How to Correctly Remove a Steering Head Bearing Nut

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If you have decided to rebuild the front end of your motorcycle or simply decided that your steering is feeling a little bit too “clunky,” then you should probably replace your steering head bearings (a relatively inexpensive item).  This, of course, will first require the removal of the steering head bearing nut (sometimes just called the head bearing nut for short) – item #5 below.

head bearing nut

I have a 1972 Harley Davidson Shovelhead FLH, and I am going through the process of rehabilitating things front to back.  As the bike sat on the lift and I occasionally turned the triple trees back-and-forth by hand, I knew that I was going to have to take this step.  I removed the fork stem nut and the handlebar/top fork bracket.  This is what I saw:

head bearing nut

In other words, I found myself staring at a very badly mutilated/abused head bearing nut.  As you can see, the head bearing nut sort of looks like a serrated washer.  It isn’t very thick and has little indentations all around.  Most often, when people want to remove these guys, they grab an adjustable wrench of some kind and try turning.  The result is what you see here – a head bearing nut with most of the tabs broken off or rounded out.

The damage makes sense, as this is a key component on a motorcycle and is torqued down pretty tight when done according to proper spec.  Additionally, add many years on the road without service and potential rust, and this guy might seem like it is never going to come off.

I promise you that getting mine off was very difficult and took almost a week of patience and careful planning.  Here are the steps I took to make it happen.  Remember that if you do this the wrong way, you could find yourself up a creek without a paddle.

Key Steps in Removing a Steering Head Bearing Nut

1) Lots of PB penetrating oil and a wire brush.  I basically soaked the bearing nut, top and bottom, closest to the threads over several days.  Basically, anytime I walked past the bike and remembered, I gave it a thorough spray of the stuff.

2) I also attacked the threads closest to the top of the nut with a long stemmed wire brush.  I am not sure how much this actually did, but it definitely made it easier loosening the nut the rest of the way once it broke free.

3 I ordered the RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB!  Yes, they make a special wrench just for this nut.  Within the categorization of “specialty tools,” this tool actually isn’t too expensive.  Additionally, lots of head bearing nuts are similar in terms of the tab configuration (more or less tabs, but always tabs).  Therefore, I didn’t feel too bad ordering one to have in my tool collection.  There aren’t too many decent manufacturers of this particular tool.  I liked this one because it has a 3/8th inch drive slot in the handle.
head bearing nut

4) This brings me to leverage.  I tried loosening the head bearing nut with the tool alone and it wasn’t happening.  Adding a breaker bar, utilizing the 3/8th inch slot in the handle was key.  I suggest the breaker bar over a ratcheting wrench because the whole setup is too clumsy otherwise.

5) Remember your “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.”  Turn the triple tree entirely in the proper direction (all the way to the right when facing the bike from the front).  That way as you attempt to turn the head bearing nut, the triple tree doesn’t turn first.

6) Make sure you wear protective gloves.  You might slip and you don’t want to smack and cut your knuckles.

7) Make sure that the notch on the wrench is seated firmly in a tab before starting.  The key is to get the flat edge of the wrench, both flush and flat against one of the flat edges of a tab and then tighten the adjuster.  This will help avoid the wrench slipping or jumping a corner, rounding off a tab edge.

8) Finally, you can try a little bit of heat if all else fails.  Basic physics says that things expand when warm and contract when cold.  I took my Wagner heat gun and directed it (as much as I could) just at the nut.  In theory, this should cause the nut to expand a little relative to the triple tree stem.  In addition, the heat could potentially help loosen any rust within the threads or threadlock that a prior mechanic may have used.

In the end, I was victorious over the head bearing nut.  It was a good thing too, because I only had a couple decent tabs left to work with.  Of course, my careful planning resulted in the material for a decent blog post, so I am definitely not complaining.

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