Guest post by Matt McLeod of Krank Engineering.
Also check out my article about what you should pack in a small motorcycle tool kit.
Motorcycling is an amazing pastime. Maybe it’s your favorite motorsport. Or maybe you just ride a motorcycle to work. But if you’re reading BikeBrewers.com, you’ve got passion for custom motorcycles. If you’re considering building your own custom motorcycle, BikeBrewers.com will work right alongside you with the best information to help you finish your build.
In this article, we’ll take a look at hand tools. Hand tools are the basis for any maintenance and customizing tasks, and we’ll cover the primary motorcycle tools you need to get started.
What sort of tasks need hand tools?
If you are interested in customizing your bike, you’re the sort of person who wants to know more about the inner workings of your bike. Hopefully you have found a workshop manual for your bike, because this is the foundation for maintenance you might do yourself.
Just keeping your bike on the road with basic maintenance is a source of great satisfaction, and some basic hand tools will help. Once you start customizing, you might build on this tool kit to include other specialty tools.
This sounds expensive!
Prices for hand tools can vary dramatically. There are premium brands used by professional technicians, and some very cheap imported tools that you can find in your local discount store. For the casual motorcycle mechanic, I would suggest you aim somewhere in the middle, for the following reasons:
Quality – obviously better quality steel is more expensive. “Better” steel comes from the mix of metals used in the steel (the “alloy”) and means a couple of things. “Better” means “stronger”, so you might be able to use more force on the tool without it bending. And a “better” alloy will also mean the surface can be heat treated to make it harder. This means you won’t damage the tool when using them on high strength nuts and bolts and screws. Do you think the global motorcycle companies use cheap nuts and bolts on their bikes? No way! They rely on quality nuts and bolts to hold their bikes together. So they use high quality parts, and you should consider respecting their motorcycles with quality hand tools.
Durability – if the quality is better, then these tools are likely to last longer. Quality hand tools will last a lifetime. So you are making an investment for life when you purchase quality tools. Lets face it – if you are crazy about motorcycles, you’re not going to quit this passion any time soon.
Reliability – Once you are familiar with your tools, you start to rely on them. Eventually you learn how much you can push your tools in certain situations. Higher quality tools can be pushed much harder. Its very reassuring to know your hand tools are up to the job.
You can buy your tools at a hardware store, or an auto supplier, or online. You will probably find a better quality range at an auto supplier who sells to professional technicians. Ask around, and look at the tools professional technicians use.
Of course, you might be able to buy higher quality tools second-hand online. Remember, these tools last a lifetime. If you find them at a reasonable price (compared to new prices), then buy them!
What Sort of Motorcycle Tools do I Really Need?
For your basic maintenance tasks, let’s look at three categories of motorcycle tools that you will use virtually every time you work on your bike:
Since our motorcycles are mostly bolted together, various wrenches are needed to disassemble them. There are many different types, but we’ll only discuss those wrenches that give you the most ability at the lowest cost.
1a. Ring and Open End Wrenches
The Ring and Open End wrench is probably the most used tool in my kit. Lets look at it in more detail:
This wrench has a “Ring” end, and an “Open” end. You need to select the wrench that fits over the bolt or nut snugly. Nuts and bolt sizes are all standardized, so you will find there is one wrench that fits best. Lets look at how the wrench drives a nut or bolt head:
The ring end should be your first choice. The ring fits over the nut and contacts all six corners. This gives you the safest way of loosening or tightening the nut.
The flat jaws of the open end contacts only two corners of the nut. The head is offset by a small amount. This allows you to use the open end in a restricted space where the ring end won’t fit, turn the nut a small amount, then flip the wrench over, put it back on the nut and turn it a small amount, and so on.
If you are working on European, British or Japanese bikes, you will generally find the nuts and bolts are metric sizes. If you are working on American bikes, you will generally find the nuts and bolts are imperial sizes. Often you can purchase a combined set of metric and imperial wrenches. Having both gives you the most flexibility.
1b. Socket Wrenches
A socket wrench works just like the ring end of a wrench, but the ratchet handle makes the operation much faster. The obvious question might be “can’t I just buy socket wrenches?”. Well, yes, but if you can’t fit the socket into the space where the nut is located, you still need an open end wrench. My suggestion is ring-and-open-end wrenches should be first priority. After you have the basic screwdrivers and pliers, then worry about socket wrenches.
This photo shows 12mm sockets on three different size ratchet handles: ¼” drive, ⅜” drive and ½” drive. These drive sizes refer to the size of the square drive plug fixed to the ratchet handle.
You can see the physical size difference. For motorcycles, I would recommend purchasing a socket wrench kit with ⅜” drive. I find this to be most useful. The 12mm socket is the biggest socket I have for my ¼” socket handle, and one of the smallest on my ½” socket handle. Sometimes the ½” drive sockets are too large to fit around the restricted spaces on motorcycles. They are great for working on cars, but too large for motorcycles. If you want to purchase a socket wrench kit, have a look for a ⅜” drive set that has both metric and imperial sockets.
1c. Adjustable wrench
An adjustable wrench is not a tool I would recommend for maintenance, but it has one specific use when you are building your tool kit. Generally the ring and open end wrenches, and the socket wrenches in ⅜” drive, will not provide tools large enough for axle nuts on a motorcycle.
Adjustable wrenches have to be used carefully to avoid damaging the nuts. The jaws must be done up as tight as possible on the nut to prevent the wrench from slipping and “rounding” over the corners of the nut.
Adjustable wrenches are normally sized based on their nominal length: 6”, 10” 12” and so on. I find the 12” the best compromise. Axle nuts are normally very tight and the longer handle on the 12” wrench has enough leverage to loosen the nuts. After purchasing ring-and-open-end wrenches, add an adjustable wrench to your kit. You will probably use this very infrequently, so just purchase a low to middle cost adjustable wrench.
Often smaller fasteners on motorcycles will have screw heads, rather than hexagon heads. You’ll need a set of screwdrivers to remove these fasteners.
Again, there is a great number of different screws heads, but we’ll focus on the two most common.
2a. Slotted head
The first screw was developed back in the Middle Ages. The first mass-produced screws had a “common” blade, “flat-blade”, “slot-head”, “straight”, “flat”, “flat-tip” or “flat-head”. These names all refer to the same screw head shape and requires a flat blade screwdriver:
This screw head is becoming less common as modern screw heads can be assembled quicker and tightened more accurately with automated assembly tools on production lines. You might still find them around on older bikes, so a set that includes a range of slotted screwdrivers will be useful.
2b. Phillips head
The most common screw head found is the Phillips head screw. These were developed in the 1930’s for auto manufacture and are still very common. They have a cross-shaped recess in the screw head, and the driver has a matching shape.
Phillips head screws and screwdrivers are classified by a number size. Numbers #2 and #3 are often found on motorcycles. The matching screwdriver will likely be marked on the handle with the size. These screwdrivers are essential and you will use them frequently. Typical sets will contain #0, #1, #2 and #3. The quality of the steel and heat treatment of the tip will determine how long these last. Purchase the best ones you can afford.
Pliers are multipurpose tools that let you apply great force at the tip due to leverage when you squeeze the handles. There are a few different styles that are useful for motorcycle maintenance.
Quality of pliers is important. Cheaper versions will be softer and prone to damage when used on harder items. Again, this is dependent on the steel alloy and heat treatment used by the manufacturer. You might find a kit containing the four common types mentioned below. These will be used many times, so purchase the best ones you an afford.
3a. Linesman’s (or Combination) Pliers
Combination pliers earned their name due to their dual gripping and cutting capability. The “linesman” term refers to their extensive use by electrical linesmen. These pliers have serrated jaws at their stubby tip, and wire cutting jaws closer to the pivot.
They are most useful for a whole range of tasks where items need to be gripped very tightly. They will cut wire of some sizes, depending on the quality of the jaws, and the length of the handles (which determines how much leverage you can apply to the jaws).
3b. Needle Nose Pliers
Needle nose pliers also have dual gripping and cutting capability. However, on a motorcycle, they have the ability to reach into small spaces, which is handy, for example, when you have dropped a screw or nut in under the carburetors.
3c. Tongue-and-Groove Pliers
Tongue-and-groove, “multi-grips”, or “Channel-lock” pliers, have an adjustable jaw that allows smaller or larger items to be gripped without affecting the handle opening, meaning you can maintain lots of leverage. Additionally, the jaws of the pliers remain parallel, which is helpful when gripping or clamping material. Handles are also quite long, which increases leverage and therefore gripping force at the jaws.
3d. Diagonal (Side Cutting) Pliers
Diagonal pliers are generally intended for cutting wire. They are useful for electrical work on motorcycles, but also for cutting cotter pins (as used to secure axle nuts).
All of these tools are made of some sort of metal. Wrenches and sockets will generally be plated so prevent rust, but screwdrivers and pliers may not have this protection.
WD40 is an excellent cleaner and protective agent. If you are maintaining and modifying motorcycles, you might find you use a lot of WD40. It is cheaper to purchase it in a bulk pack and decant it into a spray bottle. Put your oily tools on a rag, spray them with WD40 and wipe them clean. If they happen to be wet from outdoor maintenance or a breakdown by the side of the road, wipe them down with WD40 as soon as you can.
Many tool kits you see might be sold with a storage case. Your wrenches might come in a tool roll, socket set in a box and screwdrivers in their own molded case. These storage solutions are perfectly acceptable for protecting and organizing your tools.
For those among us with some degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, tool storage becomes a serious issue. If you plan to grow your tool collection over time, you might find growing annoyance at having to retrieve and store multiple storage cases for your different tools.
You also might consider how and where you use your tools. If you have a dedicated work space at home and can bring your bike to the tools, then a rolling tool cabinet or a large cabinet bolted to the wall might be perfect. If you have to bring the tools out to your bike, you need some sort of storage on wheels, or in a case you can pick up. There is no perfect solution, just the one that works best for you. Purchasing a large cabinet might cost hundreds of dollars, so use and build your tool collection for some time before you make a decision.
If you start with some wrenches, screwdrivers and pliers, you will have the basis for motorcycle maintenance and customizing. You can extend your range of motorcycle tools along the way, keeping my general tips about quality in mind!
In addition, you’ll have that sense of satisfaction that you “did it yourself”, learnt something about your motorcycle, and are on the journey to your own custom ride!