I met Hugh while I worked at Cycle Source Magazine. He had a bike we needed to feature in the magazine. Hugh impressed me right away with his politeness and dependability. He possesses strong family values and I have watched him give back to his community many times. These are qualities that will keep his small shop going for years to come.
Name: Michael "Hugh" Owings
Age: 33 (see what I did there.....)
Business: Hugh's HandBuilt
Location: Asheville NC
Who are your riding partners? I'm usually a bit of a loner when it comes to two wheels. Although my wife rides with me from time to time, and of course a few of my shop rats. Most of my old riding buddies have day jobs and kids now, so it's been a bit of a change from the social riding I used to do.
When was your first Time on 2 Wheels: I had this POS Jeep for sale/trade on craigslist. Some feller offered me a much nicer and more valuable Honda Shadow 1100, so I jumped on it. I had plenty of seat time on BMX and MTB, but never a motorbike. I pushed that sucker over to the Emergency Fire Station across the street from my apartment, and taught myself how to ride it in their parking lot. I sucked at it for sure... Police rolled up, wrote me a ticket with about 9 infractions on it (no helmet, license, tag, insurance, trespassing, etc...) and I thought "Hey man, I thought this was a safe place to get hurt, help is only 10 feet away...." It didn't work quite like that... But I ended up riding that thing almost 20K miles in less than a year and a half - so it worked out in the end.
Who are your influences in the motorcycle industry and why? I get influence from all over, I'm not so much inspired by peoples work, as I am their work ethic. There are a ton of talented folks out there, but the ones that push it over the top and encourage me are folks like Chad from Shop102, Dan from Pandemonium Customs, and Wayne Cothran from Wicked Willies Choppers. Wayne was probably the first dude I met, who knew I would end up in this business. He's not one to give you the answer to a problem, but rather he's the kinda guy who will give you 9 more questions to think about... So I like to surround myself with thinkers and really sharp minded folks. I also like to keep up with alot of the Japanese builders - their style is intense... With such a huge language barrier though, I just tend to look over the pics of their work.
How many years have you worked in the motorcycle industry? It's been about 4 years now - kinda crazy huh.... I always tinkered on stuff, and have always enjoyed making things with my hands, but actually getting paid for it - yeah, about 4 years...
What was your first build? I was at Appalachian University studying Industrial Design / Product Design - and I needed a project for my senior thesis. I had been itching for a good intense project, as I had sold all of my Rockcrawler stuff off to go back to school. So I figured a bike was much more reasonable to build with the space and budget I had - plus I had never built a bike before. With a budget of less than $2k, I knew I needed Air Cooled and Chain Drive, I could modify the rest. Ended up with a beat down and not running XS650, and at the time, it fit the bill. I challenged myself to build that bike in about 16 weeks, while being a full time design student and keeping a job at the campus machine shop. It was very well received, and basically that bike would end up being the kick start to my business. I had no idea at the time however. As a side note, my professor remarked "It was a really great fabrication project, but not a great design project"
When did you open Hugh's HandBuilt? I had graduated college and couldn't find work, so I sucked it up and went to work at a factory. I promised my wife I wouldn't be one of those slackass dudes with a degree and too proud to work outside of their field. Working at the factory was miserable; I had no creative outlet at all. In the meantime, I had people who had read my build thread on that first bike, and had been begging me to make them parts, tools, etc. So, I quit my job at the factory, took my last paycheck and had some parts lasercut. I did all the finishing, threading and such by hand in my backyard. It was stressful, I looked at that small box of parts and told my wife "These HAVE to sell, or I'm going to flip burgers...." By late 2010, I knew I was onto something and it just kinda grew from there.
Do you have any employees? At first it was just Roxxy the Dog, and myself.... Roxxy wasn't much help, so I finally hired a 17 year old neighbor to help me sweep and keep the floors clean. Tevan ended up being the best thing to happen to HHB. He now runs the lathe and mill, and does alot of our production. I also hired a feller named Bryan. He's a special case, one hell of a work ethic but drives me up the walls at the same time. Just recently, we hired a gal to help out in our shipping department (which is really a closet with a lightbulb dangling from a cord) and that puts us at five folks at the shop now, including Roxxy of course... We have a good thing going here. We don't think of it as work really - and it makes for an awesome work environment.
How do you feel when you walk through a crowd and see someone wearing one of your T-Shirts? Well, we aren't rock stars, so I usually walk right up and introduce myself. It's almost always started with a handshake, and I've never seen someone in one of our shirts that didn't just have a passion for these old bikes. It usually works out that they'll buy me a beer, so I really do need to start selling more shirts - Haha. And it never fails the people we meet in person end up becoming friends. They'll send us random stuff in the mail or local brew to the shop, keep up with us on social media, and every now and then send my family something we can use for my daughter. It really is an awesome community to be a part of.
You have a reputation for your top quality, affordable product line. Where did the need for a parts line come from? That first bike I built. No doubt about it... I was broke, living on a less than stellar college budget, so I made everything myself. Alot of the stuff I made wasn't even available to purchase. It's not like I could open up a V-Twin catalog and order all the parts I wanted. There just wasn't a strong aftermarket for the XS650 platform at the time. When people started wanting the parts I had made for myself, I knew they had to be the best I could produce. I'd rather toss an entire run of parts in the scrap bin than take a chance of having an unsatisfied customer. I know where these people come from, and how hard it is to spend your hard earned money. My customers deserve that from us.
Why do you cater to XS650's? I get asked that a lot. I've seen some really great builders start out with lowly Jap bikes, and then move onto the more popular HD platforms. I can't blame em, being in love with Japanese bikes isn't necessarily that cool to most folks. When I started HHB, I didn't plan on all this, but it's kinda worked out that way. I've owned several HD's, Buell's, Suzuki's, Kawasaki's and Honda's - but I just keep coming back to the XS650. It's really an amazing platform, with a strong racing history as well. I was asked recently "Hugh, if you were an invited builder to Born Free, what would you build" "XS650, the best Triumph ever built - haha...." I know that building jap bikes won't get me to the top of the chopper gods totem pole, and I'm ok with that. I simply love these old XS's.... I don't do it for the fame, or the money either apparently...
Almost every well- known builder has received an e-mail for the upcoming Biker Build Off Show. I think they should concentrate and focus on the talent but it seems they are looking for a circus atmosphere with a slice of drama. Do you feel this show will hurt or benefit the industry? We were hesitant when we got the phone call a few months back. Initially, I turned them down. People think I'm crazy, but I don't want to portray what has been shown in past TV shows about the bike culture. SOA is silly, and the OCC thing was more drama than I could get into. After being contacted a second time, I figured opportunity doesn't knock twice. I'm not saying we'll be on the big screen anytime soon (I'm not one to count my chicks before they hatch) but it will be interesting to see what comes of the series. I would love to see some of the shops I work with be on that show. We are the opposite of all the drama and crap talking. I mean, almost weekly I'm on the phone with some of my direct competition, talking about ideas, how to improve ourselves, that kinda thing. I'd love to see a more encouraging and passionate group of builders on the show. The tough guy machismo crap might get more viewers, but this guy isn't buying it.
Current Builds in the shop? I'm sooo slow at building stuff. We don't build bikes to sell, and we don't build bikes under contract. When we build a new bike, its usually for ourselves. I recently sold a build, and have serious regrets about it. So a new Urban Assault chop is definitely in the works. I'm also building a Digger / Salt Flat Racer inspired bike that has been long in the tooth. I’m also building a Street Tracker, and a Cafe' and am rebuilding an older Chopper as well. Too many irons in the fire I guess, but I have a solid plan for all of these builds. I don't really have a style; I prefer to challenge myself to not build the same bike over and over.
What's in store for Hugh's HandBuilt in 2014? We take it one day at a time. I know we'll be going to more shows and events this year for sure.
New parts? Of course, designing and bringing new parts to the market is what I really enjoy the most (besides building bikes of course) And it's the most rewarding. You asked about seeing a customer wearing our T-Shirts, but seeing our parts on other people’s bikes is what really makes me proud.
Tool you wish you had but don't? Man, I really really want to learn to shape metal. Planishing hammers, bead rollers, French wheel (I know it's an English wheel, but we have a funny story about that, ask us in person some time). It's something I'm always jealous of when I see other builders creating tanks and such from sheet metal. That and a CNC mill (even just a small one for prototyping) would be sweet. Everything we do right now is manually machined
Tool you have but wish you didn't? Harbor Freight Lathe. That thing sucks so bad, but I spent too much money to toss it in the trash. We only use it to polish parts at this point...
Heaven on Earth? An endlessly full tank of gas on one of my own custom bikes, no emails for 2 weeks, and riding without a destination. We sometimes become a slave to our work - and I'm feeling it. I really need to break away and make that happen. Two weeks is all I ask, I'm not hard to please.
Proudest Moment? The day my Grandfather saw my work in a magazine. He's always been my biggest critic and the toughest on me. He's been nothing but supportive ever since. That and the day my daughter was born. If you keep up with us, you'll know she's an integral part of our lifestyle - Not just a bystander.
Deepest Secret? I don't have them. I'm too scatter- brained to keep up with lies or secrets. Being open and honest in life has opened the door to more opportunities than I could ever imagine.
Biggest Regret? I wish I could say that I would change things, but really I don't think I would. All of the hardships, low points, and times I didn't think would ever pass have all made me the man I am today. And that isn't something I would want to change, ever...
Who would you like to thank? My Grandfather, for giving me a work ethic and my wife. She believed in me and knew I could take on this challenge when even I doubted myself. She encouraged me to quit my factory job, and become the Hooligan I get to be today. It's pretty cool really.
How can we find you social media wise?