A few weeks ago, I completed my first major routine service on my 1980 KZ440. And though I made *ahem* several mistakes, it also reminded me of how far I’ve come.
Specifically, I was reminded of when, only a year and a half ago, The Little Rat blew a hole in one of its intake boots. I didn’t know that, of course, I just knew it wouldn’t start.
Fortunately, when it gave out I was near a scooter shop owned by one of my moto-community acquaintances. His first instinct was to check the spark plugs, so he handed me the socket wrench.
I accepted the wrench, but hesitated. I had never removed my spark plugs before, and being watched by a professional mechanic felt like a lot of pressure. Seeing my uncertainty, the mechanic retrieved the wrench and kindly removed the spark plugs for me.
Of course, the engine was fine, and the intake boot was an easy fix. But I never forgot that moment of embarrassment when I realized I knew next to nothing about my own bike.
Since then, I’ve grown a lot. Not only can I remove and reinstall my spark plugs, but also my carburetor, side covers, and even the cylinder head cover. I’m still very much a novice mechanic, but I’ve overcome a major hurdle: getting started.
If you’re like I was — you want to learn to work on your own bike, but you’re unsure how to get started — here are some of my best tips for getting over that initial fear:
1) Find a mentor.
This is the same first tip I shared in my article on owning a vintage motorcycle. There’s no replacing the benefit of real life experience.
I’m usually an independent person who likes to learn things herself. But there are plenty of things a manual doesn’t tell you, or that you can’t learn by watching a YouTube video. My recent experience with feeler gauges is a perfect example. I watched several video tutorials, but didn’t get the hang of them until someone taught me how to use them in-person.
Your “mentor” doesn’t need to be a genius mechanic, just someone who has some experience and is willing to help. When it comes to working on a motorcycle, two heads are usually better than one.
2) Seek out both theoretical and practical information.
One of the obstacles that kept me from working on my motorcycle was that I knew I didn’t know anything about it. In my quest for knowledge I read my XL’s entire manual, and didn’t feel any better prepared.
That’s when I realized the difference between how-tos and explanatory information. I found that, to feel prepared enough to work on my motorcycle, I needed both.
Now, I use tutorial-based information when I have a specific task to do, and theoretical information when I want to learn. Recently, I bought the Haynes Motorcycle Basics Techbook, and for $20 it’s well worth the money.
3) But don’t use education as a crutch.
I told you already that knowing I didn’t know much about motorcycles held me back from starting to work on them. The more I learned, though, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. Which, of course, made me want to keep learning.
After awhile, I realized I was using education as an excuse for not doing the actual work. Education is great, but remember how I said there’s no substitute for experience?
For example, when I finally began tackling some projects, I discovered that sometimes you have to read between the lines in your manual. “Remove the shift lever” sounds easy, but it neglected to mention that you’ll need a mallet and a flathead to get it off.
Not to mention, your manual isn’t infallible. You have to keep your eyes and ears open, and always ask yourself if what you’re doing makes sense.
4) Learn how to use each of your tools.
Working on a motorcycle requires several specialty tools. If you don’t know how to use them, you could end up damaging either the tool, your bike, or both. Don’t be afraid to watch a video or two before you try out a new tool.
Also, Matt McLeod at Krank Engineering has some resources about using basic tools (and much more!), that have helped me quite a bit so far.
5) Make record-keeping and organization a priority.
It’s impossible to be too organized or to take too many notes while working on your motorcycle. You may think you’ll remember where the longer bolt goes on your side cover, but I bet you won’t.
Before I take things apart, I usually snap a few pictures, and as I go along I either photograph or make note of things that seem particular or counterintuitive, paying special attention to the location of wires, bolts and washers. I also make it a point to write down what I did that day, and anything I may need to remember later.
The worst that could happen is that you’ll lose thirty seconds writing something down. If you practice staying organized and taking notes now, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches down the road.
6) Remember that your motorcycle exists in another world.
You might think your motorcycle is on the same plane of existence as you, but you’re wrong. Your motorcycle lives in a world of systems, temperatures, tolerances and hardnesses. It does not know or care that you haven’t ridden in a month and the weather will be perfect this weekend. It does not know or care that you’ve adjusted the valves four times already.
To work on your motorcycle, you have to learn to empathize with it, to see things from its perspective. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matt Crawford explains:
“A washing machine… surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs.”
If you find yourself getting frustrated, take a break. Give yourself plenty of time and don’t rush. Especially while you’re learning, feeling stressed means you’re more likely to make a mistake. Your motorcycle can wait, it’s you who’s impatient.
My rule is to never let myself get so tired that I don’t want to put away my tools. Not only does this keep me from getting over-tired, but it helps me keep my garage organized and tidy.
There’s so much more I could say about this topic, and I’m sure there’s a lot that I’ve missed. If you only learn one from this post, though, it should be this: just get out there and give it a shot. Motorcycles are complex machines, but they’re made of simple systems.
You will make mistakes, you will create problems that didn’t exist before, and it will definitely suck when you do. But don’t let the fear of making those mistakes keep you from learning. Especially on older bikes, there is very little that can’t be fixed.
Remember, nobody was born knowing everything about motorcycles. And if they learned it, you can, too.
Ready to start your own custom motorcycle project?
If you want to build your own custom motorcycle, but you have no idea where to begin, I wholeheartedly recommend the resources created by Matt McCleod at Krank Engineering. His empathy and enthusiasm will provide the direction, support and guidance a newbie mechanic needs.
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Daniel I says
As always, a great post. Timely as well…I just took my ’07 H-D FLHX out for a ride after doing some minor wrenching to include changing the exhaust (which I promptly scraped while leaning for a right turn), performing a tune, updating the fueling via Vance and Hines FuelPak ECM interface, and general maintenance. It was a lovely day to celebrate the end of September.
I certainly wish you well with your endeavors and I hope you get some time on twos before the weather decides to close shop for the year. May your knowledge, experience, and happiness increase always.
Ride hard, ride fast, ride safe!!!
Such a good feeling to enjoy time on a bike you’ve worked on yourself! Congrats on your upgrades, sorry about your new exhaust but it was bound to happen sooner or later 😉 Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!! Hope you get to enjoy a few more rides this year as well 🙂
Sebastien Natali says
I really enjoyed what you wrote and I wish you were here 1 year ago when I started it would have been very helpful!!! I thought you may be interested in knowing about a book I found while cleaning the shop I work at when I first started which has been very help full to me not to be a mechanic specifically but to understand the differente type of engine, fuel system, transmission, suspension, electrical system…
“Motorcycle Basic Manual” by Haynes
You can find on internet for $20 or so.
No obligations of course I just think you would found it recoursful.
Thanks Sebastien! One year ago I didn’t know half this stuff 😉 But I hope you still got something from it! I actually linked to that exact same manual in the post — I actually have four Haynes manuals that I absolutely love! Thanks for reading & for sharing your thoughts, wrench on friend!
Good post as usual. One thing I found after being a tech for many years and teaching it to others as well is I seem to learn the most when things don’t go well. What I mean is when a repair goes smoothly I tend to forget about it, and move on. But when I break something or it doesn’t go back together easily, I am forced to really learn what is going on and how to repair it. It has happened to me many times over the years, and I’m smarter for it.
So, as frustrating as messing up a job can be, I think we are always smarter for it in the long run.
Thanks for your words of encouragement, Fritz! I completely agree — the tasks that are challenging are the ones that help us learn. I just look forward to the day when those are a bit fewer and farther between! 😉 Seriously though, thanks for your comment, it’s great to hear from others who’ve been there.
Matt McLeod says
Holy crap! Thanks for the plug! Very honoured you reference my site!
I think you have the right attitude. Everyone starts with no knowledge. But taking one small step, and having some success (and fun), is the stepping stone to the next adventure.
I love learning, and constantly read, and watch, and ask – then attempt. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but you still learn something. If you think you’ve learnt it all, well, you’ve missed the whole point….?!
Of course! I love what you’re doing for the custom bike space. When I first started researching for my build I found lots of tutorials for very specific things, but not much information to teach people how to get oriented in the garage and follow through with their own projects. Your videos so far have been excellent, and I look forward to seeing what your blog/forums/resources become 🙂
Thanks so much for the comment and encouragement!