Introduction To Motorcycle Maintenance - Page 1Article Last Updated: May 20, 2023
Why Maintain Your Motorcycle Yourself?
Next: Common Maintenance Tasks
This document is an introduction to motorcycle maintenance. It is intended for newer riders or those with little or no experience maintaining motorcycles. This is more of a general guide and does not contain detailed step by step instructions (for most tasks). Your owner’s manual and service manual should take precedence over this document.
Disclaimer: the author is not a formally trained motorcycle mechanic but is sharing his own knowledge and experience maintaining his own personal motorcycles over several years as well as information obtained from a number of factory service manuals. Use this document at your own risk. It is recommended that you refer to the owner’s manual and service manual specific to your motorcycle, or consult a reputable motorcycle service department if in doubt.
So, what is included in common motorcycle maintenance, how difficult is it, and what tools and supplies are required? Common maintenance tasks include such things as pre-ride checks, topping up fluids, oil changes, air filter servicing, etc. Some items may be performed frequently while others are done only occasionally. The more your motorcycle is ridden, the more frequently it will require inspection or maintenance. The conditions under which it is ridden, or exposed to, will also affect the frequency of those tasks. Some motorcycles also require more maintenance than others. See the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual or service manual.
Most of the information in this guide is applicable to most motorcycles, but some information is specific to 4-stroke engines (as opposed to 2-stroke engines or electric motorcycles).
The difficulty of common maintenance tasks varies, but the ones discussed in detail here are not technically difficult (with a few possible exceptions which are noted).
It is important to have decent quality tools. Purchase reputable branded tools (the majority of my tools are Craftsman). The basic tools are not that expensive and will last a lifetime. I’m still using tools that I acquired more than 40 years ago. I’ve added others along the way. It is generally less expensive to buy mechanic’s tools as a set rather than individually. I’m not familiar with all motorcycle brands, but the Japanese ones use metric fasteners.
So, what tools will you need? Well, generally as a minimum (depending on what you're going to do) you’ll need:
- set of metric wrenches (combination)
- standard metric sockets, common sizes: 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 19 mm, plus maybe larger ones for axle (and steering head) nuts plus, possibly, deep sockets for some applications
- spark plug socket (deep socket or spark plug tool), common sizes are: 18 mm, 5/8 in, 13/16 in
- ratchets: 1/4-, 3/8-, and 1/2-inch drive (you may be able to get by with a 3/8-inch ratchet and use adapters for different size sockets)
- extensions for socket/ratchet use (3-, 6-inch commonly used; there are other lengths)
- 3/8-inch drive flex bar / breaker bar is handy for rotating the crankshaft when checking valve clearances
- 1/2-inch drive breaker bar (kind-of like a long-handled ratchet, but without the ratcheting mechanism, that gives you more leverage) is useful for loosening axle nuts and other high-torque nuts
- torque wrench(es) – they usually have a limited torque range, so you may need more than one
- set of screw drivers or bits (flat blade, Philips, JIS) in different sizes
- metric Allen (hex) keys/ wrenches or bits / sockets
- common pliers (not for use on bolts or nuts)
- needle-nose pliers (straight and 90 degree)
- oil filter wrench (for spin-on type oil filter); I like the “socket type” best
- wire sparkplug gauge for checking and adjusting sparkplug gap
- a common ruler for measuring chain slack
- a tire pressure gauge
- a bicycle pump (or compressor)
- a plastic, wooden or hard rubber headed mallet (a metal headed hammer and a block of wood will often do)
- a motorcycle battery charger / maintainer
- buckets or drain pans for catching used engine oil or coolant
- funnels for adding engine oil, brake fluid or coolant and for pouring used fluid into containers for recycling
- an adjustable wrench can be handy sometimes (more as a secondary tool choice)
- tire valve core remover
Other tools that you may need or want include:
- feeler gauges (if checking valve clearances) – some are angled, some are straight, some are wider, some are narrower; the best choice will depend on your bike and the access you have for measuring the valve clearances
- micrometer if replacing valve shims – to measure the thickness of the valve shims
- vernier caliper for measuring thicknesses or spaces
- T-handle(s) – can be universal to work with sockets, or they can be sized
- flat-bladed tweezers
- magnetic pickup tool (telescoping) – useful for retrieving dropped parts from tight spaces, removing valve shims, positioning parts
- mirror (telescoping and simple)
- tire changing and repair tools - bead breaker, tire spoons or levers, Bead Buddy, rim protectors, valve stem “fishing” tool, valve core remover (also mentioned above), repair kit (tube and/or tubeless), tire changing stand (not necessary, but makes the job easier)
- tool(s) to adjust the rear spring preload or sag
- special tool(s) for adjusting or servicing carburetors or other fuel system components
- impact driver (the manual kind that you hit with a hammer) and bits to remove really tight screws
- a section of clear tubing and a syringe or else a brake bleeding kit for bleeding brakes or replacing brake fluid
- solid / pin punch (round metal, flat end)
- small ballpeen hammer
- stubby screwdrivers
- Torx bits (star shaped) – there are two kinds: one with a center hole, and one without
- screw-type valve adjuster tool (similar to a stubby screwdriver) – if you have screw-type valve adjusters
- pick(s) for removing O-rings
- chain breaker / riveter and Dremel tool for replacing drive chain
- spring puller – for removing and installing the spring(s) for side stand or centre stand
- snap-ring pliers
- vise grips
- crows feet - kind of like the open end of a wrench but with a square hole for a ratchet or a torque wrench; used for hard to reach spaces
- fork oil level adjusting kit – basically a syringe, a section of flexible tubing and a metal tube with a clamp
- graduated cylinder for measuring fork oil
- an air compressor - useful for a number of tasks other than just inflating tires
For some maintenance or repair tasks you may need, or find very useful, some more specialized tools, but I’m not going into them here.
Common sizes of ratchets include 1/4-, 3/8-, and 1/2-inch drive, and yes, they are used with metric sized sockets. The drive size refers to the square shaped part of the ratchet that snaps into the correspondingly sized sockets. Generally, you would use a larger drive ratchet (and corresponding sockets) for higher torque applications, and likewise, you would generally use smaller drive ratchets (and corresponding sockets) for lower torque (smaller bolt) applications. You often need to hold a bolt and a nut at the same time, so you may need more than one socket and/or wrench of the same size at the same time.
Deep sockets are longer sockets that enable you to access nuts that are on longer protruding bolt ends or for sparkplugs. Actually, there are special sockets for sparkplugs (a deep socket with a protective rubber insert
A combination wrench is one that has an open end and a closed end. Use the closed (circle) end whenever possible. Only use the open end when it is the only option or in low torque situations. You are more likely to damage a nut or bolt head with an open-ended wrench as the torque is not applied uniformly when loosening or tightening it. Open-ended wrenches are often used on chain adjusters and locknuts.
I want to mention something about screwdrivers. On Japanese brand motorcycles (and maybe others) there may be bolts or screws that appear to have a Philips type head (looks like a cross). It may not be a Philips head but rather a JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard) head; they look almost identical, but they are cut a bit different. The JIS bolt head may have a dot stamped in it (I’m not sure if all do or not). If you use a Philips screwdriver on a JIS bolt, and that bolt is tight, then there is a good chance you will damage the head of the bolt (rounding or camming). You can buy JIS screw drivers (different sizes) or just bits (Motion Pro has some).
A torque wrench is a tool that is used for tightening bolts or nuts a specific amount. If you over-tighten a bolt, you risk damaging it (weaken it, strip the threads or even snap it). If the bolt is not tightened enough, it may loosen up resulting in a safety issue, lost parts, or damage to the motorcycle (particularly the engine). There are different types of torque wrenches (digital, click-type, beam, dial). Torque wrenches vary in accuracy, quality and price. A torque wrench is often only accurate over a limited range of torque, so you may need more than one. There are specialty torque wrenches too. A high-quality torque wrench can be expensive (over $200, or much higher). Some torque wrenches may also need to be calibrated from time to time (beam type torque wrenches generally don’t). Don’t assume that a new, relatively inexpensive, click-type torque wrench is accurate right out of the box. A quality torque wrench should come with a certificate of calibration. Do some research before you buy a torque wrench.
If you look up the torque values for fasteners on your motorcycle in your service manual, there may be a table of torque values for common bolt sizes. The bolt size refers to the outside diameter of the bolt shank (the smooth portion of the threaded part), and not the size of the bolt head (the tool size used).
This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but here are some common supplies: engine oil for your motorcycle, grease (different kinds for different applications), chain lube or gear oil for chain drive motorcycles, thread locking agent (thread locker, there are different ones; use the correct one), air filter “oil” and cleaning solution, soap or solvent (like kerosene), fuel stabilizer (Stabil), coolant, brake fluid (there are different types, use the correct one for your bike), WD-40 (multiple uses), carburetor cleaner, brake cleaner, electrical tape, disposable gloves (used motor oil is toxic, plus gloves will keep your hands clean(er)), rags, paper or shop towels, kerosene for cleaning chains and other greasy parts (there are commercial chain cleaners available), a tooth brush or chain-cleaning specific brush, microfiber cloths, automotive washing soap and automotive wax for painted surfaces. I also find popsicle sticks and other wooden craft sticks useful for scraping off built-up chain lube or dirt/oil off surfaces without causing damage (scratches).
Thread Locker (locking agent)
Thread locker (Loctite is a common brand) is used to prevent bolts/nuts from loosening up from vibration. It is a liquid substance, that comes in a small tube, that is sparingly applied to the bolt threads prior to threading the bolt in or with a nut. Thread locker comes in different strengths including “removable” and “permanent”. The (near) permanent thread locker should only be used for certain fasteners (usually in the engine) that rarely, if ever, will need to be removed (it requires heat to loosen the bolt/nut). Consult your service manual. Some OEM bolts have a thread locker applied to them at the factory (for example, some brake disk mounting bolts).
When using thread locker, apply it sparingly to the bolt towards the end of it in a band of about 5 – 7 mm wide, but not on the last 1 – 2 mm (the very end). The bolt must be clean of oil and residual locking agent. In most cases use a medium strength removable locking agent (consult the service manual). Avoid getting the locking agent on plastic. More torque will be required to remove a bolt that has had thread locker applied to it. If excessive amount of thread locker is used, damage to the bolt may result when trying to loosen it later.Next: Common Maintenance Tasks