Introduction to Motorcycle Maintenance - Page 1Article Last Updated: Dec 23, 2023
Page Last updated: Dec 22, 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.
Disclosure: The author is sharing his own knowledge and experience servicing his own and family member's motorcycles (>20 over time) over 30+ years as well as information obtained from a number of factory service manuals. The author has no formal training in motorcycle servicing. Use this document at your own risk. It is recommended that you refer to the owner’s manual and/or factory service manual for your motorcycle for specific information.
So, what's included in common motorcycle maintenance, how difficult is it, and what tools and supplies are required? Common maintenance tasks include such things as oil and filter changes, air filter servicing, chain maintenance, brake fluid replacement, valve clearance adjustments, etc. Some items may be performed frequently while others are done only occasionally. Time, the amount your motorcycle is ridden, and the conditions under which it is ridden, or exposed to, will 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 (4T) engines (as opposed to 2-stroke (2T) 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).
- safety glasses or goggles
- mechanics gloves or leather work gloves especially if changing or repairing tires
- nitrile gloves (disposable) to protect against fluids and to keep your hands clean
- dust mask or respirator to protect against inhaling brake dust (more of an issue if servicing drum brakes or dry clutches)
It is important to have good quality tools. Purchase reputable branded tools. The majority of my tools are Craftsman, purchased from Sears many years ago when the quality was quite good. I haven't bought any Craftsman tools for quite a while. I've read that today the quality of the new Craftsman tools isn't as good as the old ones. I've heard that both Husky and Gearwrench make good quality tools today, but I don't own any. There are some other highly regarded brands, such as Snap-On, but they tend to be very expensive. You don't need to buy the most expensive tools, but do buy good quality tools that will work well and last a long time. I’m still using tools that I acquired more than 40 years ago. I’ve added many others along the way. Sometimes a cheap tool will do the job just fine, depending on the task. It is generally less expensive to buy tools in a set (like a set of wrenches or sockets) rather than individually, but if you buy some of those large sets, you'll likely end up with a lot of individual pieces that you may never use. Most motorcycles use metric fasteners, so you'll most likely need metric tools (sockets, wrenches).
So, what tools will you need? Well, generally as a minimum (depending on what you're going to do) you’ll need:
- a set of metric wrenches - combination wrenches (open on one end, box end on the other); gear wrenches can be useful too
- 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, but I prefer to use all three sizes: 1/2-inch for large, high torque nuts, and 1/4-inch for the small, low torque nuts, and 3/8-inch for everything else
- extensions for socket/ratchet use (3-inch, 6-inch commonly used; there are other lengths)
- 3/8-inch drive flex bar / breaker bar - 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) - 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 and/or bits/sockets
- common pliers (not for use on bolts or nuts) and/or channel lock pliers
- needle-nose pliers (straight and 45- or 90-degree)
- oil filter wrench for spin-on type oil filter; I like the “socket type” best
- wire spark plug gauge for checking and adjusting spark plug gap
- a common ruler (6 in.) for measuring chain slack
- a tire pressure gauge
- a bicycle pump (or compressor)
- a plastic 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
- spoke wrench (if your bike has spoke wheels)
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
- timing plug wrench, like the one from Motion Pro (not absolutely necessary, but I've found it quite useful)
- 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 (I don't own any, but I've considered getting some)
- flat-bladed tweezers
- magnetic pickup tool (telescoping) – useful for retrieving dropped parts from tight spaces, removing valve shims and tappets, 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, and I don't have one, but would make the job easier)
- tool(s) to adjust the rear spring preload or sag
- a tape measure for measuring rear sag (the amount the bike settles under weight by compressing the rear suspension, laden and unladen)
- 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 ball pein hammer
- small dead blow hammer
- stubby screwdrivers
- Torx bits (star shaped) – there are two kinds: one with a center hole, and one without
- screwdriver-type valve clearance adjuster tool (similar to a stubby screwdriver) or a small wrench (3 - 4 mm) – if you have screw-type valve adjusters
- pick(s) for removing O-rings
- chain breaker/riveter and Dremel tool for replacing drive chains
- spring puller – for removing and installing the spring(s) for side stand, centre stand and some exhausts
- snap-ring pliers
- vise grips (I don't use them directly on my motorcycles, but they can be a helpful aid)
- 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 (not often used in my experience)
- 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 adjuster bolts and locknuts, control cable adjusters, mirror mounts, etc.
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 screwdrivers (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.
Sealants, like silicone sealants, can be purchased from dealers as an OEM branded part. Alternatively, look for sealants and adhesives available from an auto supplies store. A well know sealant producer, that may be the suppler to the manufacturer of your motorcycle, is ThreeBond (threebond.com).Next: Common Maintenance Tasks