Maintaining your own motorcycle (or scooter) can be fun, hugely rewarding, and a real money saver. It can also be a life-saving skill to possess should you ever breakdown in a remote area.
To a beginner motorcycle mechanic, watching a professional mechanic work their magic can make routine motorcycle maintenance look either deceptively easy or insurmountably difficult — as if there really were Zen in the art of motorcycle maintenance. Somehow professionals know exactly what to do, how to do it, they have all the right tools for the job, and the tools are always right where they need them to be, right when they need them.
What sorcery is this? How is it something that appears so matter-of-fact when done by a pro can be so awkward, intimidating, confusing, or even downright frightening for a beginner? More importantly, how can the beginner cross this divide and get started maintaining their own motorcycle?
It ain’t that tough. No, really.
Learning motorcycle maintenance can be quite intimidating for the beginner. But it is not a dark art or an unlearnable skill. Any fear or anxiety you may feel about it is only because of the perceived risk involved: You might blow up your motorcycle! Destroy the love of your life! Or heaven forbid, make a mistake!
Well relax. That feeling of uncertainty is a normal part of learning any new skill. It is also only temporary. So chill. You just need to encourage the right attitude in yourself and foster the right approach to learning.
Our hope in writing this article is to ease whatever apprehension you might have about learning to do your own motorcycle or scooter maintenance and help you take the first steps toward learning this valuable new skill. There are no secret incantations or blood rituals involved — OK, maybe a little blood in the form of a skinned knuckle or occasional small cut, but that’s it. All you need is the desire to learn and, like learning any other new skill, patience and practice.
Obvious Tip #1 : When possible, work with a mentor or experienced friend
I know this sounds completely obvious, but I will say it anyways — if you have the opportunity to work together with a pro, a friend, or someone else who is experienced in motorcycle maintenance, don’t be shy, take it. Even if all they do is sit there, drink beer and tease you for being a noob, having someone there to help point you in the right direction when you are uncertain, to answer your questions, or simply to reassure you are in fact doing something correctly when you are feeling doubtful about it, is a huge confidence builder.
Nobody does it alone. Everyone learns from others more experienced than they are who are willing to help. Personally I have never encountered anyone skilled who, time permitting, was not willing to lend a hand to someone eager to learn. Everyone was a beginner at some point in time. When the time comes you can give back and help someone too.
Where to Work
First things first, you need a place to work….
Having a good location to practice your motorcycle maintenance really boosts the enjoyment of a day spent wrenching. If you can work somewhere comfortable and relaxed, away from disturbances, listening to music, with a favorite beverage nearby, for beginner or pro the entire motorcycle maintenance experience will be less stressful and more fun.
If possible, set up a convenient home workspace for yourself. Preferably make it somewhere you can leave the motorcycle safe, secure, and undisturbed overnight as some jobs do take time.
The more you can make this workspace your own the better. Tools, supplies, electrical outlets, will all be where you expect them to be. Favorite music and beverages can be on hand too.
In the beginning your workspace need be nothing more than a big enough parking spot in the garage or driveway. Further down the road, if it turns out you really do enjoy working on your motorcycle, then you can think about making an investment in your workshop and buying some equipment and supplies too. By then you should also have a better idea of what tools and equipment you need/want most.
(Whenever that time comes, Riding Gear Warehouse has a complete selection of tools and workshop equipment including, motorcycle lifts, tire changing machine, tool storage chest, air compressors, and more.)
Do-It-Yourself Repair Shops
If you don’t have a home garage or other workspace available, another great option is to work at your local do-it-yourself service garage. These are businesses, generally run by experienced motorcycle mechanics, where you can rent a service bay by the hour or day to do your own wrenching.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of working at a DIY garage is the experienced pros on hand to tutor you, help you out when you get stuck, and generally keep you from blowing either you or your motorcycle up. As mentioned above, if you ever have the chance to work with an experienced motorcycle mechanic, take it.
A great example of this type of DIY motorcycle repair business is Moto Republic in Eagle Rock, CA. In addition to giving you all the guidance and hand-holding you need, they also provide every tool required to do the job. I did the 12,000 service on my Triumph Tiger 800XC there (a major service) and it was one of the best learning experiences of my life.
Taking Your First Steps
Get a Haynes Manual
The first thing to do is get yourself a copy of the Haynes Manual for your particular make, model, and year of motorcycle. The OEM Service Manual is also a great thing to have but Haynes Manuals are written with the layman in mind.
Haynes manuals are full of easy to follow instructions for literally every maintenance task there is. They also provide all the needed specifications for your motorcycle such as correct chain slack, screw types, screw sizes, torques, oil and other fluid types, correct fill levels, and more.
The manuals are motorcycle make, model, and year specific. They include the manufacturers recommended service schedule, a list of each maintenance task required, and step-by-step instructions for how to correctly complete each task.
What really sets these books apart to me however, are the numerous professional tips (specific to your motorcycle) that they include together with an abundance of other how-to advice; things experienced pros learn over years of wrenching. These are hugely educational and can help take the awkwardness out of otherwise simple tasks.
To get started, pick one small task and focus on learning that task alone first. Then learn more. Don’t take on a complete engine rebuild right out of the gate. Start small and build confidence. Pick something simple, like adjusting your chain, or an oil change. Get comfortable with that one thing first and then move on to learning the next small thing.
Leave the big jobs to the pros
There’s nothing at all wrong with only doing small maintenance jobs yourself and leaving bigger jobs to the pros. While your bike is in the shop you might even take the opportunity to tell the pro you just finished your first chain adjustment or oil change (for example) and would they mind checking to see if you did it ok. Everyone was a beginner once. Chances are they will be happy to help you learn.
Begin with routine maintenance
Begin by learning the regular routine maintenance tasks all motorcycles need — oil changes, chain maintenance (belt and shaft drive bikes excepted), brake service, coolant change, cable lube and adjustment, tire change and service, lubrication, and general re-torquing of screws and bolts that may have vibrated loose.
These are all simple step-by-step tasks that you can learn step-by-step. They also will save you the most money in the long run, so win win.
Research your task before you start
Before you begin, learn all you can. Research your task so you know what you need to do before you start doing it.
Read your Haynes Manual — Find the task you want to do in the Haynes Manual and read all about it. Then read it again. Make notes if you like. Bookmark the page for easy reference while working.
Check for YouTube tutorials — These days there is a video for everything. Many on YouTube. Servicing your chain for the first time? Before you begin watch a few videos of other people doing it. Doing an oil change? There will be videos of that too. Save the videos you like best so you can watch them while you work.
Make a step by step list
It can be very helpful to make yourself a step by step list of all the things you need to do to complete a job. Also list all the tools and supplies you will need along with all manufacturers specifications like torque settings etc. Don’t expect yourself to remember everything first time around.
Make a bullet point checklist of each step of the job from start to finish so you can follow it in order and check things off one step at a time. List the tools needed, screw sizes and torque specs, when to use Loctite, when to use grease, etc, etc etc.
Making a list gives your brain a break, assures you don’t forget anything important, and helps you learn to do the job correctly first time around.
Before you take anything apart or remove something from your motorcycle, first take a photo of it correctly assembled and in place so you know where everything goes. You may not remember hours or days later.
Bag it and label it
Use ziplock bags to keep all screws, bolts, and other parts you remove from your bike organized. As you remove a specific part, put its screws, bolts, pieces, etc in a designated baggie and label it so you know exactly where the parts came from and where they go back. On certain jobs it can sometimes be days before you reassemble your motorcycle. Don’t expect to remember everything.
Assembling your tool kit
A tool kit is not something you need to spend a massive amount of money on all at once. Just as you are learning motorcycle maintenance one task at a time, you can build your tool kit one tool at a time as each task demands.
Pick the maintenance task you want to learn, research it, note what tools are needed for the job, and start building your tool kit by buying just those tools needed.
That said, there are some common basic tools needed for most every job — hand tools such as a set of open-end wrenches (metric or SAE, check your Haynes Manual or owners manual), a socket set, and a torque wrench. Every motorcycle has certain screw and bolt types/sizes that are used repeatedly throughout the bike, so it is common to use the same basic tools over and over on many different maintenance tasks.
The Riders Blog has a great article on How to Make a Custom Tool Kit for Your Motorcycle. Check it out for helpful suggestions on how to build a tool kit for your specific bike.
A torque wrench is your best friend
A torque wrench eliminates any guessing about whether a screw is too loose, too tight, or just right. By using a torque wrench you know for absolute certain.
Correct torquing of screws and bolts is vital. Anything under-torqued will vibrate loose. Anything over-torqued runs the risk of stripping the threads on your motorcycle. Some engine compounds and parts are made of softer material than the screws which go into them. Over-tighten these screws and it is the motorcycle part that will be damaged, not the screw.
TLDR; always use a torque wrench and always adhere to manufacturers recommend torque specifications.
Inspecting for Maintenance Needs
Now that you are learning to do you own motorcycle maintenance, how do you know what needs to be maintained? There are two easy ways to do this.
Manufacturers Maintenance Schedule
Every manufacturer provides a recommended maintenance schedule for their motorcycles or scooters. This is a list of maintenance tasks, specific to each particular motorcycle model, that must be performed regularly as per the manufacturers maintenance schedule.
Some maintenance tasks must be done every certain amount of miles. Others must be done every certain amount of months or years regardless of how may miles the motorcycle has or has not traveled.
Inspect While You Clean
Keeping your motorcycle or scooter clean is not just a good idea, it is an important part of motorcycle safety. While you are cleaning your motorcycle you are as up-close and personal with it as you will ever be. Inches away. This is the perfect time to inspect the bike for any maintenance needs.
The Riders Blog has a very helpful article on how to safety inspect your motorcycle for maintenance needs while you clean it: How To Safety Inspect Your Motorcycle While You Clean It. Check it out.
Practice makes perfect
Learning to work on your own motorcycle is a hugely fun and rewarding thing to do. Not to mention a big money saver. Sure, it may seem intimidating at first, but it is not black magic, and there is no secret handshake.
Just take it one job at a time, break the job down in to small step-by-step tasks, follow the instructions, and you can start mastering the basics in no time. You may not become a master mechanic overnight, but a job you’ve done once is the same job the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. You will only get better each time you do it.
So have fun with it and enjoy the process! Everyone begins at the beginning. Give it a go.
Ride safe. Have fun.