Garage “Bloke” Builds Custom Yamaha XS-650
Story and photos by John Gunnell
Tim Buttles builds beautiful things like his customized 1981 Yamaha XS-650 in a small shop in Ogdensburg, Wis. Buttle’s shop would be a perfect entry in the Blokes & Sheds book put together by Australian author Mark Thomson. The small-format 120-page soft cover book focuses on the sheds that “blokes” throughout Australia put up to have space for their hobby, be it fixing cars or collecting phones. Buttles’ little shop would fill the bill perfectly.
Tim is America’s answer to the Australian bloke with a shed. Tim is a “gearhead and he has a garage next to his house that serves as a private space for all of his hobbies. It is where he makes the rules. Tim describes it as “the place where I do my projects.” The Yamaha XS-650 is his latest project.
Tim’s previous projects range from the $91 rebuild of a ’49 Plymouth flathead six to the construction of a three-wheel motorcycle that looks like a miniature jet plane. Tim has built airplanes that were featured on the cover of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s magazine Sport Aviation. He’s been written up in Old Cars Weekly and in a motorcycle magazine called Free Rider’s Press. But Tim doesn’t bask in the media attention his projects get, because his main purpose in life is building things and finding creative ways to afford projects.
Unlike Roy Orbison, Tim Buttles has never gotten into “working for the man.” He has not had a 9-to-5 job for as long as anyone who knows him can remember. He usually spends his days tinkering in his shop, going to flea markets, chasing down bargains he sees in classified ads or riding around to see what garage doors with secrets inside are left open. Tim never spent a dime to get what a nickel could buy. He goes to shows late in the day to try to avoid admission charges. Once he got caught hopping a fence to see a show at a tech school in Green Bay. “What are you doing?” an official asked. “You know!” Tim grinned back. “Yes,” said the man with a laugh. “But this is a free show!”
Tim enjoys telling that story and others like it, but listeners never know whether he’s serious or if they are being “put on.” Tim tries not to take life too seriously. A self-taught skilled body man, he bought the well-worm Yamaha and then paid a visit to his nephew Scott Severson who owns a part-time business called Quality Cycles, LLC. Scott loaded his uncle up with a bunch of old Harley fenders and tanks that came off some of his “rebuilder” bikes and Buttles proceeded to take the Yamahas totally apart and build it up in a brand new way.
Tim is an expert at wet sanding and buffing out old paint to make bikes look great without re-spraying them. He can fix stuff that professional mechanics give up on and get broken machines running again for a fraction of what car dealers charge. Last summer he came across a Kawasaki Nomad 1500-cc motorcycle lying on its side in the garage of a man who had been quoted a very large repair bill to fix the bike. Tim bought the big “Cow” for $500, took it apart, devised a solution and soon had it running again for “a couple of bucks.”
Tim works his magic in the shop that is 35 feet wide and just a tad longer (40 ft.) than wide. It has two doors in front. The door on the “house” side of the garage leads to Tim’s front shop. He also has a back shop where he handles the dirtier aspects of doing restoration work or building a vehicle and has equipment like a parts washer and press. In front is an office measuring about 6 feet by 4 feet that has a large front window. The place resembles an old filling station.
The office contains white shelves that Tim picked up at a rummage sale or perhaps when this or that Wisconsin village was having a free trash pickup day. Tim usually isn’t fussy about where he finds his treasures. In fact, he often doesn’t remember the exact source of a particular item. On one shelf there’s an old King Motor Tester that may or may not work and may or may not be valuable. There are real and reproduction car and airplane toys, authentic old cans of Heet and Mobil Oil, a 1929 Pontiac Indianhead radiator ornament and a jar that once held oil that could be used in both outboard motors and chain saws.
The shop where Tim tackles his projects is no “Hot Rod TV” set, but has probably seen more builds than Orange County Choppers or Monster Garage. In fact, the chatter at the local Wednesday evening cruise night often gets around to what Tim’s currently working on. It has a concrete floor that shows scars and “droppings” of his many hands-on projects. Old cabinets and bedroom dressers are arranged around the room so that they support pressboard and plywood panels serving as work surfaces. Makeshift shelves sitting on homemade wooden struts hold paint, lacquer thinner, oil, wax. STP and axle grease. Other shelves hold power hand tools like a grinder, a drill, an impact hammer, a D-A sander and a cut-off wheel. There are gas cans and coffee cans and cans of body filler. A drill press and a bench grinder sit on the counters. The back room holds a parts washer, a welder and an air compressor. On the floor is a professional-type tire-balancing machine.
Tim’s tools come from auctions, liquidation sales and the Goodwill store. He rarely orders catalog merchandise, though he does buy new tools that he can “actually touch in the flesh” at swap meets. He knows how to fix broken electrical windings or replace a frayed old cord. His tools get oiled and treated with care, but there’s not a lot of sense in cleaning them up, since they’re just going to get filthy again. The worktable in Tim’s shop is quite unique—it’s an antique hospital bed. According to Tim, it can hold a motorcycle.
Tim’s toolbox holds an amazing collection of wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, hammers and other hand tools that he picked up here and there. Dollar tables at swap meets are one source of such implements and free tools are even better. Unlike the shiny offerings in the newspaper advertising circulars, Tim’s tools have an almost uniform grease black color. “Keeps them from rusting and helps them slide on nuts and bolts better.”
The shop has heat, lights, electricity, compressed air and everything else needed to build motorcycles himself or trade work for the labor of friends with specialized skills. On the wall are snapshots of cars he built, airplane posters and calendars and pictures of this man’s best friend—his beloved dog Silas. This puppy goes everywhere with Tim. If he stays home he has the run of the place.
Like the characters that inhabit Mark Thomson’s book, Tim Buttles is a true “bloke” who beats his own drum. And at the end of the day, he gets the same satisfaction everyone enjoys from saying “I did it myself.” The only difference is, Tim does it for a lot less. His Yamaha is evidence of his talents.
Customized 1981 Yamaha XS-650 of Tim Buttle.
There’s a lot of beauty and talent reflected in this photo.
Tim fabricated the sidecar with the ’59 Caddy taillights.
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106 Main Street, North Adams, MA 01247