Motorcycle Repair Basics

girl repairing motorcycle

Motorcycles are simple machines. Two wheels, an engine, some chains and gears, and a nut in the seat holding it all together.

A whole lot fewer frills than an average car, which, thankfully, also means a whole lot fewer moving parts getting broken and worn out.

But sooner or later, even the simplest, sturdiest machine needs maintenance. Parts move and parts wear out. It's inevitable.

So let's roll up our sleeves and take a quick look at the basics of motorcycle repair.

First item on the agenda:

Motorcycle Repair Tools

Wrench and Socket Set

If your motorcycle is American-made, look for an SAE set. If it's Japanese or German-look for a metric set. It's a good idea to have both, because even American-made motorcycles use a bunch of Japanese parts.

socket wrench adjusting motorcycle wheel

A Few Screwdrivers

You need a flat head, and a Philips's head at the bare minimum. Screwdrivers come in different sizes, and using the right size will exponentially shrink the chances of a screw stripping. A stripped screw or bolt( a fastener which's head is deformed or threads destroyed ) can make an easy 10-minute job an exercise in futility.

Allen Wrench Set

These guys are pretty inexpensive, and you'll be surprised how many spots on your bike are verboten without them. Unlike cars, motorcycles don't have many areas to hide ugly bolts, wiring, etc. Everything is visible, and bolts with heads designed for Allen wrenches are a whole lot more palatable to the eye.

Reliable Bike Stand

Like all specialty tools, the bike stand can be done without ninety-nine percent of the time. But that one leftover percent it's invaluable. Plus, it makes most everything you work on easier to reach and protects bike tires from damage during winter storage.

Rags, Oil Funnels, and More Rags

You will spill things. That's not avoidable. Spilled brake fluid will eat through the paint before your eyes. No one has ever complained about having too many ship rags.

hand wiping motorcycle

A Place to Work

We've all heard stories about cool old bikers who would park their cherished shovels( Harley Davidson shovelhead engine-powered bikes) in the living room. There is a reason we just heard about them, and no one has ever seen one.

Unless you're living alone and plan on continuing your hermitship -find a nice, preferably warm, place to store your bike and wrench on it. Hopefully a place you don't back your truck into.

Shop Manual

This is a do-all and be-all resource you will jump to dealing with most anything past basic maintenance. The how-to from the people who actually built the bike you're betting your life on every time you're rolling down the freeway on two wheels. It's worth the money, many times over.

Motorcycle Basics

All right, not that we've got tools covered, and you have a place to decorate with oil drips and blood from your knuckles-let's get to work!

A motorcycle consists of a pair of wheels, an engine and transmission, a braking system, a suspension system, starting and charging system, and a fuel and air storage and delivery system.

Toss in some lights, wiring, and of course, a frame to hold all of that together and give the manufacturer a place to attach a seat for you to plant your keister in, and you've got a two-wheeled death machine.

The further away from the pavement the part is-the, the less important it is. If your engine dies, in most cases, you simply stop. It sucks, but you'll walk away alive and embarrassed. If a tire blows or the brakes freeze up-you are looking at a whole different set of issues and broken bones.

Motorcycle Oil Changes

hand pouring oil into motorcycle

Motorcycle engines are smaller and have to work a lot harder/aka run at higher RPMs, to provide the needed power. On top of that, most motorcycles also use oil as a secondary cooling system and a fluid in the transmission in the "wet clutch" system.

If oil is not changed, it deteriorates until its lubricative qualities are gone, and pretty soon, you're looking at a seized engine. It's the most basic and probably most crucial maintenance task so let's start with basic oil changes.

First, pick the right oil. Motorcycle oil is the best but also the most spendy. Car oil, in most cases, is a no-no, even if the weights are the same. Additives used in car oils will affect your clutch and not in a good way.

Diesel oils, on the other hand, are great for most motorcycles. I've been using Rotella peanut for years and besides smelling like a hot dog stand never noticed any side effects. Any diesel oil will do the trick-just as long as it's not marked as "energy saving."

Your bike's manual should list the weight of oil it prefers, the amount you'll need for a change, and a recommended brand. You will, of course, need a filter cartridge, and a new o-ring is recommended for the spot filter screws onto the engine.

With motorcycles, oil is usually changed every 3000 miles. 5000- 7000 miles if you're using synthetic oil and a long-distance filter. A common misconception is that if the bike is not ridden much, you can stretch those intervals out longer.

In reality, a motorcycle needs to be ridden on a regular basis to burn off the moisture that accumulates in oil. Oil seating in a parked motorcycle deteriorates faster.

To start an oil change, locate your drain plug, place an oil container under it and unscrew it, hopefully without oil running on the floor or all over yourself. Your oil filter will be somewhere close by the lowest part of the engine—either pretty obviously sticking out or under a cover as on some Harley and triumph models.

It should be screwed hand tight, so in theory, you should be able to unscrew it with your hand. Most of the time, unfortunately, people over-tighten them, so it's a great idea to have a strap wrench handy.

Unscrew the oil filter. Keep in mind there is probably going to be a bit of oil left in the oil filter cartridge. An old-timer trick is to place a grocery bag over the cartridge as you're unscrewing it, dropping the filter into it as it comes off the engine case.

Once the oil is drained, replace the drain plug. Smear a touch of oil on the filter gasket and screw it back on the engine. Refill the oil to about a quarter quart less than recommended and start checking the oil level using a dipstick or use a level porthole if your model has it available.

Make sure to pull your bike up from a stand a bit so it's vertical to get the correct reading.

Motorcycle Air Filters

Replacing an air filter is straightforward, but it often slips off the radar of shade tree motorcycle mechanics. A dirty air filter will chew up your gas mileage, rub your motorcycle of precious horsepower or even stall it.

On average, you should replace the air filter every 10000 miles or three years. If you spend much time off-road or on dirt roads, you might benefit from doing it yearly.

To find your air filter, look to the side of the engine, under the seat, or just follow the air intake line from the carburetor. Once you've found it remove the filter cover and pull the filter out. Most air filters are made from pleated paper, and if that's the case on your bike, the filter goes straight into the trash.

If you're looking to upgrade a bit or just don't feel like buying a new air filter, every change-there foam or cotton-gauze filter is available. Companies like K&N and UNo offer both dry (super easy to use) and oiled ( better performance but make a mess) filers.

Both types of reusable air filers can last for decades and flow a little bit more air, giving you a slight power boost.

Motorcycle Drive Chains

motorcycle drive chain

Most motorcycles transfer power to the rear wheel using a chain, a belt, or a drive shaft.

Drive shaft requires much less maintenance and loses less power in the transfer, but it is a huge pain to repair, and no way to modify it. Plus, it just does not look cool. It's a motorcycle, all, cool factor is a major factor.

Belts do not require that much maintenance either-just keep them tight as recommended and replace them when signs of wear start to be seen.

With chains, you're looking to make sure it's the right tightness and properly lubed. Stop giggling. Chain tightness is basically the amount of deflection you can detect by pushing down on the chain about halfway along the length.

Your manual will list the manufacturer's preferred amount of deflection, but most motorcycles do well with 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches.

To adjust the tightness, loosen your rear axle and use the trow adjustment bolts on the side of the swing arm to loosen or tighten the chain. Make sure to adjust exactly the same amount on each side to avoid misaligning the wheels, which can lead to a crash.

Check chain tightness every 500 miles and replace them every 20000 to 30000 miles. Make sure to clean and lube the chain regularly using a special chain grease or white lithium grease.

Motorcycle Coolant

If your motorcycle is water-cooled, make sure to check the coolant levels every couple of weeks during the riding season. To check, trace the coolant line from the radiator to the overflow tank(that's where the extra coolant flows when the liquid expands when warmed).

The levels of the coolant seating in the tank should be between low and high marks. Add a mix of coolant and distilled water if needed. 50/ 50 mix is commonly used but check your owner manual just in case.

Motorcycle coolant, the same as car coolant, deteriorates over time and should be replaced every five years. To replace, make sure the bike is cold and open the drain on the radiator or disconnect the lower coolant house and drain the coolant making sure not to spill any.

Ethylene-glycol in the coolant is attractive yet poisonous to animals. Close the drain or reconnect the house and refill the coolant to the mid-level mark. Start your bike up with the radiator filler cap off and let it run for 10 to 15 minutes to work the air out of the system. Watch the bike closely to avoid coolant spills.

Motorcycle Brakes

Brakes are far from being the most glamorous part of the motorcycle, but without breaks, you don't have a motorcycle-you have a pile of deformed parts and large medical bills. With breaks, you should watch for the wear of the brake pads and the condition of the brake fluid.

Break pads will announce the need for a new set with extremely annoying squealing-they have metal strips embedded in the pad material, which start rubbing against the brake disk when there isn't much left of the pad. Once you start hearing your bike squeal when you come to the stop-time for a brake job.

Break fluid is what transfers the power from your brake handle or pedal to the wheel. It does deteriorate with age, similar to the coolant. It's a great idea to drain the brake system every five years or so and replace old brake fluid with new.

Check the cap of your brake fluid reservoir(it's going to be sitting on one of the tallest parts of the bike, usually attached to the handlebars) for which DOT fluid it requires.

Be careful checking and replacing brake fluid-it's extremely corrosive, and even a drop of the cap can ruin thousands of dollars worth of custom paint.

Motorcycle Tires

hand adjusting motorcycle tire with wrench

Quality tires are often the only thing that is between you and having to gather the parts of your across the freeway. In a car, a blown tire is an annoyance. Motorcycle blowing a tire while taking a turn on a freeway going 85 mph might be an early visit with God. Even a tire that's a bit underpressurized will severely affect your handling.

Count on checking tires as a part of your pre-trip inspection and changing them out when you see little "wear indicators" you'll find in the groves of the tire thread starting to wear down. Your rear tire will wear out a lot faster than the front, and the more torque the bike you ride produces, the more often you'll be changing your tires.

Motorcycle Batteries

Motorcycle charging systems are rarely very powerful, and with space being at a premium, an oversized battery, as you might find in your truck or an SUV, is not in the cards.

You simply don't have the reserve capacity to leave the key in the ignition, as you do in cars, making keeping the battery and charging system in good shape pretty imperative.

Most of the batteries today are sealed, but if yours is not, it's a good idea to check the electrolyte levels. Keep in mind-you're messing with acid, so gloves, safety glasses, and a well-ventilated area are mandatory.

There is a reason no one remembers the 60s. A battery seating is a battery getting discharged. A motorcycle seating over winter will most likely leave you with a battery too low to start the engine. Every time the battery discharges below 11.5 volts, it loses a chunk of its usable lifespan.

If your bike is going to sit lonely in the garage for months-put, a trickle charger on it. It'll double your battery's life and will save you from an embarrassing moment trying to start it in the spring.

Working on your motorcycle is usually easier and less complicated than you expect. It's fun, you get to buy cool tools, and you get to laugh at the so-called "bikers" towing their over-chromed monstrosities to the dealer for an oil change.

Further Motorcycle Reading

8 Things to Do before You Ride Your Motorcycle after Winter