Advice: DIY maintenance

Date 07.8.2014

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader



At the risk of having this mag tossed against the nearest wall, my favourite DIY maintenance tip is to wash the bike by hand. Really. You’ll often be surprised (even appalled) by what you discover as you run your hand over the machine. Loose and missing fasteners are part of the game, while this practice has, once or twice over the years, averted disaster.

Beyond that, now is probably as good a time as any to admit that even a complete nong can do at least some basic maintenance on their motorcycle, so long as they’re equipped with two things that all too many men (women are often better at this) seem to have in short supply: patience and an ability to read instructions.

If you’re new to this do-it-yourself gig, and just want to put a proverbial toe in the water, there are a few tasks you can undertake with relative ease which will make a big difference to the welfare of the bike.


Among the most basic is an engine oil and filter change. As a rule, you can get away with changing the filter every second oil change, which won’t hurt the bike and keeps the costs down. We can’t do a blow-by-blow guide here (but have in the past). Suffice it to say the job is (usually) not rocket science.

On relatively modern machinery, you’ll need to access the single drain bolt, which requires a ring spanner or preferably a socket wrench (don’t even think about using a shifter!) Plus, you’ll want something to drain the oil into (a $3 kitty litter tray from the local discount store will do nicely), some fresh oil and a funnel.

Already we’re faced with a bunch of choices: for example, what size spanner and which oil? The hot tip is to get the workshop and owner’s manuals for your bike before you start down this road. I say both, because increasingly owner’s manuals will only unveil the most basic of adjustments, while a workshop manual (genuine or aftermarket) will open up a whole new universe of information.


If you haven’t tried it, read your owner’s manual. It’s usually written in the most basic terms but, even if you’ve owned the bike for a while, you might be surprised at how often you’ll blurt “didn’t know that!” as you cruise through the pages.

The next step is to start buying tools. The kit under the seat of your motorcycle (assuming it has one) is at best for emergencies and usually has little of use to offer. You can take a couple of different approaches to this: buy tools just as you need them or get a more comprehensive set and build around it. The latter is usually cheaper in the long run.

No matter what you do, always buy reasonable-quality tools – it doesn’t have to be top-shelf, but cheap and nasty stuff from the local discount store will actually end up costing you money in broken and bent fasteners.

At the moment, I’m a fan of the Honiton 111-piece set offered by, which covers common metric and imperial bolt sizes, plus hex, torx and a basic screwdriver. The $285 pricetag might seem like a lot at first, however with the addition of a couple of sets of pliers, and perhaps a torque wrench, it will prove useful even as you become ambitious in what you’re prepared to tackle.

Since I’ve raised the spectre of a torque wrench, this is actually a nice tool to have on standby, if you can afford it. While most people happily take a semi-educated guess at tightening up oil drain bolts, axle nuts and the like, manufacturers usually specify a recommended torque (or amount of force) for the task. It’s designed to ensure that everything stays in place, without applying so much force that you end up stripping the thread. You can get a reasonable torque wrench for around $90-$100.

Assuming you know roughly what sort of tools you’re after, it can be well worthwhile keeping an eye out for garage sales. Quality tools don’t wear out and you might find some bargains.


So, what can you do as a beginner? Much will depend on the style of bike you’ve chosen – for example, a sparkplug change on an old boxer twin BMW will take you 10 minutes at most, while the same job on a Honda Blackbird will swallow an afternoon.

Oil and filter changes are generally relatively simple but even this job varies hugely from one bike to another. At a more basic level, when was the last time you went over the adjustments and lubrication for the controls? This can be a little time-consuming, but can have a big impact on how the machine feels.

Meanwhile, out back, have you got a chain or belt drive to check? The two require quite different approaches and individual motorcycles have their own quirks, but it’s a reachable goal for anyone with the right instructions and some basic tools.

One thing I can recommend, after years of grovelling around in the dirt, is buying some stands to make your life easier, when you can afford them. The entry of Chinese makers into the local market has put some fairly sophisticated equipment within reach of the home mechanic and it does revolutionise the way you work.

Two gadgets I’ve bought in recent years are a bike hoist and a cruiser lift. The former came from Radum in Melbourne ( and cost around $500 for the upmarket version, while the hydraulic cruiser lift came from Warana Imports in Brisbane (, at about half that cost.

Just being able to get a motorcycle up at a reasonable working level makes a huge difference to how you operate. Since cruisers almost never have a centrestand, it’s particularly useful to be able to get the wheels off the ground for cleaning and maintenance.

Race stands are also a worthy investment on anything that relies solely on a sidestand. It makes lubing a drive chain (another task in easy reach of the beginner) a whole lot easier.

It’s an old-fashioned idea, but you can still get service kits for some older motorcycles, and these can be a useful buy for anyone wanting to at least do the basics. In the case of my mid-70s Triumph T160, it includes an air filter, oil filter, a few seals and gaskets, plus a set of spark plugs. Armed with the readily available manuals, it’s actually a pretty laid-back way to spend an afternoon, after which you come out with a basic service done at minimal cost.

Like a lot of older machines, the servicing areas on this model are more accessible than they are on modern bikes, in part because there is less bodywork and also because the mechanicals tend to be a lot more basic. As is the performance and reliability…


For the more ambitious, you might consider tackling valve adjustment. The intervals vary hugely from one model to another, as does the method. If your bike has hydraulic (automatic) valve lash adjustment, you need not do anything other than keep fresh oil up to it. From there, in order of difficulty it goes: screw and locknut, shims and shims under bucket. There are also desmodromic systems, unique (mostly) to Ducati, which really are a specialist job.

Screw and locknut is pretty much what it sounds like and is most commonly found on older machines. Access varies, but the principle remains the same: turn the (cold) engine over to the appropriate spot and check the gap using feeler gauges. You then adjust using a threaded screw held in place by a locknut. This is something that can be tackled by a home mechanic, but requires patience, double-checking and a decent workshop manual. Remember it needs to be done for every valve – a fiddly and lengthy process on, say, a 16-valve machine.

Shims directly under the cam lobe use a similar principal, in that you measure the gap, and then, using a special tool to compress the valve spring, lever out the old shim and slide in the new. It’s a little more sophisticated (and longer-lasting) and is best tackled by the more experienced mechanic. Not only do you need to be able to calculate which shim you need (via a calculator or manufacturer’s table), but you’d be wise to have access to a micrometer to double-check that the shim markings are correct.

Shims under bucket require careful measurement, then removal of the cams. That means you need the skills and tools to safely reset the cam timing in a fairly delicate area of the engine. This is really a workshop job for someone with high-end skills.


So, should the potential for home maintenance affect your choice of bike? That can only be answered by you. Doing at least the basic servicing (oil changes, chain adjustments and the like) is feasible in most cases, so long as you’re prepared to put aside the time and mental energy to do it properly.

Since we’ve got into measuring and checking, you might come across older bikes which still run points (rather than a digital unit) to run the ignition timing. That’s definitely approachable for the home mechanic but is a lengthy subject in itself. The best advice is to buy a good workshop manual and read up on it.

Over the years, by taking on the simple tasks, you will (so long as you don’t stuff it up) save a bit of money. Perhaps more importantly, there is a sense of satisfaction and deeper ownership in doing some of this yourself. If you’re gripped with fear at the prospect, our best advice is don’t be afraid, just be methodical, patient and realistic about what you can achieve as you learn.


Feeler gauge
Usually sold as a set, these are used to measure gaps in critical parts of your engine.

Redundant technology, generally found on pre-1980 motorcycles. A set of mechanical switches that tell the sparkplugs when to fire. The key components in this type of ignition are the points themselves, an advance unit and a condensor. Feeler gauges, a small, thin file and a timing light (you can make a simple one) are among the tools you’ll need.

Small discs of varying thickness, used to set valve lash.

These fire the air and fuel mixture in the cylinder. It’s important you use the correct shape and heat range. Plugs ideally need the gap between the core and the electrode set at the correct width, which requires a feeler gauge.

Valve lash
When cold, your engine should have a gap between the cam lobe (which opens the valve) and the top of the valve itself when the piston is at top dead centre. As the engine heats, this closes up. Setting that lash anticipates this and ensures your valves are sealing when they’re meant to, without the lobes hammering the valve train constantly.