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Guide to Restoring Old Motorcycles

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Motorcycle Helmet
Photo: Nikolai Ulltang

Whether you’ve had your motorcycle for a long time or recently bought a fixer-upper, you love the idea of handling motorcycle restoration on your own. 

There’s just something about tinkering around with parts in your garage for hours every weekend that excites you, and you definitely want to do everything you can to avoid those expensive mechanic fees. 

Maybe you’re even considering starting your own motorcycle maintenance business, but you want to get plenty of practice in first. 

So, just how hard is it to restore motorcycles to their former glory? And what are some basic tips for how to restore a motorcycle on a bit of a budget? 

Keep on reading to find out — and get ready to be back on the open road again in no time. 

Getting started

If you have a bike already, you know exactly what model you’ll be repairing. 

If you plan to purchase a bike for restoration, read this motorcycle buying guide first to ensure you don’t end up with a dud. Always ensure that you have the title in your name!

Next, head to your local mechanic and purchase a few restoration and service manuals. (You can buy them online, of course, but in-person help means you’ll get exactly the guides you need.) 

The OEM Service Manual and the Haynes Manual are both great places to start. 

The mechanic will also be able to let you know the cost you can expect to pay to repair it, provide you with the necessary parts, and even tell you whether or not your motorcycle restoration process is truly worth it. 

In addition to these repair manuals, also make sure you have the owner’s manual of the motorcycle (these can easily be downloaded on the manufacturer’s website.) 

Then, you’re ready to strip your bike. 

But before you do, take tons of photos of all the parts and wiring. This will be an enormous help to you throughout the process. 

Next steps

Usually, the first place you want to start when you plan to fix a motorcycle is with the battery. 

This is a great way to get your confidence up when you restore motorcycles, as there’s little to no mechanical work involved. 

First, let the battery charge for a minimum of ten hours, so you can see whether or not you’ll be able to reuse it. If not, you’ll need to purchase a new one (usually the biggest expense of motorcycle restoration.) 

Then, you’ll need to move to the electrical system. 

Turn on the bike and check all the lights (turn signal, headlights, etc.) If needed, purchase new headlights. Make sure the gauge cluster light is also working, so you can clearly see the distance traveled, fuel levels, and your current speed. 

Check the tires and brakes

To determine if you can salvage the tires, first wash them with soap and water to clear out any pebbles and mud lodged inside. 

you should also look for tiny pinholes and evaluate the tire tread level. Above all, if you can’t balance properly when sitting atop the motorcycle, it’s definitely worth it to change them (go for tubeless tires.) 

If you have rust on your rims, you can easily remove it using white vinegar and baking soda. However, if you notice any dents, you’ll need to replace them. 

The first thing you’ll need to do to check your brakes is to examine the rotors and, most likely, replace the brake pads (better safe than sorry.) 

Using a vacuum bleeder, pump out excess air from your brakes. Then, ensure that your pistons and calipers aren’t covered by rust and corrosion.

Finally, always change the oil when restoring your motorcycle, and buy a new filter. 

Final few steps

You should also take a close look at the chains and sprockets of your bike for excessive wear and rust. 

If the chain looks stretched out in a few areas, replace it. If your sprocket teeth look especially worn down and aren’t sharp to the touch, replace them as well. 

Next, it’s time to test your ride’s spark plugs — a key part of any motorcycle restoration project. It’s a safe bet that they’ll be pretty dirty. If they’re so filthy that you can’t even find the spark terminal, it’s better just to replace them (it’s only around $10, anyway.) 

One of the final things you’ll need to do to finish up a basic rebuild and restoration is to fix up your gas tank and carburetor. 

Using white vinegar or a light acid-based cleaner, remove the rust to prevent fuel blockage. You’ll likely also need to use a few scrubbing pads to get it all off. 

If things look in bad shape, you’ll be forced to completely rebuild the carburetor. Use a repair kit that contains new gaskets and factory jets for around $200. 

Above all, remember that making the decision to restore motorcycles on your own means the process could easily take several weeks to a month. 

If you need to get it in good working order sooner, or if the problems are beyond your current level of expertise, it’s best to let a professional handle it. 

This is a collaborative article.