Fork Oil Change How-To (and Why-To)

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A fairly simple, fairly easy-to-do routine maintenance chore that’s sometimes not done routinely is changing out the fork oil in a bike’s front forks. It’s a job that’s easy to neglect because it’s easy to not think much about it. The forks are just “there” – and as long as they aren’t leaking and seem to be working ok, the temptation is to just ride – and not worry about it. After all, fork oil is in a sealed environment – and unlike motor oil, it’s not exposed to combustion (and combustion byproducts) or heat – and so, why bother?drainscrew

Right?

Actually, several of those assumptions are wrong.

Forks operate by hydraulic action. The oil is pushed through small orifices and valves within the forks as they cycle up and down with road irregularities and weight transfer (as during cornering and braking), providing the suspension dampening critical to stability and good handling. This cycling up and down heats the oil – and eventually, breaks it down. Moisture can also get in – even if the seals show no obvious signs of leaking. The net result is that, over time (and as a result of use) fork oil degrades just as motor oil degrades – and for many of the same reasons. Doubt it? The pic below shows fork oil with about three years’/5,000 miles of use (on the left) vs. what fresh fork oil looks like (on the right).

And when it does degrade, adverse handling and braking – and potentially costly problems with the forks’ internal workings – can be the result.

So, it’s a good idea to change the fork oil just as you’d change the motor oil. Changeout intervals vary from bike to bike (see your owner’s manual or the factory service manual for your particular make/model) but the general procedure is usually the same. First:

* Obtain the necessary quantity (and grade) of fresh fork oil. As with motor oil, it’s important to heed the manufacturer’s recommendations about such things as viscosity and application. Don’t use oil that’s too heavy – or too light – for your machine.

* Have a clean measuring cup (or similar graded container – so you can measure exact amounts of fluid) and a long-neck funnel on hand. The funnel will make it easier to pour the fresh fork oil into the forks without spilling any (which will make it hard to know how much actually got into the forks as well as make a mess of the bike).old-new

* Get the tools you’ll need to do this job. Typically, that means a screwdriver (or socket of the correct size) to loosen and remove the drain hole at the bottom of each fork – plus a wrench (or other correct sized implement) to turn out the cap bolt at the top of each fork tube. You’ll also want a small catch-can to collect the old fluid as it drains.

The details for your particular bike may differ somewhat from what follows – in which case, stop, consult a shop manual and proceed only after you know for sure how to proceed for your particular bike. But, in general:

* Loosen/remove the drain screw on either the left or right-side fork (It’s less messy to do one at a time.)

* Place the catch-can underneath the drain hole.

* Stand the bike up and – using your body weight – push up and down on the front end to cycle the forks through their full range of travel. Old fluid should drain out of the hole each time you push down on the front end. Continue doing this until the oil no longer pours/squirts from the hole. Reinstall the drain screw/bolt.

* Pour out the exact quantity of new oil (for one fork) as specified in the owner’s manual (or shop manual) for your particular bike.oilpci

* Using a floor jack underneath the engine/frame (I like to insert a small block of wood between the jack and frame to distribute the jacking force more evenly and also to avoid scratching/dinging things) raise the bike just enough to take all the weight/tension off the front end, so that the forks are fully extended. This is done in order to prevent the cap you’re about to remove from ricocheting across the garage as you try to remove it – and also to make it easier to reinstall it after you’ve refilled the forks. If you don’t do it, the spring inside the fork will still be under a fair amount of tension – and that tension will be pushing on the cap. Fully extending the forks takes most – but not all – of the tension off the springs. Which means, less tension on the cap.

More on this in a minute.

* Now remove the cap on top of the fork tube – carefully, because it may still be under some tension and want to pop off as it is unscrewed. As a just-in-case, it’s a good idea to lay some heavy blankets or towels across the bike’s gas tank – to prevent any dings or dints from a wayward fork cap.

* Ease the cap off and put it aside. There may be a spring/keeper/washer visible in the fork tube. No need to mess with any of that.

* Using the funnel, pour in the fresh fluid – slowly, carefully – to avoid spilling any. If you spill any significant amount, you really ought to start over (drain the fork, etc.) because there’s no way to know how much you lost – and so how much is actually inside the fork. It’s very important to get the exactly right quantity of fluid into each fork or handling imbalances may occur.boltwrench

* Reinstall the cap. You may have to exert some downward pressure in order to get the cap to seat and begin to thread. Be very careful not to cross-thread! Once correctly started, tighten according to specifications (see shop manual).

You’re now done with that side.  Lower the jack – so you can cycle the front end – and repeat  the steps above on the other side.

Once that’s done, you’re done!

Throw it in the Woods?

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eric

Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  13 comments for “Fork Oil Change How-To (and Why-To)

  1. Tom
    January 3, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    I have a manual impact driver that I use on occasion, but back in the day when I first encountered this issue I was a poor high-school student with limited means and very few tools and even less experience.

    Nowdays I often use my electric impact driver for most of these tasks.

    I did have to break out the manual impact driver recently on a front rotor replacement on my Wife’s Van however.

    Good suggestion with the deadblow, I always just used a 2.5 pound mallet.

  2. Tre Deuce
    January 3, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    The first tool to go into your bike maintenance tool box, is a manual impact driver. They are available in several sizes.

    The advantages of seating the tool into a fastener with torque limits with the impact and torsional inertia/leverage of a hi-impact tool while breaking any chemical bond through impact shearing, while saving the fastener from camming out, over a conventional screw driver, can’t be denied.

    I use a plastic/rubber hammer with low to medium force. Never use and iron headed hammer, but brass, copper, or lead hammers work well, but deform the hammers unnecessarily. Dead blow hammers can be used, but are most effective if employed with the larger drivers.

    I also use manual ‘reversible’ impact drivers to reseat and re-torgue the fastener.

    As Eric stated, replacing with Allen headed fasteners is a good way to go for looks and for additional manual torque capabilities, but this is not possible in a restoration.

    You can also use a manual impact driver on Allens and small conventional bolt heads.

    http://handtools.jawco.com/viewitems/all-categories/manual-hand-impact-drivers

    http://www.harborfreight.com/impact-screwdriver-set-with-case-37530.html

    http://www.harborfreight.com/7-piece-reversible-impact-driver-set-93481.html

    http://www.jpcycles.com/product/150-341?utm_source=none&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=&gclid=CL68h5X6zLQCFad_Qgod22QABA

  3. Tom
    January 3, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    The other option that I used for the fasteners was to find the titanium nitride coated hex screws. They are a light gold color and also look a lot better than the stock screws. However I have a feeling your suggestion of Stainless steel fasteners if you can find them is the better long term solution, especially given the proclivity of most states to use salt on the roads.

  4. Tom
    January 2, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    If you can replace the god-awful phillips screw for the fork drain with a hex cap or machine bolt as well. Why motorcycle manufacturers used to think to use Phillips screws on screws that can get corroded is beyond me.

    • January 2, 2013 at 7:18 pm

      Oh yeah!

      Especially since they (the Japanese) loved to use “Japanese Industrial Standard” sizes… which are just a bit “off” relative to metric/SAE… which makes those screw heads so easy to chew up.

      • BrentP
        January 2, 2013 at 8:11 pm

        JIS phillips is different. Hex sizes are the same.

        Phillips screws were developed to cam out as a crude torque control. JIS phillips, unless one has a JIS phillips screwdriver or bit are very easy to strip. When diagnosing the problem on my mazda that led to the timing belt replacement I first checked the fuel pump… bunch of tiny phillips screws well rusted. When the weather gets warm I believe I will replace as many as I can just to give the fuel pump a reason to never fail.

      • Tom
        January 2, 2013 at 10:05 pm

        Eric I know exactly what you mean. My first motorcycle was a 1975 Honda XL250 and had a ton of those screws on the side casings. I spent a long time searching for a screwdriver that properly fit the machine screws.

        I don’t know how many of the screws I stripped over the years but it was more than a few. I eventually ended up installing coated hex cap screws in their place.

        • January 2, 2013 at 10:32 pm

          I have several old Japanese bikes – and with the exception of one (’75 S1C) I’ve replaced most of the original JIS Phillips head screws with stainless steel hex head fasteners. It just makes like a lot easier!

        • January 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm

          For my personal bikes I always replaced the screws. If you can get them Snap-on brand screwdrivers seem less prone to stripping these cheesy screws out, far less than any other brand. Of course if the only bike you ever work on is your own it might be cheaper to replace all of the screws.

          • January 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm

            In my experience, the stainless hex head replacements are the ticket. Much easier to work with than a Phillips head, even if you have the correct JIS tool. Plus, they look great!

  5. January 2, 2013 at 12:09 am

    Excellent how and why to. Is it okay if I link to it from my blog?
    Thanks,

    • January 2, 2013 at 12:31 am

      Sure, Moto – and thanks!

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