Kevin Baas is a giver. Armed with a good idea, plenty of skill and more patience than most, this one-man army of mechanical know-how decided to spread the chopper gospel to America's youth in 2003, and he hasn't stopped since. This busy family man earned his nickname by teaching high-school students to put down the X-Box and iPhones and to pick up the angle grinder and TIG torch. We pinned Teach down to ask him about his chopper class program.
You've got to have a lot of patience to do this. Yeah man, it can test your cool for sure. It's hard to tell from year to year how the kids will start, progress and finish through the 18-week course. You get some kids who are totally into it and some who aren’t, so the challenge is to balance all the talents and try to push each kid to get better at all aspects of personal skill while working on the projects. Through the good and the bad we always manage to pull through and end up with something cool. I am proud of all the kids who put in the time, effort and dedication to complete the project.
What inspired you to start the program? I had been teaching at Kennedy since I graduated from UW STOUT and have been in the metal shop since year two. I had an old ‘58 XLCH that needed rebuilding that my father gave me as a college graduation present. When students heard the bike or saw me ride up to school they would ask about it. A light bulb went on and I told those kids to take my class and we would work on bikes. That turned into an after-school club that has now grown into a credit course toward graduation.
Did you initiate this idea with the school? Yes. After the administrators saw how many kids were coming in after school to work on the bikes, they saw the benefit for the students. Many kids in the beginning were not top students, so when the administrators saw some of these troubled kids actually coming to work on their own time it was pretty easy to sell the idea for a class to them. Liability issues were the administration’s initial concern, but everything eventually worked itself out.
How many years have you been doing the Chopper Class? I always count back to the first year with that old XLCH, so it’s been nine years of growing and going strong.
Can you explain the nature of the class? We start out doing a history of Harley-Davidson research, basically the first 80 years. The students do a timeline and learn about how the company was born and progressed through the years. We cover all the major advancements in the Harley motors as we cover the years. I usually bring in a few of my old pans and knucks to show the kids the different styles. We then do an inventory for what we have on hand to use to build a bike and look at any unfinished projects from the year before. I usually give the kids a recap on my summer adventures and show them the different magazine features that were done on some of the bikes they had their hands on. We then touch base on all aspects of building a custom bike from scratch and work through them week by week while having actual lab time to wrench on the choppers and do fabrication work.
What is the goal as explained to the students in the beginning? To grow as a metal fabricator, learn how to build a bike and understand all the components and how they work, and most importantly to put SAFETY FIRST. When we do use spool wheels and other chopper items like that I explain how they may look clean and cool, but that parts like these are putting the rider in a disadvantage in terms of safety on the bike.
How do you handle multiple novices getting in the bike-building mix? This is the toughest part of the class. Keeping all the kids busy on various projects and making sure everything is done correctly and safely. I usually take the students who have been in the class more than one year and assign them to a specific bike along with a "to do" list. The new students get to practice tasks like creating a gas tank, working on their welding, learning the CAD programming and CNC plasma cutting as well as mill and lathe practice. The goal is to be able to ask any students to make or use any piece of equipment and know they can do so effectively and safely.
Do you hand out specific tasks each day to each kid? I do assign kids to different projects as needed. Some items take a few days or weeks; others are smaller quick jobs. But I do my best to keep every kid working on something at all times.
What about the design of the bike? Do the kids have much say in this process? Yes, the kids do a design activity where we cruise the Internet and find bikes that they like. Then they draw up a design of what their bike would look like if they could build it 100% their way and parts availability weren’t a problem. Then as we progress on the real builds, I am always suggesting what will or won’t work and if they have a good idea we go with it. The class donation bikes are usually 95% all students ideas and styles.
Do they learn basic tuning setups like timing, valve adjustment and fork rebuilds, or is it mostly assembly work? I do show valve and carb adjustment, as well as setting timing. We have disassembled some forks to shave the legs, so the internals were discussed at that time. Overall it’s mostly assembly but I throw in the tech information that goes along with the project we are working on whenever I can.
What about things like engine or trans rebuilds, machine work, wheel building, chain alignment, frame building, etc. Does it ever get that deep? The students are required to machine the axle spacer so chain and wheel alignment is covered, and they need to make sure the sprockets are line up. Professional shops help us with all engine and tranny rebuilds. It would be a nightmare to tear down a motor or transmission in our already cramped, dirty space.
Is Chopper Class just one period, or are there multiple classes every day? Chopper class is one period per day, but if a student happens to be in my manufacturing technology class, I’ll let him do some work on the bikes then as well.
Does the class always focus on one bike, or can they bring in their own projects and work on those too? I do allow them to bring in their own stuff if they want. Some students have taken advantage of our facility by working on their own projects.
Is it usually a two-semester process to build a bike? Yes, but lately as donations have slowed down and money has become tighter, we just don't get everything we need to finish a full build in 18 weeks. Because of this, some bikes take two or three school years to complete.
Can a student take the class more than one year? Yes, we offer the class to freshmen through seniors, and many students have taken the class for two or three years.
What fab skills do the kids usually come away with? Basic metal working tools (English wheel etc.), welding (MIG and TIG), mill and lathe skills, CNC plasma cutting and general metal fabrication.
What other subjects do you teach? Manufacturing Technology, Engineering, Computer Graphics, Introduction to Auto Body repair and Aviation
Have you seen any of these kids grow up and move on to build bikes or work in shops for a living? A few students have come back with bikes they built, and one student did an internship at S&S during college.
Any advice for a student or teacher who might want to try the same thing at their school? Follow your passion for it and be prepared to put in a lot of legwork to build the program. Quite a few schools have followed our lead, so it can be done if your heart is into it.
The Drag Specialties bike was at the recent V-Twin Expo. What's next? We may have a build coming for Loctite, but I have not heard back on that one for a few weeks now. Otherwise it is just business as usual doing what we do and hopefully another company will contact me to have us do something for them. It's a great way to promote, support and build our future generation of bike builders and riders.
Is there anything company representatives and advertisers on ChopCult can do to support your program? Tax-deductible parts donations are always welcome. The only things we don't need are the junk stock take off blinkers. We have enough of those to last a lifetime!
See Kevin's own motorcycles, parts and accessories at Baas Metal Craft