Riding a motorcycle is a fantastic way to really get to know your surroundings. Whether that’s admiring the lush Ponderosa pines and herds of mule deer on your way to the Grand Canyon or trying not to get squished between a wayward Toyota Prius and a Ford F-150 Raptor on the steaming-hot 405 freeway in Los Angeles, you’re exposed in the best, and worst, way possible to nature.
Before you get out there, it helps to know your motorcycle pretty well, as your life is in its hands. The best way to become familiar with your two-wheeler — besides by riding and enjoying the hell out of it — is by performing your own maintenance, and that includes changing the case oil.
Doing it yourself is also an easy way to keep a few bucks in the bank for more important things, like more motorcycles! The Drive crew is always down to save money while becoming more familiar with our rides and how they work, so of course, we get after our own oil changes.
Before you shove your head in a helmet and set out for the wide, open spaces, let’s get to the simple art of how to change the oil on a motorcycle.
The Basics of Changing Oil on a Motorcycle
Estimated Time Needed: 30 minutes
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Engine
Why You Should Regularly Change Motorcycle Oil
We’re talking about the engine or case oil, which lubricates the moving parts inside your engine and decreases friction while also helping to cool your engine and keep those internals from getting rusty. The oil can also wash debris from your engine parts down to the bottom of the case where it can be flushed from the system when you change your oil, i.e. metal shavings or particulates that shed during normal operation or during part failure.
Over time and with use, your engine’s oil loses its viscosity, especially under heavy use. It also gets dirty, picking up the particulate matter as the engine cycles. That’s why we change the oil and put in fresh blood.
Every manufacturer and classic motorcycle enthusiast has their own idea of how often you need to change your motorcycle oil. My favorite online Norton owners club says that the oil in my 1964 Atlas should be changed every 1,500 miles — with mineral oil, not synthetic. And as for my 1978 Vespa Rally 200-cc two-stroke scooter, I change the case oil before I go on any ride that’s more than 500 miles over a couple of days. That means I change it about three times a year.
For my 2013 Ducati 848 — less than 10 years old is a brand-new bike, as far as I’m concerned — Ducati advises changing the oil every 7,500 miles, although riders I’ve spoken with believe it’s better to clear out the old stuff every 2,500 miles or so. What I’m trying to say is, the interval of changing your motorcycle’s engine or case oil will vary depending on make, model, and year it was produced. You can consult your bike’s manual, check with the manufacturer’s part’s department, or talk to your club friends to determine the best schedule.
Changing Your Oil Safely
A motorcycle is a heavy piece of machinery, and changing the oil on yours should be treated as a serious endeavor. Save the beer and other distractions until after this task is finished.
Before you get down on the ground next to your bike:
- Make sure it is secure on the center stand, paddock stand, or lift and not just on the side stand.
- We recommend eye protection, as well as proper clothing and footwear.
- Be careful not to attempt this if you’ve just come back from a long ride; the oil and the underside of the bike are likely hot and could cause serious burns.
- Make sure you’re safely away from moving cars and motorcycles, as you’ll probably be sitting or lying on the ground to perform this job.
Everything You’ll Need To Change the Oil in Your Motorcycle
A lot of these items are those you’ll use for a whole bunch of motorcycle maintenance, so they’re definitely worth the investment. Check out this list before beginning your oil change.
- Owner’s manual. The owner’s manual for your particular motorcycle is your first point of reference. If you’re like me and tend to prefer older motorcycles that have lived full, rich lives, chances are the owner’s manual was lost long ago to garage rats or a loose glovebox door. That’s not a problem, however, since many car and motorcycle maintenance manuals have been uploaded to the web. Many are even available for free. Even if it’s not free, you’ll want to shell out a couple of bucks for access to the care and feeding guide for your specific two-wheeler.
- Wrenches. You’ll need them to remove and replace any body panels as well as the oil drain plug and oil filter. You may also need a strap wrench to loosen the oil filter. Be sure you check to see if your motorcycle has standard SAE or metric hardware.
- Magnetic hardware dish. You’re gonna thank me for this one. It’s a lifesaver. And do not, under any circumstances, place tiny bolts, nuts, and screws on a shop towel. When you spill something and quickly grab that towel to wipe it up, a whole lot of curse words are going to fly from your mouth as you watch those important shiny bits scatter to the four winds. Don’t ask me how I know.
- Paddock stand or lift (if there is no center stand). The motorcycle must be upright and steady in order to change the oil. The side stand won’t cut it for this job.
- Funnel. Depending on where the oil-filler hole is located, you might want to shop for an offset funnel — or just make one of those paper jobs the old parts shops used to give you for free.
- Oil collection pan. You’ll want one that is low profile so it fits under the motorcycle and that can hold the oil from multiple changes, so you don’t have to lug it to an oil-recycling center every time.
- Shop towels. I use Scott blue towels. They have less lint and are much stronger than regular paper towels, and unlike the useless brown rolls of paper you find in truck-stop bathrooms, these are very absorbent and make quick work of any shop spills. Grab a big box of them; they won’t get stale.
- Gloves. There’s no need to ruin your manicure. Disposable nitrile gloves will keep your paws clean, and they have a good grip for shop work. These are also latex and powder free.
- Pumice lotion hand cleaner. Even with gloves and shop towels, you’re still going to get dirty. I like Fast Orange.
- Motorcycle cleaner. Motul’s Wash & Wax is the best way to make your bike shine like new. When you’re all done changing your motorcycle’s oil, just spray Wash & Wax on the body panels, seat, even glass and chrome, and then buff with a soft, clean microfiber cloth.
- Engine oil. Refer to the owner’s manual for the recommended weight and type of oil.
- Drain-plug and filler-hole gaskets or sealing washers. Do not use the old ones. Spend the pennies on new washers/gaskets.
- Oil filter. Definitely need to know the correct size for your bike, especially if it needs to fit under bodywork.
The great chore master Mary Poppins once said that a job well begun is half done. OK, I’m pretty sure the Greek philosopher Aristotle said it first, Ms. Poppins. Still, although neither of them ever had the chance to lift a leg over the saddle of a Yamaha YZF-R3, they’re both right: Proper preparation is the best way to begin the job of changing the oil on your motorcycle.
You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor or a driveway. This spot will need to be safe from pedestrian and automotive traffic since you’ll likely be sitting or even lying on the ground — unless you have a motorcycle lift.
Here’s How To Change the Oil on Your Motorcycle
- Warm up that oil. It’s easiest to drain the fluid from your bike if it’s been warmed up a bit. This is easily accomplished by taking a quick ride around the block or to the store for a Snickers bar — a reward later for a job well done. You can also just let the bike idle for a few minutes, though you’ll have to have the Snickers on hand. Just be careful to steer clear of the exhaust and other hot metal parts when you reach under the bike to grab that oil plug.
- Get your bike into position. Put it on the center stand on a flat surface away from traffic — pedestrian and automotive — since you’ll likely be on the floor for this job. If your motorcycle doesn’t have one, you’ll need a paddock stand or a lift.
- Set out all tools and equipment within arm’s reach. Instead of having to stop working in order to search through your toolbox drawers for that elusive 10-mm socket, set yourself up like a pro by laying out everything you’ll need for the job ahead of time.
- Place the oil collector under the filler hole.
- Remove body panels and set hardware into a magnetized dish.
- With a shop towel, wipe off the engine case around the filler hole and the drain plug.
- Using the proper wrench for your bike, loosen the drain plug slowly and let the oil flow into the collector pan. Try not to drop the plug into the pan.
- Inspect the drain plug. On older motorcycles that don’t have oil filters, the drain plug is sometimes magnetic. Because of this, any metal shavings in the case oil will likely end up on the drain plug. This can alert you of unusual wear before it becomes a bigger issue. Also, check the plug for any sludge and clean it up before replacing it.
- Replace the drain-plug gasket or sealing washer on the plug and then return the plug to its spot. Do not over-torque the drain plug. Use your fingers as much as you can, and then finish tightening with a torque wrench, though it just needs to be snug. Stripping the threads in the case is bad news.
- Remove and replace the oil filter. You may need a strap wrench to loosen the oil filter. Smear a small amount of oil on the rubber gasket of the new oil filter so that it seals well. Do not use the strap wrench to tighten the filter. It just needs to be hand-tight.
- Fill the motorcycle with fresh oil at the filler plug. It’s important to put in the correct amount of oil. Overfilling can be just as bad as underfilling since the pressure of too much oil can damage seals in your engine. Your owner’s manual can give you the proper measurement. Even better, there may be markings on your bike that show you when to stop filling. With many motorcycles I’ve worked on, the oil-filler hole is placed strategically on the side of the engine case, and you know to stop filling when the oil starts to run back out of the filler hole. That’s a messy way to measure, but it works, so just pour slowly and keep a shop towel under that hole to keep the spillage to a minimum.
- Replace the oil-filler plug gasket and then return the oil-filler plug. Again, use your fingers to screw it in and then finish tightening with a wrench.
- Wipe away excess oil on the case.
- Start your bike and let it run for a couple of minutes to warm up, then turn it off and check the oil level again. Top off the oil, if necessary.
- Now you can clean up that bike, stow your tools, and get back on the road.
Changing your motorcycle’s oil will look a little different for each bike. Since motorcycles are cool, we chose a video starring the always cool Ari Henning from MC Garage to show you how it’s done.