Modern motorcycles are incredibly reliable, but they still require you to check a few things in order to keep them running at full potential. The engine oil is one of those items you should never neglect. After all, you don’t want to run your high-revving, manufactured-to-aerospace-tolerances, and extremely-expensive-to-replace engine without the proper lubricant, do you? Additionally, an engine’s oil can reveal a good bit of information about the condition of its internals to even a novice mechanic armed with a little information.

To actually check an engine’s oil level, take a look at its owner’s manual. Seriously, it’ll outline the specifics that the manufacturer recommends – and they do vary slightly from bike-to-bike. Still, the steps do follow a rough pattern.

Oil Sight Glass

A window on your engine’s internal world: You can see if the oil needs replenishing, replacing or has coolant in it.

Make sure the engine is warmed to operating temperature. After turning it off, allow the oil to drain down from the top end by waiting a few minutes. Bikes with a sight glass require that you hold the bike level – either from the saddle or beside the bike – look at the window conveniently located on the bottom of the engine to make sure the oil level is between the two marks on the case. (Tip: If your bike has both a centerstand and a sight glass, measure it the above way and then compare it to the level shown while on the centerstand. This way you can use that level as reference so can check the oil level when it’s parked on the centerstand in your garage.)

For engines with a dipstick, check your owner’s manual to make certain how the stick is to be inserted for an accurate reading. Usually, you will wipe the stick and insert it into the case until it makes contact with the filler plug’s threads. Be sure the plug is straight and the bike is level or you may get an inaccurate reading.

Oil Dip Stick

The dipstick can tell you as much information as a sight glass, you just have to look a little closer.

If you ride your bike regularly, you should check its oil at least weekly. If you ride infrequently, consider checking before every ride. With regular checks, you are more likely to notice symptoms of little problems before they get bigger.

So, how did the oil look when you checked it?

  • Nice and amber like the day it was poured out of the bottle is perfect.
  • Dark or black indicates the oil needs to be changed.
  • Milky white typically means coolant has found its way into the oil, which could indicate a blown head gasket and/or a major engine problem.
  • If it smells like gas, it’s time to take it to the shop.
  • If the engine has suddenly begun consuming oil, it could mean valve or piston-ring problems, which require investigation to ascertain the cause.

If everything checks out, as it usually will, what are you waiting for? Go riding!

  • DickRuble

    I initially was supportive of a column on tips for motorcycle maintenance. However, this is quickly spiraling down into trivial advice. What’s next? How to put your kickstand down? What’s your target audience; Harley Davidson owners?

    • Evans Brasfield

      While I can understand your frustration, reading this as an experienced motorcyclist, we’re trying to put out more content for novices, too. This is an area in which we feel MO has been lacking. Don’t worry, there will be more advanced stuff.

      • fzrider

        I don’t mind the “novice level” information at all. Sometimes it reminds me of stuff I don’t consider much anymore, and, as in this case, I learn something. Out of curiosity I went to my owners manual just to be sure.
        And I’ve apparently been doing it wrong for years! The manual says put the bike on the centerstand to check the oil. I did not know that. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

        • Ian Parkes

          That’s another really good tip for novices, well, anyone: read the owner’s manual. I went googling enthusiasts sites the other day for some advice on an old car I’d just bought and several times the resident experts suggested that previous searchers would find the answers they were looking for in their manuals. I read mine and found lots of other tips on customisation options I had no idea were built into the car. I should take my own advice and read my bike manual too.

    • SteveSweetz

      How to run a successful ad driven website in 2016 – 101:

      1. Go to Google and make sure search suggestions are turned on.
      2. Type “how do i check [insert your website’s subject matter here]”
      3. Look at the first thing that comes up in search suggestions.
      4. Write an article on that.
      5. Profit (hopefully…)

      Seriously go to Google, type in “how do I check motorcycle”. “Oil” is the first suggestion, implying that it’s less universally understood than one might think.

      I can’t blame them, they gotta pay the bills and running ad driven enthusiast sites is getting tough. It’s still a miles better than all the click baiting garbage that Gawker subsidiaries resort to.

      • That’s actually a pretty good idea, Steve.

      • toomanycrayons

        Google is how Trump “plans” to run America, after all. ‘What, Iran? Just a second: “How do I deal with Iran?” North Korea? Time out: “What about that guy whatever his name is in North Korea.” “I love Koreans, hire Koreans, they love me…even the Muslim ones. It’s a beautiful country. I’d love to ride my new Springfield Indian there…no, seriously.’

        Damn, this winter is dragging on…salt, sand, slush, blizzards…American candidate debates….

    • TheFantasticG

      You’d be surprised. I didn’t know how to preform basic maintenance when I bought my ’13 Ninja 650. (Granted, I’ve done car maintenance so I had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done to a FI ICE, but still, I didn’t know what special considerations were needed for a motorcycle.) I used the info I got from the instructor at the motorcycle safety course, the MOM, and Google. Feel like I have a pretty good handle on it thanks to articles like this.

  • Gruf Rude

    It is not trivial advice. For example, when the second generation KLR650s came out in 2008, they had a bad oil control ring and if run at high RPM they burned a LOT of oil. So much oil that I met a guy who burned up a brand-new ’08 KLR 700 miles into a cross-country trip – second day of the trip and only his third tank of gas. Word on the KLR websites cautioned everyone to check their oil at every gas stop . . .

    • TheFantasticG

      Yeah, my zx10r burns a bit of oil between changes. I usually have to add 1/4-1/2 qt.

  • kenneth_moore

    Checking your drained oil when you change it is also a good idea. Drain it into a perfectly clean pan, then slowly pour off the bulk into a container for recycling. As you drain the oil, look for particulates at the bottom of the pan. There shouldn’t be any. If you see shiny metal flakes, the engine should be inspected by a professional.

    • alGrande57

      I don’t know how many bikes have them, but an oil drain plug with a magnet on the end is a good device to not only monitor any metal shavings that may or may not be in the oil, but it removes them as well from circulating & causing more wear. I have one on my old 81 Beemer..

      • DickRuble

        Wouldn’t the various oil filters (including the coarse filter/sieve) prevent the shavings from circulating? The only thing the magnetized plug does is to collect some shavings that otherwise would be left sitting in the oil pan. Even at that, it doesn’t do a very good job.

        • Bill D

          The mag plugs have very strong magnets, so I reason that they often pull tiny ferrous bits out of circulation even before the oil gets run back through the filter.

      • Mahatma

        First thing I installed on my new used bike last year.And try different brands and quality of oil too.Mine is very spesific about the oil it likes,and the gearbox will let me know when I filled it up with the “wrong” one.Probably ok,but it makes by gearbox sound very clunky to say the least by not using the one that works best.

      • Jay Stevens

        FJR doesn’t have one, but if you wish,you can replace it with one from the final final drive.

  • “Sight glass” and “convenient” in the same sentence. You kill me! How many times have I precariously held one handlebar on a bike devoid of a centerstand, while perilously bending down to peer, futilely, into what may as well be a black hole, from which even light cannot escape? To manufacturers I say, “Give me a dipstick, you dip$#!+s”

    • Antreas zeusson


  • Craig Hoffman

    It is amazing how taking care of something simple like an oil change leads to gaining the confidence to master other maintenance tasks. We all have to start somewhere.

    The reality is taking your bike to a dealer for simple maintenance is hideously expensive and there are not that many good independent shops that will do the work for a reasonable cost out there. It is almost like a secret society to get a bike worked on at less than insane rates by an independent shop instead of by often questionably competent dealer mechanics.

    People rely on their cars and will pay up if they need service. Bikes are different for most, they are toys, not primary transportation, so it is painful for most to pay to have the work done. I fall in that camp. Learning to do it myself was necessary as I am too cheap to take it to a dealer. There is satisfaction in doing it yourself too. Have done many a top end, pulled cams, etc etc. It all started with an oil change, which led to a screw & locknut valve check on a Honda Trail 70 many years ago when I was 12 years old 🙂

    I am planning to retire from the corporate rat race in a couple of years. Toying with the idea of getting a high quality tire changing machine and doing tires as part of my retirement income, which will include other unrelated small business enterprises. Buy ’em online for cheap, bring ’em to me and get them mounted and balanced. There is a need for that.

    • DickRuble

      I don’t know what line of corporate business you’re in, but as far as starting a tire mounting business, my advice would be you do some more serious digging on what’s involved before you buy that machine. You’ll end up figuring out that you need a fully equipped garage for that. Your zoning laws might not allow you to operate out of your residential property. Etc, etc.. I know, I am crushing your dreams.. don’t thank me.

      • Craig Hoffman

        The guy across the street from me runs a contracting business out of his garage. I doubt he would complain 😉 Good points though.

        The main thing is having E&O insurance. Any time one gets paid to render a service, they are open to liability. My main business will be independent property claims adjusting. That can be run out of my home, no problemo.

    • toomanycrayons

      “We all have to start somewhere.”

      We all should STOP! somewhere, too. I have a ’99 VFR, immaculate, stock except for the Sargent. By nature, I’m not a compulsive tinkerer, but handy. I had the panels off, the tank raised, oil, filter and seal ready…then, just as I started to crank on a back plug, a little voice said: “You have a phone. Book an oil change/maintenance session with the shop, not a re-tapping/Honey, I broke some plugs session.” Next time I’ll buy something with a drive shaft. Tensioning on this chain is an unrewarding pain. Maybe a pristine BMW R1200S. Like the look, size, and the plugs are…right there! No centre stand, but heated grips. Tough call. If I never had to clean it that would be good, too. Apart from acceleration, knee dabs and the sound, there is really nothing which recommends a bike over a Corolla, just the opposite. I should look at the oil glass more. It’s a Honda, is my excuse. Once in a while I look, the level’s fine, the oil is clean. Go for another ride…forget, forget, forget. That’s why I have a bike. There’s more to (bike) life than maintenance. Let someone else change its diaper.

      • Craig Hoffman

        As they say, “your mileage may vary”. I actually enjoy working on my bikes. The only task I hate is changing tires. Have done it myself for years on my dirt bikes, but now it is worth the $20 to have a local independent shop do it. I can do it though, which is handy, because I ride in remote areas and have had to do it trailside to get home.

  • Vrooom

    I’m just hoping there aren’t people here who didn’t know how to check their oil level. Talking about basic advice. Seriously, I clicked on it just to mock it.

    • TheFantasticG

      Yes, there are. I didn’t know that I needed to check the play in the chain until I read it on the bike next to the chain when I was cleaning it one day… I had so much slack that it was making noises between shifts because it was slapping the frame. Ignorance is funny that way because you don’t know you didn’t know until you know that you didn’t know.

      • Vrooom

        Glad you found that! Chain slack is a bit more understandable in that you have to check the oil in cars, lawnmowers, etc. too so people are hopefully used to doing that.

  • Gruf Rude

    Is there a software glitch that is causing all the repeat sentences recently? (“If you ride your bike regularly, If you ride your bike regularly,”)

    • Evans Brasfield

      You’d think that, after all these years of writing, I’d be able to correctly paste text. Apparently, I’m not. Thanks for pointing out my error which was made in the final edit of the article.

      • TheFantasticG

        I’ve always been curious if most writers just use Notepad or Microsoft Word to write their articles on. I usually use Word 2007, 2010, or 2013 if I’m writing something I need special checking on… even then if you use a correctly spelled word it won’t pick up that you’ve used the wrong word for the context.

        • Evans Brasfield

          I do all of my writing in Evernote so that I can have a copy of everything I’m working on at my fingertips on all my devices. When it’s time to share it with my coworkers for editing, I create a Google Doc. If I’m laying it out in WordPress, I’ll download the final Gdoc as an rtf to my Mac and then copy and paste the text in WordPress. Although it sounds a bit fussy, this is the only way I’ve been able to successfully keep my documents in sync, regardless of the device I’m using to write on. While I suppose I could do it all in Google Docs, the iPhone interface is so awful that I can’t bring myself to do it.

  • I just wait for the yellow light to come on, and then call the OEM to send me a new motorcycle.

    • Alexander Pityuk

      And the funny thing – they will!

  • Mahatma

    Isn’t that oil in the top picture ready to be changed?Have one of those on my bike (the hornet 900) and first time I checked the level by holding it upright by the handlebar (no center stand at that time) I was abit aprehentious of it tipping over me;) Now with a center stand it works as a charm.

    • Evans Brasfield

      Just about ready.

  • Elektromargu

    I still can’t understand, why can’t they angle the looking glass taking into account the bike lean while it’s on the side-stand.. Surely it can’t be rocket-science…

    • Luigi Stugatz

      They can, Harley is doing it now checking the oil while on the side stand.

    • Oh Snap

      You check the oil on the center stand with a BMW.

    • john benjamin

      you can take note of the level yourself.mines at the top on center stand,and just below half on the side stand

  • rocketmen2k5

    “To actually check an engine’s oil level, take a look at its owner’s manual”

    That’s all that needs to be said/written.

  • Harold O’Brien

    “.. look at the window conveniently located on the bottom of the engine.. ”

    Horse Sh*&. The best motorcycle I have ever owed was a 96 Kawasaki Voyager 1200. I loved that bike, .. put over 75K miles on it and not doubt it still be running had I not run it into the back of a Tahoe last Summer. It handled great, had plenty of power, was comfortable. I rode it door to door and coast to coast, .. in the cold, rain and shine. Great bike, .. except that the God Damn window conveniently, .. located on the bottom of the engine was in fact UNDER the engine case. One essentially had to get right down on the ground AND use a flash light, in day light, to get a true reading. And, every time I did it I asked myself, ..” is this the best Japanese engineering could offer?

    • Evans Brasfield

      I appear to have touched a nerve. 😉

      • Harold O’Brien

        True Dat!

  • Tom Pava


  • Robert Farrar

    I just sit on the bike and use a mechanic’s mirror- the mirror swivels and is mounted on a telescoping handle.

  • Robert Farrar

    I just sit on the bike and use a mechanic’s mirror- the mirror swivels and is mounted on a telescoping handle.

    • Jeff S. Wiebe

      This is a good piece of information. Found just such a mirror here: Added to Wishlist. Thanks!

  • Rich

    I bristle at your sight-glass mockings…I wish I had one on my RoadStar. Wanna’ good laugh? Watch a Star owner check or change oil. It’ll leave you wondering if Tuning Fork company used their piano engineers to design the system….Who thought up this bright idea: locating the spin-on oil filter in direct line with debris from the front tire? Other than that….really, I love my ride.

    • Jay Stevens

      That’s also where Honda puts some of their oil filters.

  • Shahriar Rahman

    I see in the comments that there are several naysayers who say this piece is too basic for the likes Just wanted to put out there that, as a new rider, this article is extremely helpful and helped me discover that I need an oil change now even though it has been less than 1400 miles from my last change. Please post more articles for the growing community of new riders, MO!

    • Mr Ed

      I do question need an oil change at 1400 miles. I’m guessing that you based that on the oil being dark, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do agree that articles aimed at new riders are a good thing.

  • DeadArmadillo

    Two of the most goofy things about motorcycles are the hassle of checking oil and the hassle of checking tire pressure. If motorcycle companies actually hire engineers they must get them with a mail order degree.

  • GrumpyCat

    Oil pictured in the sight glass appears milky to me.

    • Evans Brasfield

      That’s just something in the photo. When I took the picture, the oil was fine.

  • Luigi Stugatz

    If your just looking just for a good to go oil check you DON’T have to warm the bike up as long as you now where the top of the oil is on the dipstick… even if the bike is on it’s side stand and the dipstick is on the opposite side of it.

    Before you do that you need to know where the oil marks on the dip stick when cool and on the side stand WHEN YOU KNOW THE SUMP IS FULL. That’s your good to go mark. After that your good to go to use the “good to go” oil check.

    Also oil expands and contracts with temperature changes so if there’s a large 20-30 degree change you’ll need the difference with the large temp change. The same will change on the dip stick for regular use.

    To all my Einsteins out there it doesn’t matter where you check the oil from as long as you use it at the same place consistently and you know where the full mark is. The oil or the container does not changes capacity by itself.

  • Ian Parkes

    You just check a motorcycle’s oil level. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

  • Bubba Blue

    You don’t screw the dipstick in to check oil level? Check that.

  • rick

    I have yet to find a motorcycle site glass that you can check on ‘LEVEL’ pavement . You won’t get a true reading , especially if the ground you are sitting on is not 100% level . For fussy people like myself , I use a torpedo level on top of my gas tank to get an accurate idea of where the oil level in fact is at . I wouldn’t want to leave it to GUESS WORK with an expensive engine .

  • Steven Gregg

    Change oil and filter at start of spring. Ride bike like it’s designed. Top up if engine oil light comes on or before long trip. Park bike in garage for winter. Charge battery. Repeat.