Surprisingly, replacing your motorcycle chain and sprocket can be done in one easy step with this simple hack: take it to the dealership and have them do it.
Wait, what? Nope. That’s not how we roll around here (for most things, at least).
The dealership is going to charge you an arm and a leg for something that isn’t particularly difficult, and that you can do in a few hours.
Replacing your chain and sprockets is going to require a few specialty tools, though, and there’s a handful of other tools and equipment that are recommended for it to go as smoothly and easily as possible.
If this is your first time doing any chain or sprocket work, investing in these tools might actually end up costing close to what it would if you had gone to the dealership to have it done. However, once you have the tools, you can bust out chain and sprocket changes quickly and easily, for only the cost of the parts themselves.
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Stuff you’ll need
1. New chain and sprockets
Obviously, you’re not going to go far without the actual parts. You can go aftermarket or OEM here. It’s up to you.
I’m a fan of aftermarket chains in general, and in the examples for this guide, I’m replacing a great aftermarket chain that lasted over 20,000 miles on my Z900RS. With aftermarket, you can usually get a better chain for the money, but they’re not always the correct length, and require some additional work to remove excess links.
On that note, if you’re going with an aftermarket chain, always get one that’s longer than what you need. It’s easy to remove links, but not to add them.
Aftermarket sprockets are great, too, especially if you want to change gearing for better acceleration or top speed. You can also get sprockets made of lightweight steel alloys, aluminum, or even titanium to reduce weight.
OEM kits are also a great option (and what I’m using in the example), since you’ll get parts that are guaranteed to work, a chain that is the correct length, and they often include new washers and other necessary hardware.
If you go aftermarket, be sure to get any replacement washers, nuts, bolts, or other hardware you may need. Often the front sprocket retainer washer, and the nuts and/or bolts that attach the rear sprocket to the hub are single use items. For instance, on my Z900RS, it uses locking nuts on the rear sprocket, and once removed, they’re done.
It’s also advisable, especially if this is the first time you’ve replaced a chain, to purchase a second master link. If something goes wrong when pressing or riveting the new master link, the only thing you can do is start over.
You’ll need a handful of wrenches for the job. The specifics will depend on your bike, but you’ll probably need at least a socket wrench handle and a set of sockets for it, an extension for the socket wrench to reach any harder to reach spots, a t-handle wrench, and a combination wrench set.
Basically, you’ll need whatever is going to be necessary to remove the sprocket cover from the engine, remove the nuts/bolts on the front sprocket, remove the axle nut on the rear wheel, and remove the nuts/bolts on the rear sprocket. You may need to consult a service manual or owner forums for your motorcycle model for specifics.
A breaker bar for the front sprocket and rear wheel axle nuts will save some headaches. An impact driver (see below) is an even better idea, though.
Having a torque wrench to torque things down to their proper torque specs is a good idea. You don’t want to over tighten things like the sprocket cover bolts, nor under tighten things like the sprocket nuts and bolts or the axle nut.
Having a variety of options will make life easier, as some of these nuts and bolts will be easier to get to and work with depending on the wrench you’re using.
3. Basic Hand Tools
Screwdrivers, pliers, a dead blow or rubber mallet, and other basic hand tools will be needed to get through the process.
4. A Chain Tool
You’re going to need a chain tool to break the old chain to remove it, and to press and rivet the new chain.
There’s a ton of (bad) advice out there for shortcuts and other ways to cut/break old chains, as well as to press and rivet new chains (or to avoid riveting altogether and just use clip style master links) to avoid the expense of purchasing a chain tool.
Chain tools are a bit pricey, but not terribly expensive, and doing it right will prevent a chain failure. Chains that fail have a nasty habit of putting holes in the sides of engine cases and causing wrecks.
I’ve used a number of chain breaker, press, and riveting tools over the years, and have had the best luck with Motion Pro’s tools, so that’s what I recommend here.
5. A way to get the rear wheel off the ground
Aside from a handful of motorcycles with single-sided swingarms that are designed to allow for sprocket changes without removing the rear wheel, there’s no way to change the rear sprocket without removing the rear wheel. So you’ll need a way to get that rear wheel up in the air.
This could be a rear stand, a scissor jack, blocks wedged under the frame, a built-in center stand, hanging the bike from straps, recruiting a strongman (my go to would be Robert Oberst, since he’s Strong and Pretty) to hold the bike up for you, or whatever else gets the job done.
If you’ve never had to lift the rear wheel up before now, I suggest investing in a rear stand, though. It’s probably the easiest way to lift the rear wheel, and is a valuable part of any DIY motorcyclists’ garage.
It’s also helpful to have some wood blocks or a flat jack to place under the rear tire once it’s off the ground. That way you can easily roll the wheel into and out of position when removing and replacing the axle, rather than having to lift the rear wheel and hold it in position.
With these tools and equipment, you should be able to get the job done, but certain parts of the process may be far from easy.
Let’s get into some highly recommended additions that’ll make the job go as smoothly as possible.
6. An Impact Driver (and impact sockets)
The stronger, the better. The front sprocket nut, rear axle nut, and often the nuts and bolts holding the rear sprocket are often too tight to easily remove with hand tools. Something that produces at least 200-300 lb-ft of torque should do the trick.
Gone are the days where air-powered tools and a huge air compressor are the only option, and powerful electric options are no longer cost-prohibitive. There are tons of affordable corded and cordless options from Harbor Freight, Dewalt, Ryobi, Milwaukee, Ridgid, etc. It’s worth having a reasonably powerful impact in the toolbox when you need it.
Don’t forget the impact sockets. You can get a complete set for as low as $30, or buy only the sizes you need.
7. A Sprocket tool or Jammer
Something to hold the sprocket in place when removing or replacing the front sprocket nut, and keeping things stable and aligned when checking the chain tension is incredibly useful.
8. Cleaning supplies
Have plenty of brake cleaner, chain cleaner, other degreasers, soap, and other cleaners, plus cleaning rags and towels, brushes, and so forth on hand. There’s a fair bit of cleaning to do when replacing your chain and sprockets.
You’ll want to clean any dirt and grease from the old chain before handling it.
Even if you’re meticulous about chain maintenance and cleaning, there’s likely to be a fair amount of gunk behind that front sprocket cover. You want that area to be as clean as possible before installing the new front sprocket.
Finally, this is a good time to do some additional cleaning on your rear wheel and hub, the rear axle and spacers, and the swingarm.
9. Grease and Lubricants
In addition to cleaning things, this is also a good time to apply some fresh grease to the rear axle, spacers, and even the wheel bearings if needed. Basically any decent waterproof grease should do the trick. I like a moly grease for the axle and spacers, since there’s a fair bit of pressure and heat that goes on back there, and moly grease is the best for that job.
10. A Lift
Certainly the least necessary, and lowest on my list of recommendations, I’ve found that having a motorcycle lift to be a total game changer when it comes to working on my bikes. The Harbor Freight lift is the most affordable lift around, and you can usually find used ones for half the price of new.
Making some modifications to it and upgrading the less than great included wheel clamp with the Harbor Freight motorcycle stand/wheel chock makes it even better.
Once you have the tools and supplies needed, it’s time to get to work. The whole process seems fairly involved, but is pretty easy to tackle once broken down into its basic steps. Let’s roll.
Step 0: Get your bike on the lift
If you have a lift, get the bike up on the lift before doing anything else.
Step 1: Remove the front sprocket cover
Get whatever wrenches are necessary for the bolts, and remove the front sprocket cover. A t-handle driver usually works best for this. It has the necessary reach, and can easily be spun to remove the bolts (especially if you have a spinner t-handle).
In some cases, the bolts for the sprocket cover are different lengths. If they are, be sure to mark them and take notes about where they go so you can reassemble things correctly at the end.
Once the cover is removed, you’ll probably find a fair amount of grime and chain lube build-up caked to the back of the cover, as well as to the engine, frame, and possibly the front sprocket and output countershaft itself.
Bust out your cleaning supplies and take a few minutes to get that stuff all cleaned up.
Step 2: Loosen the front sprocket nut
With the cover removed, it’s time to loosen (but not completely remove) the front sprocket nut. Front sprockets come in two varieties.
The first are attached to the countershaft by two bolts. If yours is of this variety, congratulations, this will be easy. You can actually wait until step 8 to just remove them entirely.
The other variety has a single large nut, and a washer that is bent over the side of the nut to help prevent the nut from backing out. The first thing you’ll need to do is use a flathead screwdriver or a chisel and a rubber mallet or dead blow to flatten the bent side(s) of the washer.
Now comes what is possibly the hardest part of the process, getting the front sprocket bolt loose. I was honestly hung up on this part for awhile, until I was able to get my hands on an impact driver with enough power to knock it loose.
First, you’ll need to do something to keep the sprocket(s) and/or rear wheel from turning. A sprocket tool to hold the front sprocket in place and/or a sprocket jammer on the rear sprocket are the best methods. Other alternatives are to have someone sit on the bike and press on the rear brake or use a long piece of wood in the rear wheel and jam it against the swingarm (do not attempt this with wire spoked wheels, and make sure it is clear of brake lines or other sensitive components). If you’re using a sprocket tool, you could also slip the chain off the sprocket, grip the sprocket with the tool, and brace the tool against the frame to lock the sprocket in place. You may even need to use a combination or these methods.
With the sprockets and/or rear wheel locked into place, use a breaker bar or an impact hammer to loosen the nut. This will be fairly easy on some bikes, while others may require an excess of 200-300 lb-ft of force to get the nut to move.
On my Z900RS, there was no method that sufficiently locked the sprocket and rear wheel in place in order to get it loose with a breaker bar. It required using a powerful Harbor Freight Bauer impact driver I borrowed from a friend. However, with that impact driver, it wasn’t even necessary to lock the sprocket or wheel in place. The rapid forceful impacts were enough to break the nut loose without the wheel turning.
Once the nut is loose, leave it on, but just hand tight, and move on to the rear wheel.
STEP 3: GET THE REAR WHEEL OFF THE GROUND
Access to some of the rear sprocket bolts is likely to be blocked by the swingarm and/or chain guard, so prior to loosening the rear sprocket bolts, it’s helpful to get the rear wheel off the ground in order to be able to rotate it to get to all the bolts.
A rear stand is my preferred method, but use whatever method works for you for this.
Step 4: Loosen the rear sprocket bolts
It is easiest to loosen the rear sprocket bolts with the rear wheel still on the bike, and the rear wheel and/or sprocket locked up to prevent wheel rotation. Having someone hold down the rear brake and/or sliding some wood blocks under the tire to further prevent it from rotating helps, too.
Rear sprocket bolts can vary in design. In many cases, the bolts/studs and/or the nuts for them are single-use items and have to be replaced with the sprocket. It’s crucial to check this before starting and when purchasing parts, to ensure you have the necessary replacement hardware.
Even if you’re using an aftermarket sprocket, it’s wise to use OEM components for the nuts and bolts that attach the sprocket to the wheel, since they’re guaranteed to keep it held in place.
These are often torqued down pretty tight, and also often employ some sort of locking nut, so you’ll probably need a breaker bar or an impact driver to knock them loose.
As you make your way through the bolts and need to rotate the wheel to access blocked ones, just remove the wood blocks and whatever method you’re using to lock up the sprocket/wheel to rotate the wheel.
Once they’re loose, leave the bolts on and in place, and just hand tight.
Step 5: Break and remove the old chain
With the sprockets loosened up a bit and ready for removal later, the old chain is now ready to be removed.
You can opt to use your chain breaker tool to break and remove the chain, or you can slide it off when you remove the rear wheel. Either way works fine. I prefer to break it and remove it now, so it’s not as in the way when removing the rear wheel.
Since it is not riveted by machine from the factory, the master link is usually the easiest to break. It is also easiest to break the link at the sprocket, and with the sprocket or wheel locked down so it doesn’t rotate. Simply follow the directions for your particular chain breaker tool to break the link pin on the chain. Once broken, pull the chain off and put it aside.
Some may suggest using a cut off wheel to cut the chain, but really, there’s no reason for that. A quality chain breaker tool will make quick work of it.
Step 6: Remove the rear wheel
Bust out the wrenches and whatever breaker bar or impact you need, and remove the rear axle nut(s). As rear axle designs vary, refer to your motorcycle’s manual for the exact process on this.
Make sure you have some blocks under the rear tire, and remove the rear axle. The blocks will keep the rear wheel elevated, making it easier to remove (and later replace) the axle.
Axle out of the way, you can now easily remove the rear wheel.
Pay attention to the where the various spacers, washers, etc. go, as you’ll need to reassemble them in this order. Take photos and/or lay out the parts in order to keep track if needed.
Step 7: Finish removing the rear sprocket
With the rear wheel removed, you can finish removing the rear sprocket. You already have the bolts loose, so just finish removing them. The sprocket should come off easily now.
With the rear wheel free from the bike, and the old sprocket out of the way, now is a good time to clean up any dirt or grime on the rear wheel and the rear brake rotor.
You should also inspect your wheel bearings. Check for any damage or wear and make sure the operation of the bearings is nice and smooth. If there’s any clicking, grinding, or resistance, now would be a good time to replace the wheel bearings.
Finally, you should also detach the rear coupling (the part of the rear wheel hub assembly that the sprocket attaches to) from the wheel hub, and inspect the cush drive dampers. They’re made of high quality rubber, and are essentially sealed inside the coupling, so they should be fine, but if your bike is older (5-10 years) or has more than 50,000 miles on it, it’s worth checking.
Set the old sprocket aside, and move on to the front sprocket.
Step 8: Finish removing the front sprocket
Remove the front sprocket nut the rest of the way. Remove the washer and the front sprocket from the countershaft.
If you have the type of sprocket that has two bolts, you can now remove those bolts and the sprocket.
With the front sprocket removed, now is a good time to clean up any grease and grime that has built up behind the sprocket or on the countershaft itself so you’re ready for installation.
Step 9: Put on the new rear sprocket
Putting on the new rear sprocket is basically just the removal in reverse. Slide it on over the bolts/studs in the wheel hub, and tighten things down to spec.
Step 10: Put on the new front sprocket
Like with the rear sprocket, installation of the new front sprocket is the reverse of removal. Unless you have a sprocket tool to hold the sprocket in place, you probably won’t be able to tighten the nut completely until the chain is on. That’s fine. Just get the nut on as tight as you can by hand. We’ll come back and tighten it the rest of the way after getting the new chain on.
Also, do not bend the washer over the nut at this point, since the nut isn’t tightened down fully. If you bend the washer now, you won’t be able to tighten the nut down the rest of the way.
Step 11: Replace the rear wheel
Time to get the rear wheel back in place. At this point, I apply a thin layer of grease to the axle and spacers. Insert the spacers into the rear wheel where they belong. The tackiness of the grease will help hold them in place as you get the rear wheel reassembled.
Wood blocks help immensely here. Just place the rear wheel on the blocks, get it lined up and moved into place, and slide the axle through. It can be tricky getting the brake rotor to line up with the caliper, but a little patience will get the job done.
Lightly spin the rear axle nut on, just to hold things in place. It doesn’t need to be tight until after the chain is on and the chain slack is checked and adjusted.
Step 12: Put on the new chain
Fit the new chain over the teeth of the rear sprocket, and slowly rotate the rear wheel (it needs to be elevated and any wood blocks removed) and pull the chain over the top of the swingarm, over the teeth of the front sprocket, and all the way around so the ends of the chain meet.
If your old chain was particularly stretched and worn out, the new chain may seem too short, and the ends of it won’t meet. All you need to do to remedy this is to adjust the chain tension sliders all the way in to allow for as much slack as possible.
Step 13: Press and rivet the new chain
Pressing and riveting the chain certainly requires the most precision and attention to detail of this whole process.
If you’re using an OEM chain, you can jump right into pressing and riveting the new chain.
Also, I’ll only be covering how to install a rivet style master link chain. There are also clip style master links, but I’ve never used one, and would never recommend it. I won’t soapbox too much, but will say that while many riders have had success with clip style links, I think using clip style links is just cheap and lazy, and I would never recommend using one. The likelihood of failure is much higher than a rivet style link, and a chain failure can be devastating, can cause serious damage to the bike, and puts your life as risk in a big way.
If saving some time during the installation process, and a little bit of money to invest in a decent chain tool is of higher priority to you than the risks of using a clip style master link, you may want to rethink that.
If you’re using an aftermarket chain, you may need to remove some links first, so the chain is the correct length.
You need to check the specs for the OEM chain, and find the number of links that it is. Compare that to the number of links in the aftermarket chain, and count out the number of links you need to remove.
For instance, when installing the aftermarket chain that I am replacing here, it was a 120 link chain. The OEM spec for my Z900RS is 114 links. All that needed to be done was to count out 6 links and remove them.
The link removal procedure here is the same as breaking the chain, so you’ll use your chain breaker tool to punch out the rivet pin at the specified link, and remove the excess links.
Once you have the chain threaded through (and cut to spec, if needed) and ready to go, it’s time to press the new master link plate and get it riveted in place.
Pressing and riveting a master link is actually pretty easy to do, as long as you take your time and follow the instructions for your chain tool and specs for your chain.
Like breaking the chain, it’s easiest to press and rivet the master link on the rear sprocket, and with the rear wheel held in place so it doesn’t rotate (just taking the bike off the rear stand and putting the rear tire on the ground should be fine).
Get the link and o-rings (if applicable) in place, and put the plate over the master link pins. Follow the directions for your chain tool to press the plate onto the pins.
The specs for the amount that the pins should protrude from the plate when it is pressed properly will differ depending on the size and brand of the chain. Follow these specs. If in doubt, inspect your work, and make sure the space between plates on the master link matches that of the surrounding links.
Take your time, be patient, and double check what you’re doing as you go. Being precise is the best way to go, and it’s better to err on the side of slightly under-pressing the side plate than it is to over-press it and create a tight spot in the chain, or go so far that it is way too tight and doesn’t articulate at all and have to break the master link and start over.
Once the side plate is pressed into place, it’s time to rivet the pins in order to hold everything together. Again, follow the instructions for your tool for the absolute specifics for this part of the process, as the method can vary slightly from tool to tool. Basically, what you’re doing here is pushing the rivet tip of the tool down into the master link pin in order to flare and flatten it out slightly, creating a mechanical bond between the tip of the master link pins and the face of the plate.
Again, take your time, be patient and precise, and remove the tool and check your work as you go. You don’t want to press the rivet tip further into the link pins than the depth of the side plate itself. If you drive it further than that, you risk breaking the pins, the side plate, or the tool itself.
Step 14: Tighten the front sprocket nut
With the chain on and riveted, all that remains is to get things adjusted, so it’s safe to tighten the front sprocket nut down to spec. Just get the rear wheel/sprocket held in place, and torque it down.
Once it’s tight, use some pliers, a screwdriver, or a flat chisel to bend the washer around it to help keep it in place in the event that it were to come off. It can be tough to get it bent as much as it was from the factory, so I prefer to bend it in multiple spots for redundancy.
Step 15: adjust chain slack and alignment
Once the chain is on, it’s time to get the slack and alignment checked and adjusted.
Your bike’s swingarm will likely have some adjusters and marks on each side of the swingarm for adjusting the chain slack and alignment. It will vary slightly by model, but the typical design is adjuster bolts for adjusting the slack, and a block or spacer of some sort with marks that line up with the marks in the swingarm for keeping the wheel in alignment.
An easy way to measure chain slack is to take a piece of masking tape or cardboard, and mark it with a set of marks that indicate the chain slack range for your bike. Then simply attach this to the swingarm so that the bottom mark is at the bottom of the chain. Push the chain up to the maximum tension, and if the chain is within the marks for the range of your bike, you’re good. If it’s out of range (either too loose or too tight), you’ll need to dial in the slack.
Since you left the axle nut a bit loose earlier, all you need to do is make adjustments to these adjustment bolts. Take your time here, making a quarter turn or so at a time, making small incremental adjustments, and going back and forth to adjust each side equally to keep things in alignment.
Once you have the slack adjusted correctly, check the alignment marks on the adjusters to ensure they line up in the same place on each side of the swingarm. Make any additional adjustments necessary to get the alignment correct, then tighten the locknuts on the adjusters (if applicable).
Some forum know-it-alls may say to “not trust the marks on the swingarm” as if manufacturers just mark them arbitrarily. I’ve never seen a significant discrepancy between the alignment as adjusted on the swingarm marks vs. measuring it manually on any bike I’ve ever dealt with.
For there to be a significant difference would require a major manufacturing defect in the swingarm, or damage to the swingarm, axle, or wheel. If that’s the case, then you have a whole different set of problems to deal with.
Once the chain is adjusted to spec, tighten the locknuts on the adjusters (if applicable) and get the axle nut torqued to spec.
Step 16: Replace the front sprocket cover
Time to put the front sprocket cover back in place. Make sure the mating surfaces on the engine and the cover are clean, insert the bolts, and tighten them to spec.
Step 17: Go for a Test Ride
Job’s done. Time to take your fresh sprockets and chain for a test ride. Make this shakedown run short, and take it easy. Around the block or down to the end of the street should be good. You’re checking to make sure the bike runs fine, and that nothing comes apart on the run. Once you’re done with the ride, double-check that everything is holding up fine after the ride. Tighten down anything that’s loose, and make any adjustments or corrections that are necessary.
Keep an eye on things for the next couple rides. If the shakedown run went well, you should be fine, but manufacturer defects in chains and sprockets, while rare, aren’t unheard of.
Finally, the chain will stretch and wear in a bit on these first few rides, so check and adjust your chain slack after about 300-500 miles. Apply some fresh chain lube at this time to keep things rolling smooth.
And that’s it. It’s a bit of an involved process, but it’s nothing that can’t be handled with the right tools, a little bit of mechanical skill, and a bit of time.
About Difficulty, Time, and Cost Ratings
A difficulty of 1/10 is something that requires no special tools or mechanical skill, like changing out some rubber grips, and a 10/10 is a complex procedure that requires expert mechanical knowledge and numerous specialized tools, like performing a valve adjustment on a modern DOHC four-cylinder motorcycle.
Time is an estimate of the total number of hours needed to complete the job, assuming no interruptions, unexpected hang ups, delays, mistakes, or setbacks.
Cost is an estimate of the what the parts and tools necessary for the job are likely to cost, with $ being the inexpensive maintenance jobs (like oil changes) or part installs, and $$$ requiring fairly expensive parts and tools.
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