<b>Clean Lines & Rough Crafts</b> – An Interview with Winston Yeh

Clean Lines & Rough Crafts – An Interview with Winston Yeh

We sat down with Winston Yeh, the founder and designer behind Rough Crafts, one of the most recognizable and respected studios in the world of custom motorcycles.
06-30-2020
Urban

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Written by:

JOONIL PARK

REV’IT!’s Brand Relations Manager USA

Joonil Park

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UNCONVENTIONALLY
CUSTOMIZED

When it comes to the geographical hotbeds of activity in the custom motorcycle scene, Taipei, Taiwan might not be the first place that comes to mind. It might not even be on your list! That said, the island nation known for its computing technology, cuisine, and commuting essentials (aka bicycles) has more to offer than meets the eye. 

Specifically, Winston Yeh, creator of Rough Crafts. Marking 10 years since its inception, we speak with the esteemed designer over the birth of his brand, his distinctive aesthetic style within the custom motorcycle world.

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Thank you for chatting with us. We’ve been admirers of your designs for years, and have loved watching your style develop and evolve. Let’s start with where your interest in motorcycle design began, and how Rough Crafts came to be.

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Rough Crafts: I started my motorcycle journey when I was 20 years old, when one of my college friends got a Yamaha SR150 and changed his headlight, gauges, and handlebars. I thought it was just so cool, that I went out and bought myself a SR150 too (before that, I had only ridden scooters). Like him, I changed my headlight, gauges, and handlebars... but I found myself wanting to do more. I then swapped my fuel tank and did a custom seat, and it didn’t take long until I became obsessed with the idea of making it “one of a kind.” I started to buy salvage parts from various bikes and began to understand how everything worked together. I slowly figured out how to make different parts from random bikes work with each other. That SR150 eventually became a two-year-long project, with five different phases of learning and figuring out my personal style and sense of balance. 

That was my self-created “Custom Motorcycle 101” class. At first, I didn’t think I could do it as a business, because I didn’t have any mechanical training to “fix” a bike or have any repair shop skills. That is until 2005 when I received a scholarship from the Taiwanese government to study at Art Center College of Design in California. I was lucky enough to meet Roland Sands at Performance Machine, and I ended up working there as a graphic designer. During that period, I came to understand how a custom motorcycle parts business can be based around a designer, creating parts and showcasing them through custom builds. It was pivotal for me to see that. I thought to myself, “nobody does that in Taiwan, so why can’t I be the first?” After the scholarship ended, I received my diploma, got my Master’s degree, and also completed my mandatory military service for the government, and it’s been Rough Crafts 100% ever since.

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TELL US ABOUT WHERE YOU DEVELOPED YOUR DESIGN SKILLS AND YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND. 

In addition to that scholarship to study at Art Center College of Design for Product Design, I have a Master’s degree in Industrial Design. For as long as I can remember, I have been a visual creator, ever since childhood. I've been drawing and painting since a very early age. I worked as a graphic designer for over 10 years. I’ve also been a professional graffiti/street artist for over a decade, too. I still do design consultation for a few different companies, mainly for electric cars and custom motorcycle parts.

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HOW DO YOU APPLY THOSE SKILLS TO WHAT YOU DO WITH YOUR BUILDS?

I believe that anything related to design is all linked together. It doesn’t matter if it’s graphic design, industrial design, custom motorcycles, making parts, etc. - I also used to do my own furniture design. It’s all about aesthetics and having an eye for lines and balance. The issue with many people is they only pay attention to aspects they focus on, but I absolutely love emerging technologies, new design, evolving methods, either in motorcycles, cars, or anything that I think is cool.

I try to study why certain things work well and why some things don’t. There’s always something to learn if a given trend is popular, even if you don’t like it. The more analysis you do, the sharper your eye becomes, to whatever design medium you’re applying it to.

What were some of your early motorcycle influences?

Taiwan’s custom motorcycle scene has very strong influences from Japan. StreetBiker Magazine, Bratstyle, and single-cylinder street trackers were the very start of my personal bike styling. When I was directly exposed to American motorcycle culture, it really opened my eyes to choppers, Jesse James, Motorcycle Mania, and Biker Build-Offs - I carry these influences with me even to things I create today.

What are some other fields or industries that have influenced you creatively?

Chip Foose’s automotive designs definitely have an important place in my aesthetics. The way he makes subtle changes to discreetly enhance lines and proportions, rather than exaggerated shapes, is just too cool. Bicycle culture too, as Taiwan has a massive bicycle industry. I go to bicycle exhibitions every year for inspiration. The way parts makers manufacture pieces as light as possible, but still keep the special design in each of their brands is mind blowing. Independent watch companies are always a huge inspiration too; MB&F’s owner, Maximilian Büsser, is also a good friend of mine, we talk design anytime we meet.

Are you active in any non-motorcycle design-centric interests, pursuits, or hobbies?

I absolutely love art and paintings. A hobby I have is to simply just personalize everyday items - make things “my own.” To me, there’s a huge satisfaction in there already. That’s why I chose to do Rough Crafts as my main driver and as the old saying goes, "Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life."

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WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF BEING IN THE MOTORCYCLE INDUSTRY IN TAIWAN? ALSO, WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT OR SEE AS A BIG BENEFIT OF MOTORCYCLING/BIKE BUILDING/BIKE COMMUNITY/CUSTOM SCENE/ETC. COMING OUT OF TAIWAN?

The biggest challenge is definitely Taiwan being an island. It would seem to outsiders that Taiwan has a huge population for motorcycling, but the fact is, it’s mostly scooters solely as a form of transportation and not as a recreational interest. This means we don’t have much of our own motorcycle culture, style, or back history of “playing” around with it. Also, being on an island means any bike shows I try to go to results in an expensive flight and a huge headache of custom’s documentation for the bikes and parts I make.

On the other hand, Taiwan being one of the world’s top OEM countries means we have a lot of resources to fabricate. Within a 30-minute scooter ride, I have amazing access to talented milling, lathe, CNC, waterjet, laser cutting, sand blasting, anodizing, powder coating, etc. experts of all types. While many builders around the world need to either learn these kinds of skills themselves or to outsource them to far away companies, I have these fantastic resources within arm’s reach. This also definitely gives me an edge of not having to buy a ton of expensive equipment, learn all the different skills, or hire mechanics in-house. It allows me to be able to do what I do and to focus on my strengths.

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What are usually the first steps in your process?

Study the frame of the donor bike and define the direction early. For all my builds, I try to modify the frame as little as possible. It lets me identify a certain direction that just works with the frame line and those that just won’t work. You don’t ever want to force it.

Is there any part of your style or builds that stand out for people? One that tends to be a topic of discussion or critique more often than other parts?

I’ve always referred to my main aesthetic as “Neo-Vintage.” I adore the lines of a vintage machine, but I love the modern process of carbon fiber, CNC billet parts, etc. The balance of mixing two sides is always a fun challenge.

You have a distinct style, so much so that people refer to bikes that have similar elements as your builds as a “Rough Crafts” style. Why would you say it’s important for builders to create their own signature design language?

I believe any bespoke shop or customizing business, the overall brand identity is the most important thing you’ll have to keep in mind, especially when the internet makes it so easy for imitators. If you have a distinct style, even when someone is trying to copy you, they still have to mention your name. On the other hand, a custom bike shop without your own style is basically just doing what a commission customer wants, and it becomes a slippery slope of a race to bottom with other shops, who charge less or build faster. If everyone has their own distinct style, different shops won’t need to fight each other for customers - if a customer likes your style, he'll commission you, plain and simple.

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Do you work with commission builds? Do you sometimes have to say no to clients? Are there things you just won’t do? 

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All Rough Crafts builds are commission builds, I don’t build bikes first and then sell them afterwards. And yes, I say no to clients all the time. I don’t do renderings for prospective clients to review (I do renderings for myself though). I actually won’t take a job if I find the customer already has a very strong opinion of how they want the bike to look and that vision is clearly not aligning with the Rough Crafts aesthetic.

Probably the biggest challenge with the XP project was in the early stages of the creative process where I had to un-learn everything I ‘knew’ about motorcycles and design from true first principles.

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Those familiar with your anthology of custom bikes know you first received notoriety from building American V-Twins, but have since made some beautiful creations using Japanese and European bikes, while still staying true to your signature design language. How do you approach that challenge? Do you have a favorite platform to work with?

I’ll have to say Harleys, for me, are still the easiest to work with, especially with their newer Softails. The frames are simple and it makes it easy to adapt them to different styling directions compared to Japanese or European chassis, where the original design is already very defined. This limitation can make it challenging to deviate from the OEM design and engineering team’s expectation for the end vehicle. It also makes it harder to market to the groups that own the same bike or platform to customize and personalize theirs. The one exception I like to work with is the current generation Ducati Monster. I find it a pleasure to work with and a super easy base platform to modify. As I said though, I always study the frame of any donor bike first, to find out what can be done and cannot be done. I find that first stage to be absolutely critical.

HOW BIG OF A PART DOES TECHNOLOGY PLAY IN YOUR WORK? ANY DESIGN AIDS/SOFTWARE/EMERGING TECH?

For me, it actually very much depends on the project. If I want to build a bike with production potential, I’ll use 3D scanning and printing to make sure the fitment and tolerances are as exact as possible. Even all the way down to the small pieces in the design, as I have to think of the work involved in scaling it out ahead of time. But if it’s a completely custom one-off, many times I’ll just do it the old-fashioned way with mostly fabrication by hand.


What is your favorite tool at your disposal?

I like to be exact, so a caliper measuring tool is essential. Creatively speaking, many times it comes down to whatever paper or napkins are in reach to do some quick drawing when an idea pops into my head. 

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What is your favorite element of this recent design as its creator? And as a rider/enthusiast?

My recent build is a Harley Softail. Through the years, I’ve been doing many more European and Japanese based performance oriented builds, but with this current one, I decided to go back to my roots with vintage tires and retro lines. To me, it’s still so clean and so much fun.


Any parting advice for those wanting to get into what you do - whether that’s design, running a business in the industry in general, or custom bike-building specifically?

I truly think studying and paying close attention to where the scene is and where it’s moving towards is the most important thing. Web browsers can bookmark all the pages you’ve viewed, so I keep many custom motorcycle websites saved, and each day I come into my office and check what’s been out there, what’s new, what’s cool. It always keeps me energized and inspired. Pushes me to stay relevant to the latest in the scene.

Lastly, any interesting riding you’ve done recently? Anything cool coming up?

I still ride almost every day as a daily commute. As for what’s coming up next, you’ll have to wait and see. Maybe REV’IT! and Rough Crafts can work on something together....wouldn’t that be cool? ;)