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If you’ve decided to head down the path of restoring a motorcycle, then congratulations! You’re in for an extremely rewarding experience.
Over the years, I have restored 14 motorcycles and learned a lot. I hope my experience can help others who want to build their motorcycle of dreams.
I’ve compiled a list of helpful tips and tricks that will save you time, money, and frustration. This list is what I wish I had when I started to restore my motorcycles. Because I began building and restoring motorcycles, I was more interested in becoming a mechanical engineer. That is what led me to where I am today. It can be both a life-changing and fun experience.
1. Budget Time
Restoring a motorcycle together is something that you should discuss with your partner. The process of restoration takes a lot of time and sometimes partners don’t appreciate that.
I recommend the two of you sit down together and have an open conversation about what your intentions are, how much time you’ll be spending working on the bike, and what your partner expects in return. Remember to stick with the time you discussed; if you don’t, that will lead to frustration and hard feelings between the two of you.
2. Budget Money
Whether you’re in a relationship or not, budgeting your money is extremely important. Most of the parts you’ll need to update your bike don’t cost much, but when you add it all together it can seem a little much all at once.
Stick to your monthly budget so that you know how much money you can afford each month. If you are in a relationship or married, this is especially important; you don’t want to be spending money connected with another person.
3. Use high-quality tools
It’s important to use quality tools while you’re working on your project motorcycle. I’m not saying you have to go out there and have the most expensive and best tools offered; just don’t buy the cheapest stuff there is.
There’s a reason some tools are so cheap; you could end up doing more damage than good using cheap tools. I tried a cheap socket set, and it ended up breaking a lot of bolts. It’s incredibly frustrating.
Click here for my recommendations of tools to customize or maintain your motorcycle.
4. Japanese Motorcycles For Your First Restoration
If you’re new to motorcycle restoration, I recommend that you restore older Japanese motorcycles (see my list with 30 things to do when restoring Japanese motorcycles). Because of their simplicity, Japanese motorcycles are easier to repair than any other motorcycles.
A good portion of my motorcycle restorations were Yamaha’s and Honda’s. 1980 Yamaha XS 850 was my first motorcycle. I didn’t know what I was doing but the motorcycle was perfect for me to learn from my lack of experience.
5. European Motorcycles Need More Experience
You should have some knowledge about motorcycles and how to fix them up. It is possible to restore an older European motorcycle. I recommend experience before restoring one of these because they are more expensive, use random threads (some don’t have metric or english), and the parts are more difficult to find.
I’ve restored a 1983 BMW R80 and a 1969 Triumph TR25W Trophy. They turned out both so well, but it was quite difficult due to the specific parts they needed.
6. Buy One That’s Running
If this is your first motorcycle restoration, I recommend that you buy a motorcycle that is still in good condition. There are still great deals available on motorcycles with bad looks, but they can still be bought. Looking terrible doesn’t matter though because you’re going to fix that anyway.
I’ve seen too many people get in over their heads when they buy a motorcycle that’s not running thinking they can fix it, only to find they need an engine rebuild.
7. If Experienced, Buy One That Isn’t Running
If you do have some experience with motorcycles and have a basic understanding of how they work, go ahead and buy a motorcycle that isn’t running.
You’ll be able to get a great price for a non running motorcycle. If you take your time while you’re looking it over, most of the time you can implement your knowledge and see why it isn’t starting. If it’s an easy fix, then you just found a diamond in the rough!
But whether or not the motorcycle is running, it’s always a good idea to have access to the repair manual. If you don’t have one, I recommend using emanualonline.com. You can easily and affordably access your bike’s specific repair manual quickly.
This video series is about how to fix a motorcycle. Within this series you’ll find all these tips plus much more that you won’t find anywhere else online. It covers difficult parts such as electrical and carb rebuilds. This is intended to be helpful for beginners. Click here for more information if you’re interested in restoring or building your dream motorcycle!
8. Never pay listed price
It is a general rule that when someone lists something for sale, the asking price is more than what they’re expecting to get out of it (unless stated “firm on price”). People know that potential buyers are going to negotiate the price, that’s simply how the game is played.
This being said, you shouldn’t pay the price for a motorcycle. Negotiate what the owner wants. You might be amazed at the low price people will go to get rid. For more information on the things to look out for when purchasing a project bike, click here
9. Don’t Buy Without a Title
It is a good rule of thumb to never buy a motorcycle without a license. You will avoid a lot of headaches if you do this. A motorcycle purchased without a title can lead to a theft or a lien on the motorcycle.
One exception is allowed to this rule. To obtain a new license, check with your state. If it seems quite simple and you’ve done a VIN inspection and know it’s not stolen with no lien, then you can buy the motorcycle without a title. You can find more information in my guide.
10. Join the Forums
All of my restorations were possible thanks to the internet. We can do almost anything with any motorcycle thanks to the internet.
Joining motorcycle forums online is a good idea. You can find answers to your questions on any forum that you join if you ask specific questions. It’s also nice to just read through them to get additional helpful tips specific to your bike.
11. Learn how to ride it.
Before you begin to disassemble and customize your motorcycle, it is important that you learn how to ride it. Although you may have a good idea of how to ride a bike, every motorcycle is unique so it’s important to learn how each one works.
If you struggle getting used to how your motorcycle works, any damage you do to it (such as tipping it or breaking parts), you’re not out much because you were going to fix it up anyway. It’s very frustrating causing damage to a newly restored motorcycle.
12. Always wear a helmet
It’s tempting to test drive your newly bought motorcycle. It’s even more tempting to do so without a helmet. I’d always think “I’m just going down the block and back, I’ll be fine.”
Most motorcycle accidents are only a few miles from home. Always wear your helmet. Click here to view my recommendations for motorcycle gear.
13. Good Tires Are Essential for Your Ride
If you’re going to ride your motorcycle a few times before you start turning the wrench (which hopefully you do), be sure to inspect the tires first. Many times the tires on an older motorcycle are damaged or brittle, which can make it unsafe to ride.
This is the one exception to replace while you’re learning to ride before you completely restore it.
14. Hang a picture of your End Goal
It’s a lot easier to restore a motorcycle when you know exactly what you want it to look like. I usually just go online (Pinterest is a great resource) and find exactly what I like, print it out, and hang it up some where I can see it every day as motivation and a reminder of what I’m working towards.
15. Wear Grungy Clothes
Too many times I have ruined some of my clothes because I wasn’t wearing the appropriate type of clothing while I was working on a motorcycle. If you’re going to work on your motorcycle, even for just a few minutes, save yourself some money and always wear expendable clothing just in case.
16. Take Lots of Pictures
This tip will help you remember everything you’ve read. Always take as many pictures as possible while you’re working.
Many times, I’ve seen people disassemble their motorcycles without taking photos only to find out a few months or more later that they don’t know where each piece goes. This leads to them becoming overwhelmed and giving up.
Every time a part comes off, no matter how small it is, take a picture of it in it’s rightful place first.
17. Label Wires
Along with taking tons of pictures, it’s incredibly helpful to label your wires, even if you’re not planning on disconnecting them or moving them.
This will save a lot of time and frustration in the future; you won’t be caught trying to figure out which wire goes where.
18. Label Bolts
Bolts are an important part of a motorcycle. It could cause damage to your bike if you use the wrong size bolt for any part. Take a photo of any bolt that you take out and label it with a description. You will never find bolts again if you allow them to run wild.
19. Get the Tank Off First
The first step in disassembling a tank should be to take it off. Sure, it might already be dented and rough looking, but you don’t want to inflict any more damage. You’ll be doing more work over the long-term.
Keep the tank off until you’re done with your restoration. This is the last step. You don’t want to put on a freshly painted tank and still be messing around with the motorcycle; you risk bumping and scratching it.
20. Paint Everything You Want
Paint jobs are intimidating, especially if it’s your first time. Your motorcycle’s first impression is the paint on its tank. Have confidence in yourself; painting isn’t really that hard. The parts you’ll need to paint are the frame and the tank. To get an idea of the process, do a few practice runs with a scrap piece. Learn more about painting a motorcycle tank.
21. Purchase More Sanding Equipment Than You Think You’ll Need
Sanding is inevitable on any motorcycle project so it’s wise to have those supplies readily available. Remember that you will always require more supplies than you think. So always purchase your supplies accordingly.
It’s really annoying being low on supplies and attempting to work with scrap sandpaper laying around. For a motorcycle to be quality, you will need the right amount of supplies.
22. One Project at a time
You will find it overwhelming to repair a motorcycle after you have started a project such as this. It is easy to get overwhelmed. Keep in mind that only one project can be completed at a given time. Don’t try to work on several things at once.
Before you begin, list all the projects that need to be done on your motorcycle. Don’t move on to the next project until the previous project is completed. This’ll keep you so much more organized and less overwhelmed.
23. You Will Get Stuck, Don’t Give Up!
Regardless of how unpleasant it may sound, you will find yourself stuck at times. Sometimes you will have to solve a problem or find a solution that is impossible. I’ve been there and I know exactly how that feels. You’ll get overwhelmed and wonder if you should keep going with your project.
Don’t give up! I know it seems like a lot of time is wasted the longer you just stand there and think, but trust me, it’s not time wasted at all. Keep at it and I guarantee you’ll figure it out.
24. Bout Ideas for a Friend
You can invite your family and friends to help you every now and again if you are close. They don’t necessarily need to be mechanically inclined, but it helps to talk it out to someone about what your next plans are for the bike. Sometimes, a family member or friend can offer some helpful suggestions.
25. Use a respirator
When you’re sanding, painting or putting on a respirator, it is essential that you have one. I’m not talking about the cheap white masks you find in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I’m talking about the industrial, alien-looking respirators. A decent one is available for as low as $20-$30.
You are more likely to get lead poisoning if you sand any paint from the motorcycle without wearing a respirator. Older motorcycles were often painted with lead. You don’t want to be any part of that.
26. Keep your tools organized
When restoring a motorcycle, it is crucial to organize your tools. It’s very tempting to just leave your tools right where they are when you’re done for the day because you know you’ll be out there again the next day. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
I’ve lost a handful of nice tools by just leaving them out in between working sessions because I couldn’t remember where I put them. When you’re done for the day, quickly wipe them clean and put them in their designated spot. It’s possible that someone will come into your office and misplace things.
27. Treat Rust
You’ll run into rust a lot while restoring a motorcycle. Sand the area until it is bare metal. You can’t simply just paint over it and expect it to go away. Some paint claims to stop rust, but that just means it’ll keep it from spreading. Once rust starts to form, it’ll keep growing no matter how much you paint it. Sand it down and then paint.
28. Know What Wire You’re Cutting
No matter much you put it off, you’re going to have to deal with the wiring of your motorcycle sooner or later. This can get a little tricky if you don’t do it right.
Apart from labeling all wires, it is essential that you know the exact purpose and location of each wire before you cut them. You can’t test a wire if it’s cut.
29. Always Solder Wires
If you have two wires to connect, make sure that they are soldered and not just twisted together.
Twisting wires doesn’t guarantee that they will stay connected forever. Although electric current will still flow though them, you might hit a bump on the road that causes it to disconnect. Soldering ensures they won’t become disconnected
30. Purchase Parts Only when You Really Need Them
It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and buy all the parts you think you’re going to need all at the same time. There’s a lot of problems that can come from this, one being that you’ll easily lose parts and/or damage one of them when they’re just sitting around.
A friend of mine experienced this. He bought all the parts but was slow to get them on his bike. Because he had misplaced many of the parts, he ended up having to purchase some more of the same parts.
31. Always wear a 2-Part clear coat
My first motorcycle restoration was a learning experience. I learned quickly how important it was to use a 2-part gas tank clear coat. I only used one part of the clear coat. After all the hard work, I accidentally spilled gas onto the tank. It immediately ate through my new paint job. A 2-part clear coat will provide the protection your tank needs from any paint eats.
32. Brake Fluid Goes Fast
When dealing with brake fluid, be cautious. It can irritate your skin and if it’s placed anywhere other than the master cylinder, it’ll immediately eat away at whatever it’s on.
It is important to immediately wipe off any oil or grease that may have gotten on your skin. You should wash any that you find on your skin with soap and water immediately.
33. Check that the tank is clean
Older motorcycles can build up rust and corrosion inside their tanks. This happens due to previous owners allowing moisture and water in the tank.
It’s impossible to get all the rust off from inside the tank. To remove as much rust as possible, there are a few things you can do.
This will prevent fuel lines and fuel systems from becoming clogged, which is not only unpleasant but also costly to repair.
34. Clogged Carbs are the likely culprit
The main problem with a motorcycle repair is the inability of it to start. Through my experience I’ve found that about 80% of the time the culprit is a clogged carburetor.
If you can’t get the right mix of air and fuel, you motorcycle isn’t going to start very well. Let this be the first thing you check when you can’t get your bike started. It’s always a good idea to do a thorough clean and rebuild of your carbs during a motorcycle restoration.
35. It’s Okay to Use a Mechanic
I’m the first to admit that I’ve used a mechanic to fix some things on my motorcycles. Sometimes, it becomes too difficult for you to handle and you need professional assistance. That’s okay. Sometimes you can even call up a mechanic and get a bit of advice from them if they’re nice.
36. For an engine rebuild, you will need a mechanic
If you went ahead and bought a motorcycle assuming the engine was fine only to find that it was completely blown, you’re not alone. If your engine is damaged, you should have it repaired by a professional. If you have a lot of experience with this, do not attempt to repair it yourself. The timing of an engine is crucial. Any slight modification could cause it to be worse.
37. Protect your work space
Whether you’re working in your garage, a friend’s shed, or in the drive-way, you’ll need to cover up your surroundings with spare sheets or plastic when you’re painting.
Paint the tank and frame with a high-quality paint. The paint will be able to spray more evenly because it is high quality. Anything that is not covered in your work place will either get spray dust or over spray on it, even if it’s not in the direction you’re painting.
38. Amazon and eBay are both great options
I’d say I have been able to find about 99% of the parts I’ve needed for all of my motorcycle restorations on Amazon or eBay. The majority of parts that you will find on Amazon or eBay are high quality and reasonably priced. There’s no need to look anywhere else unless it’s a specialty part. But beware, if it’s way cheaper than the other parts then stay away, it’s probably cheap for a reason.
39. If the Fuses Keep Blowing, Check the Wires
Sometimes, fuses keep blowing can be a problem. This is a common problem for people who are just starting to restore motorcycles.
If this keeps happening, this means either a positive wire is grounded or there are two wires that are crossed that shouldn’t be. This is why a multimeter is so useful.
40. Paint Rims after Mounting Tires
If you intend to paint your rims and get new tires, make sure you mount your tires first. While removing or adding new tires, the tire mounting machine scratches the metal of your rims. Any previous paint will be removed and it will look awful.
41. Aerosol can be used on the tank
Aerosol paint cans are not recommended for metal surfaces. However, motorcycle tanks are curved. For the most part you can’t see any spray lines if done correctly.
I do recommend using a high quality aerosol can on your motorcycle tank so you don’t get any splotches from the sprayer. Dupli-Color is a good choice. It can be found in most auto shops. Amazon.com has a larger selection. Clear coat is done with the 2K Spray Max aerosol.
42. Grease Remover can be used on the frame
Grease can cause damage to motorcycle frames. You may feel like you got all the dirt and grime after you cleaned it with a cloth, but I assure you that you didn’t.
Use a grease and wax remover to clean a frame before painting it. Your paint will chip right off if you don’t. This remover will make sure that you get all the grease and grime off and you won’t have any problems with your paint in the future.
43. It’s Okay If You Drop Your Motorcycle
I’ll probably get a lot of people yelling at me through the screen about this one, but it’s honestly okay if you accidentally tip or drop your motorcycle (click here for more information I wrote about the subject). A lot of people assume it’s detrimental to the bike. This is true if the bike is left unattended for too long. Dropping it and picking it up again will often only cause cosmetic problems.
While you may need to paint some parts or replace a foot peg or handlebar, mechanically your motorcycle will be fine.
44. Buy Additional Parts
I would usually take 10 – 30 pounds worth of equipment off of my motorcycle rebuilds and just throw it away. I quickly learned that there’s actually a lot of people out there that still want that stuff. I decided to sell those parts in order to raise some funds for my rebuild.
Do some research on each part you take off your original motorcycle and see if it’s worth anything. You’d be surprised!
Can I register a motorcycle that isn’t running? It all depends on where you live. If your state does not require safety or emissions testing, you can still register your motorcycle even though it is not running. If you have to submit to safety and emissions testing for your state, your motorcycle must pass these tests in order to register.