Wrenches – how to choose the right ones


hand tools

For your basic maintenance tasks, there are 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” relating specifically to tools). But let’s start with wrenches.  One of my first Youtube videos covers this same topic, so if you’d prefer to watch rather than read, check it out below:

Since our motorcycles are mostly bolted together, various wrenches are needed to disassemble them. There are many different types, but we’ll only discuss those wrenches that give you the most ability at the lowest cost.

Ring and Open End Wrenches

The Ring and Open End wrench is probably the most used tool in my kit.  Lets look at it in more detail.


This wrench has a “Ring” end, and an “Open” end.  You need to select the wrench that fits over the bolt or nut snugly.  Nuts and bolt sizes are all standardised, so you will find there is one wrench that fits best.  Lets look at how the wrench drives a nut or bolt head:


The ring end should be your first choice.  The ring fits over the nut and contacts all six corners.  This gives you the safest way of loosening or tightening the nut.

Ring & Open End Wrench - Open End

The flat jaws of the open end contacts only two corners of the nut.  The head is offset by a small amount. This allows you to use the open end in a restricted space where the ring end won’t fit, turn the nut a small amount, then flip the wrench over, put it back on the nut and turn it a small amount, and so on.

If you are working on European, British or Japanese bikes, you will generally find the nuts and bolts are metric sizes.  If you are working on American bikes, you will generally find the nuts and bolts are imperial sizes.  Often you can purchase 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 wrench, but the ratchet handle makes the operation much faster.  The obvious question might be “can’t I just buy socket wrenches?”.  Well, yes, but if you can’t fit the socket into the space where the nut is located, you still need an open end wrench.  My suggestion is ring-and-open-end wrenches should be first priority.  After you have the basic screwdrivers and pliers, then worry about socket wrenches.

This photo shows 12mm sockets on three different size ratchet handles: 1/4” drive (bottom), 3/8” drive (middle) and 1/2” drive (top). These drive sizes refer to the size of the square drive plug fixed to the ratchet handle.

Ratchet handles

You can see the physical size difference.  For motorcycles, I would recommend purchasing a socket wrench kit with 3/8” drive.  I find this to be most useful.  The 12mm socket (shown fitted to each handle) is the biggest socket I have for my 1/4” socket handle, and one of the smallest on my 1/2” socket handle. 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 ring end wrenches

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

Ratcheting wrench

Flank-drive wrenches and sockets

Flank-drive technology is worth a mention, and this design has gotten me 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.

I believe a few manufacturers produce a flank-drive, but the commonly available product in hardware stores here in Australia is by “Metrinch”.


Image courtesy of http://www.metrinch-tools.com/website/introductie.php

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 (eg using a ¾” wrench on a 19mm bolt head, or using a loose adjustable wrench).  As the fit is loose, their is a 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 essentially be “wiped off”.  Now we 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 hard, 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.

As I mentioned, I have purchased a set of these sockets, in ½” drive impact version, as I can use them with both a ratchet handle, or with an impact driver.

Adjustable wrenches

An adjustable wrench is not a tool I would recommend for maintenance, but it has one specific use when you are building your tool kit.  Generally the ring and open end wrenches, and the socket wrenches in 3/8” drive, will not provide tools large enough for axle nuts on a motorcycle.

Adjustable wrench

Adjustable wrenches have to be used carefully to avoid damaging the nuts.  The jaws must be done up 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.  I find the 12” 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 ring-and-open-end 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.

Adjustable wrench selection

What should I buy?

If you have absolutely zero tools and want to get started at the lowest cost, have a look at the tool kit I recommend here.  If you are considering spending more, then you can visit your local tool store and look for a specific set of ring & open end wrenches, then a set of 3/8″ drive sockets.


Wrenches are made of some sort of metal.  Wrenches and sockets will generally be chrome plated to 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!

Need more information about wrenches?

Download a free and super-detailed 18-page PDF covering wrenches and their uses:

Send me the download link!

About the author 

Matt McLeod

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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