How to get basic workshop confidence

By MCN Technical Staff -

Riding Skills

 29 November 2006 15:11

But a spanner is an object of terror to me!

If you can ride a bike then you can also carry out simple maintenance/repair tasks. To be able to strip and rebuild a four-cylinder engine is not a natural in-built ability. Most mechanics are self-taught in the first instance, or just learn by watching mates/relatives at work on their bikes. It doesn’t matter how modest your starting point is, if you’ve got a little common sense you can begin learning something today that will be of practical benefit.

Isn’t paying to get it fixed safer and easier?

Maybe, but then it can be as much hassle to get the bike (if it’s movable) or the part that’s knackered to the dealers. And we’ve all heard horror stories about hamfisted “expert” mechanics. Why, if you’re having new tyres fitted, would you pay to have the wheels removed if you can do it yourself? And while they’re out you can give them and the suspension linkages a good clean, check the pads and tension the chain. The real beauty of home mechanics is getting to know your bike more intimately; learning to see what makes it tick. Look after a bike and it will look after you.

Do I need special tools?

Not to start with. At first you’ll need a basic toolkit of sockets (8-22mm), matching combination spanners, a selection of different sized Pozidrive and flat-bladed screwdrivers and a set of Allen keys (3-10mm). Avoid the cheapest possible tools; pay just a little more and you can get solid, reliable kit. Machine Mart ( or your local Halfords are good places to begin your tool collection.

What else do I need to know to get started?

Possibly the most important thing about working on a bike is the location. Even the simplest of tasks should be done under a roof and with access to at least one powerpoint. Lubricants and degreasers should be kept out of reach of kids/pets and tools out of the reach of damp. If you’ve got your location and basic tool set sorted, you’re ready to start tackling basic jobs. But to make those first tasks easier than ever, here are a few simple tips and secrets from those in the know that’ll make you feel more like an expert from day one.

1. Never throw out old cotton clothing as it makes ideal rags for cleaning, wiping spills and removing crud from your hands – grease-laden jeans play hell with washing machines and your sex life. Man-made materials like polyester and nylon aren’t absorbent and can leave small scuffs and scratches on plastic or painted bodywork.

2. Kitchen roll is ideal for soaking up oil that will always drip into the most nadgery areas around the engine, and for wiping away excess grease. Twist a sheet into a narrow point and stick it in the top of brake bleeding nipples to soak up corrosive excess fluid that would otherwise slowly creep out. Use to wipe hands/face instead of an oily sleeve.

3. When cleaning your bike pour only as much paraffin/degreaser as you need into an old takeaway curry tray (washed and dried first) – it’s handy and will stop you contaminating your main supply of the liquid. Such trays are also perfect to store bits and bobs. Cut down an old paintbrush for stippling off heavy grease spots and getting into tight spots.

4. If you own a moggy then the chances are you’ve got a bag of cat litter hidden under a kitchen cupboard. If you haven’t, buy a bag of budget litter (about £1.50) anyway, as it is super absorbent so is a really cheap way of soaking up large fluid spills – similar to the stuff used at race circuits. It’ll even work with oil spills.

5. If your clutch plates need to be replaced in a hurry (eg at a trackday) or on the cheap, then rather than drain all the oil out (especially if it’s fairly fresh), rest the bike against a wall so the clutch side is uppermost and away from the wall. Only a tiny amount of oil should escape when you take the cover off to get at the plates.

6. When taking out the front or rear wheel for whatever reason, don’t let the calipers hang down by their hoses because: 1) they can swing about and scratch/dent wheels or bodywork very easily, and 2) it strains the hoses. Use bungees and/or or wire coat hangers bent into hooks to hang them safely our of harm’s way.

7. If you haven’t got a front paddock stand and need to get the front wheel out, or you need to take the forks out and your front stand locates on the forks, try this. Loop tie-down straps (or a piece of rope) under the top yoke then loop and tie it over a garage roof rafter, so it just lifts the wheel off the ground. Loosen all relevant fasteners beforehand.

8. Funny but annoying at the same time is the way the rear sprocket carrier always falls easily off the wheel but can be a total bastard to get back in place between the cush drive rubbers. Smearing the rubbers with a touch of liquid hand soap can help. It dries quickly and won’t damage the rubbers’ material.

9. If a bike is repeatedly blowing front or rear bulbs you could spend hours trying to find the fault. But there’s always the chance it could be unfelt, high-pitched vibrations breaking the bulb filament. A 10g stick-on wheel weight from a tyre wholesaler stuck on to the light’s shiny interior reflector will change the vibration pitch.

10. Brake caliper bleed nipples often corrode and seize, then snap off flush with the caliper body if forced; costly. A cheap fix is to replace the caliper banjo bolt with one with a built-in bleed nipple (get them from any aftermarket brake specialist). It may make bleeding a more fiddly process, but costs next to nothing.

11. Old crosshead engine screws are buggers for seizing in place, then their heads chewing up under pressure. So take this precaution. Take a slightly bigger bolt, place it on top of the screw to be undone, then tap it with a hammer. This will flatten the first screw’s head for a tighter screwdriver fit and should also fracture any corrosion to the thread.

12. Topping up with engine oil can be a messy, oil-dripping process but not with this cheap tool. Buy a cheap (96p from Asda) kitchen funnel and wedge a length of hosepipe on to the end. The flexibility of the hose means you can bend it so it can be pushed deep into the filler hole, and the funnel means a big splosh of oil won’t go all over the engine.