by Simple customers Phil and Ben

The Ultimate Start-to-Finish Guide to Rebuilding an Old Motorcycle

Man building a motorcycle

Phil, one half of the adventure duo The Pursuit, making his bike road-ready.

Simple customers Phil and Ben used Goals to rebuild their vintage motorcycles. Now they’re taking them on an epic trip around the U.S. We’re featuring moments from their trip on Instagram and the Simple blog. You can also follow along with them @ThePursuitStory.

The prep work

Service manual

The first thing you need to rebuild a bike, besides the bike itself, is a proper service manual.

The owner’s manual that comes from the factory with your bike will get you through some basic maintenance, but a service manual will guide you through everything from changing your oil to completely rebuilding your engine.

A printed manual may seem out of date, but when you’re up to your eyeballs in motorcycle parts and your hands are grubbier than a coal miner’s handkerchief, you won’t want to touch anything with a scroll button.

There are three types of manuals you can purchase, each with different levels of specificity.

The Haynes manual is the most pared down of the three types. It will walk you through the basics, like oil changes, tire changes and even engine rebuilds.

However, when it gets to more challenging technical tasks, you may find the details to be lacking. If you purchase this manual, you will likely need other resources to make sure you’re doing everything right.

A step up technically, Clymer® Manuals will cover the technical details for a smaller range of models for your bike, and have a few more step-by-step details on how to work on it.

The thing I loved most about Clymer Manuals is the in-line specifications for your parts, like tightening specs for all your bolts. The content will probably be a very close copy to that of an OEM service manual that your local moto shop technician will probably be using.

The OEM service manual is the “be all end all” of service manuals. It includes every single detail on your bike, specific to its year and model. These manuals are generally used by service technicians, but you can definitely find them for purchase on Amazon, eBay, or directly from the manufacturer.

Service manual

The once-over

Once you’ve bought your manual and flipped through it, you’ll want to give your bike a once-over, preferably with a mechanic at your local community garage.

A mechanic can take a look at what needs to be done to your bike and help you make a plan to rebuild it section-by-section. Make sure to plan for parts shipping times, so your bike doesn’t stay in pieces for too long.

Most mechanics at community garages are excited to help a newbie with a build. They likely got started the same way. As long as you’re enthusiastic and interested, they’ll be excited to help you out. Plan on giving them $100 or so for their time.

Bike mechanic’s help

A collection of motorcycle parts organized on a table

Digging into the engine and rebuilding the valves.

The build

You’re prepped and ready to get your hands dirty. Now what?

What your exact build looks like will vary depending on the condition of your bike, and the plan you set with your mechanic during the once-over. Here are some general next steps that most old bikes will need to go through before hitting the road for the first time.

The battery check

Checking your battery is a good way to dip your toes into the build process. It’s less mechanically involved than some of the other projects.

Crack open your service manual, and follow the instructions for checking the voltage on your bike’s battery. Then, give it a charge. Because this usually takes about 10 hours, charging the battery overnight works great.

You might be lucky and have a battery that is actually usable, but most vintage bikes have been sitting around for way too long and the battery is usually dead. In this case, flip to the next page in your service manual and figure out how to replace it.

New battery

Carburetor rebuild

Almost every vintage bike will have a carburetor as its fuel delivery system. These little guys tend to get gummed up and contaminated with all that old gas. While your battery is charging, you can start scratching that mechanical itch with a carburetor (or simply “carb”) rebuild.

Most of the time you can get away with a simple carb clean, but sometimes, you need a full rebuild. If you fire up your bike after a good battery check and the bike runs just a little funny, you probably just need to do a simple clean. You can pick up some inexpensive carb cleaner and be fine. Just make sure to take all the rubber parts off your carbs before spraying that cleaner on anything, or it will eat them up like rice paper.

The only real way to tell if you need a full rebuild is to pull the carbs out and take a look at all the jets and gaskets. If they look like they’ve seen some good action and the gaskets are more brittle than saltines, you’ll need a full rebuild. And since you have the carbs out, it’s probably a good idea to do a rebuild anyway.

To do a full rebuild, you’ll need to purchase a carburetor rebuild kit for your bike. This will include all the factory jets and gaskets you need to put the carbs back together in good order.

This all sounds a little hefty, but again, your trusty new service manual will guide you through the correct steps in removing and cleaning and rebuilding your carb system.

Full carburetor rebuild

Gas tank

While you’re doing carburetor work, it’s also a good time to take a peek at your gas tank. Are you noticing some rust?

If there is rusting, you can purchase a cleaner and use nuts and bolts to knock out all that rust. Your service manual will also include best practices for cleaning your gas tank.

Gas tank cleaner

Spark plugs

Now that your fuel system is in working order, you need spark to get those cylinders firing. Remove your spark plugs and check out what condition they’re in. If they’re real dirty and you can’t really tell where the spark terminal is, you should probably replace them. Most service manuals will also have a guide on what your spark plugs should look like.

If the bike has been sitting for a little while, it’s good practice to go ahead and replace them. Depending on the type of bike you’re rebuilding, you may need to buy a spark plug for each cylinder.

Per single spark plug

Electrical check

At this point, your battery should be fully charged or you’ve purchased a new one and it’s good to go. This is a good time to turn the key and check out your bike’s electrical system.

Bright headlights and turn signals help other vehicles see you in any condition. The lights that illuminate your gauge cluster enable you to see important information like speed and distance at a glance, even at night.

Make sure all of these lights are in working order for a safer ride. Light bulbs for older bikes are usually pretty inexpensive, but the cost could change depending on the condition of your headlight.

Headlight and four turn signal bulbs

Ben surveys his motorcycle, considering next steps

Ben surveys his motorcycle, considering next steps.

Oil change

Congrats! You’ve just redone your fuel system and the crucial part of your ignition system. It’s now time to change the oil so your bike’s engine doesn’t chew itself up.

Take a look at your service manual and find the best type of motor oil for your bike. Your bike has probably been sitting for a while and the filter is probably filthy, so don’t forget to change that, too.

Oil and a new filter

Chain and sprockets

Two of the most important pieces of your bike are your drive chain and sprockets. Some older bikes are shaft driven, so they don’t have a chain. If you have a shaft driven bike, you can go ahead and skip this part.

Assuming you have a chain and sprockets, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb to go with a whole new chain and sprocket system for a bike that has been sitting around for a while, especially if it’s been sitting outside.

Take a good look at the chain to see if there are any signs of rust or extensive wear. If there’s a bunch of rust and the chain has been stretched out, then go ahead and replace it. And if your sprocket teeth are worn down [and look like shark teeth] go ahead and replace those as well.

Not sure how to tell what condition your chain is in? Don’t sweat it. Your service manual will have guides about how to tell whether the chain has been stretched or worn down.

Chain, and front and rear sprockets


You’ll need good brakes to slow you down when you’re going bat-outta-hell speeds down winding roads. There are two types of brakes out there for older bikes: drum brakes and disc brakes. Disc brakes are generally easier to maintain and have a lot more stopping power, but drum brakes are perfectly fine, too. Here’s how to check both.

Disc brakes

First, take a look at your rotors. You’ll want to check your service manual and make sure they’re up to spec. It’s very likely that you’ll need to replace the pads, so go ahead and do that.

The next thing to do is flush and bleed your brakes. Bleeding your brakes is what some folks might call a “character building exercise.” It takes quite a bit of patience to bleed the air out of your brake lines by hand.

With a vacuum bleeder for your brakes, you can toss character out the window and do it the quick and easy way. See if you can use one at your local maintenance shop, or buy one online.

If the bike has been sitting around and hasn’t been maintained, it’s a pretty safe bet that you need to rebuild the calipers. If you’ve determined that you’ll need to do this, make sure to check the pistons for pitting and rusting. Too much rust and pitting will mean you’ll need to completely replace them. In order to do a full rebuild, you’ll need to pick up a caliper rebuild kit that will have all the seals you need.

Pads and caliper rebuild

Drum brakes

Drum brakes are an enclosed system so there are a couple steps to take before you can get to the brake shoes and see what condition they’re in.

You’ll have to pull off your wheel–either just the rear wheel or the front and rear wheels depending on your bike–and remove the drum cover to check your brake shoes. Make sure to check your service manual for specifics on removing your wheel and drum as well as information on when to replace your shoes.

New shoes

Tire check

You’ll hear motorcyclists say things like, “keep the rubber side down and the shiny side up.” And that, in a nutshell, is how you ride a motorcycle. Take care of the rubber side by making sure your tires are in good condition before you take any serious trips.

Look for cracks, as well as general wear. If the tires have been sitting around for an eternity, it’s a good idea to swap them out. You can go with factory recommendations from your local moto tire store or have a little fun with it and dream up some tires you’ve always wanted for your bike. Just keep in mind to check if you need tubes or not.

Front and rear tires

A person fiddling with he wiring of a motorcycle

Ditching the old wires for a modern wiring harness.

Fun custom work

Phew. You’ve completed the basic elements of a rebuild. Now it’s time to add some personal touches. This section isn’t about getting your bike running (since you’ve already got that covered), but these projects will win you style points.

Custom bars

If you’ve rebuilt a late 70’s bike, you’ll be dealing with handlebars that are a little high for everyday city riding. Check out all the different styles of handlebars out there. When you’ve found a style you like, see if you have a friend with those bars and ask if you can try ‘em out. There’s no better way to know if they’ll be comfortable or not.

Handlebars and grips

Custom controls

Now that you have some fresh bars, you’re probably going to want to clean up your controls. The bulky factory controls aren’t going to win you any style points.

There are too many cool aftermarket controls out there to name, so take your time and do your research. Just make sure they fit your handlebars and they are the size and look you want.

Custom controls

Exhaust system

Most bikes come factory with a 4-2 exhaust system if you have four cylinders, and 2-2 if you have two. These systems are bulky, heavy, and ugly. In short, they’ll leave you feeling like you’re riding with an extra passenger at all times.

If you’re looking to shave a little weight, you’re going to want to go with a 4-1 exhaust system. There are still a few companies out there manufacturing aftermarket exhaust systems for older bikes, but you might need to do some metal work here. Make friends with your local metal fabricator or welder and you’ll be set.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you will likely need to adjust the jetting in your carbs after putting on an aftermarket exhaust. Get online and see what other people are doing with your bike and aftermarket exhausts.

Exhaust system

Electrical rewire

We put this section here last because it’s the last thing you’ll need to think about. If it’s not broke, you won’t really need to fix it.

However, if eliminating your fuse box and cleaning things up in your undercarriage sounds like something you’d like to tackle, I’d suggest going with a digital control unit that works with your bike. It’s one of the best things I’ve done, but definitely not the easiest. My rewire currently looks like a 2 year old’s coloring book disaster.

While I may do a cleanup down the road, having new controls and eliminating the fuse box was the best thing I could’ve done for my current cross-country road trip. Not having to worry about old, faulty controls and never having to replace a fuse is pretty much a dream.

Electrical rewire

Parting thoughts

This pretty much covers my rebuild process, and the custom work I did to try and get my bike looking as good as it runs.

One thing I can’t stress enough is: don’t be scared to ask for help. Ask the guy that’s been working on bikes for 20 years for help. Ask the guy that just did his first build for help. If you’re engaged and respectful, most people will be willing to help you out. And if you run into someone who isn’t, move along. There are plenty of us in the moto world who are excited that you’re diving into your first build.

And the last, last thing is to never, ever forget to have fun out there and be safe-ish. A broken anything means no riding and no fun.

Best of luck to your endeavor.

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