Pliers for motorcycle maintenance

linesman pliers

For your basic maintenance tasks, let’s look at three categories of tools that you will use virtually every time you work on your bike:
1. Wrenches
2. Screwdrivers
3. Pliers

We’ll cover these categories in specific articles. Don’t forget to check out the post “Price vs Quality” (regarding tools). We’ve already talked about wrenches and screwdrivers. Let’s continue with pliers.

Pliers are multipurpose tools that let you apply great force at the tip due to leverage when you squeeze the handles. Pliers are generally considered a first class lever. The longer the handles, the more leverage you have.

Quality of pliers is important. Cheaper versions will be softer and prone to damage when used on harder items. Again, this is dependent on the steel alloy and heat treatment used by the manufacturer. You might find a kit containing the four common types mentioned below. These will be used many times, so purchase the best ones you an afford.

There are a few different styles that are useful for motorcycle maintenance.

Linesman’s (or Combination) Pliers

Combination pliers earned their name due to their dual gripping and cutting capability. The “linesman” term refers to their extensive use by electrical linesmen. These pliers have serrated jaws at their stubby tip, and wire cutting jaws closer to the pivot.

They are most useful for a whole range of tasks where items need to be gripped very tightly. They will cut wire of some sizes, depending on the quality of the jaws, and the length of the handles (which determines how much leverage you can apply to the jaws).

linesman pliers

Linesman’s pliers can be found in different sizes. They are typically measured from end-to-end. Smaller pliers around 7-inches (180mm) long seem to work well. Larger ones can be too large to fit around motorcycles.

Needle Nose Pliers

Needle nose pliers also have dual gripping and cutting capability. However, on a motorcycle, they have the ability to reach into small spaces, which is handy, for example, when you have dropped a screw or nut in under the carburettors.

needle nose pliers

The two pairs shown in the photo above are from my toolbox, and the smaller pair can be useful for gripping tiny parts in very small spaces. The larger ones are my “go-to” pair but are sometimes too large for the job.

Tongue-and-Groove Pliers

Tongue-and-groove, “multi-grips”, or “Channel-lock” pliers, have an adjustable jaw that allows smaller or larger items to be gripped without affecting the handle opening, meaning you can maintain lots of leverage. Additionally, the jaws of the pliers generally remain parallel, which is helpful when gripping or clamping material. Handles are also quite long, which increases leverage and therefore gripping force at the jaws.

channel lock pliers

Good quality multi-grip pliers can be expensive. Mine were part of a kit with linesman and needle-nose pliers at a reasonable price. They are useful, but don’t need to be part of your initial toolkit if you can’t get them at a fair price.

Diagonal (Side Cutting) Pliers

Diagonal pliers are generally intended for cutting wire. They are useful for electrical work on motorcycles, but also for cutting cotter pins (as used to secure axle nuts).

diagonal pliers

I added these pliers to my kit some time after purchasing my other pliers. However, I’ve found them to be very useful. Pick some up to add to your toolkit.

Circlip Pliers

Circlips are a machine element that helps to retain parts in an assembly. They are a spring element that flexes during installation and removal. Once installed, they generally seat into a groove to prevent movement. Circlips are available in “internal” and “external” varieties:

circlips

Special pliers are used to remove and install circlips. They are spring loaded to suit either internal or external clips. The curved ends on some varieties help reach into recesses.

straight circlip pliers

The circular tips in the pliers fit into the holes in the circlips.

pliers-in-circlip

The size of the circlips you are likely to find on a motorcycle would dictate the size of pliers you might need. These pliers are about 6-inches (150mm) long, and I would not recommend any larger sizes for motorcycle work.

Electrical pliers

For electrical work on your motorcycle, a variety of pliers will be useful. We’ll look at each in more detail.

Multipurpose pliers

Multipurpose pliers are typically the first (and cheapest) electrical pliers you might add to your toolbox. Looking at the pair pictured below, from left to right, you can see the following features:

  1. Wire cutters (a very rudimentary version)
  2. Crimping jaws for insulated terminals (more on these below)
  3. Shears for cutting small bolts
  4. Crimping jaws for non-insulated terminals
  5. Wire strippers for different cross section wires

cheap-multipurpose-electrical-pliers

Due to their variety of features and low cost, they are often included in cheaper tool and electrical kits. While they are “cheap and nasty”, they will be adequate to get started.

Wire stripping pliers

Once you have used decent wire strippers, you won’t want to go back to multipurpose pliers. The wire stripping pliers shown below cost about US$20, but are far superior. They strip wire reliably and consistently. And like other quality tools, they will last a lifetime. If you need to wire an entire motorcycle, you’ll appreciate decent stripping pliers.

wire-stripping-pliers

These particular pliers have an adjustable jaw to set the length of the stripped wire, a blade to cut the insulation, and cutters to trim wire to length.

Crimping pliers

Crimping pliers are needed to connect wires to terminals. Terminals allow wires to be connected and disconnected quickly. This is important in the factory to assemble the motorcycle, and in service to allow parts to be removed and installed for maintenance.

There are dozens of types of terminals, both those used on motorcycles, and those used in commercial, industrial or other automotive applications. Generally you need crimping pliers to match the types of terminals you are using.

Generic insulated terminals such as those shown below are NOT suitable for motorcycles, even though they are cheap, available everywhere, and are easy to use.

terminals

Insulated terminals are simply squashed onto the wire. This type of connection is adequate when the wiring is stationary (for example, in an industrial switchboard). In an automotive application, where the wiring can vibrate and move around slightly, this type of terminal is prone to failures – I’ve seen a number of cases where the wire simply breaks off behind the crimp.

Terminals designed for automotive applications are a better choice.  Examples are shown in the photo below.

terminals

If you crimp auto style terminals, you need a crimper that matches the terminals.  The crimping pliers shown below are designed for specific terminals.  While they are not cheap, they are the correct tool for the job.

quality-crimping-pliers

For repairs or custom wiring jobs, it is worthwhile selecting the terminals you’ll use, then purchase a matching crimping pliers. This will be the subject of a detailed article in the future.

Care

All of these tools are made of some sort of metal. Wrenches and sockets will generally be plated so prevent rust, but screwdrivers and pliers may not have this protection.

WD40 is an excellent cleaner and protective agent. If you are maintaining and modifying motorcycles, you might find you use a lot of WD40. It is cheaper to purchase it in a bulk pack and decant it into a spray bottle. Put your oily tools on a rag, spray them with WD40 and wipe them clean. If they happen to be wet from outdoor maintenance or a breakdown by the side of the road, wipe them down with WD40 as soon as you can.

If you start with some wrenches, screwdrivers and pliers, you will have the basis for motorcycle maintenance and customising.

In addition, you’ll have that sense of satisfaction that you “did it yourself”, learnt something about your motorcycle, and are on the journey to your own custom ride!

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Matt McLeod

About the Author

I teach people how to build custom motorcycles by helping them build skills and confidence with my coaching, articles and training videos. I provide better technical information for custom motorcycle builders. And I shorten the learning curve getting you there.


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