Wrenches and sockets

Building a collection of tools and learning to use them might prove to be as enjoyable as riding your bike. The expense required depends on your ambition and complexity of your build, but you can start small, and your collection can grow over time. There are some essential tools every workshop should be stocked with and let’s look at wrenches and sockets first.

Since motorcycles are mostly bolted together, you need a good set of wrenches to disassemble them. There are many wrench styles with partially overlapping functions, but some are more suited to certain situations than others. Here are the best wrenches for the most versatility at the lowest cost.

Combination wrenches

The combination wrench (sometimes also called a ring and open-end wrench) is one of the most used tools in any bike builder’s kit. This wrench features two slightly different ends: one resembling a full circle and another resembling an open jaw.

The ring-end should be your first choice. The ring fits over the nut and contacts all six corners, providing the most leverage and safety when loosening or tightening the nut. You will be less likely to slip because of the added security.

The flat jaws of the open-end contact only two corners of the nut. What you sacrifice in stability when using this design, you gain in maneuverability. The head is offset by a small amount, allowing you to find purchase on hard-to-reach nuts and bolts where space is restricted.

If you are working on European, British, or Japanese bikes, you will find the nuts and bolts are typically metric sizes. If you are working on American bikes, you’re more likely to come across hardware in imperial sizes. It is important to get a wrench set that follows the same sizing standard as your motorcycle. If you are unsure, or plan to replace metric bolts with imperial ones, you can buy a combined set of metric and imperial wrenches. Having both gives you the most flexibility.

Socket wrenches

A socket wrench works just like the ring end of a combination wrench but features a ratchet handle for faster operation and more torque on the nut or bolt head. So, why not just buy superior socket wrenches, then? The added bulk of this tool means you won’t be able to get the socket into nooks and crannies where space is limited. You still need a combination wrench for those situations. Because socket wrenches are more of a convenience than a requirement, stock your shop with combination wrenches, screwdrivers, and pliers first.

You will find socket wrenches with different sized ratchet handles. Common sizes are 1/4” drive, 3/8” drive, and 1/2” drive. These drive sizes refer to the size of the square drive plug fixed to the ratchet handle.

For motorcycles, it’s best to purchase a socket wrench kit with 3/8” drive as it will be most useful. 1/4” sockets don’t often go up to big enough sockets for a motorbike, while sometimes the 1/2” drive sockets are too large to fit around the restricted spaces on motorcycles. They are great for working on cars, but too large for motorcycles. If you want to purchase a socket wrench kit, have a look for a 3/8” drive set that has both metric and imperial sockets.

Ratcheting combination wrenches

A blend of the size benefits of the combination wrench, with the speed advantages of a ratchet handle, ratcheting combination wrenches are a recent innovation. The size of the ring end increases slightly to accommodate the ratcheting mechanism, but the speed of installing or removing fasteners is enhanced.

Flank-drive wrenches and sockets

Flank-drive technology is worth a mention, and this design has gotten many mechanics out of trouble more than once. Flank-drive refers to a socket or wrench design that drives off the side (or flats) or a bolt or nut, not off the corners as done traditionally.

For those of us working on older motorcycles, which invariably have been disassembled many times, you’ll occasionally find a bolt or nut that is “rounded off”. This can occur when the socket or wrench selected is slightly large (e.g., using a ¾” wrench on a 19mm bolt head or using a loose adjustable wrench). As the fit is loose, there is very high stress on the corners of the bolt head. If the bolt is very tight, corroded or jammed, the corners of the bolt head can yield and be “wiped off” when you pull hard on the wrench. Now you don’t have any corners for a traditional wrench or socket to drive against. When you put a wrench on the rounded bolt and pull even harder, you just make the rounded head worse.

Flank-drive wrenches give you a way out, as they don’t drive off the bolt head corners. It is possible to remove a well-rounded bolt with this technology.

Adjustable wrenches

An adjustable wrench is not a tool recommended for general bike maintenance or assembly, but it has one specific use when you are building your tool kit. Generally, combination wrenches and the socket wrenches in 3/8” drive will not provide tools large enough for axle nuts on a motorcycle.

You can go to your local hardware store and possibly purchase a single socket or combination wrench to suit the larger nut on your bike (or perhaps your bike tool kit has one to suit). However, this is where a carefully used adjustable wrench can play its part.

Caution is advised when using an adjustable wrench to avoid damaging the nuts. It is important to kep the wrench jaws as tight as possible on the nut to prevent the wrench from slipping and rounding over the corners of the nut.

Adjustable wrenches are normally sized based on their nominal length: 6”, 10”, 12” and so on. Settle on a 12” wrench for the best compromise. Axle nuts are normally very tight and the longer handle on the 12” wrench has enough leverage to loosen the nuts. After purchasing combination wrenches, add an adjustable wrench to your kit. You will probably use this very infrequently, so just purchase a low-to-middle cost adjustable wrench.