The 30+ best motorcycle restoration tips for your first time restoring a bike
There’s something a little magical about taken an old, neglected, forgotten motorcycle, bringing her back to life, and restoring her to her former glory. It’s not always an easy task, but these motorcycle restoration tips will help you get there.
I’ve taken the tips and tricks that I thought would be most helpful and divided them into the following categories: motorcycle restoration buying, overarching restoration strategies, tips for things you’ll need to do, tricks for stuff you’ll need to fix, and other general advice.
My name is Adrian from YouMotorcycle, and I’m going to give you over 30 tips and tricks to help you with your first motorcycle restoration.
Here are four tips specific to buying a motorcycle for your first motorcycle restoration:
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Should I buy a motorcycle without a title (ownership)?
Tip 1: Buying a motorcycle without ownership is probably okay.
Typically, you shouldn’t buy a motorcycle if it doesn’t come with an ownership, as they tend to come from shady individuals with questionable backstories. However, if you’re planning a motorcycle restoration, you might be dealing with a barn find, or a neglected family heirloom. Odds are there isn’t a lien (outstanding payments) on a motorcycle from 1977, so I wouldn’t be too worried.
The problem is that getting an ownership for a motorcycle with no ownership can be tricky. That’s why I wrote a how-to article showing you guys how to do it, based on my own experience with a Harley-Davidson Sportster I bought up here in Toronto, Canada. Check that out.
Should I pay the asking price on a motorcycle that needs restoration?
Tip 2: Never pay asking price, unless you’re excited to pay asking price.
The rule of thumb is never to pay asking price, and if you have to think about it, the answer is no. The only time you should pay asking price is when you see the price, and think “Wow! What a deal!” and even then, you should only pay asking price after very carefully examining what you’re buying. If something’s too good to be true, it probably is, so protect your money. You’ll have plenty of other things to spend it on later.
The thing about project motorcycles / restoration motorcycles specifically, is that there are always problems down the road. Neglect is one of the biggest reasons motorcycles stop running and cost owners an arm and a leg to take care of. Before you pay anything, think about the unforeseen expenses still to come.
Should I buy a motorcycle that isn’t running?
Tip 3: Get a bike that runs
For a first time motorcycle restoration project, you should start with a motorcycle that is already running. Even a motorcycle that runs roughly will give you more than enough problems and surprises along the way. A motorcycle that isn’t running could come with an engine rebuild or engine swap bill that could add a lot of specialized labor cost to this project.
If you don’t have the skill or know-how to rebuild a motorcycle engine, buy a motorcycle that runs. If you have the skill and know-how to rebuild a motorcycle engine, then go ahead and get that non-running motorcycle for a steal of a deal and make her sing again.
What brand of motorcycle should I buy for my first motorcycle restoration?
Tip 4: Go Japanese
As much as I love a vintage BMW or Harley-Davidson, I strongly recommend going with a Japanese motorcycle for a first motorcycle restoration for a few key reasons: Simplicity, cost, availability, and online community.
Japanese motorcycles are pretty simple compared to European motorcycles, they’re more cost-efficient than American motorcycles, they’re easy to find parts for (as long as you get a model that was in production for more than just a couple years), and there’s a huge online community and websites like bikerMetric dedicated to restoring them.
Now that you’ve bought a motorcycle to restore, here are some overarching strategies to keep in mind along the course of your restoration:
Should I buy a second project motorcycle if the seller offers me a deal?
Tip 5: A motorcycle restoration is a big project, so only worry about one motorcycle at a time.
There are so many components to a motorcycle that a full restoration project can easily balloon out of control. Expect to have parts scattered everywhere, for much longer than you thought. You need all the time, space, and focus that you can get, so limit yourself to one restoration at a time.
You can make yourself checklists to help you keep track of every individual action that needs to be done at a micro level, to help you realize just how much work you have ahead.
Where can I get help with my motorcycle restoration?
Tip 6: Get social and find a whole community of people just like you online
On the internet you can find not only information on your motorcycle, but motorcyclists from around the world who have restored or customized bikes just like yours. Your motorcycle may even have a forum dedicated to it, which is always a great resource for motorcyclists.
If you don’t have a forum dedicated to your motorcycle, check out Facebook groups like bikerMetric’s which is full of custom motorcycle builders or restorers, or other communities like /r/bikebuilders/ on reddit.
How can I tell everything is going to work aesthetically?
Tip 7: Have a very clear end goal before you get started
One of my favorite things about motorcycle builder, artist, and all around kick-ass dude Casey Anderson, is his ability to see end the of a custom motorcycle build 1,000 hours before he’s done.
If you’re doing a restoration and keeping things close to stock, this shouldn’t be too hard. If you’re looking to do something more custom and creative, find or draw a couple pictures that show what you’re going after and keep them by your motorcycle to keep you on track.
Should I leave my tools out to save time?
Tip 8: Clean your tools and put them away as soon as you’re done with them
Leaving tools out always ends up with them being accidentally dropped, knocked over, or kicked. At least, I think that’s what happens. The truth is, tools that aren’t put away get lost all the time! When you’re done using them, just put them away, you’ll be glad you did.
Another thing to note about tools, is to make sure you’re keeping them clean as you work. It helps to avoid the transfer of mess, and you never know when you might need that tool for something inside your clean house.
Speaking of time, any tips?
Tip 9: Make sure your restoration doesn’t become a time-vampire
Like anything worth doing, your first time restoring a motorcycle will eat up a ton of time. If you’re trying to finish your PhD, just had twins, or are renovating a house, a motorcycle restoration might not be for you. At least, not right now.
You can keep yourself on point by blocking off a couple hours in your calendar, with a task for the day, and an alarm set. Whether or not you finish the work, when the alarm rings, it’s time to get back to real life responsibilities. Don’t end up in the garage at 4:00 am on a work night like I did with my first Sportster.
How do I budget for my motorcycle restoration project?
Tip 10: Make sure your motorcycle doesn’t become a money-vampire
Your end goal is to take something that hasn’t been new in 30-50 years and make it new again. A lot of the parts involved won’t have aged well and will need replacing. Before you get started you should add up the costs of all of the parts you may need to replace.
If you didn’t faint after doing the math, here’s one more tip: give yourself a budget for the most you can spend on this restoration project in a given period. It could be a per paycheck total, or a monthly total, just give yourself a limit that you can responsibly play in.
When should I buy the parts for my restoration?
Tip 11: Buy parts only when you need them
You know what my favorite thing to do is? Add motorcycle parts to a shopping cart. I can do it from my house, in my boxers, and it gets me really excited and it feels good.
You’re probably tempted to add $1,000 worth of products to your cart too. Don’t. The majority of motorcycle restorations don’t get finished. Even those that do tend to take longer than expected. Parts sitting around get damaged or lost, plans get changed, new parts have to get brought in instead. Keep your costs low by only buying what you’re right about to need.
How can I make putting everything back together easy?
Tip 12: Take pictures of everything
Before you turn a wrench, before you unclip a connector, before you do anything, take a picture of the before so that you can remember how to get to the after.
Sometimes you expect to spend the next two hours working on a job, only to get called out for an emergency, it’s three days until you can get back into the garage, and now you have no idea how to put what you were working on back together again. Take pictures of everything so that you don’t have to guess.
How can I make wiring and electrical easy?
Tip 13: Label every single wire you touch
That’s a joke, easy wiring and electrical doesn’t exist. But there are some things you can do help. One of them is labeling every wire, even if you have a wiring diagram.
Wiring diagrams aren’t always very clean or easy to follow, and you have no guarantee that the wiring on a 30 year old motorcycle still matches the original diagram. Someone may have messed with it before.
Can I twist or quick-connect wires?
Tip 14: Solder all wire connections and shrink wrap them to insulate them too, no shortcuts
Don’t just twist wires together and run some electrical tape around them. Those connections will eventually give out under pressure or due to corrosion, and most electrical tape isn’t rated for the range of temperatures that a motorcycle faces and will eventually give up too.
Trying to source an electrical failure due to a bad connection is never fun, so make life easy for yourself and whoever owns your motorcycle in the future and solder and heat shrink those connections.
What else should I label?
Tip 15: Label all bolts, nuts, clips, bushings, etc.
You don’t want to put your motorcycle 90% back together just to realize that you have extra pieces because you forgot to put some bolts, clips, or bushings in, so label everything.
I like to use masking tape, because it goes on easily, I can write on it with a marker, and it doesn’t leave any residue when I peel it off.
How do I make it look really good for Instagram?
Tip 16: If you want to make it a vanity thing, be cool looking dirty or stay out of the pics
In theory, a motorcycle restoration is glorious. Aged metal with patina, bringing old flakes and flames back, bringing a gas-burning danger-machine back to life. Sounds Insta-worthy, right?
In practice however, a motorcycle restoration is dirty, greasy, grimey, oily, and just overall nasty. So dress appropriately. Don’t wear anything you wouldn’t be ok with having to throw out when you’re done.
What happens if I get in too deep?
Tip 17: Just dig your heels in and keep going
To paraphrase the Simpsons, when they get stuck in a hole: “Don’t dig down, dig up!” There will be times where you will want to set your motorcycle on fire. This is normal and part of the process.
You can give up and lose all of the progress you made up until now, or you can keep reading until you get to the “Fixing problems” section of this walk-through where I have another suggestion. Getting in too deep is a part of many motorcycle restorations, it’s all about how you deal with it.
The last section was about general principles to consider in a motorcycle restoration, but these next tips are all about actually making that restoration happen:
Where should I start?
Tip 18: Start with taking off the tank
There are two main reasons I like to start motorcycle restorations with the gas tank, and the first one is that the tank is something that you’ll want to drain out, and get a good look at the inside to understand what might be happening in your carburetor(s) and engine.
The second reason is that the gas tank is a pretty expensive component, so you’ll want to limit your likelihood of scratching it with tools moving around.
Why is the gas tank so important?
Tip 19: Get rust out of the tank
We had a bike that came into the shop running terribly this summer, we cleaned the carburetors and the jets and it ran great again, for about an hour. Then it was blocked up again and the bike came back.
We had to drain a ton of nasty out of the gas tank, installed a fuel filter in the fuel line, and re-cleaned the carburetor. Your gas tank feeds the motor. Don’t serve soup from a dirty bowl.
How can I deal with rusty parts?
Tip 20: Use Metal Rescue or other rust removers
Without a doubt my favorite rust removing product by far is Metal Rescue. The claims people make about how good it is are pretty outrageous, but they aren’t wrong. It’s phenomenal.
If you don’t want to dunk your frame in metal rescue, you’ll have to sand all the rust off, and then paint.
Should I buy cheap tools or high end tools?
Tip 21: The right cheap tool is better than an expensive wrong tool
There are some things you can absolutely get away with going cheap on, and thank God for that. If you’re lucky enough to live in America, Harbor Freight Tools will be your new best friend.
I’d rather use a cheap no-name brand circlip plier than a fancy DeWalt flathead screwdriver any day. Check out this series on bikerMetric on how to set up your home motorcycle garage.
What safety equipment do I need?
Tip 22: Always use eye protection, gloves, and a respirator
Gloves can save your hands a lot of unnecessary wear. They can feel like they’re getting in the way, so that’s why I recommend trying different kinds until you find something that fits your hands comfortably and snuggly.
Eye protection should be used any times things could be flying around or splashing. A respirator should be used any time you’re dealing with sand or paint. Old motorcycle paint usually has lead in it.
What should I watch out for?
Tip 23: Beware of brake fluid
Brake fluid is a double-edged sword. While a properly bled braking system does wonders at stopping a motorcycle and keeping us alive, brake fluid itself is a harsh chemical that can do damage.
If left alone for even a few seconds, brake fluid can begin to ruin the paint and finish on your motorcycle, causing it to bubble and peel, and it’s harmful to your skin too. Gloves and eyeware are important.
How can I save some money restoring my motorcycle?
Tip 24: Save some cash by repainting it yourself
If your goal isn’t to make a show-worthy motorcycle, and you just want to restore a motorcycle that you can ride every day, save some money by painting it yourself.
I won’t get into painting tips because that’s a whole other topic and I’m not very good at it, but BikeEXIF has a great guide on painting a motorcycle yourself here.
How can I protect my restored motorcycle’s finish?
Tip 25: Use a 2K clear coat, not a 1K, even if it is more time and more work
Confession: I love the look of exposed metal, but whether you’re leaving metal exposed or painting your restored motorcycle yourself, you’re going to need a quality 2K clear coat.
A 1K clear coat is good for things that don’t get use. It’s not very resistant but it’s simple and dries quickly. A 2K clearcoat is more complicated, but you end up with much harder and stronger protection for your finish.
Is taking everything apart easy?
Tip 26: If it’s your first motorcycle restoration, take everything apart slowly and methodically
Restoring a motorcycle isn’t like a home renovation. When you’re doing a home reno, you can go berserker and rip everything apart.
In a motorcycle restoration, the more time you spend carefully taking your motorcycle apart, the faster it’ll come back together. Make sure you know what everything is and how it goes back together, before you take it apart.
How do I clean the parts?
Tip 27: Consider making a $300 vapor blaster and using grease remover to clean the parts
Again, if you aren’t making a show bike, you don’t have to be super picky. You don’t need a sand blaster. In fact, Casey Anderson made a video showing you how you can make a vapor blaster for cleaning motorcycle parts for under $300.
For big parts that you can’t clean in the blaster, like the frame, you can and should use grease remover products, especially if you’ll be repainting the frame.
How can I find parts for my build?
Tip 28: Use the right website for the right job
If you’re looking for OEM motorcycle parts, I like using BikeBandit’s library of parts microfiches to get my part numbers that I need. Once I have my part numbers I start scouring the internet to find the deal.
eBay can be a great source for used motorcycle parts, and Amazon is good if you’re just looking for cheap bolt on parts which are OK-enough for your first motorcycle restoration.
Now that you’ve figured out what motorcycle to buy for your restoration project, have some fundamentals to guide you, and learned some tips along the way, it’s time we talk about how to deal with some of the problems that come up in any rebuild.
Can I hire a mechanic?
Tip 29: Sometimes hiring a mechanic is the best decision you can make
A motorcycle mechanic might charge you $100/hr, but it might take him an hour to solve a problem that would have taken you five frustrating hours to figure out. Ask yourself: Would I rather have $100 more in my pocket and have this problem fixed, or have $100 less in my pocket, five hours of peace, and have this problem fixed?
Sometimes the peace is worth paying for.
What if my motorcycle will turn over but won’t start?
Tip 30: Take apart the carbs
Here’s a rule to follow when you’re dealing with old motorcycles: It’s almost always the carbs, and if it’s not just the carbs, it’s at least also the carbs, so either way, take those carburetors apart, jets and all, and clean them all up.
Once you get those cleaned up, if your bike has been modified to use pod filters instead of an air box, or had the exhaust pipes switched, you might also need to mess with the jets to get the right air fuel mixture, if the previous owner didn’t do that already.
What if my motorcycle keeps blowing fuses?
Tip 31: Solve shorts by tracing wires
Any time you’re working on an old motorcycle, you can expect a short to happen. Wires get cut, damaged, or chewed up by critters over the years.
As the President of the Dislikers of Electrical Motorcycle Work Club of America, I strongly urge you to take the following approach: Follow your wiring harness, in all directions, with your fingers. Feel for anywhere the wiring harness may have a kink, may be looking a little warn, or may have any other obvious sign of damage or tampering and start problem solving from there.
What if I can’t find a part I need?
Tip 32: Get creative and make your own
You know why you see diamond plate on café racers? Because it’s cheap and easy to work with compared to hunting down the side panel of a 37 year old motorcycle that was only in production for four years.
You can make or find alternatives for a lot of problems. Permatex Gasket Maker is about to become your new best friend.
General tips / final thoughts
By now you should have a solid idea of what you can expect in your first motorcycle restoration, and how to handle it. Here are some final general tips and final thoughts for once your build is done.
Should I let all my friends ride it?
Tip 32: Unless they have a ton of riding experience, never let your friends ride the finished product
When your project is finally done and you, full of pride, show it off to your friend, do not let him or her ride it unless he or she has a ton of motorcycle riding experience.
You just spent hours of your life on this thing. You don’t want to have to fix something so soon. If anyone should wreck it, it should be you.
What stuff should I keep?
Tip 33: Keep anything that was factory original on your motorcycle or might have use
If you’ve modified your restoration motorcycle and done some customizations along the way you might have some extra parts leftover. My advice is to keep everything.
Keeping everything (even old spark plugs) in a bin not only gives you the option of returning to stock if you ever wanted to, but it also acts as a kind of proof of work done. When you do sell your motorcycle, you may be able to use the extra parts as leverage to get more from a buyer.
What stuff should I replace?
Tip 34: Treat the tires on your restoration project as if it was any other motorcycle
The idea (and budget) you have at the beginning of a restoration project might be very different then where you end up at the end, and there’s a huge price and performance difference between low end and high end motorcycle tires. That’s why I always buy tires at the end of the project.
More importantly though, is treat tires on your project build as if it was any other motorcycle. If they’re old, dry, cracked, or worn, and you plan on riding this motorcycle, not just storing it as an art piece, replace those tires. Even if it’s just with some cheap Shinko 777s.
Other questions people ask
Can I legally buy a motorcycle that isn’t running? If where you live, is where I live, the answer is yes. Most governments see vehicles as both property and a means of transportation. Every means of transportation must have an owner, but not every property is a means of transportation. So you can register a motorcycle that doesn’t run in your name when you buy it in order to become the owner, you just won’t be able to ride it yet.
Is there anyone who can show me how to restore a motorcycle? Give Casey Anderson a follow. I’m picky about who I endorse and who I personally give my time too, but this guy is solid and puts out great content showing others how it’s done. You can catch him on Instagram, YouTube, and his website.