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Common Tread

If you want to learn to work on motorcycles, here's where to start

Jan 16, 2020

Between reddit and real life, I see some variation of this question fairly often: How do I learn to work on motorcycles?

Educational programs exist for those who are looking to repair motorcycles as the factories intended, but most people want to figure this stuff out for funsies. And if you want to learn how to build customs? I’ve said a jillion times before that there is no chopper college. I even wrote a chapter in my book about that. However, before you go buy my book, you may want to save that money and buy one from Honda, instead.

Factory publications are almost always very valuable to have. (I can’t write “RTFM” often enough.) Beyond the service manuals, I find parts books and technical bulletins are often worth their weight in gold, too. (And for those of us who dabble in antique Harley-Davidsons, the “Shop Dope” pubs are very helpful, as well. They’re sort of a collection of several decades worth of internal bulletins.)

Common manual. Uncommonly good. Photo by Lemmy.

Colin Miller, the Onroad Media Coordinator for Honda motorcycles, recently tossed me a diagram from what he called their “Common Service Manual.” I’ve been turning bolts for a long time, but I never heard of that. I’m a little dumb, and I don’t mind asking questions that expose my ignorance. Obviously, the name of the manual tells you what it’s going to cover, but Colin expanded a bit. “It’s a service manual that covers all of the basics of motorcycle maintenance and technology," he explained. "One of the best books we make. I’ll send you one.”

And he did.

MMM by Nicholson
Also a wonderful book for rookies, albeit a bit dated at this point. Photo by Lemmy.

And it’s awesome.

It’s just a general service manual. But it explains theory of operation on a great many systems and how to work on what I would call “typical” motorcycles, but there are also good pieces in there about very nascent technology, too. (Big ups to reader Robert who suggested this very book to novices in an article I penned a while back.)

Honda says, “The expanded manual includes over 300 pages of new content, including information on newer technology introduced on our powersports models, such as pneumatic forks, Dual Clutch Transmission, and Combined ABS. Together with this new information, American Honda recognizes there is a heightened interest in older Honda powersports vehicles. So the Honda Common Service Manual includes information about older technology such as breaker points, drum brakes, and two-stroke exhaust valve systems.”

In my estimation, this is a must-read for someone who is aspiring to service motorcycles, be it for fun or for profit. Consider, too, that Honda pumps out more motorcycles than any other manufacturer in the world. If you own a motorcycle or one comes into your bay for service, mathematically, it’s more likely to be a Honda than any other make. With that said, many (most?) of the principles and techniques outlined here are applicable across a broad array of equipment from many manufacturers. If you’re riding around on a Kawasaki, this manual is likely to still be very, very helpful for learning how systems on your motorcycle work and general good housekeeping practices in a shop.

It’s clear, it’s concise, and it rectifies one of the problems I see with most straight service manuals: It does not assume the reader already has a solid base of mechanical understanding.

I can’t really describe this better than Honda themselves. “The Honda Common Service Manual is designed to be part instruction manual, part technical reference manual, and part service manual. As such it helps readers understand mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical fundamentals, learn the function of components, and perform troubleshooting and servicing procedures. This purpose and goal of the manual is encapsulated by the terms 'Read, Understand, Learn, Do' printed on its back cover.”

Back cover
Uh, yeah. I agree with that sequence of events. Photo by Lemmy.

I got my copy. You can pick one up, too, if you want. $48.88 is cheap tuition.

Nothing replaces practice, but practice is less dangerous with a firm grasp of the theory behind it. And I’m happy because now when someone asks me how to get started in learning to work on motorcycles, I have a simple and easy answer.