A warm summer rain is falling in Washington state when Joe Cooper answers the phone. He missed picking up the first call; probably he was swinging a hammer to form a signature Cooper Smithing Co. custom motorcycle / hot rod fender. Or, he was wearing hearing protection while manipulating metal with one of his vintage machine tools. Either way, after talking about the sere conditions and how welcome the moisture is, we slowly segue into talking about Joe’s passion for metal and machines.

Joe Cooper at work on a mechanical hammer, forming one of his fenders. [Joe Cooper]
Growing up in eastern Oregon in the small community of Crane – population 100 – taught Joe some valuable lessons. With the nearest city 130 miles away, the most important lesson was self-sufficiency. He thanks his mother Bonnie for insisting that if he needed anything, he had to figure out how to make something to suit his purpose.  Today, Cooper Smithing Co. is a one-man operation in Lewis County, Washington. On a forested 10-acre property with his house and family nearby, Joe works in a small shop. Beyond making fenders, his passion for fabrication runs deep: another lesson he learned early is: the distance between what you have and what you want is bridged by what you can do.

Joe’s first motorcycle job was sweeping the floors at Lucky’s Choppers. [Joe Cooper]
As a decent student in high school, Joe’s academic and sporting record helped him secure a student loan to attend college. While the funds were earmarked for education, most of the money went towards a 2000 Yamaha Road Star, a 1600cc motorcycle that was his only transportation, carrying him out of Crane at the age of 18.  Eventually he made his way up to Seattle. “It wasn’t brand, brand new,” as Joe describes the Road Star, “but it was the closest thing to straight off the showroom floor a kid like me had ever seen. I rode it for quite a while just the way it was.”

How things changed from screwing up a perfectly good Yamaha, to building award-winning customs: the Georgetown Merlot form Redsoul Customs. [Joe Cooper]
In the early 2000s, a chopper craze was rapidly gaining momentum. After riding his Road Star for a couple of years, he decided it was time to add his own stamp on the factory-original machine. Without yet understanding the nuances of building a custom motorcycle, Joe took the Yamaha apart and cut the neck in order to rake the frame. The cutting part was easy. The rest was a learning experience. “I can learn things really fast, but the problem is I only learn things my way. Usually that means breaking things and having to figure out how to put them back together.” Joe never did finish his college education, and learning things his own way led to an opportunity at Exotic Metals Forming in Kent, Washington, an aerospace company that works with companies like Boeing. He’s not sure how he got the job, as he arrived with no appreciable metal working skills. “I hadn’t even run an angle grinder before I applied, but they put me in the grinder room where they can tell real quick if someone has any finesse or if they’ll just butcher everything.”

At home with the machinery, Joe in his shop with a few of the vintage machine tools that taught him respect for older industrial products. [Joe Cooper]
After two weeks operating a grinder, it became apparent Joe could toil with finesse, and was taught how to TIG weld. He’d clock in at six in the morning, and for days, learned how to fuse together metal using the best equipment available, turning out sample after sample, before he was entrusted with the ‘real’ jobs.  With those TIG welding skills in his metaphoric tool chest, he put his Road Star back together. That’s when he took a deep dive, studying motorcycle design and style and the custom bike industry. He attended a motorcycle show in Seattle and was wowed by the design and execution of customs by Lucky’s Choppers.  Joe rushed home and welded two cardstock-thin pieces of titanium sheet into a business card, wrote his name and number in Sharpie, went back to the show and handed it to the rep at Lucky’s Choppers.  “A day or two later, I got a call from the owner. He invited me up to look around, and we talked for a bit. Obviously, there’s so much more to building a custom than just being able to weld, but he said he’d be willing to let me work in the shop — he just couldn’t pay me a full rate while I was learning. He made a deal to pay me a few hundred dollars a month to keep the place clean and do the odd welding job, and any spare time I could find I’d have free access to learn all of the tools and equipment.”

The Jefferson under construction at Larry’s shop: a do-or-die moment that taught a lesson on economic sustainability. [Joe Cooper]
Soon Joe quit his job at Exotic Metals, and was living above Lucky’s Choppers, located in a former Seattle brothel, in one of the 30 small rooms above the shop.  Joe worked as a bouncer at night to make ends meet, and at the custom motorcycle shop during the day.  With the luxury of not being ‘on the clock’ with the custom fabrication work, Joe built a planishing hammer and got up to speed on forming and finishing sheet metal. After three or four years, Joe and Lucky’s Choppers chief fabricator Matt Adams decided to strike out on their own. Moving a few blocks down the road in the Georgetown neighborhood, they opened RedSoul Choppers and together, fabricated a few customs with every part either handmade or modified. His favorite? “That would be Georgetown Merlot,” Joe says. “Yeah, it’s another chopper, but that one needed to exist – it came out so nice with the stainless-steel panels on the handmade tank and all the hand-tooled leather. By that point our machinery collection had grown to include a milling machine and a lathe, and we really started to push our capabilities.”

The WW2-era lathe that taught him so much. [Joe Cooper]
Joe now has a deep appreciation for vintage motorcycles and cars, but he came by that interest in a roundabout way. He wasn’t buying and riding or driving old stuff, instead, he was working with heavy duty tooling that was manufactured, in many cases, before the Second World War. “We started looking for big, old industrial machines that were too big for a home hobby shop and too old for a modern machine shop to run. That makes them easy enough to afford without sacrificing any of the quality,” Joe explains, and gives as an example the lathe they ran. “It was built in 1942, and it was used in the shipyards by the WWII war production board. It’s absolutely massive and can hog off 1-inch of material in a single pass. That whole era of machinery is something special, and we probably won’t see that balance of quality, style and capability ever again.”

That’s short from Cooper Smithing Co. [Joe Cooper]
With their age, these sturdily constructed tools often need repairs. And that, Joe says, is what got him interested in vintage motorcycles and cars and their inner workings. “These machines,” he adds, “Are forgiving in their repairs. The longer you own and operate them, the better you get at fixing and maintaining things to keep them running.” By this point Joe was in his mid-20s and figured it was time to move beyond the flamboyant choppers he’d created. That’s when he met blacksmith Larry Langdon. Looking to purchase more machine equipment and establish his own business, Joe found a Pullmax on Craigslist. This piece of heavy equipment allows a metal shaper to shrink, bend, flange, cut and louver sheet metal using fixtures or dies that are hand-made for a given task. “I contacted him, and started asking questions,” Joe explains of his soon-to-be mentor. “He invited me over to have a look.”

The Jefferson in its finished state, a winner first time out. [Joe Cooper]
Larry Langdon had an innate ability to locate and collect old metalworking machinery and other bits and pieces, including motorcycle projects. While Joe couldn’t afford the Pullmax outright, he and Larry made arrangements; Joe would contribute his time to a number of projects, thereby working off the purchase price of the machine. “I wasn’t working for him, I was working with him out of his shop.”  There  Joe began one of his most important projects of his own, when Larry gave him a wrecked 1999 Harley-Davidson XL. Cutting away the bent frame tubes left Joe with the Sportster engine in the factory cradle. He machined a new neck and proceeded to craft a custom rigid frame anchored by 16-inch Harley-Davidson rims and hubs. Foreshadowing some current plans, Joe built his own springer fork using gusseted tubes and forgings made by Larry. In the well of a hollowed-out tree stump, Joe hand-formed the gas tank and rear fender.

What We Make: an example of a rippled rear fender hand-made at Cooper Smithing Co. [Joe Cooper]
Black paint went on the frame, while pieces such as the front fork legs, handlebar, headlight mount, oil tank and sprocket cover were copper plated. Gas tank, rear fender, handmade headlight and exhaust were all treated to nickel plating – and in tribute, Joe called the bike The Jefferson. It won second place at the 2010 AMD World Championship in Sturgis, and was shortly sold. In a show of respect, Joe gave half the proceeds to Larry as thanks for his time and the parts, while the other half was invested in his own industrial-sized metal working machines. “Larry had the parts, and he had a huge arsenal of industrial machinery. I had absolutely nothing but the ambition to open my own shop, and he helped me bridge that gap.”

An example of the reverse-lip fenders built at Cooper Smithing Co, and why they are in such demand: beautiful quality. [Joe Cooper]
Joe started working independently in a small garage beside a rented house, and was barely making ends meet. He was surviving on close calls, and tells a tale about having a motorcycle 90% complete, and facing the choice to either finish the bike, or pay his rent. The International Motorcycle Show was rolling through Seattle that month, and a first-place finish in their show would bring enough prize money to cover his bills. Joe put everything from his bank account into the machine, which took the first-place trophy he needed.  While he was able to pay for another month, that kind of living just isn’t sustainable.  He’d learned how to make sheet metal gas tanks and hand formed fenders, but wasn’t sure if he should focus on building complete custom motorcycles, or turn his attention to vintage motorcycle restorations.

A couple of the power hammers used to shape his fenders. [Joe Cooper]
“Probably the best advice I ever got,” Joe says, “was when I reached out to this accountant from the DC area. I pitched him every business idea I had, and after listening politely, when I was finally finished he told me I was never going to do any of them. It kind of shocked me, but he was right, I was going in too many directions. He told me to just pick any one of my ideas and see it through to completion. It didn’t matter which one it was, just focus on it and do it so well that it would be the thing I was known for. When I finally reached that place, he said then I could think about adding another idea to it.”

Bring a Crane! While big machine tools are available and inexpensive, not many shops can handle them! [Joe Cooper]
That’s how Joe Cooper’s name became synonymous with fenders. He had the process and he had the tools. The custom motorcycle market, thanks to word of mouth and the rise of Instagram, was ready for him. It was like night and day, Joe says, the difference between just scraping by and then being able to save a few dollars and pay the bills. Fender production enabled Joe and his patient wife – a bartender he’d met while a bouncer in Seattle – and their three young girls to purchase their property in Washington. It was a rundown house and Joe had to fix the roof, the walls, and the septic system. There was a shop with a dirt floor, and concrete had to be poured before the equipment could be installed.

Product! It’s mostly Joe making this stuff, but he does train assistants. [Joe Cooper]
During this, Joe kept the fenders going out the door, and with things running smoothly, he wondered if he could teach someone else his fender-making process. He brought in a complete novice to metal shaping, and taught him how to hand-hammer a fender. “There was no discrepancy in quality,” Joe says of the fenders that his helper was making, “the fender quality was great, and the work environment was smooth because I made it clear he wasn’t working for me, he was working with me. Eventually circumstances pulled him away and he had to pay attention to other areas in his life, but not before he’d built 50 of these flawless fenders in the shop. That’s got me wondering now, where do I go from that experience? It might be best to look for some kid straight out of high school with a belly full of fire, bring them in, teach them the process, and stoke those flames. Maybe they stay a few months, maybe a year, who knows. I started with just the welding – maybe my shop can be the place they’ll learn that one thing starting them down the path heading right where they need to be in the world. Show them how to build something they can hold in their hands that can’t be argued with. It’s more than just building parts; you start building your own self-confidence. After a while that turns into a superpower and you can do anything.”

Even deep-skirted fenders get their due, for customs needing rain protection. [Joe Cooper]
Remember the foreshadowing? Four or five years ago, Joe picked up a vintage Fenn swaging machine – a machine that, essentially, can create a tapered tube – the type of tube often seen in springer and girder fork legs. Legend has it, the machine Joe has, was used to produce aluminum baseball bats. Whatever life it led previously, the swager required a complete rebuild. And although familiar with its inner workings, when writing on Instagram about it (follow him @coopersmithingco for some of his philosophical and witty posts), Joe said, “I’m not sure if it’s a machine, or just a small house that a little wizard lives in.”

 

Got ribs? A central rib fender with reverse bead. [Joe Cooper]
With the Fenn swager, Joe is able to offer repair tubes for rusted out or crash-damaged springers. One day, he says, he wants to offer a complete front end. And then, maybe even a fun and simple little vintage-style motorcycle of his own design, using many of the components of his own making, including the engine. One step at a time, though, and he appreciates the slow, organic kind of growth that allows him to produce a part, offer it for sale, and thereby help fund that process. And surely, just as the rain arrives when those Washington woods need it most, some of Joe’s most ambitious aspirations will come to be realized.

 

 

Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics
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