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The Satisfaction & Intimacy Of Wrenching

Peter Tanshanomi October 4, 2011 Two-Wheel Tuesday 50 Comments

It Works!
When I formally introduced myself to Hooniverse readers a year ago, I famously declared, “I am not a wrench.” And then went on to provide good evidence to back that up. But guess what? It turns out that I AM a wrench, after all.

I recently completed the KE100 project that inspired a Last Call and my post on two-stroke rotary valves. In the process, I was reminded of why wrenching is one of life’s greatest rewards.

Last spring my brother-in-law asked my advice on the purchase of a trail bike for my two nieces. I recommended finding a later model Kawasaki KE100: cheap, plentiful, adult-sized but kid friendly, dead-nuts reliable, and easy to fix should something go wrong. (That last bit would come into play sooner and more directly than I’d expected.) They soon found a clean 2000 model with only 700 miles on the clock, for $900. It was a great deal, but on the high side of my brother-in-law’s budget, so a couple months later he was pretty bummed when he called me to say, “Um, Pete, the girls had the bike out today, and something really went wrong with it. Can you have a look at it?”

The diagnosis wasn’t pleasant. The big-end bearing had completely turned to slag. Could I fix it? “Oh, sure,” I said, silently thinking, Holy crap, this means a total teardown. I have to admit that I was more than a little intimidated. Not only was I asking my brother-in-law to bet $900 on my decidedly rusty wrenching abilities, but I was going to either succeed or fail in view of the whole family. It had been over two decades since I last split the cases on a motorcycle, and back then I’d always had access to all the tools and knowledgeable advice that came with working at a motorcycle dealership. This time, I’d be stripping the little two-stroke down to the bare crankcases all on my own. I bought the Clymer manual and pulled the motor from the frame. As I set the motor onto the bench, I remember reciting Alan Shepard’s “Astronaut’s Prayer”: Please, God, let me not screw up.

Kawasaki KE100 motorcycle crankcases with new crankshaft bearings installed.

Installing the crank bearings in the cases marked the turnaround point between tear-down and reassembly.

As vehicular wrenching goes, rebuilding a single-cylinder two-stroke is about as simple and straightforward as you can get. But even though I wasn’t rebuilding a blown Keith Black hemi between top fuel runs, I was reminded why I asked for a socket set for my sixteenth birthday: wrenching is awesome.

  • Wrenching’s a challenge. The first time this motor went together, it was in a factory full of specialized tools and trained workers — now it was just me, my toolbox, and a 2′ x 4′ workbench. The motor may have looked cherry on the outside, but once I got the motor opened up, those scant 700 miles translated into years of neglect in the back of a shed, with the resulting rust and corrosion inside. Every time I successfully coaxed out a seized screw with penetrating oil, my impact driver and a diamond-point chisel, my confidence went up. An increasing feeling of “Hey, I CAN do this after all!” is a great way to gain some extra optimism about life in general.
  • Wrenching is a source of personal pride. When the KE went back to its owners, it had all socket-head screws in the crankcases, rather than the cheap pot-metal cross-head screws it’d had originally. Every nut and screw had been treated with the appropriate amount of blue or red Loctite and torqued to specification. I bought a second tube of crankcase sealant because I didn’t like the way the first brand went on, and even then, I scraped the second sealant off the mating surfaces twice before I was satisfied that the amount and placement was enough to seal properly, yet not so much that it would squeeze a bunch of sticky goop into the motor’s innards. The corroded parts were all cleaned with solvent, then burnished with emery paper, then buffed with 000 steel wool. Would it have run without doing all that? Most likely. Would it have run as well, for just as long? Maybe, maybe not. But I’d know whether or not I’d cut corners, even though nobody else would see what was inside those cases.
  • Wrenching teaches you through experience. Once I’d gotten the crankcases together, I noticed a slight gap between the crankshaft and the magneto-side oil seal. I knew from past experience that that couldn’t be right. I eventually figured out that I’d been shipped the wrong oil seal with the proper number on the package. If I hadn’t caught it, that rebuilt engine would have squeaked in about 3 minutes flat. The frustration of having to drive 40 miles away to pick up a new seal was easily offset by the knowledge that I’d caught somebody else’s sloppy mistake.
  • Wrenching builds friendships. My friend Bill, the best two-stroke-tuner I know, gave me some great advice when I needed it. My buddy Russ let me come over and use his hydraulic shop press. My wife Sarah would patiently let me disappear into the garage for the evening, then listen while I told her about my successes and setbacks afterwards. And finally, I was able to see my nieces’ excitement as we unloaded the finished bike in their driveway.

Even though it’s not my bike, I now have a wonderful intimacy with the KE100 — both this particular example, and the breed as a whole. I’ve had my hands in its chest, so to speak. There’s not a component inside that engine that I haven’t taken apart, studied, cleaned, and reassembled. A sense of intimacy comes with that. The KE100, as a model, is now part of a select group of bike projects from my more distant past that I’ve stripped down completely: Bultacos; GT750, S1 and H2 triples; Suzuki and BSA thumpers. Once you’ve torn into a bike (or a car, I suppose), it takes on an increased significance and attachment that other models don’t have, no matter how much you might like them. I now find myself toying with the idea of finding a rotary-valve Kawasaki project of my own, such as a 350 Bighorn. Prior to this, I’d never paid much attention to them or put any effort into learning what neat designs they are.

It’s an addictive thing, that moment that anybody whose ever had a project vehicle knows: you’ve double-checked everything and racked your brain trying to think through all the possible things you might have forgotten or done wrong. You’ve filled it with oil, hooked up the electrics, and there’s no more opportunity to hedge your bets. You hold your breath as the motor erupts to life, coughs and belches momentarily, then settles into an even idle. You wait for black smoke and the sound of scraping metal, but it doesn’t come. After a few minutes you let yourself think, perhaps I really did get everything right. Could there be any better feeling?

Watching my niece take off across the pasture on the KE for the first time Saturday, I reminded myself of Timmons the mule-driver in Dances With Wolves, who pleads as he’s dying at the hands of Pawnee braves, “Don’t hurt my mules. Don’t hurt my mules.” I started lecturing my brother-in-law: “It needs a new battery. Make sure you check the transmission oil, it probably will need to be topped off. Remind the girls not to go past half throttle for the first hundred miles or so. Make sure they turn the fuel petcock off. We might want to go back in and inspect that top end next spring. The spark plug cap probably needs to be replaced.”

In other words, don’t hurt my mule.

  • It's funny, last time you posted about not being a wrench, I gave you crap for it. But now after having repeated frustrating projects or failures, I've lost some interest in wrenching.

    I've been fighting valvetrain noise on my LTD for months now and I've had the valve covers off probably 6 times in the last 3 months. Not a hard job, but annoying that I can't get the damn problem fixed. Then there's the time last month where I had to replace the fuel pump on my truck twice in one day (dropping the tank is not a fun job) due to a defective pump. Seems I have the anti-Midas touch lately.

    Let's hope the serp belt replacement on my Focus goes well tomorrow. I'm still too cheap to pay someone else to work on my cars.

    • Pro tip: When I had to put a new serpentine on the Vibe, I made a special tool to get the damn thing around all of the pulleys. It may be a stick with a heavy coat hanger bent into an L on the end, but it made life bearable.

      Don't lose faith. You can squash the gremlins.

      • Thanks for the affirmation. I've pulled the belt off the Focus before. It's not a bad job but it does require pulling the RF wheel and inner fender.

    • Had a valve demon on my Falcon. As best I can tell, the lock-nut holding the #5 rocker arm in place (and thus, the lifter-to-valve adjustment) was backing off at high RPM.

      I set it, took it for a mild drive…no prob. Hard flogging (over 4500 rpm), starts clacking. Adjust it back down…repeat. I found a second nut to put behind it as a lock nut. No problems now. I'll probably spring for new, good locking nuts at some point in the future.

      • I'm running pedestal rockers. No lock nut, everything's held down with a single bolt and the adjustment is made with push rod length and shims. I bought new rockers and checked and re-checked the lifter pre-load and valve stem sweep. Everything's good.

        At this point my best guess is lifters. I have no idea how old they are, but the bottom end has got at least 150K miles and the lifters have been through a head swap, cam swap, and stiffer valve springs.

        Pulling the lower intake is a job I'm not looking forward to.

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    Nice! You're an awesome uncle Mr. T. The bullet points are spot on, the last one is the best. Someday I hope I can help some young dufus like me out, but I still have a whole lot of breaking stuff to go before that!

  • SSurfer321

    Excellent read! Thanks for sharing and reminding me why I come HERE to talk all things auto motorcycle.

  • I am glad you didn't fail in front of your family.

    Wrenching builds a great relationship, and turns whatever you are wrenching from an appliance to something that you are emotionally invested in. Working on the Ducati is tough, complicated and a little frightening, but doing so bonds me to it.

  • id like to add, wrenching builds friendships if you have the interest in talking to people!

    • Feds_II

      And gives you a perfect excuse to be by yourself if you don't.

  • pj134

    Thank you for reminding me that I need a garage…

    …and a couple barely modern I6s to play with.

    • Lotte

      And I thank him for reminding me that I need money.

      I keep thinking if I just have a shed to store one car I'd drag home something I've found in the local listings and just invest in a Haynes and then buy tools as necessary. Not yet, though.

      • pj134

        Oh I don't have the money either. Just the dream.

    • I'd recomment a 70s-to-mid-80s BMW M30.

      Rock solid, sounds great, SOHC, various primitive EFI setups…all within reach of someone who's willing to learn. Also, replacement long blocks are like $800 on eBay.

      • pj134

        My list actually contains an E30, an XJ w/ HO4.0, an S13 with an RB swap, MK3 Supra or a Z31 with RB swap in 200ZR fashion.

        I love me some I6's.

  • Feds_II

    It definitely goes back and forth, and I think the element is time.

    There is no joy in ripping an alternator out from under your hood and stabbing a new one in because you have to get to work tomorrow. There is great joy in pulling an engine apart, cleaning, bagging, and tagging all the little parts, playing with your precision measuring equipment, and sliding it back together with clean oil and the click of a torque wrench.

    As I'm still in Nissan's rental car, and I've bought my pathfinder replacement, I've got the Protege down for some long needed repairs: Specifically burned out lights in the HVAC control, and a broken power door lock actuator.

    This was my second attempt at the lights. The first attempt was a harried affair that I tried to complete one evening after the kids went to bed. I ended up with many busted knuckles, and more broken lights than when I started. This time, I was able to take my time, strip down the control unit, lubricate the mechanisms, and properly seat new bulbs. Yes, I still needed to go head first into both footwells, but I was able to find comfortable positions, and adjust/remove seats as necessary. Only took an extra hour too.

    Door lock was the same way: When I've had to repair broken door locks, It's always an evening job where I'm hustling through, cutting my hands and arms on sharp/rusty sheet metal, getting covered in acoustical sealant, and generally breaking things. This time, I was able to clean/refresh everything between steps, take my time to ensure all the little door trim screws and fasteners came out and went back in properly… It was, well, a joy.

    • pj134

      I think another part of truly enjoying wrenching (at an entry level at least (I guess I should say at my level)) is getting something that is old enough to be somewhat simple and new enough that you can take it to a shop if you completely f it up.

    • You nailed the difference between Project Vehicles and Transportation Vehicles. Working on a DD yourself is an exercise in frustration, because you don't have the same luxury of deciding how and when to tackle what — necessity forces you to do stuff in less time than it takes to really do it right, and often in a frustratingly nonsensical order of priorities. As much as we talk about Project Car Hell, Unreliable Daily Driver Hell is deeper by several levels.

      • No! It's not deeper! I'm not listening!

        I can't hear you from down here anyway….

        • MrHowser

          You have… what is it, eight cars? Surely at least two of them will run on any given day, giving you a choice of drivers.

  • PowerTryp

    I've always done my own work partially due to being cheap but also because I can learn and grow my ability to match the project at hand. The biggest thing I've always faced is the need to have knowledgeable people around to help lend an ear or any kind of advice they might have.

    You are a wrench Tanshanomi, never forget that.

  • Feds_II

    Also: Love the photo caption. When I'm in a major project, I always have a ceremonial "Clicking of ratchets" when I switch them from lefty to righty and begin assembly.

  • So because cheap and awesome inspire me to go to CL…

    Wrenching is how I relax after making decisions all day long… remove A replace with B. Try. So very nice.

    • Alff

      This is the one that has me contemplating spousal aggravation…

      • I've considered it, too. I had a very similar '81 "E-model," and my friend had the 1st gen twin-shock GPz750 which was basically this bike with a bikini fairing. Very nice machine.
        <img src="http://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-snc7/296620_2333712308565_1422522987_32827586_2081036_n.jpg&quot; width="500">

        • Alff

          Every so often, something like this catches my eye on CL. Before this it was a low-mileage Radian and prior to that a very nice '84 Interceptor. I haven't pulled the trigger, though, because I already have a fun fair-weather vehicle and I'm not sure a bike would get used enough.

        • dead_elvis

          An '81 KZ750 (E2, I think?) was my second motorcycle, in 1993. In red, otherwise the twin to your pic.

          My '99 ZRX1100 (pictured) is a direct mechanical & spiritual descendant. Hugely fun!

          <img src="https://farm4.static.flickr.com/3164/3006162601_046eaa1024.jpg&quot; width="500" height="375" alt="along the Natchez Trace">

          • MrHowser

            I love that bike, and the 1200 that came after it.

            • dead_elvis

              They both have their strengths, but are very similar in nature. Do you ride?

              • MrHowser

                Not currently – I had a 1980 KZ650 for a few years in college, and had a '91 Nighthawk in Arizona – wasn't practical to move it to Idaho with us.

                I've got my sights set on a Suzuki SV650/1000 once fundage becomes available.

  • Alff

    Well said, sir. Sadly, the investment in time required to build that intimacy with a particular apparatus makes it hard to move on. As a result , I'm probably doomed to a future with those hideous Alfas.

    • I've met a lot of guys over the years who are experts with a particular type of bike (or car) and are quick to tell you all the reasons why the basic design is crap — this stupid performance limitation, that unreliable part, and some other impossible-to-adjust assembly. But then, just as quickly, they'll tell you how much they love it. Which is totally cool.

      So, yea, I totally get you on this.

      • See my comment above about BMW M30s and this one about how, for the weight and cost, you could have a 300hp 302ci in the same spot.

  • chrystlubitshi

    Last time I did my own work, I went out and bought a camry…. but that was because I found out that the mechanics were lying to me, and my Astro was worth more for scrap than what I had to buy for parts (that was last weekend)

    –prior to that, I had done quite a bit of work as a learning experience (always on my DD)… my dad taught me how to change an alternator and a starter on my '84 LeSabre… after that.. I learned how to do everything else on my own…. spark plugs, wiring, fuel pump, injectors, carb rebuild, and on and on…. but all of it has been a few hours…. and required little more than a screw driver… I would like to have a tool set and garage to work in… let alone the money to have a project car………. but…. yeah.. well….

  • MrHowser

    To me, wrenching is a joy when I'm not pressed for time. When I can work on the car for a few hours every afternoon for a week, and then have it work properly, that's a great feeling.

    What's not a great feeling is trying to track down mystery problems in a car that absolutely, positively, must work right every morning. Then, I'm tentative when taking it apart – who knows what I'll find, and how hard it will be to put back together.

    I learn by doing, and being shown the correct way. I can read the manual and pray, but if someone is there with me, telling me "yes, that's right" or "no, it's like this" I learn much faster, and have more confidence in my repairs.

    • Alff

      This is why it makes sense to have multiple vehicles, if you're a fan of jalopies.

      • MrHowser

        Yep. I keep telling my wife that very thing. She's still not convinced. Something about extra licensing and insurance, grumble grumble.

        • Alff

          Here's a little ammo for you…

          In most (if not all) states, licensing costs are tied to vehicle value. The older they are, the lower the cost. If you are willing to take chances and carry the legal minimum insurance on your car, the price is very affordable. By rolling the dice in this way, I pay about $100/year for insurance on my Alfa, which I drive 8-10K miles annually.

          • MrHowser

            I suspect that once I return to the ranks of the gainfully employed, my leverage to utilize our savings for project wheels will increase considerably. For the time being, she wants to keep it in the bank for things like "food" and "rent".

          • FuzzyPlushroom

            Unfortunately, here the state does things that way (to a point – there's a minimum charge in each weight class) but individual communities don't. As such, both of my cars cost $70 to the state to register, but the 244 ($16k new in '89) was another $65 or so while the 745 ($25k in '92) was about $100 to the town. In other news, Michigan-style original-MSRP charges are bullshit.

            That is all.

            Of course, the legal minimum insurance is an apology here, though not having at least your daily driver insured is foolish.

  • Alcology

    Yes! Cool post! I keep trying to convince a friend to start a project. He's bored, needs something to do, and has time and some spare $$ set aside. I think I'm making headway with him, but then he sees my unfinished projects and questions my sanity. I'll be starting a T5 rebuild tomorrow and hopefully finishing on thursday. Who knows!

  • $kaycog

    I'm sure there's satisfaction and intimacy in wenching, but I think I'll pass.

    • Van Sarockin

      But we had such hopes you. I'm sure you're a natural.

  • theTokenGreek

    Oh man, I feel you! Excellent, excellent post! And to all, if Tanshanomi has struck a chord with you, I'd encourage you to read "Shop Class as Soulcraft" by Matthew Crawford. What an amazing book… if nothing else, find some reviews online to see what bigger minds than mine thought of it. Link: http://www.amazon.com/Shop-Class-Soulcraft-Inquir

  • Tanshanomi, that was one of the most inspiring reads I've had in ages.

    And I agree with you on all counts. I wrench on my old heaps only partly for the joy of cheapness, but for the ongoing relationship between man and machine. I can explain every new squeak or rattle when it inevitably arrives, because I've been expecting it. The stamps in the service history for my Audi may end abruptly forty thousand miles ago, but I know every single thing that's been done to it since then. And it was all done by me, so I know no corners have been cut.

    I don't look forward to garage down-time, but find it rewarding when it's over with. Reading your account today makes me wish my Rover was a bit more unreliable… though I may live to regret typing that.

  • EscortsForever

    It's rather Ironic that I read this tonight:

    you see this past Saturday, I drove my '90 Lincoln Towncar 2 hours to look at a '90 acura integra. Ended up driving the smaller car home. And after about a day, absolutely hated the decision. The car needed exhaust and the stuff that was supplied in the hatch wasn't nearly as bolt on as I expected (I think it was for a honda product… just not mine). The drivers window wouldn't stay all the way up because the regulator is junk. Turning was interesting since the power steering belt had been removed. 3rd and 5th gear were grinding and not because of a linkage issue, like the seller assured me, but the synco's are going out, like I had originally assumed. And then there was the torn cv boot, 17 inch rim missing a chunk out of the rear lip (drove the car 100 miles home on it… I'm not well in the head…)

    So, what did my day consist of today? Oh, went to a shop this morning and had the exhaust attached (the fart can exits out the passenger side of the rear even though the cutout is on the drivers side) and had another shop replace the cv boot. Both ran into troubles that would have given me headaches and I wanted both done asap. Now i'm just waiting for my next paycheck so the car will become watertight and get a trans oil change, and enjoying the powersteering thanks to the $15 belt that I installed myself. And to solve the wheel problem, I was gonna swap over a set of escort rims (I have a few) only to find out they use a slightly smaller center bore than honda… so I'm running 17 inchers up front with 14 inch steelies (could fudge the rims on there) for the time being.

    So I might not be getting quite as intimate with my car, but I'd rather see quality work (that shiny exhaust looks so beautiful snaking underneath the car) than worrying if what I did will actually hold up (cv boot).