Classic Motorcycle Build

Replace Fork Seals Sportster 1975-1983

If your old Sportster is showing oil on the top of the fork sliders, it's time to replace the fork seals. Don't put it off because it'll just get worse--if the oil starts dripping onto the brake caliper and rotor, you could lose braking.

Replace Fork Seals Sportster 1976

This article covers fork seal replacement on a 1976 Sportster XLH. The procedure is the same for all disc-brake equipped Ironhead Sportsters 1973 up, but 1973-1974 Sportsters have different fork seals than 1975 and up models.

Motorcycle Shop vs DIY

Most dealerships charge $300 to $400 to replace fork seals, which is an hour or two of their labor plus the price of the seals and fork oil. And if you have a 40+ year-old bike, is not uncommon for a shop to decline the work.

Chances are if you're reading this article, you're thinking of replacing the fork seals yourself. It can be a time consuming task, but on the other hand, it's an opportunity to learn new skills and save a few hundred bucks.


Fork Seal Replacement

On Sportsters with Showa forks, removal of the front forks is required when replacing fork seals. This will involve removing the front wheel, fender, brakes, and hand controls.

You'll need to prop up the front of the bike while you have the bottom forks removed. A motorcycle lift stand makes jobs like this much easier, but you can use a floor jack under the frame.

If your speedometer cable goes to your front wheel, it needs to be removed.

The next step is to drain the old fork oil. On Sportsters, the drain plug is a small Phillips-head screw on the bottom of the slider-tubes near the axle.

Please dispose of old fork oil responsibly. You can discard it with regular motor oil.

draining fork oil

Remove Lower Fork From Upper Fork

With the bike securely on my motorcycle stand, I raised the front of the bike with a scissor jack until the front wheel was free. I used extra tie-downs to ensure the bike was secure.

Remove the axle nut and push the axle out of the wheel using a mallet or hammer and a piece of wood. Remove the wheel from the front forks. Either write down a diagram on how the spacers came off, or arrange them neatly in the order removed.

removing Sportster fork slider bolt

Remove the large cap nuts on the top of the fork tubes. Use the correct size socket on the cap to prevent damage to the nut. The cap is under mild spring tension; use caution when removing the cap.

The slider bolt, or pinch bolt, is located at the bottom of the fork tube inside the axle saddle. Removing the fork slider lower bolt on the Sportster required a 6mm Allen socket.

remove Sportster fork slider bolt

Pull the fork tube out of the slider, and drain out any residual fork oil.

Fork Seal Replacement Tools

Sportsters with Showa forks have lock-rings over the fork seals, which require snap-ring pliers to remove. Other tools required are some sort of seal driver to put the new seal in. These can be bought, usually as a kit, or can be fabricated from PVC pipe.

fork seal E-clip

Remove Old Fork Seal From Fork

Fork seals can be pretty stubborn to remove, especially if they've been in there for 30+ years. You may get lucky and they may come out by prying them with a dull flat-tip screwdriver. If not, there are several methods to get them out.

remove fork seal from fork

These old fork seals wouldn't budge, so I carefully cut slices in them with a cut-off wheel, and then pried them out. If you do this, be careful you don't cut into the inner or outer surface of the slider - the aluminum is fairly soft and easy to gauge.

remove fork seal from fork

Another way to remove stuck fork seals is to thread a screw into them, then try to pull them out using the head of the screw as the fulcrum.

Some techs will apply heat to the outside of the fork slider, which softens the seal. Either a heat gun or propane torch would work with this method.


Fork Inspection

Once the seal is out, wash the lower fork out with cleaner and a rag. Inspect the uppers for nicks, burrs, and pitting in the chrome.

It's important to check the inside of the lower forks for any nicks or dings. Minor scratches can be cleaned up with a small piece of Emory paper.


Fork Seal Kit

The best quality fork seals for Showa forks are from James Gasket, part # 45849-75. Fits 1975 through 1983 Sportsters, as well as 1975 through 1983 Harley FX models.

Replace Fork Seals Sportster 1975

Shop: Harley Sportster Fork Seals


Install Fork Seals

Lightly moisten the inner surface of the new seal with fresh fork oil. Carefully slip it over the top of the stanchion and slide it down to the slider.

If you have a seal driver set, drive the seal into the slider. If not, find a suitable substitute. I scrounged around the garage and found an old small-block Chevy balancer. The outer diameter fit perfectly.

Sportster fork seal installation

Replace the oil seal lock-ring shiny side down. Ensure it has snapped correctly into the ring groove.

Remember to re-install the dust seals before putting the lower forks back on!

Slide the fork slider onto the fork tube, and fasten the original screw and washer. The factory manual called for my fork slider screw to be at 11 ft-lbs.

Reinstall the front wheel onto the fork sliders. Make sure that spacers are reinstalled in the correct locations. Replace the axle nut, fork slider cap nuts, being careful not to cross-thread the nuts.

Re-install the speedometer cable and brake caliper. Tighten the axle nut - check your shop manual for specific year and model.


Install New Fork Oil

Use 20 weight for average conditions. For extreme conditions, use either 10 weight or 30 weight accordingly.

Dry fork requires .5 to 1.0 ounces more than the wet amount due to residual oil left clinging inside the fork.

WET: Means you just drained the oil out of the plug and want to refill it.

DRY: Means you disassembled the forks and cleaned them dry inside and out.

Another way to measure is to push the forks down all the way while the caps are off, and fill it to 5" below the upper edge of the fork tubes.


Polish Fork Legs

Sportster forks before and after polishing

Now would be a good time to clean up the forks.

Read: How To Polish Aluminum Motorcycle Parts


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