do it big, and I guess Newman agrees. He decided he wanted to build a Knucklehead, which ain’t uncommon. Walk around at Born-Free and you’d guess Harley made a million of the damn things, and that most of ‘em are still running. But in real life, those engines are as rare as hens' teeth and plenty valuable. However, Newman saved at least a couple bucks, I guess: the 1940 powering his bike is damn near the only thing on the machine that Harley-Davidson actually made. The rest of it seems to have sprouted from Christian’s mind and hands.

“I just always wanted to build a Knucklehead," he explained. "Before this bike I was fairly good at coming up with solutions to problems. Now my design process and stylizing has become more seamless. I try to draw inspiration from outside the bike world. I have a whole album in my phone of things I think would be interesting to incorporate into stuff I am building and it’s only about 10 percent motorcycles. There’s lots of industrial pictures and some sculpture.” 

Front end
Good luck finding replacement hardware down at the local TrueValue. Photo by Jesse Ladowski.

A bike needs a frame, so Christian built a frame. No, I don’t mean he chopped a frame, or heavily modified one. I mean he took tubing, and built a damned frame. First, he built a frame jig. Then, he took miles of 316L tubing and bent it, slugged it, welded it, and then polished it for what I assume was several gajillion weeks. That was evidently not too hard, so he then designed and built his own girder, also from scratch. Pooooof… there goes another hundred hours.

Half dollas
Emergency gas money. Photo by Christian Newman.

The frame has some neat details. There are a pair of 1940 Walkin’ Liberty fiddy-cent pieces pressed into the webbing at the neck, to match the engine’s year of manufacture. In an effort to keep this bike skinny, Christian spaced the rear axle plates so the sprocky and rotor could run outboard the plates.

Welding a frame
"I just TIGged up another one of those stainless castings I machined on my Knuckle frame I'm trying to put into Born-Free." #humblebrag No, this was not Christian's actual quote, but you can sort of imagine him saying something like that, right? Photo by Brandon Fischer.

Wheely weird lacing
Cross-four and radially-laced spokes on the same hub. Too cool. Photo by Jesse Ladowski.

He also machined his own hubs for the wheels. One half is standard H-D cross-4 spoke lacing, and the other side is radially spoked. I get confused lacing a wheel normally, and this guy’s treating the process like a punchline. When he got all done conquering that little brain-teaser, Christian turned his attention to the gearbox.

A post shared by Christian Newman (@ctnewman) on

Remember how this bike was supposed to be all skinny and such? Newman decided that the venerable ratchet top was too wide. He lopped off the whole kicker side of the trans, and redesigned the whole damn thing. He reworked the clutch release arm so it behaves like a 45’s, and then smushed the kicker return spring into the dead area he cut away on the trans case.

Kicker, reimagined
Engineering by Rube Goldberg. Photo by Christian Newman.

Abracadabra, now the kicker spring uses a compression spring. (Normally they are clocksprings.) And he also moved the kicker "inside" the boundary of the old kicker cover.

A post shared by Christian Newman (@ctnewman) on

His headlight’s another story. Christian wanted to use the parking lamp lens of a 1951 Chevy for a headlight. OK, that sounds good. Here, take a look. Very subtle, right? Nothing too nutty here. Oh, wait.

A post shared by Christian Newman (@ctnewman) on

That photo shows how he made it. I mean, of course, it doesn’t show the hours and hours of welding, grinding, sanding, re-welding, filing, and polishing. But you can understand how the housing was made.

There are more incredible stories and details all over the bike. Your best bet is to stop listening to my attempt at the proverbial thousand words and go get lost on his Instagram for a little bit. I’ve told Christian before that his tireless effort on his project has given me the oomph I need to keep plugging away at my own, even when the going has gotten tough.

Not bad for a weirdo.

When this bike is finally finished, I think I may have a glimmer of understanding of post-partem depression. Photo by Jesse Ladowski.