OWINGS — Sean Sweeney is the Dr. Frankenstein of motorcycles.
He takes sections of old bikes, combines them with pieces he fabricates, odds and ends from a random car and even parts of a wood stove or a door knob to give life to a radical chopper.
His mad scientist’s workshop is a barn behind his Owings home. Inside, several motorcycles are in various stages of completion. An elongated blue chopper he calls “El Chingon” needs an engine, and a dirt bike powered by a 1956 Harley motor is getting its carburetor cleaned. Another chopper, one Sweeney calls “The Groove Machine,” is finished and waiting to head out on the highway.
For Sweeney, building custom choppers is a part-time business and full-time passion. By day, he works for the government. He toils at XSSpeed Choppers at night, after he gets home from work and his children are in bed.
“It’s a thrill,” Sweeney, 47, said. “You take things that truly don’t belong together and through skill and imagination, you make it work.”
Just three miles away is Lucky Cycles, run by former Washington, D.C. police officer Jim Purdy. He builds motorcycles from scratch or adds custom touches to existing bikes for customers.
There aren’t a lot of shops like theirs in the area, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of custom motorcycles around.
Unlike cars, everyone seems to put their personal touches on their motorcycles. Whether the upgrades are for performance, comfort, aesthetics or a combination of all three, they’re almost a compulsion with serious bikers.
“I don’t know anybody that within six months of getting a bike doesn’t do something to modify it,” said Mike Patrick of Severna Park. “Even when you’re done, you’re not. You get this urge.”
Patrick ought to know. He’s the service manager of Rommel Harley-Davidson of Annapolis and owner of a gleaming 2007 custom silver Bobber.
The idea of the bike was coupling an old school look with new technology. It cost $42,000 to build out of 95 percent Harley parts.
“You don’t want to pull up and have your bike look like anyone else’s,” said Patrick, a retired Army master sergeant. “It’s an ego thing.”
The dealership’s parts manager, Danny Jones, also has a custom bike, but he wanted a more complete old-school treatment.
So, what started life as a 2006 Harley Sportster has been combined with parts from numerous other Harleys, then deliberately aged to resemble a 1950s bike. He hasn’t cleaned it in three years to accentuate the effect.
Just like the actual model, there’s no speedometer or turn signals. The taillight came from a 1928 Ford Model A. “I like to stand out in crowds,” Jones said.
It’s hard to not to look when Lee Chafin pulls up to City Dock with his 2008 Harley Cross Bones.
He has AC/DC blaring from the radio, and the exhaust is rumbling loudly. Beyond that, all the custom work Chafin’s done to the bike makes it resemble a post-World War II Knucklehead.
“I feel like it’s a part of me,” the Annapolis resident said. “That’s my own Picasso.”
Chafin, a 43-year-old Army staff sergeant, spent $17,000 on the bike itself, then about that much in upgrades, including leather and brass, the vast majority of which he’s done himself. The bike looks military, but he said it was never the intent.
“I like olive green, and you know what, that’s what I saw when I was putting the bike together,” he said. “The way it goes is: buy it and you change it little bit by little bit. I started four years ago and it’s still a work in progress.”
The same goes for his friend, Randy Catucci of Bowie, who has a flat black 2012 Harley Road Glide Custom. He got the bike Feb. 28 and besides racking up several thousand miles, he’s racked up close to a couple thousand dollars worth of personal touches.
“You want to add an air of coolness, performance and comfort,” Catucci said. “(When I ride it), I feel free and the world is my oyster. I love it. There’s nothing like it in the world.”
Sweeney’s been running XSSpeed since 2002, but has been customizing bikes since 1996 and riding since he was 12. He learned by watching others work on motorcycles and took classes on machining and welding.
Sweeney also plays in two bands, including the punk rock group Soulful Aggression. The name also describes his choppers, since he likes to use 1970s parts — “parts with history and soul.”
Typically, one of his projects begins life with a motor or frame. “The Groove Machine” grew out of a set of 1970s aftermarket wheels.
Once he has an idea for a bike, Sweeney starts searching for parts on the Internet or at swap meets. Depending on what he finds, the project can change. And the hunt is part of the fun.
“I do this from a sense of creativity, from the artistic end,” Sweeney said. “I’m not a mechanic.”
He does, however, do some engine work, and he doesn’t just like to look at his finished motorcycles. He enjoys riding them, too. But the construction process is the best part for him.
His creations sell for $5,000 to $15,000 and can take three to six months to complete.
With two jobs and a family, he doesn’t have time to watch much television. He does, however, know about popular cable shows such as “American Chopper.”
What those programs don’t fully show, he said, is how long it actually takes to complete a bike and all the problems that spring up along the way.
Like XSSpeed, Lucky Cycles started out as a part-time business. He went full-time about eight years ago after leaving the police force. His business grew by word-of-mouth and determination.
“I knew I’d do whatever it took (to succeed),” Purdy said. “You can do anything you want if you give 110 percent.”
He operates out of a spotless 3,000-square-foot shop next to his home that resembles a mini-dealership. At any one time, 20 or 30 bikes might be inside for service, repairs, and customizing. His father and a few other retirees help him with the workload.
When the market was good, Purdy turned out about six scratch-build bikes a year with price tags of $30,000 to $70,000. Since the economic downturn, he’s doing a lot more repairs.
The 39-year-old learned from his father, whom he used to watch work on motorcycles and hot rods from the time he was five or six. “It’s in my blood,” he said. “It’s a business, but it’s still a hobby. I’m very passionate about what I do.”
He works seven days a week. His personal ride is a candy apple red custom Bagger. It took over seven months to build and cost $64,000 in parts alone. “It’s like a stock Harley on steroids,” he said.
Inside his showroom are a couple shiny customs, as well as a racing bike. Pictures of Purdy’s creations that were featured in motorcycle magazines are on the walls. Sweeney has some of these, too.
“Everybody wants their own bike,” Purdy said. “Everybody wants to express their personality. This is one way they do it.”