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by Dave Rome
October 2, 2018
Photography by David Rome
TECH NEWS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BIKEEXCHANGE
A chain is one of the most common wear items on a bike and replacing it isn’t all that hard. All you need is some basic knowledge and the right tool.
That tool is a chain breaker. Chains are made up of a series of inner and outer plates, each held together with metal pins (rivets) that are surrounded by a washer (roller). A chain breaker works by pressing a chain pin out to disconnect a chain, and if required, driving in a new connecting pin to put it back together.
For such a simple tool, it’s amazing how many chain breakers fail to meet expectations. Some tools are sloppy, others don’t consistently drive straight, and some are just weak. Our own self-confessed toolaholic, Dave Rome, tested as many chain breakers as he could get his hands on. Which ones don’t make the cut? Read on to find out.
I feel strongly about quality tools that not only make the task at hand easier and the outcome more precise, but that you only have to buy once. Filling a large container with broken chain pieces, I spun, popped and chopped my way through back-to-back testing of 15 chain breakers, each priced under US$50 and aimed at the home mechanic.
While all the tools tested are capable of pushing a pin in and out of a chain link, they certainly do so with varying degrees of ease, comfort, reliability, and repeatability. A great chain breaker should be a tool that you simply drop a chain link into, and without having to think about it, drive the pin. Although the task seems straightforward, a poor chain breaker whose design doesn’t pay attention to detail may leave you with a bent chain pin, a scrapped chain, and/or a broken tool.
I sought to find the chain tools that offered the easiest, most comfortable, and carefree removal of stubborn chain pins. Durability absolutely played a factor, too, along with any additional features that might prove useful.
Qualitative testing proved too inconsistent. My test method used an accurate digital torque wrench to read peak torque, combined with an articulating oil filter wrench to turn the handle. However, this test was greatly influenced by handle thickness, and completely ignored the available leverage and actual comfort of the tool – often meaning the measured effort was nearly inverse to the perceived effort. As a result, the test was thrown out.
The winners were decided on an averaged score based on perceived value for money, comfort, ease of use, and durability. The value score was the most subjective, based on how well the tool functions, the general build quality, and what features are offered at the asking price. So, for example, some tools that include the ability to peen Campagnolo chain pins at a low price got a bump in this area, while the likes of Shimano’s tool, which functions wonderfully but has fewer features, took a hit.
What’s obvious is that of all of those tested, there is no perfect option. Additionally, it was a closely fought battle, and so you’ll find success with any of the picks at the pointy end.
A chain breaker isn’t a complex tool to use. If you take your time to ensure that the tool’s pin is driving the chain pin squarely, you’ll unlikely run into issues. Often the cheaper chain breakers require more care, while the better tools are better at self-aligning the chain for more reliably trouble-free operation.
However, sizing a new chain to length is a topic that deserves its own article. Visit Park Tool’s help section for specific guides in how to do this. Before you get to that stage, check out this easy guide on checking for chain wear. And if you’re planning on breaking a chain for preventive maintenance, then I’d advise against it unless you’re using a chain quick link. Learn more in our complete guide to chain cleaning.
Chain quick links: A guide to easy connection
This wouldn’t be the ultimate chain breaker test without briefly geeking out over the finer details to consider when shopping for a chain breaker.
Not all chain breakers will work with all chains. Often, the number of sprockets on your cassette will determine what chain breaker you’ll need, with chains often measuring narrower than older ones. A 12-speed chain is narrower than an 11-speed one, for example. The summary table (see below) will help sort tool-and-chain compatibility at a glance. Confusingly, though, some chain tools rated for 11-speed tool use will also work with the latest 12-speed chains.
Some of the tools tested self-adjust to accommodate multiple chain widths, using either a sliding chain shelf or a threaded backing plate that allows the user to manually set up the stop for the chain. Simpler tools generally use a fixed design and have more limited versatility.
All work and have their benefits, but I must warn that the tools with threaded backing plates must be used with care, and are therefore slower and more of a fiddle. If the threaded part is not adjusted correctly against the chain, it’s easy to damage the chain, the tool, or both.
Size = leverage
The tools tested vary greatly in size. However, as proven by the results, there’s more to it than leverage.
In most cases, chain breaker size is proportionate to price. Spend more and the tools often get larger. The increased size means greater leverage and increased comfort in the hand. With newer chains featuring extremely tightly-set pins, that increased leverage can certainly help.
However, there are obvious exceptions to this. For example, the X-Tools chain breaker tested is one of the heaviest tested, but reveals clear budget constraints in the build quality. Likewise, the Shimano TL-CN28 tool is small and mostly made of plastic, yet functions amazingly well.
If you’re seeking a chain breaker to fit in an emergency kit, then you’ll obviously favour one that’s lighter and smaller. Such tools weren’t the focus of this test, but a few of the more popular compact options were still included for good measure. Do note that the smaller size makes these tools harder to use, and so while they’ll work in a pinch, there are better options for the home workshop.
A key piece to any chain breaker is the tool’s pin. This skinny pin is used to drive the chain pin and is a common point of failure. Most of the tools tested feature replaceable pins, and some even include a spare. Consider how readily available spare pins are, as it’d be a shame to throw away the whole tool over such a small part.
The tool pin can be fixed or freely spinning. Fixed chain pins thread in place (or are permanently bonded), while free chain pins are help captive by a small lockring, and typically rotate on a ball bearing. The later is something commonly seen with pro-grade tools and so the feature is often assumed to be superior. However, some of the best functioning tools on test feature a fixed pin.
Campagnolo chain breakers?
If you own or ever work on Campagnolo components, you’ll need a compatible chain breaker. All the chain breakers tested will work just fine with 9 and 10-speed Campagnolo chains. Likewise, many will be able to shorten 11 and 12-speed Campagnolo chains. However, those 11 and 12-speed chains require the chain pin to be peened after installation. This is a specific feature and not all that common at the tested price.
Some tools feature a second chain shelf, with the extra shelf used for loosening tight links. I manipulate the chain in my hands instead, and most pro tools simply do without the feature.
Given that pin failure is common, tools with spare pin storage help to ensure you can keep going after failure. You can easily do without this feature, but tool pins are small and it’s nice to keep them in a known spot.
A chain hook is used to hold the ends of a chain together when you’re driving in a new pin. Such a tool can be produced by simply bending an old spoke, but it’s nice that a few tools include it so you don’t have to bother. Again, it’s not a feature you’ll find on pro-grade tools, but it is seen on a few here.
The top three tools all ended up with the same numerical score, but Birzman still took the top honours due to its combination of comfort, ease of use, and value for money. And despite breaking enough chains that it got hot to touch, it remained perfectly straight and functional.
Next in line is Unior’s Professional chain tool. While smaller than the Birzman, this tool features the most precise build quality on test. However, that build quality is not an exact match between the two samples I had on hand. It’s also often more expensive, whereas many of the other choices can be found on discount.
While the placement doesn’t indicate it, my absolute favourite to use was the Shimano CN28. Despite its small size, it was the easiest and smoothest breaker to use. This one is the pocket rocket of the test, but is surprisingly expensive and that non-replaceable pin is a bummer, which is why it sits in this position and not first.
Park Tool’s CT-3.2 could have taken this test if it weren’t for the sloppy fitting chain shelf. Oddly enough, it always self-centred and drove the pin where it needed to go. With a full metal construction and great chain compatibility, it should serve a lifetime.
Coming in so very close are the Pedro’s Apprentice and PRO chain breakers. Find one at a good price, or buy it simply due to colour, and you won’t be disappointed.
Note that none of these top picks will peen Campagnolo 11 or 12-speed chains – a sign of the price. If you require such a feature, either spend beyond US$50 or accept the compromises and pick the X-Tools or BBB ProfiConnect. The BBB is the better-made tool, but the X-Tools (generic offering from Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle and Bike24) is often available on sale (at the time of writing this, it’s just US$20 / AU$31).
And if you want something to accompany a multi-tool on a ride, then get the Park Tool CT-5. It’s simply the best pocket chain breaker.
Want to spend more? Pro-grade chain tools often include Campagnolo peening, generous handles, easy use and increased build quality. I also tested professional-grade tools from Park Tool, Pedro’s, and Shimano, but the highest score earned was still only an 8.5 (Park Tool CT-4.3 Master). In other words, you can certainly spend more than the US$50 cap imposed here, but you’re not likely to actually get much more for your money (unless you spend much more).
And if you want the details on each of the chain breakers tested, read on.
With a unique aesthetic and one of the smoothest threads on test, this tool surprised me. The chain shelf is sprung for automatic multi-speed compatibility, but its captive design makes it more precise than the sliding shelves used on the Park Tool and Feedback items. Ergonomics are great, as is the aluminium construction. Admittedly, I’ve had mixed results with Birzman stuff over the years, but this one excels.
Pros: Ease of use, comfort, and durability.
Cons: Hard to find in certain markets, chain shelf has play in it. Campagnolo peening is reserved for the more expensive model.
This is the only tested tool that’s made in Europe; it also features a durable, one-piece cast construction. I had access to two samples: one had the most precise-feeling threading on test, while the other was closer to that of similarly ranked tools. The high quality, hardened pin is long and spins on a ball bearing. Under load, the short handles require more force compared to other premium tools, but it’s certainly efficient enough.
Pros: Build quality, ease of use, reasonable comfort.
Cons: No Campagnolo peening on a self-proclaimed pro tool, surprisingly small for a pro-grade tool
Leverage isn’t everything in a chain breaker, and this tool is proof of that. Despite its stubby plastic handles, this is one of the easiest and smoothest tools to use, easily rivalling professional tools. However, like the Topeak Universal, this lacks a replaceable pin. Instead, Shimano sells complete handle assemblies in case of (rare) pin issues. Redeeming this tool is that the pin is impressively strong, pro-grade in fact, and unlikely to need replacement under amateur use. It’s a simple tool, done really well.
Pros: Amazingly smooth and easy use, super precise
Cons: Price, pin isn’t cheap to replace
This is the newest version of what’s likely the most commonly found shop chain tool in the world. That’s for good reason, too, thanks to a tough cast steel body, a plastic-dipped metal handle, a strong replaceable pin, and a smooth-turning thread. However, it’s somewhat spoiled by a sloppy-fitting sliding chain shelf. That chain shelf does self-centre under load rather reliably, but it is also still somewhat prone to misalignment, which can cause the tool pin to jam and unwind itself (something that happened once, after over 30 uses). Still, it’s one of the most foolproof tools going and will work with nearly every chain on the market, but it won’t peen Campagnolo chains.
Pros: Strong build quality and easy to use, chain compatibility, well priced
Cons: Wobbly chain shelf spoils the deal
Don’t let the size or plastic construction fool you; this is an effective chain tool. PRO is the consumer arm of Shimano, and this shares the same hardened steel pin (a spare is provided in the handle) and ball bearing that you’ll find in Shimano’s pro-grade tool. The materials stop this from being a shop tool, but it’s a solid pick for the home mechanic.
Pros: Quality pin and chain shelf, simple to use and easier than the size reveals, spare pin provided in body, price,
Cons: Plastic handles, hard to find in certain markets.
Sharing the same body and handle as the $30 more expensive Pedro’s Pro tool, this Apprentice tool immediately feels like a quality item in the hand. Where the Pro version offers Campagnolo peening and a patented spring-loaded pin housing that clamps the chain in place, the Apprentice version is greatly pared back. Still, what you get is a solid tool which holds the chain snug. The oxide coating on the thread, along with a rotating pin without a bearing behind it lead to a rough and heavy feel under load, preventing a better ranking.
Pros: Good ergonomics, solid construction.
Cons: Rough feeling thread, high price given the simple features.
The Lezyne Classic Chain Drive is arguably the classiest looking contender with its large wooden body handle, cast steel body and polished handle. It’s the nearest visual match to the tools priced out of this test. Like the other Lezyne tool tested, this suffers from a low chain shelf, but makes up for it with a threaded backing to lock in the chain. That wooden handle is hollow and stores a spare pin. Appearances had me thinking this would be a test upsetter, but a lack of Campagnolo peening, a sloppy feeling thread and a need to lock the chain in with the threaded backing all take some joy away.
Pros: Classy to look at, works with any speed chain, mega leverage, comfortable handles.
Cons: Not that quick to use, sloppy fit, no Campagnolo peening feature.
This is effectively a higher quality version of the X-Tools Pro Rivet Extractor below. It offers a separate (and stronger) Campagnolo rivet peener (just don’t lose it!), a chain hook and more comfortable use. Also, the pin is longer and chamfered, staving off signs of mushrooming for a handful more uses than the X-Tools below. The two are clearly out of the same factory, but the increased price for the BBB version is warranted.
Pros: Super comfortable and with great leverage, feature packed for the money.
Cons: Threaded backing means it’s still a fiddle to use, separate Campagnolo Peening bit is easily lost.
This somewhat generic tool can be found online for impressively low prices. It shares a near identical body to BBB’s ProfiConnect, and offers leverage and comfort that’s competitive with far more expensive tools. Smashing price expectations, a spare pin and Campagnolo peening insert are included. The thread depth collar on the handle is a feature only found on this and the BBB tool, and isn’t something I’ve found a need for. The pin is surprisingly stubby and mushroomed during testing, while the threaded backing plate is more a fiddle than a true benefit. The general finish quality matches the low cost, but this tool should serve the occasional home mechanic well.
Pros: Astonishing feature list for the (often discounted) price, comfortable to use.
Cons: Low-cost build quality, pin durability woes and adjustable backing plate makes it a fiddle to use.
This shiny tool features a similar shape body to Park Tool’s CT-3.2, but with a more comfortable, albeit plastic, handle. The spring-loaded chain shelf provides fool-proof multi-speed adjustment, but as mentioned in my review of the Feedback Sports Team Edition toolkit, this feature is ruined by the closed body design. Once a joining pin is pushed through, it can be tricky to remove the chain from the tool. Feedback needs to open up the pin exit area like every other tool on test.
Pros: Easy and comfortable leverage, fair price
Cons: Closed body design traps chains with freshly installed connecting pins. Flexy plastic handles.
This tool offers a large sliding hollow aluminium handle, solid feeling construction and a Campagnolo peening anvil that simply flips into place when needed. The handle stores a spare pin (captured to not fall out) and a quality chain hook. The thread is reasonably free of play and smooth. There’s lots to like about this tool, but it’s let down by what seems like soft pins. I bent two in quick order. So close Topeak.
Pros: Full featured, easy Campagnolo pin peening without an extra part to lose, good size
Cons: Pin durability
Though Park Tool’s CT-5 Mini is the smallest and lightest chain breaker on test, it proved durable enough for home use. At just 76g, it’s easily pocketable and is commonly found accompanying multi-tools in trail-side repair kits. The replaceable pin is identical to that used in the CT-3.2 chain breaker and offers smooth and consistent usage. The tiny size and poky handle mean it’s best kept for emergency use, but that aside, it’s the closest mini chain breaker to a shop quality tool I’ve used.
Pros: Size and weight, price, proven design, great durability, readily available replacement pins
Cons: Poky handle and tiny size leaves minimal leverage
This was a hard one to categorize, but at under 100g, I put it here. A spare chain pin and chain hook are included, both carried in the rubber-coated body. The Nautilus offers a smooth thread and a threaded back support, allowing fine adjustment for various chain types. The pin quickly mushroomed, though, which suggests that the metal used isn’t as hard as it could be. Care must also be taken to ensure the threaded back is supporting the chain correctly. It’s a good low-cost option, but not without compromise.
Pros: Price, plenty of features and great compatibility thanks to the threaded back support.
Cons: Too large to be a pocket tool, and a little compromised as a home workshop item.
With four spoke wrenches integrated into the body, the Lezyne Chain Drive is clearly made as a functional travel or emergency tool. The quality, size, or weight isn’t as good as the Park CT-5, but it does the job. It features a comfortable body handle and a replaceable pin (a spare is included). The small chain shelf means care must be taken to ensure the pin is driven straight.
Pros: Offers multiple tools, comfortable use, price, spare pin included
Cons: Compact chain shelf can cause alignment woes, rubber end caps used to hold in the sliding handle
The lowest-cost tool on test, this little 84g chain breaker includes a small chain hook. The handles are long enough to break the toughest chains, but unfortunately, the build quality means this is best used for emergencies only. The threaded body handle unwinds itself (although this is easily remedied with thread retaining compound), and after a few uses, the non-replaceable pin (Topeak sell a replacement handle and pin assembly instead) became mushroomed and then bent. It could still be used after this, but only just.
Pros: Price, included chain hook, good handle length
Cons: General build quality and non-replaceable pin
Got a chain breaker you love? Have any given you something to complain about? Let us know in the comments section below.