Harbor Freight’s Pittsburgh Steel Motorcycle Lift is likely one of the tool retailer’s most popular items. It’s certainly well-known among motorcyclists. Despite some dismissing it as “junk” it’s proven to be a durable, reliable, and cost-effective staple in home garages and professional shops alike.
If you’re like many (myself included), you don’t have $800-900 to drop on even the cheapest air-powered lift (let alone more expensive lifts that cost $2000-3000, not including the air compressor to power them), so the venerable Harbor Freight lift is your best option by far.
You can get the lift brand new for $450, but of course, it’s Harbor Freight, so there are often coupons and sales to get it for much less. If you’re really bargain-hunting, you can often find used ones in great condition available on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and the like for $250 or less.
It’s totally worth it, and the lift easily lives up to the positive side of its reputation.
That said, the wheel vise included on the lift is its weakest point. It’s kind of an afterthought that isn’t very well designed. It doesn’t provide much clamping strength and does very little to help keep the bike secure and upright.
Yes, you should strap the bike down once it’s on the lift, but the weak wheel vise makes even that a sketchy endeavor.
Also, despite being too small to be useful, it was also just large enough to make contact with the brake rotors on my Z900RS, making the vise completely unusable with that bike, and probably any other bike with large front rotors.
The wheel vise had to go, and an upgrade was in order.
We have the technology, and we can rebuild it. Better…stronger…faster.
Harbor Freight just happens to sell a great motorcycle stand/wheel chock. It is rated for 1800 lbs. capacity and is rock solid stable on its own, doubly so when paired with a rear stand. At $63, it is a fraction of the price of similar wheel chocks, which run all the way up into the $300 range.
It’s actually pretty easy to mount the wheel chock to the lift, so you can upgrade the lift without breaking the bank, and transform it into a true workhorse.
What you’ll need to perform the surgery
- Harbor Freight Motorcycle Lift
- Harbor Freight Motorcycle Stand/Wheel Chock
- Tape measure
- Center punch
- Cordless power drill
- 1/8″, 1/4″, and 1/2″ drill bits (or a stepped bit) suitable for drilling steel
- Lubricant to use as a cutting fluid
- Socket and/or combination wrenches
Modifying the lift
With all your tools and materials assembled, you’re ready to get to work modifying your lift. Let’s goooo!
1. Assemble (and test) the Wheel Chock
Technically, you could do this later, but it’s a good idea to assemble and test it to make sure it works for your bike and there aren’t any defects. It comes with instructions, and has very few pieces, so we’re not going to cover assembling the wheel chock here.
Even though you’re mounting it to the lift and don’t need the support arm, I actually suggest leaving it fully assembled with the support arm attached. It helps square the chock up to the edge of the lift, gives you two additional strap attachment points for securing the bike to the lift, and if you want to use the wheel chock free-standing on the ground or in a truck or trailer, all you have to do is unbolt it from the lift and you’re good to go.
Since the feet of the support arm won’t be sitting on the ground or anything, and is just held on by two bolts, don’t use it for anything load bearing (I don’t know what that would be, but don’t do it, regardless), or as the sole strap attachment points.
2. Remove the original clamp
Easy as that. Bust out a socket wrench and a combination wrench and remove the nuts and bolts holding the original clamp in place and toss it aside. You won’t be needing it (ever again, because it sucks).
Save those nuts and bolts, though, because you’ll be reusing them.
3. Mark where the Wheel Chock will go
Place the chock on the lift, take some measurements with your tape measure to get it centered, and use a marker to mark on the lift where you’ll need to drill the mounting holes.
There are seven mounting holes in the wheel chock base, but you don’t need all of them. I marked only the four outermost holes of the base, since there are four bolts from the original vise to reuse for mounting. You can drill more holes and use more bolts to mount it, but four will be sufficient.
Get your center punch and mallet, line it up to the center of the marks you made, and pow! Punch those centers. Punch ’em good.
It’s possible (likely) that one or more of these center marks will be on the ridge of the diamond plate embossing. It’ll make accurately punching the center mark, as well as drilling the holes in the next step a bit trickier, but get as close as you can and it should work out. Since we’re using a 1/2″ drill bit for the holes, which is actually a bit bigger than necessary for the bolts, it gives you a bit of leeway. Not a lot of leeway, but a bit.
4. Get Drillin’
Time to drill the holes to mount your wheel chock to the lift.
A stepped drill bit is ideal, but if you don’t have a stepped bit (I don’t), you can just use multiple bit sizes to get the job done.
Even with the center mark punched, it’s tough to get a hole going with the larger bit. Instead of trying to force it, start with a smaller drill bit (I used a 1/8″ bit) to make a small pilot hole. Once you have a pilot hole that’s a millimeter or so deep, the larger drill bit should have an easier time cutting into the metal now, and you can transition to it to finish the job.
If the large bit still has trouble getting started, you may want to move up to an intermediate bit, like a 3/16″ or 1/4″ to enlarge the pilot hole and give the 1/2″ bit more of a helping hand.
If you’ve never drilled metal before, know that it generates a lot of friction and heat. You’ll need to use a lubricant on the drill bit and the surface you’re drilling. Doing so will reduce that friction and heat. This will prolong the life of your drill bits, reduce the likelihood of the drill bit binding up and/or welding to the material, provide lubrication which will make the drilling process itself easier, and the metal shavings created as you drill will get suspended in the lubricant, making cleanup a bit easier.
You can use a dedicated cutting fluid or oil for this, or you can improvise a little (this is a DIY project, after all). We’re not doing heavy machining here, and just need enough lubricant to remove heat and make the drilling process easier. This is a case where something is better than nothing. WD40, canola oil, lightweight motor oil, or even lard or bacon grease, while not perfect, will get the job done here. I ended up using a mix of WD40 and some extra 5w20 motor oil I had on hand with good results.
Apply lubricant liberally and frequently. It’s best to be ahead of the curve and reapply lubricant to the drill bit and the hole as you go, before you start to feel friction, see smoke, feel the bit binding, or any other signs that it needs more lubricant.
Depending on the drill you have, drilling through steel like this can strain the drill’s motor and batteries. If needed, take a few breaks, like when you pause to reapply lubricant, to let the drill’s motor cool down a bit. It also helps to have a spare battery charged and ready to go.
Take your time drilling and don’t try to force the drill through the steel. Just let the drill and gravity do the work. Pretty soon you’ll have some fresh shiny holes for mounting the wheel chock.
There’s going to be metal shavings and lubricant on the the lift, so clean up the surface with some shop towels and brake cleaner before continuing.
5. Mount the Wheel Chock
With the wheel chock in place on the lift, make sure the holes you drilled line up with the mounting holes in the base of the wheel chock and that the bolts will fit through nice and straight. If they’re too far off and you won’t be able to fit the bolts through or fasten them, just mark how much you need to enlarge the holes by, and do some more drilling.
Once the mounting holes line up nicely, all you need to do is bolt the wheel chock down to the lift. Here’s where you reuse the bolts from the original wheel clamp. They’ll fit perfectly.
That’s it. Now you have a nice upgraded lift.
Servicing the front end
I have received a fair bit of feedback and questions regarding this lift modification and the need to elevate the front wheel in order to perform service on the front end, like changing the front tire. The thought is that this setup doesn’t work for that.
While it’s true that this setup works great for the majority of work where you’ll need the bike stable and upright, it’s less than ideal for front end work. It’s perfect for things like oil changes, coolant changes, chain and sprocket service, brake service, and changing the rear tire (which occurs far more frequently than needing to change the front tire), but you do need to do some problem solving when it comes time to service the front end.
You have a few options to handle this situation:
Option 1: Don’t even use the lift to service the front end
That’s right. You did all this work for nothing.
Not really, though. This is probably the quickest and “easiest” way to take care of any front end service. Use whatever rear stand, front/head stand, and/or scissor jack you have to get the front end elevated, and just perform whatever front end service (forks, front tire change, triple tree bearings, etc.) without the assistance of the lift.
You’ll spend more time hunched over and on the ground, though, and that sucks, which brings me to the next option:
Option 2: Remove the wheel chock from the lift
Now you’re really saying to yourself “yep, I did all this work for nothing.”
Like I said, the majority of the work you’ll be doing that requires the bike to be upright, stable, and elevated does not involve the front end. Unless you blow through front tires and fork seals at an alarmingly high rate, you’re probably actually only doing front end service once or twice a year. Oil changes, brake pads, rear tires, final drive service, and all of that business occur much more frequently, and don’t require lifting the front end.
So just remove the bolts and the wheel chock, roll the bike onto the lift, and employ your jacks and stands. This tends to be a bit less stable than using the wheel chock, so make sure you use some straps for an extra level of security.
option 3: Roll the bike backwards into the wheel chock
Some bikes have a narrow enough rear wheel to allow you to roll the bike onto the lift and into the wheel chock backwards, then get the front wheel elevated at that point. This is going to be less stable than other options, so use caution, and any additional jacks, straps, and such that are needed to stabilize your motorcycle.
You only get the front wheel up this way, so you can’t do something like change both tires this way, and I don’t think it’s really worth the risk of the decreased stability.
Option 4: Forgo the wheel chock entirely
Just get a front paddock or head lift stand, and call it a day. It’s not quite as quick, easy, and convenient as having the wheel chock, but it solves the problem. If you’re doing a lot of front end work, this might work better for you, so go for it. The benefit of having front paddock and head lift stands is that they’re fairly portable, so you can take them to the track, on the road, or wherever else your travels may take you.