Basic Tools for Motorcycle Maintenance: Level Two

If you’re just starting out in maintaining your own motorcycle why not see Basic Tools for Motorcycle Maintenance: Level 1 first? 

In Level One you picked up a few essential basics for pre-ride checks. This time I’ll suggest a few actual tooly-tools to get you on your way to doing something a bit more involved on your bike.

If you’re buying new, I admit you’ll need a few quid -perhaps around £120 depending on your choices – but it’s money well spent when you consider the cost of getting someone else to do a lifetime of minor repairs and maintenance to your bikes. If you’re really up against the wall though, I’ll post an article on buying second hand shortly.

The tools in Level Two will see you right for most common maintenance tasks. Things like adjusting your chain tension, changing a battery, swapping your bars, changing plugs, dropping out wheels, removing calipers, changing brake pads and performing the ritual re-tensioning of your chain because you cocked it up the first time – the meat and potatoes of everyday motorcycle maintenance.

A Brief Note on Quality: 

The usual advice from professional tool wielders and people who breathe the rarified air of the Snap On van is typically to Buy the Best and Only Cry Once. After all, nobody likes breaking tools and having to re-buy them. But if you’re just starting out on building a toolkit (and you do build over time – no good bike-specific toolkit just appears fresh in your garage) don’t think you have to buy professional grade Snap-On kit, which is both eye wateringly expensive and (in my small experience of some of their kit) not hugely better than anyone else’s to warrant the expense.

I do own good brands like Snap On, old Britool and Stanley Professional, but most of my stuff is middle to lower tier Western branded made in China stuff that you’ll see here. I even have a few no-brand Chinese tool-shaped objects like pliers and quarter inch ratchet fittings too – and they are absolutely fine in lighter jobs if you choose wisely and don’t go the full Hulk.

Put simply, being a tool snob’s out of date. These days you can buy cheap kit that’s perfectly acceptable for the home bike mechanic.

First up is spanners. The most useful set I’ve ever owned is this one by Draper:

Don’t be taken in by flashy flexible head ratcheting spanners or cute stubby sets however useful they initially look. What you want at the start is basic tools to get the job done. The humble Draper ring and open end ‘combination’ set (above ) is now 20 years old, ranges from 6mm to 19mm and is nicely finished. Just as importantly these tools feel good in the hand as they aren’t too narrow in profile (my pet hate – kills your palms).

Everyone has their favourites and I recommend Draper for cheap tools, though the quality has dipped a little of late I’ve noticed. Still, their chrome vanadium drop forged hand tools fit the category of ‘good enough’ – though their pricier and better finished Expert range is better. If you see a set, make sure they include 8, 10, 12, 13,14, 17 and 19mm sizes. These are commonly used sizes on bikes. 11, 15 and 16mm applications are rare, as are sub 8mm sizes.

I’ve noticed man-cave supplier Toolstation sell the budget Silverline brand which is certainly good enough for bike maintenance – this 14 piece  ‘professional’ combi spanner set is comprehensive and comes in at a little over £23. Can’t be bad for a lifetime of tinkering.

Tool Time Q&A

Q: Can’t I just buy one adjustable spanner and avoid the expense of buying a whole spanner set?

A: No.

Next up the biggest development in spanner technology ever: a ratcheting socket set. Socket sets have a range of different sized sockets which fit on your bike’s fixings and one handle with which they all interchange.

The beauty of a socket set is the ratcheting action of the handle. Once you’ve placed the correct socket on a nut or bolt, you simply and speedily tighten or loosen it by drawing the lever back and forth and the reversible ratchet takes care of keeping everything turning in the right direction – you never have to remove the socket from the bolt (as you do every half turn with a spanner) until you’re finished tightening or loosening. Genius.

But which type? Socket sets are a bit of a confusion for beginners. The square drive pin attached to the ratchet handle included in all sets is measured in imperial and each set  you see will be referred to by this denomination. As a biker you’ll be interested in socket sets advertised as quarter inch, three-eighths inch and half inch drive, which are perfect for light motorcycle applications. But unless you have an old British/American motorcycle the actual sockets which fit on your bike’s fixings will be measured in metric . Good system eh? Here’s an example of a couple of ratchet handles so you can see the square drive sizing I mentioned:

Top: A three-eighths ratchet handle. Bottom: A half inch ratchet handle
Now flipped over. See how the size of the square drive at the head is different? This is what the three eighths and half inch measurement refers to.
Side view. Now you can really see how the square drive sticking up is different between the two sizes.

My advice then? Buy two sets. First a small quarter inch drive socket set like this Bahco one is a friend indeed, especially when working on smaller, fiddly fixings. Bahco make great mid-range tools.

Ignore missing socket. I found it later.

The good thing about quarter inch socket sets for newbies is the ratchet handle is small so you won’t be able to over torque and strip smaller fixings (over tightening things and stripping threads is common with inexperienced mechanics). The quarter inch set’s ability to access small areas with an extension bar or a surprisingly useful flexi-extension is also superb. Great for grappling with fixings inside headlight fairings/under clocks etc.  Sockets in these sets typically range in size from 5.5 to 13 mm.

Sniffing around Amazon I found a similar Bahco set reduced to £17. Utter bargain.

If £17 is still too much of a reach, I have a cheapo no brand Chinese set too and I have to say the only problem the cheaper set suffered was the plastic handle sliding around on the ratchet a bit (Araldite to the rescue) and a slightly coarse ratchet head (annoying when you have only a little room to move the handle). Still, because the quarter inch drive set is used for low torque situations like fitting up an engine clutch casing, buying cheap is little disadvantage here.

The second set I recommend is a basic half inch drive set with sockets ranging from around 8 to 19 mm or preferably more.  I’ve always felt 3/8th sets are neither here nor there in terms of ultimate usefulness, especially for high torque applications so tend only to use them occasionally and advise a half inch set as a good first buy. 

The half inch set is much sturdier and will handle everything from axle retaining nut removal (check your nut sizes in case you have to buy one extra big socket for this) to rear shock linkage servicing to even engine out time. Again Draper is a good first port of call, as is Silverline. If you’re flush, look up middle tier sets by Teng, Wera, Elora and if you’re in France on holiday, Facom.  Unless you get really neanderthal on half inch sets, they won’t ever break.

Here’s an example of a budget Draper set. £20 on Amazon.

Draper Redline. Cheap and durable enough.

At this price you get the minimum amount of sockets, a plug spanner you’ll never use, two extension bars and a round headed ratchet handle.

Any disadvantages of the low end budget sets?  There are some.  The ratchet handle will eventually fail (though after many years of DIY use). The cheaper round headed ratchets don’t have a convenient push button release for your sockets so your oily mitts may struggle to switch sockets as you work but it’s really not a big deal.  The number of teeth in the ratchet head are also fewer (top quality sets can include 80 teeth – bargain basement more like be 24). Fewer teeth give a less accurate, coarser feel which can lead to problems with turning the sockets in tight access areas like car engine bays, as the ratchet needs to swing a long way before the next click engages – but this won’t trouble the biker. Verdict? £20 well spent

If you’re richer and aspirational though, how about this set?

Again a nice budget offering from Silverline but this time with more stuff and a better quality ‘pear head’ ratchet with button release and easy to use reverse switch on the oval head ratchet. If I had £40 spare and needed a set, I’d be into this.

Tool Time Q&A

Q: What type of sockets should I buy – multi point or hex?

A: Start off with standard depth multi point sockets (’12 point’ if you must).

Multi point socket left, hex socket right

For a beginner with a reasonably modern uncorroded bike, there’s nothing wrong with the multi point standard reach sockets that most sets are supplied with – they are extremely convenient in tight spaces and pack away nicely.

The only reason I ever use hex head sockets is if I come across something that just won’t budge and I’m obliged to use an extension (breaker) bar in place of the ratchet handle to increase the amount of turning force/brute anger I can apply.

Under great pressure or with wasted and corroded nuts (exposed exhaust header retainers being the classic example) multi point sockets can slip round and damage the bolt or nut you’re working on leading to great gnashings of teeth and chafed knuckles.

Hex heads resist slippage as they have greater tolerance for maintaining contact with the fixing at a given angle of rotation and once applied, won’t slip ’round on the head as easily as a 12 point socket will. It’s rare that I use them though, so buy these as you need them.

And long reach thin wall sockets? Again, this is a specialist buy for later on. I own some and use them for difficult to access engine mount nuts which are recessed into alloy frame castings for example – another rare use not necessary for a beginner.

One more set to consider is a hex key set. As a newbie, I amassed an impressive collection of crappy allen keys – still have them in fact – but I never use them since I converted years back to a socket-based hex key set. They are so far superior and easier to use that these days I’d say a good set of hex keys that will fit into one of your ratchet handles from your socket set is a must have for a basic bike maintenance kit.

Manufacturers are using more and more hex keys on bikes for everything from fairing panel and windscreen removal upwards so you might as well get on board with one of these sooner rather than later.

The Draper Expert set you see here comes with an adapter for a half inch ratchet and a three eighths one too. It also has a number of splined and torx keys and the main keys come in two lengths. The neat metal box so you know when a key has gone walkabout also has a painted on key so you actually know what to buy if you lose one. Cost? Still under £30 on Amazon.

A bargain.

Next you’ll need some screwdrivers. This motley and ever changing selection is probably a fair summation of most people’s screwdriver collections. I’m  not proud of them. I buy them. I break them. They get reground or relegated to opening paint tins. Then I buy more at car boot sales.

Bikes tend to have a lot of cross headed screws (switch clusters, float bowls, inlet manifolds, indicator lens and headlight retention screws are the favourite places) so grab a few different sizes of these and make sure some of them are long reach if you plan on taking off carbs on multi cylinder bikes.

A cheapo Chinese made Stanley set from the hardware store is perfectly fine to get you going – I don’t recommend cheap automatic ratcheting screwdrivers for bikes in case you’re wondering. They are too floppy and cumbersome and the ratchets too poor for fine work like adjusting carburettor mixture screws and you’ll only end up dropping one of the interchangeable heads down an open spark plug hole one day.

Don’t be a tool snob – thank China for the £10 B&Q screwdriver set.

NB: Some older Japanese bikes have a type of screwhead known as JIS or Japanese Industrial Standard screw which looks for all the world like a Pozi or Philips head. You will only realise this when you cam out and destroy the heads of your float bowl retaining screws and have to resort to a pair of locking piers to get them out. Be aware!

Pliers, pincers, side cutters and pipe grips: all frequently useful. A pair of long nosed pliers is a must, perhaps in two sizes. The orange ones you see here on the left are Chinese no-brand and work impressively well – just make sure they open and close nicely in the shop without getting stuck and that the ends meet perfectly when you close them.

Pliers are useful for the placement of delicate carb internals after cleaning, split pins and removing brake pads as well as fiddling with fuel hose clips, cutting off cable ties etc. Try Knipex, Rothenberger, Bahco or RS for better ones but don’t be sniffy about no-brand ones if you can try before you buy. If they work, they work.

Finally make sure you have any bike-specific tools you might need. These normally come with your bike so have a look under your seat and see what you’ve got.

As well as screwdrivers with removable handles and some spanners to get wheel nuts off that look like they’ve been designed principally with operator discomfort in mind, you should find a plug spanner. Treasure this. Universal mass produced plug spanners are generally too big to fit into the narrow confines of a motorcycle engine, especially a water cooled one, so the manufacturer’s tool will be best.

Here’s a BMW oilhead plug spanner which is almost impossible to replicate with a universal tool so long and narrow is it.

Finally you’ll probably see a sickle shaped tool with a nodule on the end – this is your rear suspension preload adjustment tool also known as a C-Spanner. Keep this safe also. It’s the kind of tool you use only once or twice in a bike’s life or maybe never, but when you need it, you need it. I don’t own one now as my bike is a snooty middle class BMW which has a remote shock adjuster and recoils in horror at the sight of people in overalls with hand tools.

Got everything? Now put it all in a box. A cheapo plastic fishing type box or a trad metal concertina box like this £5 one will do for your un-cased tools at the beginning. Roller chests with offensive stickers come only once you’ve earned your stripes. (Unwritten mechanics’ law.)

That’s it – happy hunting. Feel free to submit your own budget tool recommends in the comments section!


NB: This is NOT a sponsored article by any of the tool brands mentioned herein ( I should be so lucky), just one person’s advice based on their own experience. If you’re looking for a thinly disguised tool advert masquerading as a journalistic review, please see the motorcycle press!  Always do your own research and gather opinions before you buy.

NB2: Tool companies, please contact me if you would like to discuss a thinly disguised advert masquerading as a journalistic review. 

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