So you want to work on your own motorcycle, perform the regular services, add accessories, and replace worn components. We’re not talking about crank out rebuilds or restorations, rather regular service and maintenance. More complex and involved jobs may follow in time. What are the tools you will need to do these jobs? There are always discussions about what to carry for tools on trips. I have written about and given classes about that topic in the past. While this is a relevant and important topic, so is the garage toolbox. Even if your workspace is a driveway or parking lot, rather than a garage, the importance of a good garage toolbox is the same. The garage toolbox is something that will be ever evolving, it will grow as you increase the complexity of jobs you want to undertake, and change with the motorcycles you own. When compared to a travel tool kit it will have a much broader focus, and will be unburied by size and weight. I currently have a three-tier roll-away for garage use, a “racetrack box” for traveling in a truck with a motorcycle, and an a few extensive motorcycle based travel tool kits that live on their respective machines. You might grow into a similar set-up like I did, for me it all started with a 130 piece Craftsman set I was given for Christmas when I was 16 years old.
I want to take a minute and say it is awesome that you want to work on your own equipment. It is a great way to better know your machine, the connection with your machine is greater when you are not just riding but also wrenching on it. The likelihood of mechanical failures tends to decrease with this intimate mechanical knowledge. Once you are doing your own maintenance you have to assume much more responsibility for mechanical failures, you’re the mechanic, no-one else stripped that bolt or set the wrong clearance. You will also be much more prepared to deal with many of the common field service issues. The inner workings of your machine will not be magic, you will be familiar with the tools needed to work on it, and how things go together. Not to mention the monetary savings of having a shop work on your machine for you. Now onto the tools.
I may be putting the cart before the horse here a bit, but if you read through it will make sense. I mentioned earlier that I have a large, three-tiered, roll-away toolbox. You honestly don’t need that when starting out. It took me almost a decade to grow into one, and it was a life goal to need it. If you have a garage it might be a good idea to look at the bottom box to start with, but otherwise the three types of toolboxes I will focus on below are the best starting point. Many of the larger toolkits will have some sort of molded plastic box that they will come in, they do not last. Plan on getting a proper toolbox at some point. In my personal option all real mechanic toolboxes are made from steel not plastic, there is not an industry rule saying this, but you’d be hard pressed to find a plastic toolbox in a professional environment.
The Classic “Carpenter Toolbox”
The naming of this type of toolbox is vague, but I am sure we are all familiar with the type of tool box. It is the simple flip-top box with a removable tray. Your father and grandfather both probably had one of these, I personally have a few in my garage. They are cheap to buy, sturdy, and easy to find. They are designed to be easy to transport, but also relatively small and can be hard to organize. I started with one of these, and quickly outgrew it. That being said I still use one as my “racetrack box.”
The next step up is a machinist chest. They tend to be a bit taller that the carpenter toolbox, but with the same footprint. The name is derived from the historical intended use, that would be the toolbox for a machinist to hold their precision measuring instruments (calipers and micrometers). You still have a flip-top for larger tools or manuals. In place of just an open box below, there will be a number of drawers, 3-8 drawers is common. This is a good balance if you want more space and better organization, but still need to retain the ability to carry the toolbox. When I was in the US Marines this is the type of toolbox we used as Armorers (Infantry Weapon Repairmen). I still use a Kennedy brand one as the top-box on my roll away. If you are starting out I would really recommend one of these as a starting point, as you will grow into it and there are no drawbacks (besides cost) when compared to a carpenter toolbox.
The top box is very closely related to the machinist box in everything but dimensions. In place of the 20” wide and 17.5” deep footprint of my Kennedy machinist box a standard (there are also a wider options) top box is 26” wide by 20.5” deep. If you have a fixed workshop this may be a better option, but they are heavier, and are not really designed to be carried around. They are designed to be perched on top of a rollaway toolbox (though a workbench also works fine) rather than constantly transported like the smaller toolboxes mentioned above. As a plus, besides the larger footprint, they drawers are also deeper, so more space for tools in each drawer. I would strongly recommend only buying a top box (and this will also extend to intermediate and bottom boxes) with ball bearing drawers. Without this feature the weight of all the tools, which adds up quickly, would make pulling the drawer out more of a task
Now onto the meat of the subject, the tools. This is the important part, the stuff you will use to actually work on your motorcycle. I’ll break down what you want for tools in a few sections, then provide an easy shopping list at the bottom of this. That will be the easy part. The harder part is discussing who’s tools you should buy, I mean in terms of quality. Stop and reread that, I said quality tools, I did not say buy Snap-On tools (though I do own a few of their quality tools). Ten years ago I would have said buy Craftsman tools, you’ll get good quality, American manufactured, affordable pricing, and a great warranty. I can’t say that anymore and there isn’t really any company that is going to hit all of those points the same way on the market these days. Craftsman tools used to carry a lifetime warranty, no questions asked, for the life of the tool. Just go to your local Sears and they give you a new tool if you break one. Those days are gone, it is a 25 year warranty with receipt now, and the new tools are manufactured in China. My tool boxes are still filled with old American made Craftsman tools, and very few have failed me. These days I no longer buy them, and I do not have any receipts for the ones I do own.
NOTE: I have recently noticed in my Summit Racing catalogs that Craftsman Industrial tools are still made in the USA. They look to be the same tools that used to be sold under the regular Craftsman name, and still carry a lifetime warranty. The only times I have had to warranty my old Craftsman tools is when I have used screwdrivers as chisels, and a few worn out ratchets. Keep that in mind are you read further or start shopping.
This leaves me in a tough place, the mid-grade tools I started with, built a foundation of tools with, no longer exist. This is compounded by the fact I am at the point as a mechanic that I am going to buy the nicer, more expensive, ratchet anyways due to the time I spend working with it. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my answer to question of what you should buy when starting out. Buy American made tools from established companies, companies with good warranties, companies that sell to industry. American made might sound a bit nationalist, but tool companies manufacturing in America tend to be stable and in it for the long haul, your warranty isn’t likely going to go up in smoke. I have no doubt there are countless German and Japanese companies making outstanding tools, but they will not have the support network American companies will have here in America.
Currently I have been buying from Wright Tools and Proto to fill my toolboxes. They are both more “industrial” focused companies than “tool truck” focused companies like Snap-On or Matco. In general I will say that these industrial brands are the best kept secret when it comes to buying top quality tools without a huge price tag. A short, incomplete list of companies I would recommend buying tools from is as follows, Wright Tools, Proto, Stanley, Blackhawk, Bonnie Wrenches, Matco, Mac, and Snap-On (added later Craftsman Industrial). I would stay away from the cheap Harbor Freight and other non-branded auto-parts store tools. Craftsman and Husky I would rate above Harbor Freight Tools in quality, but still to be viewed as throwaway in quality. I do not want to sound tool elitist, but cheap, low-quality tools round out fasteners, break, are uncomfortable to use, and are pretty much junk. Buy good quality tools and decades later they will still there for you, cheaper to buy once than three times.
The iconic mechanic tool, the wrench. I normally grab sockets more often than wrenches, but there are plenty of jobs only a wrench can do. Buy the big set if you are starting out, it is way cheaper in the long run. If you have not priced out tool costs, sets are always more cost effective than buying individually. I would recommend 7mm-22mm or similar for combination wrenches, I am guessing you are working on Asian or European motorcycles. This will cover the full range of sizes you will likely need. Combination wrenches (combo wrenches) have an open end on one side and a box-end on the other. A few sizes in the range you will rarely use. Trust me there will be a day when you reach for a 16mm wrench, when you will be happy, that it is there, where it has sat for your tool box for years collecting dust. I prefer 12 point for combination wrenches over six point, this makes it easier to use on fasteners that are in hard-to-reach places. I also added a 10” adjustable wrench, solely for weird things like huge axle nuts or fork caps. As a general rule adjustable wrenches (also known as monkey wrenches, after the type of people who heavily rely on them) are bad form to use, but they do have their place. If you find yourself grabbing an adjustable wrench for the same job more than a few times, it is time buy the correct wrench or socket.
Sockets and Ratchets
On this front I prefer 3/8th drive over 1/4 drive, though I do own both. For drivers you’ll want to start with at least one ratchet, a 2” extension, a 6” extension, and I’d recommend a t-handle as well. The sockets sizes will sound similar to the wrenches, 7mm-22mm is ideal, but 7mm-17mm will cover most of what you will use on a regular basis. I prefer 6 point sockets since they are stronger, will better grip the fastener, and the ratchet can be clocked a few degrees to fit in a tight space unlike with a wrench. Allen drivers (4mm-10mm) also come in handy, as this type of fastener is very common on modern motorcycles and accessories. The European manufacturers (BMW, KTM, Husqvarna, Triumph) use Torx fasteners pretty regularly, so a set (T15-T50) of those sockets is also good to own. It is also a good idea to have the appropriate spark-plug socket for your motorcycle.
I’m sure hearing buy a set is getting a bit redundant at this point, but it applies here too. For Phillips head you will want numbers 1-4, and flat head 3/16th-5/16th of an inch. The flatheads tend to also be used as pry bars (even though they normally state not to do that), I consider these expendable to some degree. Screwdrivers are normally cheap enough that it is not a big deal if one gets trashed to finish a job. If you are working on vintage motorcycles it is also a good idea to add a hammer type impact driver.
Ball-end Allen Keys
Allen drivers were mentioned above, and in many cases will be used rather than the “L” shaped allen keys. Ball-end Allen keys are handy for the sizes not used often or in tight spaces. The standard sets are normally 1.5mm to 10mm, this will cover most of the normal jobs fine.
Measuring is something easy to forget when building a toolbox. A feeler gauge set will be needed for checking valve clearance, and in some applications gaping spark plugs. A metal 6” scale (ruler) is handy for general measuring. A 6” caliper is good for slightly more precise measuring, and very handy for checking bolt sizes. These days digital calipers are cheap enough to buy, in turn very few people still use the dial or Vernier versions. I have a metal machinist grade Mitutoyo digital caliper from when I was a machinist. This is probably overkill for the average home mechanic, but after 15 years of use (and a few batteries) I would still recommend checking out this higher priced option. Everyone should also have a good tape measure, if for nothing else then general purpose uses.
Pliers and Cutters
There is not much to say about the things in this section, just look at the master list.
Hammers and Punches
There will be times when persuasion will needed. I use a 14oz ball-peen hammer for the heavy bashing, and with punches. A 2lb dead blow hammer is used for gentler persuasion, things like axles. A good punch set is handy, brake pins tend to need a little tapping to remove, as do bearings when being replaced.
As I mentioned above, this is the starting point, this basic toolbox will grow as special tools are bought for different motorcycles or projects. As long as you are working on new machines new tools will be bought. I tried to keep this as brief as possible, there are a dozen tools I can thing of off my head I use regularly that didn’t make the list. This was to minimize the intimidation of a list that is too long and expensive. Starting from scratch I outlined $500-$700 worth of tools if you were to go with Craftsman Industrial, closer to $1,000 if you move up a grade (Proto or Wright Tool). Tire changing and electrical work were both skipped, but are easy add-ons later. This is just a foundation, something to start with and get you building forward. I started with a small set probably worth a little over $100, and now have a few grand in tools. Good luck out there, have fun, and Godspeed.
– Eric Archambault
7mm-22mm 12 point combination
Sockets and Drivers
7mm-17mm 3/8th inch drive 6 point sockets
3/8th inch drive ratchet
2” 3/8th inch drive extension
6” 3/8th inch drive extension
3/8th inch drive T-handle
T15-T50 Torx sockets
7mm-10mm Allen sockets (3/8th drive)
Flathead 3/16th” to 5/16th”
6” Scale (ruler)
Pliers and Cutter
Needle nose pliers
Hammers and Punches
14oz Ball Peen hammer
2lb Deadblow hammer