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Common Tread

Where does the mechanic keep his most important tool?

Apr 22, 2019

Maybe you think that’s a clickbait-y title. However, I think there are a lot of people who don’t realize that a great mechanic’s best asset doesn’t live in the toolbox, but instead, between his ears.

I was reminded of this recently when I was working with Stinky on his wee Grom. Stinky seemed to take the classic view of Old Fat Dad as this bizarre mechanical genius who was able to dispense knowledge by simply stroking his beard a few times and thusly uttering some mechanical wisdom. (We’ll come back to Stink in just a moment.)

Here’s the truth: my head’s pretty empty, save bong smoke from college and a little barley residue. Some of my super-talented friends who build and repair motorcycles are in the same boat, in terms of intellectual power. In spite of that, an idea permeates American garage culture: People like us who manage to make mechanical items tick are some sort of clairvoyant holy men. In fact, there’s a poem I’ll share with you that was tacked up on the wall by my AS400 terminal at my very first job behind an automotive parts counter.

I work behind the counter
In an auto parts store;
Sometimes I’m called a genius,
Sometimes I’m called much more!

I tell them I’m no whiz kid,
But when the job goes sick,
My customers all will ask me,
“What makes this dang thing tick?”

I’m an engineer and machinist,
Rarely am I bored.
I’m supposed to be an Einstein
Combined with Henry Ford!

Folks think I know the numbers
Of sprockets, belts, and gears
Of every motor made
For more than forty years!

But life would be a pleasure
And I’d grin from ear to ear,
If the customer would only tell me
The model, make, and year!

I don’t know who wrote it, or I’d give them some credit. The poem does highlight, however, this idea that the gearhead is this strange being who’s born preternaturally to the wrench. Heck, we even talk about people being “mechanically inclined.”

It's hooey. Anyone can be a good mechanic. It’s not easy, but it is simple. I’d submit a few of the following truths to someone looking to acquire that mysterious mechanical je ne sais quoi.

Mechanics do not know the un-knowable. They learn it, and you can, too.

I understand that it appears that we just look at an item, maybe run our hands over it, and then we can tell you how it works. Let’s be real here: At first, none of us could quite do that. Not even a little. We learned from kindly, more experienced wrenches who showed us things and told us stuff, and later as we got smarter, we also took instruction from less experienced people who had failed at some technical endeavor. We constantly apply and reapply what we know to new things that we didn't, and that new information comes from other mechanics, pictures, technological advancements, and books.

Don't go it alone. Rookies can learn from vets — and smart vets also will keep their eyes open for new ways to perform familiar tasks. Photo by Lemmy.

Ah, yes, books! The better wrenches among us usually read. Voraciously. The smartest, best mechanics I know have plowed through stacks of books, some of them only tangentially related to wrenching on bikes. I’m not just talking service manuals, I’m talking books on theory and performance and design. And ideas come from all types of other activities and hobbies. Someone who’s just generally smart from lots of reading proves another point: Smart people are usually smart about many things. Reading (and listening and watching and absorbing knowledge) pays off.

One of our regular readers has sold me quite a few books at a steep discount, and a few deal with some pretty arcane subject matter, like piston design and roller chain construction. Some of that type of stuff can be dry, but if I get one or two real, usable nuggets of info from some book, the read was worth it. And often when I return to a book I’d read long ago, new things light up my brain because I have more experience under my belt than the previous time I consumed it.

More books
Knowledge can often be acquired more quickly from reading as opposed to wrenching, though both are important. Photo by Lemmy.

You practice your trade, but you learn it, too. If you hear a wrench dig something up from the recesses of his brain and look smart, it’s simply because he revisited something enough times to remember it.

Use the books in the shop, too

Back to Stinky. He seemed to think that because I knew what every piece was called and where it came from and how to install it that I must just have a knack for working on stuff. I do, but that knack was learned; it’s certainly not instinct. I was an awful mechanic when I started, because I had no experience. Now I do. I had never done the job Stink and I were doing, but I had done similar enough tasks on similar enough bikes that I muddled my way through.

Some people buy fancy books for their coffee tables. Other people actually use them. Join the second group. Photo by silverfox762.

If we do something that seems complicated to you seemingly with no guidance, that’s likely not because we’re geniuses. We had books out the first, second, and ninth times we did it. And you should, too. I’ll sometimes have a factory service manual open, a parts manual, an aftermarket manual, and maybe even my tablet fired up when in the middle of an unfamiliar, critical task.

There’s this idea floating around that good mechanics don’t need manuals. That’s bullshit, plain and simple. If I ever don’t know what to do, or I can’t recall a torque spec, my first stop is to the shop bookshelf for the manual. And usually, I will have taken it out knowing full well that I’m gonna need it — if worse comes to worst, it was a nice reminder to have on the bench to reference.

Have a smoke

I can’t remember if I read this or someone spoke it to me, so I can’t say where this theory came from, but the gist of it is that smokers make the best mechanics. The justification was that when confronted with a problem, a smoker does not begin tearing things apart trying to fix it. Instead, he’ll simply stop and reach into his pocket, shake loose a butt, fire it up, and let his mind work for 10 minutes while the coffin nail burns down.

"Is it jetted wrong? Or do I have an intake leak? Let me think about this for a moment." Photo by Christopher Michel.

Of course I’m not saying that the cigarette is the savior here; those are bad for you. But the idea has merit. Let your mind work. Often I’ll have phone conversations with buddies who are stuck on a bike, and without the machine in front of one of us, the other will try to poke holes in proposals to solving the problem. It’s a lot like “proving” a part bad. Sure, I can try to fix a problem just by replacing parts, starting with the cheap and likely items, progressing to the expensive and less suspect pieces. But that could be a waste of time or money. Instead, I want to run a series of tests and “prove” that a part is bad, so I can be sure the problem is really fixed.

Similarly, when you’re stuck, step back, take a breath, don’t get emotional, and use that tool between your ears.

Remember it’s a machine

John Elder Robison once wrote something about wrenching that I can’t articulate any better than he did. “No matter how big the machine, I am in charge. Machines don’t talk back. They are predictable. They don’t trick me, and they’re never mean. I have a lot of trouble reading other people. I am not very good at looking at people and knowing whether they like me, or they’re mad, or they’re just waiting for me to say something. I don’t have problems like that with machines.” Amen, John.

Most wrenchy people who are any good are almost coldly analytical. It’s not that they’re not excited, but rather, they are treating motorcycle diagnosis and repair as troubleshooting a set of complex interrelated mechanical systems. These systems are binary — they either work, or they do not. Sometimes one must disassemble and reassemble many items many times with much trial and error in order to get them to function correctly. Don’t get blue; just understand that’s part of how the game gets played.

Personify your bike however you like, but it’s not personal when it won’t run. It’s not “being difficult.” If you have to think of it as anything other than that series of interrelated systems all performing their own tasks, think of your scooter as a sick kitten. It’s hurting and it can’t tell you what’s wrong.

It’s just a motorcycle. If you’re getting stressed out, walk away and come back later. Or maybe go have a smoke.

Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t psych yourself out

A man built it. A man can take it apart and put it back together. Don’t downplay your own ability, and don’t make the machine out to be more than it is. It’s just a motorcycle. Which leads me to my next point…

Everything breaks down to something simpler

Maybe the prospect of a complex job gives you cold sweats. Think about, say, tearing down a motor; that’s kinda complex. You peer in the manual, and the list of steps is overwhelming, and the diagrams seem complicated and the jargon makes you feel stupid. What’s a “SCREW, VALVE ADJUSTING?” What parts go where? What if you lose something? How will you know if something is salvageable or needs to be replaced? How do you take the tank off? 

Well, maybe you'd start the teardown by removing the rocker box. That’s not too bad. Do you know where your valve cover (rocker box) is? Does removing it still seem a little scary? Well, what about just pulling one of the valve cover bolts out? You could probably do that, right? It’s just one fastener.

Almost every job breaks down to something more manageable. If you have to, take a big job bolt by bolt. I mean, if ya think about it, a hike to the zenith of Mount Everest is made one step at a time. Just one little step after another, and then you’re on the tippy-top.

Use technology

Remember when I told you about ol’ Stinky before? Well, he learned another little tidbit. I told him to take pictures of assembled items. Most people have a smartphone — and thus a camera — in their pockets. Shoot photos. The longer a period of time your job is going to span, the more you ought to be using that camera. You’ll thank yourself when you have a file of great photos to aid you in reassembly. Or, you’ll kick yourself and promise you’ll do it the next time. You’ll learn it one way or the other, I promise.

Any tech who doesn’t periodically use a camera to assist with reassembly is making life harder than it needs to be.

Or don’t

I told you I was a counterman earlier. Eventually, I began doing some light machine work as my responsibility grew. One of the shops I performed service for was a heavy truck repair center that needed flywheels resurfaced at seemingly all hours of the day and night. I found out why: They were open 24 hours a day. Clearly a tech can’t work a shift that long, and it wouldn’t be profitable for the shop to tie up service bays for 16 hours while a tech was home sleeping or on a day off, so the solution was pretty simple: techs worked shifts on a single vehicle until it was finished. In order to walk in on a job halfway completed, though, incoming mechanics worked from notes left by the outgoing tech.

I snapped this recently in a good friend's shop. Had I had to step in and start building his bike for him, I would have had a real good idea on where I needed to focus my efforts — and he's been doing this for years and years and years. Take a lesson. Photo by Lemmy.

If you wanted your buddy to come reassemble your bike after your “shift” was over, how detailed would your notes be?  Probably pretty in-depth, right? Take a lesson from the big rig shop. Write things down. It’s important. Use masking tape “flags” to reconnect wires correctly, label stuff, use Ziplock bags with labels, parts containers and trays. And don’t be afraid to simply write in your own words how something should be reassembled, or tricky stuff that tripped you up that will be helpful for your future self who has to reassemble all those parts now neatly laid out.

Be an innovator

They say that if you have a crazy idea and it works, then the idea isn’t crazy. Don’t be afraid to try different methods or use tools from other industries. Re-think or fabricate alternative ways to make and do things. This is how you beat the clock, make better repairs, and make your life easy. Makeshift tools, creative approaches to problems, and unorthodox methods might get you in trouble — but usually they don’t, and every now and again, they pay off big.

Listen to the parts

Parts tell stories. I repeat that often to anyone dopey enough to listen to me. Stinky recently took that to heart because he learned this lesson the hard way. He was instructed to take good notes upon disassembly and failed to do so. Old Fat Dad didn’t throw the boy much (if any) help. Instead, I made the young man look to the parts themselves for some help.

Stink learned to look for the “witness marks” fasteners leave on fairings. A shouldered fastener will leave a much different (and larger) wear pattern on plastic than a standard fastener. He also learned manufacturers will often put “pretty” hardware where it’s visible, and humbler, uglier hardware will be used in out-of-the-way spots.

Later in the job, Stink couldn’t tell the difference between a new lock cylinder he’d just purchased and the old one he was comparing it to. From across the shop, I suggested he examine the hole where he stuck the key, knowing the used one would have suffered from the hurried key-stabs of a kid hauling ass, trying to make it to homeroom on time. Sure enough, he grinned and was immediately able to identify which one he should install, and which one should be tossed in the waste bin.

That’s certainly not a list of all the tricks mechanics have in our mental toolboxes, but it should help you realize that the wrenching skillset is every bit as much in your head as it is in your hands.

None of us were born great at this. We all had to practice and learn. No matter how young (or old!) you are, I’d advise you to get started now if being great at this is a goal of yours — you’ve got, at maximum, the rest of your life to dedicate to it.

And that ain’t enough. Trust me.