Alistair Maclean's Web Site

Tools by the pound

Feeler gauge

When I left the UK, after 12 years of motorcycling, I left behind one of the most import parts of my life - my toolbox. It has taken me years to rebuild that collection of tools, even now I am missing certain gadgets. This page is intended to give you an idea of what tools you are likely to need in dealing with Japanese or Italian motorcycles, with the intention of doing many, if not all of, your maintenance jobs. There are limits. I am respectful enough of a good mechanic to understand that tools like crankshaft flywheel pullers are really tools they should keep - it should be kept well clear of my ham fists. That said, there is more to choosing tools than first meets the eye, and good and complex tools are welcome in the tool box you might try to build up.

No tool box is built overnight. buy as you need, buy wisely, keep for the next time.

So, down to Sears we go...


Sources of tools are important, because there are tools and there are TOOLS! In the UK I found tool shops and car supply stores that carried some reasonable tools but good tools were hard to locate. My favored brand was Britool. In the US things are similar; Sears does Craftsman tools that have the advantage that when they break you can get replacements - but then they break... PetBoys and other car supply stores carry various lines. You can also find specific power tool vendors that can make a significant hole in your wallet, and add great bulk to your tool chest. On both sides of the Pond Snap-On tools have a premier reputation, but until recently it was not easy getting the truck to stop. Now, however, the web lets you have the Fedex truck pull up to the Snap-On truck... And they even allow schmoo's like you and me log on and do the ordering directly, just go to ( This means you have access to all manner of heavy duty tools. Other vendors on the web include Harbor Freight ( though I haven't tried their website.

Another source of slightly more specialized motorcycle tools is Motion Pro (, you can also find their stands in some local bike shops. They have quite specialised tools.

The final source I will mention is your own motorcycle dealer. All the main factories make fairly extensive collections of tools, they may not be listed along side the latest cruiser in the catalog, but believe me there are some very nice tools listed in the backs of the workshop service manuals that make the mouth water.

One size does NOT fit all

I have mostly dealt with metric sizes in my years, but they are not the only sizes, nor are metric tools and items entirely standard. Here are some common identifiers:

Style My Definition
Metric Uses metric measures, just watch out for occasional thread pitch variations
BS British Standard.
Inches. Measured, I think at the bolt head.
Whitworth Inches. Measured, I think, as the width of the shaft of a bolt, or the thread.
AF (uk) American Foundry (or Forge). Inches. May be the same as BS, but I think it varies by how the bolt is measured. Mostly a term used in the UK. Americans have probably never heard of this!
Imperial (usa) Inches. The American measure of tool sizes.


This one always gets me! Being a transatlantic traveller has lead me to more than a few blank stares. Not all tools have the same names on opposite banks of the Atlantic. Here are a few translations. This is not an exhaustive list, and will likely grow.

Limey Yank
Spanner Wrench
Wrench Generally, some sort of adjustable
Box Spanner Spanner
Circlip pliers Split ring pliers
Circlip Split ring
Lump hammer Small Sledge

As I say, not exhaustive, but sure to grow.

Gimme, Gimme!

Various manufacturers seem to specialise is using more of one bolt or allen key size over others, this is particularly apparent when you look at 8mm, 10mm, and 12mm bolts, and 4.5, 5 and 6mm Allen sizes. What does this mean to you? Well it means that you are likely to need multiple items in these sizes.

Below is listed Alistair's guide to essential toolbox tools. With this collection of steel you should be able to set out on any maintenance task, and then do the re-assembly (remember, getting it back together again is actually more important than getting it apart.)

  Tool Comment
Spanners / Wrenches Spanners / Wrenches Spanners/Wrenches come in two main styles, open ended and ring. Ring spanners also come in 6 and 12 sided forms. Both types are necessary. Opened ended spanners are easier to use in tight spaces, but rings tend to grip the heads better.
  6mm, 8mm, 9mm, 11mm (spanners) You want one of each of these, in open ended and closed ring spanner/wrench. The 9mm in particular is useful on brake nipples in certain models.
  10mm, 12mm, 13mm, 14mm, 15mm (spanners) Don't think, don't pause, get two of each. Combination spanners are the best with one open end and one ring end. You can even find these in extended lengths occasionally, but watch out as extended length items make it easy to strip threads (see helicoils...)
  16mm, 17mm, 19mm, 20mm, 21mm (spanners) One each of these should be sufficient. Ring spanners are probably best at the bigger end here as you get more leverage and slipping is less of a problem - you will be using some strength with the big sizes.
  Bigger Spanners! Available, but generally not needed except to impress friends, are the spanners and wrenches that go as big as a few inches across (I have seen 3" spanners). These things don't fit the average tool chest, they are expensive and almost un-needed.
Handles Sockets Sockets come in two main flavours - 6 sided and 12 sided. You don't need complete sets in each. 6 sided tend to offer better grip on nuts or bolts, but are harder to manage in tight situations. 12 sided are easier to manage, but have a tendancy to rise up and fall off nuts or bolts, burring the heads in the process.
There are three types of handles: ratchet, slide bar, and swivel headed. You need one of each. Also think about getting extension bars in 1.5" and 4" sizes.
Extension bars
Socket driver adapters
Socket Sets
1/4, 3/8th and 1/2 inch sizes A socket is just the little bit that goes against the head of a bolt or nut, the socket is attached to a tool which you hold (some call it the wrench, I think it's general term in a driver). The connection between the two (or more) parts is measured as being a 3/8" drive or a 1/2" drive. It used to be that all sockets were just 1/2" drive sized, but this leads to big heavy tools, especially in the smaller socket sizes. 3/8th drives are smaller, weigh less and are just as strong in most applications. You can get convertor pieces that size between each (1/2" -> 3/8", and 3/8" -> 1/2", also 1/2" -> 3/4" and 3/8" -> 1/4"). The smallest drive size is about a 1/4" and should be avoided for most duties. The largest sizes are irrelevant to motorcycle maintenance. You might find that the biggest sockets are only available in a particular size of drive (22mm to about 40mm are only available in 1/2" drive, 40+ only in 3/4" drive)
Sockets 6, 8, 15, 16, 17, 29, 20, 21, 22mm (sockets) Sockets look good. You probably only need one each of any of these. You may want long reach, but only occasionally.
  10, 12, 13, 14mm (sockets) Again, don't think, just get two of each. It's worth noting that cheap 10mm sockets mostly work just as well as expensive ones - they all fail with indecent haste. You will always be buying 10 mm sockets.
C Spanner "C" Spanner These are curved steel tools that have a tooth at one end of the curve. They are used to move the spring preload rings around the rear shock absorbers. Or, on certain bikes with singled swingarms, the entire axle body is moved using one of these. They do seem to come in specific sizes, though I have never found out how they are measured. I did find that Honda does a $70 tool that is an adjustable C-spanner - very cool.
Cresent Wrenches
Adjustable Monkey Wrench
Adjustable Wrenches Crescent, Monkey, Adjustable, Vise grips; some are also known by their trade names, like Channel lock. Crescent wrenches have a long handle, one moving jaw goes sideways, adjusted with a knurled ring. Monkey wrenches tend to have shorter handles, and the adjustable jaw goes up or down the side of the handle, again moved by a knurled ring. Other types include the plier like wrenches where there are two opposed arms.
I think you need at least a 12" Crescent and a good adjustable. Note all of these have one problem - the jaws are never exactly perpendicular to the bolt faces, sockets or specific sized spanners/wrenches are preferable (purist speak).
Vise grips are an odd tool. I am loath to suggest they are necessary; they are handy, but maybe not necessary. They have an adjustable jaw, a thumb wheel on one arm sets the width of the jaw. The other arm has two handles, on inside the other. Clench all three arms you grab the nut head and ratchet the jaws down on the nut. To release you press that inner handle, quite lightly. I have had more blood blisters through using this tool than any other. The inner handle can trap skin as you close the grip, and the opening action can be quite explosive if you have really closed them up tight.
Screwdrivers Screwdrivers There are two main types of screw drivers - flat head and Phillips (or crosshead). You need at least three sizes of flat head (small, medium, large), and probably two sizes of Phillips (#2, #3). Big flat head screw drivers are great for prying things apart, but you WILL end up bending them this way.
A special form of screwdrivers are the T-bar style. I love these. They make twirling screws out much easier. Good ones are hard to find in the USA though.
  Impact Driver One of these is probably going to be your first really heavy tool! They are used to "move" hard to loosen nuts and bolts. Generally they have a 1/2 drive and take sockets.
Hammers Hammers A good pound hammer is as good as every other tool you have.... Ummm Well, almost. As they say, If all you have is a hammer, everything else is a nail! You will need one steel hammer, and I suggest one rubber mallet type hammer. Avoid sledge hammers, they are too much of a distraction if you get angry.
Feeler Gauge
Sparkplug gapper
Feeler Gauges These are sets of fine, accurately measured, fingers of steel or bronze. They are used to gap spark plugs and valves. There are several varieties, principally identified by just how many fingers they have. You need a set that has sufficient to gap your plugs (probably 10 fingers).
Some feeler gauges also have an attached spark plug gaper, a small widget that allows for levering the spark plug electrode off the cathode. These are a good thing, as screwdrivers and the feeler gauges themselves tend to damage the spark plugs.
Allen Wrenches / Keys
Different length Allen keys
Allen Keys These come in packs or carriers that have between 8 and 16 keys. An Allen key is a tempered steel six sided L-shaped rod. They insert into the top of bolts. The bolts are very common on more recent motorcycles, less so on older bikes. 5mm and 6mm seem the most common, but I have seen them as large as 10mm. A single pack is normally sufficient. You can get Allen keys in short and long style, that varies the length of the long bit of the "L" allowing for more or less torque. You can also find T-bar Allen keys, they work exactly as the L-shaped ones, but you can twirl them
  Torx & Star keys Similar to Allen keys, Torx and the similar (though different) Star pattern keys are quite rare on motorcycles. Used some in the automotive world, and a great deal by Compaq, they are creeping into motorcycle applications. Sometimes you can make do by jamming a Phillips head screwdriver in the hole and applying "mojo" to the effort, if you know what I mean...
  Calipers, Vernier Gauges and Micrometers You might like the look of these, but unless you have a motorcycle that has shims, then you don't need them. If you have shims get a micrometer. Learning to use a micrometer is the subject of a complete other website...
Sparkplug cleaner Spark plug cleaner These are copper or steel bristle filled holes (for want of a better word). They are small plastic things with a hole in the middle, the hole is filled with the bristles. Handy, but not absolutely necessary.
Tyre Valve remover Tyre Valve Remover Bear with me...
This is one of those little widgets that when you need it, you really need it. They have a handle and a thin metal shaft. The shaft tends to be hollow, the end has a notch in it. Place into tyre valve stem, turn to get over schraeder valve then turn some more to remove the valve. Haven't needed one? Just you wait!
Long Nose Pliers
Wire Clipper Pliers
Pliers Often referred to as Electricians Pliers, the standard sized pliers are essential to every tool box (the first dentist I ever had, removed by first teeth with some, too; oddly I have no great liking for Dentists.) They are the original swiss army knife. You might also need long nosed pliers and wire clipping pliers too.
Circlip pliers Circlip Pliers/Split ring pliers These are odd tools, they look like scissors, but at the ends are long thing points. The points fit into special parts, rings that have a parting on one side, each side of the parting has a small hole in it (the points on the pliers fit in each hole), that are often fitted above bearings. There are two types (inside and outside), or a universal form that sort of does both.
  Hydraulic lift A 2 ton hydraulic lift. These are little bottles with a handle to pump them up. They are invaluable in lifting the underside of the bike.
  Duct Tape Well, if you don't know what it is used for, or can't find a use for it, check your pulse.
  Torque Wrench This is not a wrench, this is a device, commonly fitted with a 1/2" drive that a socket can be applied to, that allows you to measure how much torque is being applied to a bolt. The tend to come in small (less than 2ft-lbs, medium 1ft-lb to about 20ft-lbs, and large - over 15ft-lbs). If you are going to take an engine apart you don't need one, but if you intend to put the engine back together again they are absolutely essential.
  Grease Gun This is a "definite maybe" tool. If you have a swingarm, steering head or suspension arm fitted with a grease nipple, they are required. Otherwise ignore. These are fun tools to play with though, being able to decorate the ceiling of the garage in grease is especially pleasing.
  A light Be it a torch or a mains powered light bulb, a mobile light is an essential add-on to the tool box. I find that the workshops tend to be unkind to the bulbs, so cheap 40w bulbs tend to be the order of the day.
  Bit Box These are often called fishermen's trays. They are plastic boxes, with clear tops and many little compartments. They are perfect for putting all the nuts, bolts, washers, o-rings and other small bits that come of a bike as you head for the crankshaft.
Oil Filter clamp
Oil Filter Wrench
Oil Filter Strap
Oil Filter Tools I have 3 of these littering my tool box, and could easily have a fourth. If you have an oil filter fitted inside the crankcase, like many 1980's motors have, then ignore this - your socket set does the job. But if you have Spin-On, Spin-Off filters, like those on cars, you will need some sort of oil filter tool. I have tried those with cloth or steel belts (ignore them, they don't work on the small filters on motorcycles), and the moving jaw variety (works well, but tends to destroy the removed filter). The type I haven't tried are those designed for a specific size of filter. They look like sockets on steroids. The problem is that with several motorcycles, each with a different sized oil filter, I would need lots of these oil filter sockets. I guess if you have enough bikes a set of these wouldn't be too bad!

Tools you might think about when you are really bored with life

There are tools you need, and tools you can practically do without, but owning them gives you street cred, way beyond their usefulness. This set of tools includes the following items, but is strangely enough, not limited to these few - in fact the vast bulk of tools might fall into this category.

Tool Comment
Clutch Puller Practically any motorcycle clutch can be pulled of by hand, or using normal bolt based removal techniques, but the joy of owning the puller may still be too much for some.
Cable Oiler In all the years that I have messed with bikes, the simple act of duct taping a cone of plastic to the end of a cable, filling the cone, and working the cable has always worked like a charm. A cable oiler does exactly the same, but more expensively.
Air Tools For automotive use, I would agree that air tools are almost necessary. For working on a motorcycle though, there are few components need that sort of power to undo, do up, or in other ways cajole into surrender.
Fork Oil level measure There are several of these types of devices on the market. They measure and allow manipulation of the level of the oil in the fork legs. Stick to a wooden measuring stick and a careful hand on the oil bottle.
Carburetor Vacuum Gauges I have actually owned two sets of these, but whether they are a useful tool in this age of fuel injection and carburetors with all the adjusting screws welded in place, is a matter of some conjecture. If you have an older multi-cylinder bike, one of these is almost required. A newer bike? Hummm. Don't know, probably not.
Thread cutters These are cool tools. Got a hole? Stuff one of these drill bit like hardened iron tools in to it, turn and you have a threaded hole. They also to one that puts a thread on a steel rod - presto! you have a bolt. Associated with these tools I lump in bolt removal tools. These are generally drill bits that have a reverse thread and are used to drill broken bolts. If you really need these tools, regularly, then think seriously about not touching anything with out a torque wrench applied.
Also, there are thread files. These are interesting tools used to clean up the tread of a bolt after you have cut it, or after you have cross threaded the sucker. Neat tool works a treat. Used one once.
Helicoils When cutting a new thread fails, and it might quite often, especially if there had been a smaller thread there in the first place, you can resort to inserting a helicoil. It is a last resort before welding the whole lot up and starting again. A helicoil is a tightly wound coil of steel, that is turned into a whole, generally a bit bigger than the original. The Helicoil now acts as the thread in the hole. Quite fragile though. They are cheap, but you rarely need them.
MIG / TIG welding torch Thinking of filling in screw holes, the average tool box does not fit a MIG or TIG welding set. For Good Reason. You need to be quite skilled to use one of these. I have noted that small units are fairly inexpensive (as tools go), but that is no excuse. Deciding to make your own chopper (Dave?) might be a valid reason for wanting one of these, but then your into a different world anyway.
Modellers butane/acetylene blow torch These have their uses. These are small torches intended for those people that put together plastic models or metal military figures. Sometimes you need to apply heat to a part to free it up. These small torches are very handy for this sort of activity, and can be positioned into some tight corners that might not be possible with a full sized blow lamp.
Camping gas stove Now you think I am just getting odd! Actually, if you ever have to bath a chain in wax and fear that the significant other may not take kindly to the cooker being used for this type of "application of technology" then the camping gas stove is perfect. Comes up to temperature quickly, has a broad flame, can be positioned conveniently; well the list goes on. They can also be used to gently head a cylinder head to get valve guides out... but the cooker really is better for that sort of activity. You then just have to put up with Castrol-R flavoured stews for a time.
Nut crackers or splitters This is a tool you don't want to be using. It's use suggests lack of maintenance; deprived motorcycle parts; ignored corners of your bike - not what you want to be known for. These tools are heavy forged steel loops that are sized to fit a variety of nut sizes - the normal one has about an inch wide hole in the middle. A chisel is mounted on a screw thread on one side. The exterior end of the screw is sized to take about a 15mm or 16mm socket. Put it over a rusted up nut, crank in the chisel face and Bingo! the nut falls apart. There is no re-using nuts removed in this manner.

© Copyright A. Maclean 2004 -
  A page index