Half the Fun

Me under Car

I’m a teacher and so, as everyone likes to remind me, I get my summers off. I often respond by saying that it’s a good thing I do or I’d burn out. By the time the term winds to a close, I don’t want to be anywhere near a desk. I’ll shovel scrap metal before I do anything bookish, at least for a good chunk of the summer. Usually this urge to do something physical takes the form of athletic training or home reno, but this summer I dove into a large mechanical job on the car. I also did some work on the bike. Here are five take-aways I learned from this work.

  1. Be Methodical: When I do a job, I get nervous. Almost every job I do is a first for me, so I’m heading into uncharted territory. I’m worried I will make a huge mistake along the way that will ruin my precious bike or cost me more money to fix than it would have cost to get a professional to do the job. (This is supposed to be cost-saving, right?) Or I’ll encounter an insurmountable snag that will stop me halfway through a job. I’ll have to call in the professionals, and in the case of auto and bike mechanics, that will involve a towing charge as well as the cost of the job. So I often rush. It’s stupid, I know, as a reaction to the situation, and I’ve become increasingly aware of my emotional state as I work and have been trying to slow myself down. This job was so big I knew I had to go slow. Fortunately I saw this video by Ari Henning from MC Garage before starting. In it, he gives three tips for being a better motorcycle mechanic. Take photos. Use zip-lock bags to label and store parts, and use a manual. I’ll add to that to lay parts out in the order they came off. (My front porch smelled like a garage for a good portion of the summer.) This forced me to go slow and methodically. It’s easy to undo bolts and rip the engine apart; the tough part is putting it all back together again. So I used my phone and took a picture of every item before it came out. I used sandwich bags and a sharpie to store and label bolts. I also used masking tape to label cables that were detached. I kept a list of items in the order that they were removed. And I bought and used the Haynes manual, which shows step-by-step how to do the job.
  2. When Things Go Wrong, Don’t Panic: Mechanical work is all about problem-solving. Nothing ever goes as planned or as described in the manual, especially if you’re working on an older machine. Sometimes it’s just a matter of figuring out how you are going to get a wrench in there, but sometimes, as in my case, it’s breaking an important bolt in the most inaccessible part of the engine. When this happens, probably the best thing to do is to take a break. Step back and give a little think on your options. Maybe go online and see what others have done. But if you let your emotions get the better of you, problems can compound quickly.
  3. Mechanical Work is a Workout: People keep telling me these days I look fit. My wife says I’ve bulked up. Okay, I’m never going to be bulky, but I do feel in pretty good shape. There were days when at the end I was physically exhausted. Mechanical work requires strength—not the weight-lifting kind but core and endurance strength, especially if you are working on your back on the driveway using hand tools. You constantly have your arms raised, you have to do a stomach crunch to reach something, just getting in and out from under the car every time you need a tool is tough. Same goes for working on a bike, whether you are wrestling a tire off the rim, or compressing the fork-spring to remove a retaining ring. And since mechanical work is physical, make sure you keep your body happy. Be sure to eat and drink regularly, just like an athlete or you’ll find yourself grumpy, working slowly, making mistakes, and wondering why.
  4. Have a Back-Up Vehicle: 3/4 of the job involves getting tools and parts when needed. I bought everything I thought would be needed before I started, but inevitably s**t happens and you need something. My parts supplier sold me 2 litres of gear oil and I discovered I needed 2.7. I broke a bolt, so had to go buy a tap plus a new bolt. I needed a socket extension, crow-feet socket set, more Liquid Wrench penetrating oil, hardware, etc.. And while I’m on this subject, never trust the parts salespeople; they can give you a bum-steer. Be sure you know your liquids and volumes (from the manual) and, when possible, take the original part that you are replacing. Often these guys (and they are almost always guys) are looking at an exploding diagram of your engine, trying to locate the exact thing you need, or worse, using a text-based database. And it perhaps goes without saying to keep all receipts in case a mistake is made.
  5. Get Dirty: I spent some time at the beginning of the summer reading Mark Zimmerman’s The Essential Guide to Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a good book (review to come), but to learn you have to get in there and get dirty. Start small and simple, like an oil change, or coolant change. Then challenge yourself and try a bigger job. I did the brakes (actually not that hard) and that gave me the confidence to try replacing the clutch. The other day I changed the oil in my front forks—again, not hard. Most of the time these jobs aren’t that difficult but you just need to have the confidence to try, which comes from doing simple things first. I learned a lot from working on my bicycle when I was young. I used to buy bikes at police auctions, strip them down, then paint, clean, and re-lube everything, right down to the ball bearings. The more I work on my motorcycle, the more I see just how similar to a bike it is from an engineering standpoint, although it was the practical work on the bicycle that first gave me familiarity with tools, problem-solving, and observation of how mechanical things work. Later this fall I’m going to attempt to adjust the valve clearances. I’ve got 40,000 K on the bike now so it’s time. I’ve never done this before, but I’ll figure it out, using my manual and taking my time.

Last fall I did the first service on my bike by changing the oil and coolant to prepare it for winter storage. I phoned my dad to talk about how it went. He told me about when he stripped down the engine on his bike and had it rebored. Pirsig says you should work on your own bike because a lot of mechanics are hacks, which is probably true. No one’s going to care as much about your bike as you, and doing it yourself ensures it’s done right. Pirsig also seems to suggest a moral reason for doing your own maintenance. If the bike is you, it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and your bike. But my dad had another reason for doing this dirty work. Just before he hung up he said, “I’m glad you’re doing your own maintenance. That’s half the fun of having a bike.”