Interview: Pete Watkins of Dexterous Engineering

| May 9, 2016 | 1 Comments

Last year at the the Salty Bike Revival I got the opportunity to meet Pete Watkins of Dexterous Engineering.  What first brought my attention to him was the Yamaha sR250 bobber he rolled in, but on further inspection I saw the turbo charger he added to it and well, I knew I had to get to know this guy.

Latest pic of Pete's SR250 bobber at the Handbuilt Show

Latest pic of Pete’s SR250 bobber at the Handbuilt Show

Recently, while scrolling Pete’s Instagram page, I got a glimpse of his latest Cafe project that has some serious badass potential, so naturally it was interview time.  A couple text messages later put everything into alignment, and shortly thereafter I headed down to his shop to get the scoop.

I hope you enjoy my interview with Pete Watkins of Dexterous Engineering.


Utah Café Racer – Tell my about this bike man, what did it start off as?

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Pete Watkins – It was originally a Honda CL360, and the motor was completely seized up when I got it. The owner told me the bike hadn’t been run in 18 years, and had just been sitt’n outside his house the whole time.  The tank was all sun faded, the seat was rotted out, and you could tell the bike was resting up against a wall because everything on one side of the bike was crushed.  I tried kicking the motor to start it, tried putting oil in the cylinders, but it was totally seized up.  So, I had this other motor come in, a Suzuki GS500, and I talked to the owner about swapping it out and he was all for it, so now I just gotta modify the frame and make it fit.

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UCR – And you’re going Café-ish, but giving it some Tracker flare?

PW – Kind of a modern Café. So all the tins on it are stainless steel, just ‘cause I think aluminum is kinda overrated.  Stainless is little bit harder to work on and takes twice as long to actually shape it, and my whole thing is building stuff by hand. You don’t build something by buying parts out of a catalog, you build a bike by building it.  And that’s another reason I went with stainless, is because nobody does it.  By the time it’s all said and done, the stainless will be all polished out so you’ll be able to see every little detail of how it was all worked and shaped.

UCR – You’re going to leave it all raw then?

PW – Just the stainless.  The frame will be powder coated, and the wheels I’m still debating on.  I’m gonna beef up the tires, give it a Tracker flare with the way the tires and the ride setting is going to be, but it’s gonna be mainly setup for the street.

UCR – So what’s your background?  Is this anything new for you?

PW – I’m a metalshaper and build custom hotrods, so I do big panel work and small intricate pieces using tools like a big power hammer and a Pullmax machine.  That’s my pride and joy.  When I have the opportunity to just make something out of nothing, that’s when I’m in the zone.  Nothing else can get in my way, just straight tunnel vision with that.  It’s the same way with this.  Shaping the tank, it doesn’t look like it, but that tank started as a solid piece, and anyone could just bend it over their leg to try to form it, but it won’t have strength.  It took me a fair amount of time on the power hammer to give it the right curve across the top and pull it back to give it the right arc.  So, if you were to lift that piece off, it would come off just like that, so no flex.

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UCR – Did you mock any of this up or are you just going with a flow?

PW – Just going with the flow.  I’ve got a general idea of what I want it to look like, but I never have a set rendering.  If I do that ( mockup ), I tend to fuck stuff up.

UCR – laughing  Got it.  So what else sets your style apart?

PW – I like to stand out in a crowd.

UCR – Dude, I gotta say something here. At the Salty Bike Revival, when you rolled that bobber in, your SR250, I was like, ‘Man, I haven’t seen anything like this here yet’.  But then I took a look at the right side of the bike and I saw a frigg’n turbo on it, and man you had me right there!

PW – That bike stuck out like a sore thumb…

UCR – It was awesome! It was so cool!

PW – Yeah, well, you saw all these Café bikes and Harleys and then you look down and see my bike, and it’s like, ‘What is this?’.

UCR – It stood out in a good way man. That wasn’t your first build, right?

PW – Nope, that was my first build, from the frame up.

UCR – Really?

PW – I started from the neck down, built a custom drop seat frame on that, and just went for it.

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UCR – Why do you like using disk wheels?

PW – That’s more of the hotrod builder in me.  I started out building hotrods, and segwayed into building bikes.  It was Indian Larry’s bikes that really gave me the spark.  It was his mix of building bikes and hotrods that really inspired me, made me say ‘Hey, that’s what I wanna do’.  For me, being from So. Cal, with the hotrod culture there it was really easy for me to get into a shop and get started.  So getting back to disk wheels, that’s what you see on hotrods, land speed race cars, ratrods, and it’s that style coming out in me.

UCR – So, your current shop isn’t somewhere typical.  What made you decide to put it down here in the basement?

PW – The first reason is my garage is more of a shed, but my second reason is there 220 down here where I can run my welder and an air compressor. As soon as I saw that, and that this is just all concrete space, I couldn’t see why not.  That, and once I get an idea in my head there is no stopping it.  My wife will agree to that.

UCR – laughing

PW – To get the bikes down here, I try and disassemble them as much as I can, and then get a few buddies and pay them in beers to haul everything down. Now to get it all back up, I’ll send everything out to get finalized like the frame for powder coat, the tins polished, and then when everything starts coming back I’ll do final assembly in the garage.

UCR – Are you looking to eventually have your own shop?

PW – That’s the plan, to have a full sized shop building both bikes and hotrods, but not limited to one or the other or a particular style.  I’ve liked bobbers and choppers, but I’ve never really been into Cafés until I started working on this bike.  When I was approached to do this bike I figured sure, why not, but the whole time in my head I was thinking ‘Oh shit, what am I doing?’ .  I had to get on Google and start searching around for what the look really is, but then when I got comfortable I saw how I could put my spin on it.

UCR – I appreciate your honesty, that the first thing you turned to was the Internet to figure stuff out, but that you’re just using that as a foundation to extend from.

PW – Thanks. I’m not trying to be a know-it-all or anything.

UCR – How do you see this bike standing apart from what’s typical out there?

PW – Other Cafes are done so much by the book, but they are still bad ass and look good.  But generally for the most part Cafes are low-budget builds, and they’re just mostly bolt-on pieces you can get out of a catalog and dress-up with a little paint.  For me, I’m doing my own unique parts that I’ll make myself.  I’m going to design some bars, make a mono-shock setup and figure out the geometry myself instead of buying a kit for it, and add little bits and pieces here that aren’t common.  The frame won’t look like the original, and the forks, wheels, and motor definitely won’t be the same by the time it’s done.  This’ll all be done with just these two hands, the few tools I’ve got, and a lot of time and pride.

UCR – How long has it taken you to really understand the metal and how it reacts with the different tools you use?

PW – Um, that’s a tough question.

UCR – Is this something you’re still perfecting?

PW – It always is.  I’m still learning from top industry metalshapers, and how to read the metal.  Not just when you’re shaping it, but thinking about it at the molecular level and how metallurgy comes into play.  You can’t just go out to a metal store and ask for 18 gauge because they’ll just give you whatever.  With this, you need a particular type of aluminum, and a particular type of steel.  The stainless I’m using on the tank is just 304 stainless, and it is a pain in the ass to shape, but it’s gonna look badass when it’s done.

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I’ve only been metal shaping for about 2 ½ years, and I’ve only been in the hotrod industry since 2012.

UCR- Wow! Really?

PW – Yeah, before that I was a pipeline welder, and worked my way into doing special effects with the movie and T.V. industry from there.

UCR – Go it, so you really dove in head first.  How does your wife feel about that?

PW – She loves it and she hates it.  She loves that I have a passion and the drive for what I do, but she hates that this drive of mine makes me a workaholic. I really have to work on finding a balance between spending time with her and spending time working.  Having my shop here at the house is nice because when I need to be the husband that I need to be I can just put my tools down and walk upstairs, but still it takes a lot of time doing what I do and you’ve gotta work your ass off if you really want to get somewhere in your life.

I started off with just about nothing. I came from a bankrupt family that lost a lot, and I suffered from depression when I was a teenager.  I was raised with the mentality that you judge a man by how rough his hands are, and my hands aren’t the softest.  My wife say’s I’ve got 50 grit hands.  I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am, and especially compared to where I come from.  I’ve been the struggling artist. When I first got out on my own I was renting a bedroom out of a house for $600 a month.  I didn’t have a bed, I slept on the floor, and barely had money for food.  There was literally a lot of starving nights.  But it was experiences like those that give you a certain character, where you know where you’ve been and you don’t want to go back.  It’s that drive that pushes me to keep moving forward, and the realization that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. To this day I’ve never taken an actual metal shaping class, only welding.

UCR – Are you shitting me?

PW – Nope. I’ve never had a situation where someone has sat me down and shown me how to do it step by step.  Honestly, I learned by little short 15 second video clips that guys have posted on Instagram, and pictures of different tools that they’re using.  You can learn quite a bit by just having one of those clips play over and over for 10 to 15 minutes.  Honestly, I just sat there and studied what they do.  It’s not the easiest way to learn by far, and it can end up costing you a lot of money trying to get it right, but it’s what I’ve done to get where I’m at now.

I’m not the best, and I don’t claim to be the best, but I can definitely get by.  I’m always judging my own work, and I’m always my hardest critic.  Even when someone tells me I’ve done good it’s really hard for me to take a compliment.

UCR – So where are you taking things next?

PW – Custom components, handlebars, and more sheet metal work.  I’d like to also start doing frames and girder front ends like you used to see on vintage Harleys.  I’m setting up a Big Cartel account and will start selling things off the internet.

UCR – Anything you’ve got coming out that you won’t find anywhere else?

PW – Nothing I can talk about right now.  I’ve got a few designs I’ve been running past people that if they really turn out will be the big money makers but they’re still in the works for the next couple years.

I’ve got a few other things I need to take care of in my life before I get a storefront and a full sized shop.  The 10 year plan is to have a combined bike and hotrod shop with a brewery, with a restaurant on the other side, so someone can just come in, sit down, and watch guys build bikes and hotrods all day long while having a beer.

UCR – Right on man, thanks for your time.  I can’t wait to see what you come up with next!

Dexterous Engineering
w: dexterousengineering.bigcartel.com
p: (661) 378-1766
e: dexterouseng@gmail.com

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1 Comment on "Interview: Pete Watkins of Dexterous Engineering"

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  1. Rick Warmuth says:

    I am just very proud of my talented nephew, Peter Watkins. When he first told me he wanted to go into welding and to design and create motorcycles I supported him. He had planned to attend a program in Florida or the program at a school in San Francisco. When that didn’t work out, he worked very hard attending a community college program and a series of apprenticeships which eventually his talent got noticed. Pete, did it all on his own. And above all, I know his grandfather Norman Warmath who would’ve shared pete’s love of motorcycles, would be busting the buttons off his shirt. And if you were still around today be right in there with him. i’m sure my dad is watching over Peter today, and every day.

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