Made in Taiwan
Rough Crafts may be a relatively young business, but it has quickly developed a global following with its parts appearing on bikes around the world. The business is the work of Winston Yeh, a young man who is so committed to making Rough Crafts a success that in 2013 he shipped a motorcycle from Taiwan to Germany to compete in the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building, and in the process won the Modified Harley class
MENTION Taiwan to people in the motorcycle industry, and a lot of them will make comments about cheap copies of well-known brands, but one man is working hard to change that perception. Winston Yeh is a Taiwanese native who has achieved world-wide fame with his custom builds under the Rough Crafts name, but he never intended to be a custom motorcycle builder.
As a youngster in college Winston had never given motorcycles much thought, at least not until a friend of his got a 150cc bike, when everyone else was riding automatic scooters. “I saw him on his motorbike and thought it was just the coolest thing ever,” says Winston of his introduction to motorcycling. “So I went and bought a 150cc Yamaha myself.
"I was studying product design, so I used the shop at school to modify the bike. The first thing I did was chop and extend the swingarm, then I swapped the wheels out. I probably spent four times the money it cost me by changing it around. That was my bike building 101, I learnt from my mistakes as I went along. Though at that time I never thought I would be doing it as a career.”
Winston’s design skills were good enough to be awarded a government funded scholarship that saw him travel to the US to learn graphic and industrial design on a one-year study program at the Art Center in Pasadena, California, in 2006.
He says of that time: “I was able to study whatever aspects of design I wanted while I was there, even though I was still doing product design.” It was during his time studying in the US that Winston had a very lucky break. Having bid on and won some bike parts on eBay, which he planned on taking back to Taiwan, he contacted the seller to arrange collection. He explains: “The address was close to where I was living so I called the seller up and asked if could I go over and collect the parts. I then discovered they were clear-out parts from Performance Machine.
“While I was at PM I got chatting to the R&D Manager, and he was real curious as to why an Asian kid like me wanted to buy them. So I told him about my background in product design, my interest in graffiti and how I was building a bike back home, then he invited me in to talk to Roland Sands. All I was able to show Roland were some examples of my graffiti that were online. He said: ‘One of our walls is a bit bare, would you like to come in and paint it for us?’”
A couple of weeks later Winston was back at Performance Machine painting the wall for Roland Sands with his graffiti art. At the time he thought that was the end of his involvement with RSD, until two more weeks passed and he received a call asking if he would like to design some T-shirts for RSD.
Winston takes up the story: “That was the first time they did T-shirts, and I made the first design with the RSD ring on. I was eventually there for about nine months working on various projects.
“I didn’t get to work on motorbikes then, but I did absorb a lot of information about product development and design and how to bring parts to market and promote parts production using custom bike builds. That experience gave me the boost I needed to do it for myself, because in Taiwan no one ever sees themselves as being able to get into this type of business.”
When Winston returned to Taiwan he finished his diploma and went on to get his Master’s Degree. Then, due to compulsory national service, he had to spend a year in the Taiwanese army. After some time spent doing freelance design work, it was turning 30 that caused Winston to decide that the time was right to start Rough Crafts. “I never get tired of thinking about motorcycles, and from my experience at RSD and PM I felt that as a product designer, I could do this [build custom motorcycles and parts], with this kind of process. That was how I got into it, and that’s why I used motorcycles as a starting point, but I named my brand Rough Crafts, because that keeps all of my options open. If I want to do cars or furniture, then that’s also possible under the Rough Crafts label. I love motorcycles, but I’m always trying to do different things. Whatever you see around you, you can do it. All the furniture in my shop was designed and made by me.”
It was Winston’s first bike build under the Rough Craft’s name that gave rise to the parts line that he is now well known for. The first of those parts was a headlamp grill that works with stock headlamps. “I didn’t invent the headlight with a grill, lots of people are doing that,” he says. “I made one using CNC, in brass for my first build, the Brass Racer, then a second one in black coated aluminum for Iron Guerilla, my second bike, and then everyone kept asking about it.
“The problem I have with it is that I don’t want people to think I’m copying someone. I felt like I was copying, even though I wasn’t - others are cast and mine are CNC machined. There was also the problem that the light I was using didn’t have a hi/lo beam, and it wasn’t ideal. So after I thought about this for a while, because there was a high demand for it, I decided to make a grill to fit the stock light, rather than a complete replacement light.
"Now I look back at that, it was a genius idea. It’s a real low cost way of getting the custom look and there’s no extra wiring needed, just take the headlight off, fit the grill, then put it back again. Done! No warranty problems, nothing. It just took off for me then. That really started the Rough Crafts business.”
Iron Guerilla, the bike that featured the first black headlamp grill, has become the best known of Winston’s builds, yet he talks of building it on a very limited budget because he was just starting out in business for himself. “I never saw myself as an influential builder, but that bike has inspired a lot of people, and over the last four years shops around the world have created their own versions of it, using my Rough Crafts parts mixed with their own products. I saw a piece in a magazine describing a bike as being built in the Rough Crafts style, but I had nothing to do with it. I never expected that to happen, to be responsible for creating a style. That really means something and I’m really honored.”
When it comes to building full customs in his home country it is not just the cost of the bike and imported custom parts that makes it difficult for Winston. The Taiwanese government has very stringent controls about what custom work can be done on bikes.
Winston explains the problems he faces with each build: “My country has very strict regulations for custom motorcycles, they compare the modified bike to a picture of the stock bike. This means I can’t radically change the frame or put long forks on a bike, otherwise it would be impossible for the customer to change back if needed to pass the inspection. It started as a limitation for me, but after these years of working with the same frame, I find it actually very interesting to design, to think about the possibilities that I can come up with on the same base model Harley-Davidson.”
The way in which Winston works around these problems, and still creates top class customs, can be seen with Graphite Speedster, the bike with which he placed fourth in the Freestyle class at the 2014 AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building. On this build he cut out the headstock and backbone of the frame and replaced them with a single CNC machined billet aluminum piece that can be seen in detail when the split gas tanks are unclipped from the frame. This build was his response to winning the Modified Harley class the year before.
“After winning the Modified Harley class in 2013 I felt like I had a lot more responsibility; what should I do next? I’m an outsider in Taiwan because of the way I do business. I have a real ego and can be outspoken, but I believe that you need to be that way to get an advantage over other businesses. You need to build the brand and know when to say no to customers who think they know better than you. That is why I did the AMD World Championship. I believed it was the right way to promote my business, even though no one at home thought it was. I wanted to prove myself, and the AMD World Championship is the best way of doing that.
“To me it’s about how much you want it, and I really want it. I’ll take the consequences, I’ll do it. I don’t want to ride a stock Harley, I don’t even want anyone to see me riding a stock Harley.
“Fortunately my customers think the same way. One took a loan out to buy a Harley, and while he was paying the loan back he didn’t have enough money to pay me to work on the bike. So he kept the bike in his garage all that time and didn’t ride it because he didn’t want to be seen on a stock bike. Once the loan was paid he brought the bike to me to have the work done.”
However, due to the small size of his home market such customers are few and far between, and as such international sales of the parts line are important to the success of Rough Crafts.
This has not been without issues though. “For the first four years all of my international sales were through contacts via e-mail or facebook. A lot of people didn’t like to do business like that, but what else could I do? I’m a one man shop and simply didn’t have time for anything else. When I was in Essen, Germany, for the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building at Big Bike Europe in 2013, I was walking to the restaurant when one of the guys on the Motorcycle Storehouse booth stopped me and asked: ‘Are you Winston from Rough Crafts? We want to sell your parts.’ That was pretty cool. It turns out they really liked my parts and had wanted to carry them for a long time. Having them distribute my parts range has helped me out a lot, and they’re very supportive.”
There is a downside to having his parts made more widely available though, and that is piracy. “I’ve had my designs copied in my own country, and don’t even get me started on Chinese copies. However, if you get copied it means you must be doing something good. I don’t let it get to me now, I just keep pushing and trying new things. If you brand yourself well, then the copies, in a way, are advertising for you because they are so recognizable even if you’re not making money off them. So I try not to worry about it.”
Winston continues to talk about his own country saying: “There are a lot of disadvantages to building a bike in Taiwan, but there are also a lot of advantages. I do my own prototyping for the parts and then contract production work out, and why not? Taiwan is the best place in the world for car and motorcycle OEM parts production. The balance between the quality and the cost is the best in the world.”
Given the success that Sportster based builds like Iron Guerilla have brought in, showcasing his Taiwanese-made parts, he is now turning his attention to other models in the H-D range, such as the Dyna family, one of which was the basis of Graphite Speedster.
“Iron Guerilla was a success,” says Winston, talking about where he sees the future of his business. “I think because that’s what people really want when they buy an Iron 883, but it is not what Harley makes. Once I figured that out, it is now simply a case of thinking 'what if I’m a customer buying a Street Bob?', or a something else. What is the real desire?
"So I take those ideas on board, and I also ask people what they like about my bikes. They tell me they like my bikes because they feel it is an attainable look, something they can achieve for themselves using my parts. While I still build bikes the way I like them, I also think about what potential customers would want and what they could do with their own bikes with my parts.”
Rough Crafts may still be a young business, but Winston has a very clear understanding of how to succeed and is making use of every opportunity to get his brand exposed to as wide a market as possible. Given the number of Rough Crafts inspired builds that can be seen in magazines and specialist websites, he is certainly getting something right!
Taipei City, TAIWAN