How To Become A Better Mechanic

Preparation and Organization Are the Mechanic’s Mantra

How To Be A Mechanic
Watch the video below for more tips on becoming a better motorcycle mechanic.©Motorcyclist

Working on your own motorcycle is a time-honored tradition. There’s a great deal of pride, satisfaction, and value to be had in performing your own maintenance and repairs, but many riders lack the confidence to dive into such projects. Putting tools to your pride and joy can be intimidating and frightening—nobody wants to cause damage, and the fear of digging yourself into a big, expensive hole looms large for many.

Luckily, the skills that make someone a capable mechanic can be learned. Becoming a better mechanic is a journey, just like becoming a better rider.

The biggest source of anxiety for the inexperienced is the unknown. "They think the job is bigger than life or feel that the details are overwhelming," says John Ethell, owner of JETT Tuning in Camarillo, California, and former mechanic for racers Miguel Duhamel and Nicky Hayden. Indeed, popping the valve cover off an engine reveals a frighteningly complex scene if you don't know what you're looking at!

The easiest way to build confidence is with education and preparation. We don’t mean night classes at your local technical college (though those are a great option, see “The Fast Track” sidebar at right) but some time spent with your bike’s workshop manual. Even if you’re bubbling over with experience and courage, a shop manual should be the first accessory you buy for your bike.

Workshop manuals contain a ton of critical info—stuff like maintenance procedures plus step-by-step instructions for working on every part of your bike, from the transmission on up to the turn signals. There are also torque specs for everything, wiring diagrams, troubleshooting flow charts, advice for using (and even making) special tools, and a great deal of general information you can apply to any bike or engine or mechanical endeavor you encounter down the road. The shop manual is your road map to your motorcycle, and you should study it thoroughly.

“When I worked at a motorcycle dealership when I was younger,” Ron Wright recalls, “I would take manuals home with me to prepare for the next day.” Now Wright writes the manuals. During the past several decades he’s spent as a technical writer, Wright has penned more than 50 service manuals for Clymer and Haynes. Even with all that experience, Wright still stresses the importance of diligent research. “I always look at as much technical info as I can,” he says. “I read service bulletins, talk to mechanics at dealerships, and purchase a set of factory manuals before I begin a project.”

Preparation is key. “Do all of your Google, YouTube, and service-manual info hunting well in advance,” Ethell suggests. Reading up on the procedures you intend to tackle before you start ensures that you are familiar with the steps, tools, and supplies you’ll need to complete the project. Wright recommends reading the disassembly and the assembly instructions before you take a component apart, since you’re likely to glean valuable info that will save you time and frustration.

MC GARAGE VIDEO: 3 Tips For Becoming A Better Motorcycle Mechanic

He uses removing camshafts to set valve clearances as an example. “Don’t start by just lining up the timing marks and taking the camshafts out,” Wright says. “Instead, go to the manual and read the assembly steps on how the camshafts are installed to get an idea of what is involved. By doing so you’ll find out that the camshaft caps are directional as well as other information. Along the same line of thought, if you’re going to install a new handlebar, you want to note the alignment and routing of the cables and wiring harnesses before you remove the original set of bars. This train of thought should be applied to all service jobs.”

Steeping yourself in information will make sure you’re as prepared as possible, but that’s just one ingredient in the recipe to mechanical success. Being organized and keeping a clean workspace is of equal importance. “Plan where you are going to lay your parts and keep track of what hardware goes with each component you remove,” Ethell says.

“For small parts like fasteners,” Wright says, “I use plastic compartmented boxes that I purchase at the hardware store, and I number each compartment. Every time I place a part in one of the numbered compartments, I write the name of the part beside the matching compartment number on my notepad. When it comes time for reassembly, it’s a simple matter of referring to the notepads when selecting the correct part to use.”

“For top end, clutch, transmission, and other large parts,” Wright says, “I lay white paper towels across my workbench and place the cleaned parts on them.” Ziploc bags and a permanent marker are worth their weight in gold when it comes to keeping things organized and clean. If everything is properly grouped and labeled, you should be able to pick up any component and know what it is and where it goes. That’s especially useful if you’ve had to put a project on pause for a week, a month, or longer.

For parts that stack or fit together, zip-ties are useful for keeping everything together. They’re useful elsewhere too. “Zip-ties are great tools for identifying parts,” Wright says. “For example, when working on a steering assembly, I wrap different-color zip-ties around groups of wiring harnesses to help identify which side of the bike or direction they should be routed. When working on a fork tube and immediately after I remove the cap, I’ll place a zip-tie at the top of the spring so that I know its original orientation.”

Taking copious notes and photos with a digital camera or your smartphone will also help ensure things go back together properly. “The notes I take along the way are invaluable when it comes time for reassembly,” Wright says. “If something can be installed incorrectly, ID it in some way or note its alignment on your notepad.”

Even pros like Ethell and Wright rely on the expertise found at the parts counter of their local dealerships. “Buy your parts locally, not online, and become friends with your local shop,” Ethell suggests. “Your association with the dealership means the parts personnel will help you with updates or superseded information and the mechanics will be willing to answer your questions.”

What if you’ve bought a service manual so that you can perform some needed maintenance, but then when you review the procedure it appears overly complicated? “To keep from being overwhelmed, break the job into smaller parts,” Wright advises. So if you need to replace a main bearing—a big job, to be sure—separate the project into chunks that you can tackle one at a time, such as removing the external components from the engine, removing the engine from the frame, and so forth. By the time you’ve gotten down to the crank, you’ll already have many of the components cleaned, inspected, organized, and ready for assembly.

“Confidence is a huge part of working on your own motorcycle,” Wright says. “Too often, riders are afraid they will damage something, and while that is always possible and sometimes unavoidable, try to overcome it by starting with small jobs. Read the complete procedure in your manual, noting any special procedures or tools that may be required. Just preparing yourself with basic information will help build confidence. Progress to more involved jobs, add tools when necessary, and enjoy the shop time. The confidence you gain working on your bike will pay off when touring or traveling, as you know the work was done well, and if something does happen, you’re more likely to fix the problem (if possible) or relay accurate information about the problem to someone when help is needed.”

So buy a manual, study it, and start wrenching! Go slow and start small, and in time you’ll have the skills, experience, and confidence to care for your own motorcycle.

The Transportation Revolution
Max Materne leads a technical seminar at The Transportation Revolution, a multi-line dealership in New Orleans.©Motorcyclist

THE FAST TRACK

Self-study with a workshop manual is one thing, but if you want to accelerate your learning, your local dealership or mom-and-pop shop may offer seminars or classes that will give your education a helpful nudge.

Technical colleges don’t usually cater to motorcyclists, but the automotive courses they offer teach valuable fundamentals about engine diagnosis, tool usage, and repair techniques. Courses on welding and machining are often available as well.

If you want to take your education to the next level and get certified, professional schools are sprinkled across the US. The Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (uti.edu) and WyoTech's motorcycle program (wyotech.edu) are two of the best-known options.