The sun was shining, the Honda CB750-Four (a K3) was humming along the highway from Canberra to Sydney and all was right with the world. Briefly. Then a rattle started – that’s when I should have switched off. Instead, the rattle soon became insistent, then a very ugly ‘haggeda, haggeda’ before the engine expired in an ominous ‘whump’. Not good.
We were somewhere outside Campbelltown and about to make a decision that was, if not life-changing, certainly shed-changing. Should I hand it over to a professional or tackle the job myself? With barely enough mechanical knowledge to adjust the chain without cocking it up, I optimistically thought “how hard can it be?” and opted for the DIY route.
At the time, the thinking was that muggins might learn something and, if nothing else, would at least have a decent toolkit to show for it, if not a working motorcycle …
We got there in the end, but not before learning about mysterious things such as the necessity to match plain bearing crank shells to the grind of the crankshaft. And let’s not go into the numerous and often-expensive stuff-ups along the way.
With not more than a couple of shifting spanners and a pair of pliers to my name, the first challenge was to start buying decent tools without spending a fortune.
At the time, local company Sidchrome promoted a lifetime guarantee for its mid-priced tools, something it still does today. So the first, tentative step was a basic, half-inch drive socket set. Bought more than 30 years ago, It’s still in use today and shows every sign of outlasting its owner.
A current equivalent (a slightly more elaborate 20-piece set) will set you back around $170, though I recently saw a set on special with Just Tools at $130. Not cheap? Welcome to my first rule of tool-buying: if it’s something you’re really going to depend on, don’t be afraid to spend a little extra to get decent quality gear. In the long run, it will pay for itself.
WHAT DO YOU NEED?
Okay, so let’s back up a bit and assess what you really need. If you have the cash to splash in your favourite tool shop, good luck to you, though you’ll soon discover you could borrow Bill Gates’ wallet and still not walk out with everything you really need.
The basics for the vast majority of motorcycles will include spanners (socket and ring) for around 8-20mm, a set of flat and Phillips-head screwdrivers (a couple of different sizes of each), a small set of Allen or hex keys, plus, increasingly, some basic Torx heads. Oh, and let’s not forget a few sets of pliers. Throw in a decent-size shifter and you’ll have enough to tackle the majority of basic maintenance on your bike.
Okay, now before you grab that shopping list and head off, what is your bike? If it’s Japanese or European, most likely it has metric fasteners. If it’s older American or English, it could have Imperial/SAE or even Whitworth. Thanks in part to its age, Winston the 1947 Sunbeam, one of the more challenging toys in my shed, has a mix of all three!
One solution is to buy a kit, which has the majority of what you need, usually for significantly less than the individual components would add up to. Again, look for reasonable quality (it doesn’t have to be top shelf unless you plan to twirl spanners for a living) and be aware that any kit will inevitably need adding to over time.
A good option out there at the moment is the Honiton 111-piece kit, sold by Andy Strapz (andystrapz.com) for $285. It has a mix of half-inch, three-eighths and quarter-inch drives, with sockets, spanners (all in metric and SAE), screwdrivers, Allen keys and Torx heads. The one significant gap is pliers and multigrips.
That, or a set-up like it, at least supplies a good core, which you can add to over time as you discover a need for larger sockets, spanners, and specialist gear such as circlip pliers.
My last port of call would be a set of needle nose pliers, plus a larger snub nose set, and a pair of multigrips. In all, that would give you a pretty comprehensive kit.
You’ll also find a need for larger spanners to undo axle nuts and the like, for chain adjustment. The ideal situation is to get a large ring spanner that fits, with a good quality shifter as a second choice. A really good 600mm shifter will set you back $200 – a lot, but worth it over the long term as the fit and machining will be better and the tool will grip more reliably. Given how rarely you’ll use it, though, much cheaper shifters would also be fine.
Though less critical, I like to have some basic electrical gear at home, including a battery charger and multimeter. The latter will tell you lots of useful things, such as whether your battery is up speed and if it’s holding charge, or even if a suspect wire really is broken. A reasonable one will set you back about $20-40.
As for battery chargers, there are two main types that you’ll find useful: a bench charger that’s designed to cover six and 12 volt, and a battery tender. A bench charger that has fast and gentle charge rates, such as an Arlec 2500 Compact, will cost around $50. A battery tender is a little different in that it’s designed to monitor the battery charge level and be plugged in whenever you’re not using the motorcycle. An Ozcharge unit will set you back about $90.
I also like to have some basic measuring tools on hand, including a tape measure (from any hardware store) plus a Vernier caliper. Verniers are useful for accurately measuring nuts and the like for tools, parts and component wear – it’s something you’ll use only occasionally, but will be glad to have on site. Ideally you should have something that measures down to 0.01mm, which rules out the really cheap, $10 versions. Spend closer to $50 for a decent one.
If you’re getting serious about getting on the spanners, you’ll almost inevitably want a torque wrench, which enables you to set olt tension to factory specs. Quality counts here, too, as an inaccurate wrench can cause some expensive damage. Expect to spend $200 for a mid-range half-inch drive unit.
For anything you know you’re going to rely on, I prefer a real tool shop. As a backstop, chain stores like Bunnings now run half-decent tool centres, while auto stores like Repco often have someone who has a clue. The reason for preferring a tool shop is they’re unlikely to carry the sort of ultra-cheap crap you’ll find at discount marts, plus you might just get someone who can talk intelligently about what the different price ranges represent. Poor tools can let you down, burring nuts and screws, often with expensive or time-consuming consequences.
It also pays to ask around. A good example is my recent experience where I was in need of a decent set of Whitworth tools. Even specialist shops tend not to carry them these days, so there I was with Phil Pilgrim of Union Jack Motorcycles, having a rant about it. He quietly reached under his counter and held up a set of spanners and sockets, asking which one ‘sir’ would like. I took the lot.
Another port of call is garage sales. It’s a sad truth that we all have to give up our sheds at some stage – even if that means being carried out in a box. I’ve seen some great bargains turn up occasionally and it can be possible to buy a complete kit with surprisingly little money. Keep in mind that quality tools don’t really age. If it was a good spanner 40 years ago, it still is now.
Ideally you’re going to want a workbench and somewhere to keep the tools. The DIY shops will happily sell you something, or you could go mad and build your own. A shadow board, set up so you can hang your tools over a workbench, is another option and pretty simple to construct.
The good old garage sale can be a real winner here, too. I once bought a cheap home-made chipboard workbench, which came with an ancient vice already fitted, for peanuts. The thinking was that it might last a few years, by which time I might be able to afford to replace it with something really nice. That was more than 25 years ago, and it’s still in use.
Something that has changed radically in recent years is the price of some of the really big-ticket items has plummeted, making them more accessible for the home mechanic.
For example, you can now buy a big tool chest (which can double as a workbench) for reasonable money. I got one recently. It was a huge Homack 11-drawer item on casters for $500 from Northerntool.com.
A tip here: make sure it’s lockable, not for security but so you can ensure the drawers stay shut while you move it around. If not, these things can tip over and it’s not a pretty sight. (Funny, if it’s not yours, but ugly.)
Another example is a recently purchased motorcycle hoist from Radum in Melbourne. There are two in the range, priced at $400-500, and do the job admirably. You might not use one in a professional workshop, but they’re fine for home use.
Something else I’ve come to like is a tool trolley – a really handy thing to move around with you when you’re juggling lots of tools, parts and potions. The pick of what I’ve seen recently is a Kincrome twin tray model, priced at $145.
When it comes to the simple things, a bit of imagination can do wonders. Old bedsheets and bath towels are invaluable as giant rags and dropsheets, while a big workshop roll of Chux-style towels is always on hand at my shed as disposable polishing and clean-up rags.
When it comes to oil changes, an old 4.0- or 5.0-litre oil bottle tipped on its side with a hole cut out of the upper surface can make a useful oil pan, though I prefer a three-dollar cat litter tray from the local discount mart.
Of course, I’m also a fan of a few creature comforts, such as a heater, a fan, a music system and preferably a bar. Maybe even a bed. But that’s a story for another day…