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Motorcycle Restoration Project Guide


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There is a lot to think about when starting your first motorcycle restoration project. This page will give you an overview of some of the major components and decision points for your project.

First Decision: Wrench or Ride?

Even before you start looking for a bike to rebuild, you should ask yourself why you want to do it. Do you want a project bike to wrench on and learn some mechanics? Or are you looking for a cheap motorcycle that you can ride?

Both reasons are fine, but you’ll need to be honest with yourself if you want to avoid some common mistakes.

  • Itching to ride a motorcycle on the cheap? You may be prone to rushing and making some rookie mistakes if you pick up an old motorcycle that requires a lot of work. This is especially true to new homebuilders who are also new to riding motorcycles.
  • If you’re interested in riding and learning how to work on bikes, try to find something that’s intact with no major damage – engine case cracks, seized engine, crash damage, etc.
  • If you’re interested in a motorcycle project for a project’s sake, spend some time thinking about exactly what you want to build and look for the motorcycle that’s going to best serve that vision.

Thinking before you buy an old motorcycle and slowing yourself down before you wrench on it will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration.

How Long Does a Motorcycle Rebuild Take?

The time it takes you to rebuild your motorcycle will depend on:

  • Availability of replacement parts you’ll need.
  • How well organized you are.
  • The shape of the bike (if everything is seized and rusted, it’s going to add time).
  • How deep of a restoration you’re going to do.

A full restoration where you’ll essentially take everything off the bike to inspect, clean, and replace as needed will probably take you anywhere from 3 to 6 months.

If you just plan on getting the bike running and road worthy again (i.e. tune up and troubleshooting, servicing brakes, wheels, cables, etc.), you can probably get it done in a month or two if you’re mostly working on the weekends.

Determine Your Motorcycle Project Budget

Another first step in starting your first motorcycle project will be determining your budget. If your pockets are deep, that’s not an issue – you’ll be able to do a complete stock restoration or build the custom machine of your dreams.

For most of us though, there’s only so much disposable income that we can throw at a project motorcycle.

If your budget is tight, it might be wise to find a bike that’ll only need some minor work – sometimes all an old bike needs is a carb cleaning and a tune up to get it running again.

While new and used parts are pretty easy to find for many old motorcycles that make good project candidates, the cost of parts can add up quickly.

With your project budget in mind, it’ll be smart to set some realistic goals for your motorcycle.

  • Determine what parts are absolutely necessary to replace.
  • Decide what parts can be repaired.
  • And identify the nice-to-have replacements that can wait until later.

How Much Does it Cost to Restore a Motorcycle?

The total cost of your motorcycle restoration depends on a few different factors, including:

  • The make and model of the bike you’re restoring.
  • How close you plan to restore it to totally stock.
  • If you plan on adding cosmetic upgrades.
  • If you plan on customizing the frame and configuration significantly.

Most standard rebuilds (get it working and road-worthy again) will typically cost $500 to $1,200 on top of the purchase price.

You can keep you costs low by choosing a common bike with lots of aftermarket parts, cheap OEM parts, and cheap parts bikes.

Finding a Project Bike

With your budget and reasons for starting a motorcycle restoration project in mind, you’re ready to find your project bike.

Craigslist, ebay, motorcycle salvage yards, country barns, storage lockers, and swap meets are all good places to look.

Buying an old motorcycle is just like buying anything else – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Go into any used motorcycle negotiation with a level head and come prepared.

  • Keep an eye out for major signs of damage.
  • Look for any missing parts.
  • Try to get an idea of the bike’s history.

The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to walk away from the sale or talk the price down.

How to Restore a Motorcycle

Once you’ve found your motorcycle and taken it home, don’t start wrenching right away. Get the bike unloaded, organize any loose parts that came with it and get it out of the way for a bit.

First, you’ll need to prepare your workspace. Size matters much less than organization when it comes to a motorcycle workspace – especially when you start tearing it down. A motorcycle looks pretty simple until you turn it into a thousand loose bolts and parts scattered across the floor.

With your workspace cleaned up, you’ll need to gather your tools. If you’re missing something crucial, go out and make the investment in some decent tools – i.e. SAE vs. Metric (you’ll want Metric tools for a Japanese bike).

Next, find the manufacturer’s shop manual. You can find them as PDFs online (some are listed on MotorcycleZombies.com) or you can order a hard copy. Third-party shop manuals can be useful too, but nothing beats the original as far a accuracy is concerned.

Troubleshooting Your Project Bike

Before you start tearing the motorcycle down to its frame (if you’re going that far), you should give it an oil change, tune up, and try to get it running first.

Starting the motorcycle is an important step in any project.

This will likely include checking and setting its valve clearance, setting the timing, cleaning the carbs, replacing the gas, and changing the battery.

This is all assuming you bought a fairly intact bike and not a few boxes of motorcycle parts with a frame.

If the motorcycle doesn’t start, figure out why:

  • Check if fuel is getting to the carbs and into the cylinders.
  • Is a strong spark getting to the plugs?
  • Is there enough compression in the cylinders?

A logical approach will help you track down why you bike won’t start. Before you do anything major – check the simple stuff – is the kill switch flipped, is the petcock on and flowing?

If it fires up, but runs rough, that’s great!

You can tune it and likely avoid tearing down the entire engine.

Take a Systems & Segments Approach to a Motorcycle Restoration

With your motorcycle running – or not – start deciding what you want to take on.

If you think of your old motorcycle as a compilation of a few simple systems, you’ll avoid the random parts on the garage floor nightmare scenario.

Depending on the project motorcycle you’ve wound up with, some systems may take priority over others.

But if you tackle things in groups, you’ll keep yourself organized. You could start with:

  • The gas tank and fuel delivery system.
  • The carbs.
  • The suspension and steering.
  • The electrical system.
  • The wheels and brakes.
  • The top end or bottom end of the engine.
  • The drive system.

A good tip is to finish the work on whatever system you’ve decided to work on before moving on to the next. This will keep your both your mind and workspace organized.

Take pictures and stay organized. You’ll thank yourself later.

Getting Your Motorcycle Project Street Legal, Registered, and Titled

Maybe it’s a couple months or even a few years out since you’ve started your motorcycle project, but you’re finally ready to get your bike inspected, titled and registered.

If you have little experience transferring titles and registering motorcycles with the DMV, it might be a good idea to check your state’s requirements before you even buy a make to make sure you can try to get everything you’ll need to register it from the previous owner.

Hopefully the bike you bought had a title – that’s always easiest – but if not, it’s not impossible to get it registered if your motorcycle doesn’t have a title. 

You’ll need to make sure your motorcycle can pass an inspection, if your state requires it.

If not, you’ll need to decide if you want to risk the equipment ticket if it’s not completely street legal.

From there, it’s a matter of getting the right forms and fees and getting plates from your state DMV.

If you bought the motorcycle from a different state, you may need to check title and registration requirements in both states to be sure you’ve got the right documents.

And at that point you’re done! You’ve got a sweet vintage motorcycle that you know inside and out. If you break down, no big deal – just pop the seat, unroll your tools, and diagnose and fix your problem. Before you know it, you might even be looking for your next project bike.

Do you need mechanical experience to restore a motorcycle?

While some mechanical knowledge certainly helps, it’s not required to start your first motorcycle project.

In fact, working on a smaller, older motorcycle is a great way to learn about engines and mechanics.

All you need to rebuild your first motorcycle is:

  • The proper tools.
  • A shop manual.
  • A proper workspace.
  • Time, patience, and a budget.

Tips for your Motorcycle Restoration

If this is going to be your first motorcycle rebuild (or if your previous attempts haven’t gone so smoothly) here are some tips that will help you:

  1. Set up and organize a work space before you get the bike home.
  2. Try to get the bike running before you start taking things apart.
  3. Use the right tool for the job.
  4. If you get stuck, walk away. Don’t work on the bike while you’re frustrated, tired, or distracted.
  5. Refer to online forums for specific and detailed situations. If you’re working on a common or popular bike, chances are someone will have experienced the problem you’re trying to solve.
  6. Have a system for labeling and organizing bolts, hardware, and wires as you take things apart.
  7. Do not aimlessly cut or destroy things.

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