An Old Leather Bag Full of Sand and a Hammer with a Worn & Aged Handle
*It’s our pleasure to publish this heartfelt tribute to a great friend and mentor, written by master customizer and bike builder Kevin Baxter of Pro Twin Performance & Baxter’s Motorcycle Garage.
The name Bob McKay of McKay’s Harley-Davidson and McKay’s Cycle Creations in Ontario, Canada is synonymous with everything that has made the motorcycle industry great. Countless people can tell you of his impact. His work has been admired throughout the world for over 4 decades. He was one of the very few that would build every aspect of a motorcycle. From paint to driveline, the finished product was always world class.
The master and one of his masterpieces.
I can say I am lucky enough to have known Bob and still call his wife Dianne a close friend. Over 10 years ago, I first met Bob when he purchased a Panhead engine from me for one of his projects. I had this matching belly number 1948 Panhead Stroker. Bob was looking for one, Freddie Arnold told him I had one, so we met in Panama City, judged a bike show together, and Bob bought this from me.
The 1948 Panhead Stroker that cemented our friendship.
He was excited because this was his first real 1948 engine and it was used to build a bike that ended up in France. I also learned later on, it was a big deal that I sold it to him for exactly what I had in it. A few weeks after he bought it, he asked me why I sold it to him and didn’t try to make any money off of it. I told him that I stood to benefit far more from his friendship than the few dollars I would have made. I couldn’t have been more right.
This cherished photo hangs under glass prominently in my shop.
Every step along the way, Bob was always the person I could call for help. He was always available to offer advice, on every aspect of my life actually. When I expanded my shop nearly 10 years ago, he and Diane traveled down and stayed a few weeks to help me get things set up. Over the years, we built a few bikes together. We “hunted” squirrels in his backyard, perched from inside his kitchen window. We fed families of raccoons by hand off his back porch. I bought my first Victory from him. He took me to a very hidden place and showed me the world’s largest single collection of Crocker motorcycles. He even introduced me to Timmy’s Coffee and Donuts. We judged bike shows together. We talked almost daily…he would joke about “new” garbage Twin Cams and I would remind him of his age. He did things his way…and no other.
Photo 1 is Bob’s Arlen Ness Tribute Digger. Photo 2 is us feeding the raccoons in his backyard in Ontario. Photo 3 is the Victory Cross Country Tour I bought from him.
Bob always bragged about his girls and as of recent, his grandson. He never failed to speak of how Diane was his right hand and that he couldn’t have done things without her. He said she was the toughest chick he could find and would challenge anyone to run a shop better than her.
Bob loved his family.
It had become habit over years for us to chat at least 5 days a week during my drive to the shop in the morning, while he had a cup of coffee on his back porch. To this very day, I conduct business based off one very simple principle he was kind enough to share with me. I had shops opening and closing all around me, and he always said, “It’s easy Kevin. You have talent. You’re good at what you do. Charge a fair price, continue to do good work, and don’t discount- your work is worth it. Just treat people fair.”
Fortunately, about three weeks before Bob suddenly passed, during one of our near daily chats, I thanked him for everything he has done for me and for our friendship. Of course, his response was typical- “You trying to get all f-ing sappy on me, Baxter?” I wouldn’t have expected any less.
Any time spent with Bob is treasured memory for me.
Two of Bob’s favorite tools were his old sandbag and wood handled hammer. The sandbag and hammer are the most basic tools used in metal shaping. You typically start with a flat sheet of metal and a vision. No computer drawings, only your mind and its ability to see a desired shape within that flat piece of metal. It requires the perfect combination of finesse and strength to stretch the metal but not too much…just enough. It’s the canvas by which an artist creates a masterpiece.
The tools of an old-school master craftsman.
When I last visited his wife Dianne, after spending a couple days in the shop, swapping stories and memories of Bob, she kindly asked me if I would like to have a personal item of his to remember him by. Fortunately, I already had many memories to remember him by so nothing tangible immediately came to mind. I asked Dianne to give me a couple days to think about it.
Late one evening around 3am, while working to complete his “Tracy bike”, the last customer bike Bob was building before his death, I took a break to reflect and just walk around his shop. Under a table, I found his sandbag and hammer. In an instant, I saw a lifetime of creativity, artistry, and talent contained within its worn leather casing under a layer of grinding dust.
The next morning, Dianne chuckled a bit when I told her I would like to have this sandbag and hammer…then I told her why. She was kind enough to gift it to me.
Bob’s final work of art, that I had the privilege to complete in his name and honor.
Every time I use this old hammer and leather bag, I will remember my friend and the role model he was for me. I will forever be thankful for what Bob taught me, and as long as God grants me the mental capacity and physical ability to create, I will treasure these tools and breathe in the inspiration with every strike of the hammer.
Bob has been gone for 8 months now. There simply isn’t enough time or space to share the things I learned from him over the years. He was an endless wealth of knowledge. To say that his unexpected passing left a hole in so many lives would be a gross understatement. The world and this industry is a better place because Bob McKay was in it. He made a profound impact on me and I will forever be grateful.
I miss you my friend.
What an honor it was to complete Bob’s final project for him. I was both humbled and thrilled to have shared in his unique work.