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Common Tread

How to change your motorcycle's engine oil and filter

Jun 03, 2021
Changing your motorcycle’s oil on time is the single most important thing you can do to keep your engine healthy, and DIYing your own oil and filter change is an easy way to save money as a motorcycle owner. 

Editor's note: If you'd rather watch than read, see Ari's The Shop Manual video on oil changes, and if you're looking for more tips or how to handle problems that crop up, see his oil change life hacks article.

The whole process only takes about 20 to 30 minutes, and doesn’t require much in terms of tools and supplies. If you’ve assembled your own TSM tool kit, then you already have everything you need. If not, you’ll want to get a drain pan, some nitrile gloves, a rag, a wrench for removing the drain plug and a torque wrench for reinstalling it, a wrench for the oil filter, plus any tools you may need to remove your bike’s belly pan, if necessary. Of course you’ll also need a new filter, the appropriate oil as listed in your manual, and a replacement sealing washer for your drain bolt. 

Tools and equipment to change your motorcycle engine oil.
Add oil, a filter, and a fresh sealing washer and you've got everything you need for a DIY oil change. Photo by Spenser Robert.

If your bike has been ridden recently, give it some time to cool off so you’re not working with scalding-hot oil. If your bike is equipped with a center stand or if you have a rear stand or front-wheel chock that will likely help with accessing the bike’s belly, but a stand isn’t necessary. What I would deem necessary is some ground covering to prevent the inevitable drips from staining your garage or driveway. I usually just snag some cardboard from the recycle bin and lay it under the bike.

Equipment accrued, bike in position. Now use a rag to wipe the grime off the drain plug and from around the oil filter, then crack the drain plug loose with an appropriate combination wrench or socket from your kit. Once you’ve overcome the initial tension on the bolt, you should be able to unscrew it by hand, and you’ll know when it’s about to come free because you’ll see oil starting to seep past the threads. 

Harley Davidson Revolution Max engine cutaway
Oil not only lubricates all the moving parts in your motor, it also helps to keep those components cool and clean. Harley-Davidson photo.

At this point make sure your drain pan is under the bike – and make sure the pan’s vent is open so the oil doesn’t bubble and spit as it’s draining – and try to position your hand and forearm in a way that you won't get doused in oil. Even so, I always have a rag in my free hand, ready to wipe the oil off my forearm.

Keep track of the sealing washer – it usually comes off on the bolt, but sometimes it sticks to the engine. If you’re working with the bike on the side stand and the drain plug isn’t on the downhill side of the engine, stand the bike upright for a moment to help empty all the old oil. 

As the oil is draining, take note of its color and condition, since it can indicate issues with your engine. It’ll be dark, but it shouldn’t smell burnt, and if you see any metal flakes mixed in, that’s a sign that things aren’t going great with all your engine’s moving parts. Similarly, if the oil is milky or pale, that usually means coolant is getting mixed into the oil, often due to a leaking head gasket. 

With the old oil out, it’s time to move on to the oil filter.

Some bikes, like many KTMs and Honda dual-sports, have internal cartridge filters, while most street bikes use an automotive-style spin-on filter. If you have a cartridge, they’re easy to swap out, but make sure you don’t put the new filter in backwards. In fact, go ahead and take a picture of the old filter before you remove it, just so you have a reference.

To remove a spin-on filter, use a universal strap wrench, filter pliers, or a filter socket. With the filter removed, pour the oil out of it and set it to empty out on your drain pan. Now use a clean rag to wipe down the filter mating surface, and make sure the O-ring from the old filter didn’t stick to the engine. It’s rare, but it can happen and will interfere with the installation of the new filter.  

If the O-ring on your new filter isn’t pre-lubed, put a little oil on it to so it spins on smoothly and seals properly. Turn the filter on by hand, and typically, once you feel the seal touch you’re supposed to rotate it another three-quarters to one turn. It can be helpful to draw a reference line on the filter to help you measure the rotation. If your manual specifies an installation torque, you would need to use a filter socket and torque wrench to tighten it. 

Foil on exhaust to prevent oil mess.
Sometimes the filter sits above your exhaust, which means your pipes are going to get oily when you spin the filter off. You can always just let it happen and wipe everything down when you’re done, but a bit of aluminum foil folded over the exhaust beforehand will keep them clean. Photo by Ari Henning.

Now, your bike’s drain plug likely uses a copper, aluminum, or fiber sealing washer, or perhaps an O-ring. It’s always recommended to replace the washer or O-ring, but I’m not gonna lie, I’ll just flip over an aluminum or copper washer if it’s not chewed up. The sealing washer on my wife’s car has been getting rotated for nearly 100,000 miles now with no issues. Whatever you do, make sure the washer is in place and get the plug started by hand before putting a tool on it to ensure you don’t get the threads crossed; it’s easy to do since the bolt is often in an awkward spot.

Typical tightening torque on a drain plug is 14 to 16 foot-pounds, but don’t take my word for it — check your damn manual, and please use a torque wrench. New mechanics love to over tighten things, and damaging the threads in your engine — which is what will happen since the threads on the steel bolt are stronger than the threads in the aluminum crankcase — is the easiest way to turn a simple oil change into a minor disaster. If you do strip any threads on your bike, don’t worry, we’ve got a video that walks you through repairing stripped threads, including the ones on your drain plug.

The next easiest way to screw up an oil change? Forgetting to put oil back in the bike. Don’t laugh, it happens! Your manual will list the type and quantity of oil to add, and your manual will also say whether the oil level should be checked with the bike on the side stand or held vertical. In any case, once you’ve got the oil level set, start the bike and let it run for a minute, then shut it off, recheck the oil level – which will usually drop a bit since the new filter soaks up some volume – and check the filter and drain plug for leaks.

Top off the oil if needed, and if everything looks good, you’re done. Feels great, doesn’t it? If you want to feel extra good, call your local dealership and ask them how much it would cost and how long it would take to have them handle what you just tackled in 30 minutes. I’m not knocking dealerships and shops, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be tackling your own oil changes. And now you know how.