Tips on Swapping Out Handlebars on Your Motorcycle

Handlebar helper

We have occasionally mentioned that one of the best weekend projects you can perform on your bike is adjusting it to fit you. Though most aspects of such a project involve rearranging the stock parts, getting the right handlebar arrangement can involve swapping handlebars—though simply rotating the bar in its clamps may do the job for some riders. In some cases, simply changing or adding handlebar risers may accomplish what's needed. Nonetheless, many riders can make their rides more comfortable with a handlebar swap.

How to swap motorcycle handlebars
Once you decide to remove your handlebar to install a different one, there are a variety of cosmetic improvements you can perform during the process—like new fork caps and a billet handlebar clamp.Photography by Dean Groover

You may have other reasons for swapping handlebars too, notably appearance. Changing the handlebar can change the appearance of a bike significantly. Sometimes the reason for the change is subtle. For example, we know riders who have changed handlebars on Royal Stars just so the rise of the bar followed the angle of the fork legs.

A handlebar change can be a simple project. It gets more involved, however, when the new handlebar is significantly higher or wider than the original, or if you plan to customize many of the components mounted on the bars. Although exchanging stock mirrors, handlebar clamps and hydraulic reservoir caps for aftermarket billet pieces is easy enough, the difficulty quickly escalates if you decide to rearrange your switch locations, polish and chrome stock pieces, change hydraulic hoses, install new cables, or customize other parts. If you buy new parts, chrome existing ones, and have to accommodate a significantly different handlebar with new cables and hoses and extended wiring, this simple job can be extended into several weeks.

Swapping for longer handlebar requires longer hoses
If you fit a longer bar, you will need longer hoses. A stainless steel shrouded hose, like the one shown here with the stocker, looks and works better.Photography by Dean Groover
longer handlebars require longer hoses
Special fixtures on a handlebar can often be matched with a model-specific aftermarket bar like this Vulcan bar from Cobra.Photography by Dean Groover

Picking a New Handlebar
Though the tendency is to fit a higher, wider handlebar, that's not always the most functional approach. A bar that is higher or wider (or both) spreads you out more in the wind, and can substantially increase the effort you need to hold yourself against the air pressure at highway speeds. A wider bar may provide more steering leverage, but it may also be awkward when making full-lock turns at low speeds, where one end may be a stretch to reach while the other one is in your gut.

If your bike is uncomfortable to ride and you think the handlebar is contributing to that, perform this simple test to find what shape you need. Get the bike supported upright. Get comfortably planted on the saddle with your feet resting naturally on the footpegs. Relax and close your eyes. Now reach out and, after making sure your arms and shoulders are relaxed, put your hands where they naturally want the grips to be. Open your eyes and see where your hands are relative to the existing grips and at what angle. The angle your hands naturally seek will probably be a bit closer to horizontal than vertical with the grips tuned back just very slightly. Consider how your posture changes when you are riding. If there is no windshield, you probably lean into the wind slightly, which means the final grip position should be an inch or so forward and below where you hands fell without air pressure.

Another way of testing bars is to try out the bars other riders have fitted to the same model you own. This lets you see exactly how they fall, and you can also learn the source.

After noting your preferred hand position relative to the existing handlebar, you have a starting point to consider how your handlebar shape should change. By measuring your current bar's rise, pullback and grip angle, you have a point to measure against. The solution may be a simple as rotating the current bar in its clamp and readjusting the controls. You might also achieve this optimum arrangement by shortening the bar slightly on either end or mounting it in shorter or longer risers. Before you start perusing catalogs for a new bar, get to know your handlebar. What is the diameter of the bar? We publish this in our specification charts exactly for this reason. If it's an even inch, you probably have lots of choices, since that's the size that fits Harleys. Flanders, for example, lists over 50 handlebars for Harleys. There are fewer selections for 7⁄8-inch bars, but there are still quite a few bends available from companies like K&N.

Is the handlebar knurled where it clamps to the risers or fork crown? Are the clamps knurled to match? Will the new bar have knurling in the same places? Some bikes have fittings for bar-end weights or other items. We’d be careful about eliminating those weights, since they are fitted to some bikes as a method of damping out front-end shake. There may be holes or dimples for wiring. There may also be holes for the pins which locate the switch housings.

You may have some alternatives to the stocker, however. Other bikes from the same manufacturer may use the same bar-end fittings, and aftermarket companies may make handlebars specifically for your ride. You can also drill holes in, or modify, or change the components that bolt to the bar, in order to adapt the bar you want.

Polish and chrome clutch and brake master cylinders when swapping handlebars
You may want to take the opportunity to polish and chrome the clutch and brake master cylinders and fit them with billet covers. Stock hoses, such as the wire-wrapped Suzuki item shown, look almost as good as stainless.Photography by Dean Groover

What Else Needs to Be Changed?
If the ends of your handlebar are farther away from the top of the triple clamp than stock, the hoses, cables and wiring will have to either be rearranged, extended or replaced to reach. In addition, a bar that is significantly lower or narrower may require you to replace the front brake hose, since the stock one may bow more than it should. This, however, is primarily a cosmetic consideration.

Exactly how much the handlebar can grow before you need to modify or replace the hoses, cables, and wiring leading to it varies with each bike. Some bikes may have enough slack available in those parts to reach an extra inch or two. By routing them differently, you may gain more slack. Some pieces—particularly the throttle cable(s)—should be routed very carefully, taking care that they are not pinched or kinked. Also be sure that they aren’t pulled when you steer the front wheel to full-lock in either direction. Wiring that’s taut can also create problems. If you pull stretched wire loose, you may suddenly kill the engine or douse the lights.

If there is any doubt, it’s best to replace those items with longer pieces from the aftermarket. The payoff with cables and hoses is that you can fit attractive aftermarket items. Thinner braided stainless steel (Braking, Goodridge, Russell, among others) or colored (Goodridge and Indigo Sports) hoses are a major visual improvement on those black rubber stock versions and usually provide better feel. Those rubber hoses get spongier with age too. You can also get braided stainless-covered cables from Barnett. Other companies, including Motion Pro, make extended cables.

Install triple clamp cover when swapping handlebars
If the handlebar is coming off anyway, the upper fork area is more accessible, which makes this a good time to install a chrome triple clamp cover (shown), fork caps, or billet handlebar risers.Photography by Dean Groover

Beyond the Bar
Even if your new handlebar will fit without longer hoses and cables—making the job a potentially simple swap—you can make some easy changes that will significantly dress up the front of your bike. A few minutes leafing through a Cobra, Highway Hawk, Jardine, or other billet-maker's catalog will suggest plenty of easy mods for most Japanese motorcycle owners. Other sources for billet goodies include the manufacturer's accessory catalog. Billet handlebar clamps and reservoir caps install in a few minutes. While the bar is off you may also want to fit a new triple clamp cover or billet fork tube caps. Different grips are also easy to install. Motion Pro and others sell chrome handlebar control levers.

A word about mirrors: Though appealing to look at, billet mirrors can be terrible to look with. Small mirrors with flat lenses have no business in traffic, where you need a convex lens to glimpse traffic next to you and behind you at the same time. If you are building more than a pretty hangar queen, the mirrors should have stalks long enough to reach past your shoulders, a horizontal mirror shape (to provide a view of two or more lanes immediately behind you), convex lenses, and a mounting arrangement that permits you to make mirror adjustments without risking loosening the mirror or its head. You also need two mirrors.

You can go beyond simple bolt-ons too. Take the switch housings apart and have them chromed and polished. (Draw a diagram of where the wires and other small pieces go to aid in reassembly.) The same is true for master cylinders. You can probably polish the D.OT.-mandated text off your master cylinder caps by yourself. There may be other components on or near the bar—clamps, fasteners, fork caps, risers, triple clamp, etc.—begging for some chrome.

There is much that can be cleaned up out there in Barsville. You can eliminate switch housings entirely, relocating the essential pieces elsewhere. Starter and horn buttons can go on the ends of the bar. Mini rocker switches, for the headlight beams or turn signals, can go under the levers.

One popular clean-up is to route the wiring inside the handlebar. There are a couple of points to remember here. First, holes weaken the bar, especially big holes on the center of bars mounted on two risers. Secondly, if the switches rotate or the wire chafes against the bar, the resulting short will blow a fuse, possibly stranding you.

polish away warnings when swapping handlebars
It costs nothing but time to polish the D.O.T.-mandated warning verbiage off your master-cylinder covers. The process, using a belt sander, was described in the June ’97 issue of this magazine.Photography by Dean Groover

Off with the Old
If you are going to replace the hoses or master cylinders, start your handlebar change by draining the old fluid out of the brake and, if applicable, clutch hydraulic systems. You can do this by disconnecting the hoses at their lower ends and pumping the fluid out. As always, be sure that brake fluid doesn't get on painted or coated parts; it's a great paint remover. Even if you aren't changing brake or clutch components, you might want to change the brake fluid in both the brake and clutch systems—which should be done at least every two years. (Yes, clutch fluid is susceptible to water contamination too. If you don't replace the fluid in it, that fluid can fail when the engine gets hot.) Do not mix brake fluid with oil to be recycled, it needs to be recycled by itself. We keep a container around just for brake fluid.

If you aren’t messing with brake fluid, pull the master cylinders off the bars and find some way to suspend them above the hoses so that air in the master cylinders doesn’t get into the lines. We have used bungee cords or wire. If you remove the mirrors, note that the right-hand mirrors on Yamahas have reverse threads (as designated by the groove around the hex of the nut) on their stems.

If you plan to replace the grips, cut the old left grip off the bar. If you want to save it, the easiest way to remove it is to spray some contact cleaner or other solvent between the grip and the bar. Then, while sealing the other end of the bar, apply compressed air to the hole in the grip. This inflates the grip, lifts it up and blows it off the bar. If you don’t have a compressor, follow the solvent with screwdrivers or other long, thin probes to lift the grip off the bar’s surface and loosen the adhesive; then twist and slide the grip off.

Some clamps that hold the lever assemblies in place require a specific orientation. If you are polishing them, you will need to find some enduring way of marking them so you know which way is up.

For two-cable throttle assemblies, note where each cable goes as you remove it. If the wiring needs to be lengthened, or the switch housings will be chromed, unplug the wiring from the main harness in the headlight or under the tank. If you are putting on a slightly wider bar, decide if the existing wiring will reach without doing something ugly. When you unbolt the handlebar itself, note the orientation of the clamps. The clamps on some machines have a definite front and back.

Hose and cable routing after swapping handlebars
Hose and cable routing make a huge difference in the appearance of the final job. Professional customizers often try a variety of configurations before picking one that looks and works to their satisfaction.Photography by Dean Groover

On With the New
If the wiring goes through the bar, it should be threaded through before you mount the bar. Otherwise, you normally start the installation of the new bar by placing the bar in its clamps and tightening them just enough to hold it in position.

Start on the inside with the lever assemblies and work your way out through the switches to the grip as you reassemble the components. If your switches or throttle drum has a locating pin, you may need to drill a locating hole in the bar. Although in the case of a switch housing, some riders choose to remove the pin. This is not recommended for the throttle drum, since it can twist on the bar.

Vibration Control
If you are getting vibrated through the bar, there are a few tricks you can try to reduce the buzz. At the very least, you should make sure that any rubber mounts (which, if present, are usually at the base of the handlebar riser) and in good condition. To change vibration characteristics, you need to change the frequency of the handlebar. Changing the length will have some effect here, though not always positive.

Another solution is to change the mass. Handlebar end weights do this to some degree. Fill the handlebar with lead shot (sold for reloading shotshells at gun stores), put a plug (a cork, a wood plug, or test-tube plug) in one end of the bar, pour in the shot, then plug the other end. If you like the results, there will be enough of that 25-pound bag of shot left to do a few more bars. Bar Snake, sold through Flanders, also makes rubber and chemical inserts for handlebars to damp vibration.

Throttle cables are critical when swapping handlebars
The most critical cable routing is the throttle cable or cables. If it’s bent or kinked too radically, or if it gets pinched or pulled when the front end is turned, it can cause the worst kind of surprise. So route carefully.Photography by Dean Groover

Get Wired
You can extend wires in several ways. The most direct is to splice in new wire (of the same or thicker gauge) where it's needed. We recommend soldering the wire rather than using those press-on splice connectors. The latter tend to be unreliable and are probably too bulky to slide through the bar, if that's required. Cover the splices with heat-shrink tubing to strengthen the splice and prevent shorting.

Matching the color-coding of the wires will simplify things, though you probably won’t be able to find wire in all the odd color combinations used in the stock loom. However, picking up all the wiring harnesses you are modifying from a junkyard can greatly simplify the process. By cutting one end off the original harness and the other off the used harness and grafting them together, you have plenty of wire, still color-coded. And you only need to make one splice per wire, not two as you do when adding wire to the middle of the harness.

Before committing the wiring to any holes you have drilled, be sure there are no sharp edges on the holes and that the holes aren’t so tight that they threaten to strip off the wire’s insulation.

Rotate handlebar to get comfortable riding position
You may not need an aftermarket handlebar to get a comfortable riding position on your bike. Try rotating the stock handlebar in its clamps to find a position that suits you and your riding style better. After that, carefully adjust the position of the levers, switches and mirrors to fit you.Photography by Dean Groover

The Tangled Web We Weave
One of the most time-consuming arts of installing a new bar, but one that will have a large impact on your feeling about the job, is routing the wires and cables. Assuming that you have enough length to do so, external wires (which should be bundled into a single sheath on each side of the bar) can be cable-tied to the bar and routed snugly along the bottom of the bar. You'll have to decide whether it's more important that they be hidden from the view of the rider or the person in front of the bike looking at it. A nice touch—assuming you have a chrome bar—is chrome-colored cable ties, which are sold by Custom Chrome, among others.

Functionally, the most important cable routing is for the throttle, especially if you have a single cable. Make sure there is no kinking, pinching or stretching that can cause the throttle to open unintentionally or bind the cable and prevent closing. This is essential. Depending on the throttle drum you are using, you may have some latitude about the angle at which the cable leaves the bar, which can change the entire route it takes to the engine. Take the time to adjust the free play in the cables. Too much slop creates abrupt throttle response; too little may cause the throttle to fail to seat, or even open slightly when the handlebar is turned.

There is one other potential pitfall to watch for when positioning the throttle and its cables and the right-side switch housing. Be sure that they don’t interfere with the brake lever. This is one of the reasons that switch housings and throttles are pinned on some bikes—to be sure they don’t rotate and block the brake lever.

Also be careful with choke-cable routing. If it binds, the choke may not open fully or enrichener plungers may not seat fully, causing engine problems later on. The clutch cable is slightly less critical, but something that causes it to bind means clutch slippage and greater effort at the lever. Before installing a cable, lube it well (especially the end fittings, which need to pivot freely in the receptacle in the lever). If you are using stainless steel-covered cables, consider the warning for stainless hoses that follows.

Hoses are less critical. It takes a pretty major kink to cause a functional problem. However, the rasp-like surface of a braided stainless steel hose can saw right through parts it rubs against. You can avoid this problem by using hoses and cables covered with a clear plastic, or by using plastic spiral wrap or heat-shrink tubing on the areas that rub.

There are two aesthetic schools of thought for cable routing. One says to try and route it out of sight. The other prefers graceful arcs in the hoses. We find that customizers tend to go to the school that works for the particular application they are involved with.

Aftermarket master-cylinder cover
An aftermarket master-cylinder cover improves looks and works well. But those little billet mirrors may seriously impair your rear view.Photography by Dean Groover

Final Touches
Complete the installation of your new handlebar or repositioning of your old one by adjusting all the controls so that you can reach and cover them comfortably. This should be done after you have fine-tuned the bar angle to suit you. The brake, clutch, horn and turn signal control are usually the most important.

Tighten the handlebar clamps with a torque wrench to the factory settings. Most bikes thread these into aluminum, so over-tightening can cause expensive damage. Using bolts with damaged threads creates the same problem. However, it’s more likely that you have damaged the heads of the small screws in the switch housings. If so, replace them. Some riders like to leave the clamps for the levers loose enough so that they pivot if the bike falls over. The hope is that the loose pivot will prevent the lever from breaking and disabling the bike. If you choose to do this, just make sure the brake lever can’t pivot anywhere that will interfere with its operation. Another possibility for some bikes is fitting newer levers with cast-in stress points that permit the lever ends to snap off in a fall, leaving enough lever to get home. After you have completed those adjustments, install the mirrors and adjust them.

After you have ridden the bike for a while, you may find that you want to make some minor adjustments to the angle of the handlebar or the lever position. Take the time to make these adjustments, which will help provide maximum return on the time and money you spent to install the new handlebar and related parts. If you have picked the right parts and installed them properly, your bike should be noticeably improved.