Thursday, February 15, 2007

How I became a mechanic or Thank you, Dad

So I bought my first motorcycle: kick start-only: a 1978 Yamaha XT500 single cylinder. It was beautiful, fresh paint job in blue metallic. I bought this particular motorcycle not because I knew what I was doing. I got it on recommendation of some friends. My personal choice would have been a KZ440LTD. Now I'm 6'2". The LTD is a very small motorcycle for somebody my height. Jeez, I would've not been able to turn any corners at all...knees hitting the handlebars with any attempt to turn a corner...not a good idea. So I'm glad that I listened to my friends in that respect.

On the other hand: points ignition, kick-start only, single cylinder, not a high engine life expectancy, big vibration and numb hands, high speed max of 65mph, anything over that resulting in instability and upcoming trips to Italy and Greece from Germany? The XT500 was not really the perfect choice. But I was cool. Boy, was I cool.

So after having all kinds of problems and (literally) pains-in-the-butt on my various long distance trips I had learned to love my motorcycle. Even though it was a high-maintenance love. A very high maintenance love.

But what really made me a mechanic: my counter shaft sprocket fell off. Far away from home. I called my Dad to come and tow me home. And he came (Thank you, Dad). We actually put a rope around the steering (and please, never, ever do that-it's the most dangerous thing) and tried to get home that way. Of course, I crashed. Fortunately, I crashed right away, not going very fast. So that didn't work.

So my Dad remembered that there was a welding shop not too far away, so we pushed the bike there, and they welded my counter shaft sprocket to the shaft at at my insistence. They warned me that it wasn't a good idea. But cheaper than getting the tow truck, since I was fairly far from home.

Now how did that make me mechanic, you ask? Well, after a while, the counter shaft sprocket wore out, as counter shaft sprockets do. So I needed to change it. Looking into the matter I realized that I had to take the top end off and split the cases in order to replace the counter shaft that the sprocket sits on, since by welding the two pieces together, I had rendered them both useless.

Overhaul the engine? No problem! I've never done anything like it. What's a torque wrench? My Dad doesn't know about mechanics. But I can do it. I'm 18 and I think I know everything.

My Dad helped me haul the engine up my room on the second floor, where I cleared my table, laid out a bunch of news paper and started taking the engine apart. (Un)fortunately (for my Dad) he had no idea what he had just agreed to. He is a computer engineer, and computers are not full of oil and grease. Or maybe he just didn't want to hinder me expanding my knowledge. I any case, thanks, Dad, again and a lot, for putting up with me and all my ideas.

Starting with engine oil stains on my (fortunately dark) carpet over pleas for money to buy yet another tool that I needed for the job to making the oven in the kitchen unusable for a while, since I heated up the engine halves in the oven in order to split them (it actually worked great). On the downside of it: the oil that hid in the crevices came out with the heat and crusted itself to the oven walls. Phew, what a stink. Of course I had waited till my Dad wasn't there for a day. But despite a hard cleaning effort, the oven still faintly smelled like burnt oil for a (long) while after...And I got into big trouble. But my Dad did forgive me in the end. So thanks one more time, Dad, you are the best! And he let me finish the engine in my room.

Aftermarket manual in hand, and occasional advice from my friends, I actually managed to take the whole thing apart, and put it back together. Hardheaded as I was, I didn't ask too many questions, and tried it all on my own. There is something to say about trial and error, and I never made the same stupid mistake twice, but I did make almost every possible mistake once. Not the most efficient way to learn, and a kinda painful and expensive one, but I got through it. What doesn't kill you makes you better, right? And the engine ran!

Anyway, I did get smart after that, and when I finished high school I signed up at a Honda Yamaha dealership in Munich and absolved a three year apprenticeship, which made me a really good mechanic.

But if would've bought that LTD...and the countershaft sprocket would have been properly guys wouldn't be able to learn off my mistakes.

As an old German saying goes...gotta build a house with the stones that are laid in your way (even if you laid them there yourself, and boy, am I good with that!)

Friday, February 2, 2007

My bike stopped running!

Your bike stopped running. It cranks over but won't catch. Everything looks normal, petcock in on, kill switch is on, lights are on. Nothing changed and it really should be running. Argh! Don't know what to do next?

First thing, always: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE GAS! You might think this is obvious. Not so. About once a month I get somebody in here that has no gas, or didn't turn the petcock to reserve. Cost: towing plus the minimum shop rate. Looking in the gas tank is an easy way to check out if you have gas. Make sure you hold your breath: gas fumes are pretty bad for your lungs, and kids, no smoking while you're cap is open either. And beware: if there is a little gas covering the bottom, that might not be enough to start the bike.

Next: CHECK YOUR FUSES! Inspect them, make sure the little filament is not broken, and move them back and forth in their sockets (if they are glass fuses), or in and out (if they are plastic) to make sure that there isn't any corrosion that hinders the juice from going where it's supposed to go. Clean suspect contacts by scratching off the corrosion (e.g. your keys, nail file, clippers or whatever else your pant pockets will produce).

If that doesn't do the trick: try bump starting the bike. Have a friend push you, put it in second gear, pop the clutch when you reached about 10 mph or so. But please, make sure you wear your gear and a helmet. If the bike still won't start the rear tire will lock up, and if you are not fast enough pulling the clutch back in, you WILL crash. So caution, best is to have somebody do it that has a little experience.

But experience doesn't always shield you from doing stupid things:
I had a boyfriend once, that had experience, but didn't wear a helmet, trying to bump start a motorcycle sidesaddle. The bike started, stalled again, and bucked him off like a bronco. He couldn't remember his mother's name for a while, not did he know who the president was (which is something that a lot of us would like to be able forget right now, so maybe that is a good thing). He got himself a real good concussion. Fortunately, he didn't crack his head open. So wear a helmet. Thanks.

If your bike still doesn't start, it's time for more serious diagnosing. But don't be afraid: there are a lot of little things you can do with very little tools. Keep posted!

Motorcyle Apprenticeships

You want to learn more about motorcycles.

You can pay the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute $20,000 to learn how, in theory, without getting actual shop experience.

You can take Community College classes which will give you a good overview, but won't make you an efficient, real world mechanic that knows all the little tricks on how to work on a variety of motorcycles.

You can go to a European country where they still offer apprenticeships, learn the language, spend 3 years there, get paid $200 a month, graduate and come back here (that's what I did).

If none of the above appeals to you and you are a self-starting individual and you can spare part-time of your week:

Find yourself a shop where you can do an apprenticeship. Since it takes a lot of time for a mechanic to go over technical details of why and how something needs to be done, offer to run errands and do the odds and ends for the shop in exchange. We have been doing that here at Werkstatt for a while with excellent results.

Some people have moved on to become paid mechanics, others use that knowledge to be able to do the work on their bikes themselves, and save a bunch of money, especially when they have an older bike that needs constant attention.

Or: keep reading this blog, and email me with topics you're interested in, and I will do my best to explain how things are done!

Happy trails in the mean time,