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by David Rome
November 29, 2018
Photography by David Rome
TECH NEWS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BIKEEXCHANGE
Having been in the business of making bike tools and workshop equipment since 1963, Park Tool is undisputedly the market leader in the category. Walk into any bike shop across the US or further abroad, and you’ll likely see a peg board filled with those trademarked blue handles. So strong and comprehensive is Park Tool’s product offering that you’ll have a tough time putting together a full complement of professional service tools without having a few Park pieces in the mix.
CyclingTips tech writer (and tragic tool nerd) Dave Rome has been wrenching with Park Tool’s Advanced Mechanic Toolkit, the AK-3, for a couple of months (and has used nearly all the individual tools previously) to find what it does well, what it misses, and if it’s something worth buying.
All of this is included inside the AK-3 box.
With over 400 tools in the company’s catalog, Park Tool has a deep well of products to choose from when assembling its toolkits. The Advanced Mechanic AK-3, with over 40 tools included, sits toward the bottom of Park Tools’ toolkit range, with the relatively limited SK-3 Starter Kit below it, and a number of larger, and more professional-minded, kits above it.
While I’m a proponent of building up your own toolkit piece by piece with quality tools as you need them, there’s something appealing about a pre-made toolkit. You can buy one with minimal prior knowledge, and most of the time, you’ll then have the tools to learn as you go. Assuming you’ll find a use for three-quarters of the tools, it’s cheaper to buy such a kit upfront, too.
The AK-3 sits exactly in this space and offers a smart selection of tools to service a range of modern bikes. Included are not only most of the basics, but also some often ignored tools for maintaining your bikes, and a few more specific tools to do general maintenance or even for building a bike.
The CM-5.2 Cyclone cleaner is a highly useful item, and it’s a tool rarely included in a toolkit.
For example, the chain cleaner, soft cleaning brush, sprocket brush, chain cleaning device, chain wear checker, chain breaker, and master link pliers are all tools likely to be used in regular chain maintenance. Park stops short of providing the cleaning and lubricant chemicals, if for no other reason than to ease shipping logistics.
Standard tools required for regular repairs are included, such as a quality long-length hex key set, a Torx Y-wrench, and common screwdriver sizes. Often forgotten, the tape measure is a nice addition, and the all-important bottle opener is on hand, too.
Tools are provided for other more detailed tasks, such as replacing cables, truing wheels, adjusting cup-and-cone hubs, and replacing a Shimano/SRAM cassette. You’ll also be able to service the vast majority of cranksets and threaded bottom brackets with this kit.
The provided toolbox provides space for a few additional tools.
Where so many competing kits use a dedicated blow-moulded plastic case or specific tool loops, Park’s basic plastic toolbox has the obvious benefit of offering more space for additions, and to fit the oddly shaped chain cleaning device and brush. Such a case may not be as impressive to open, but I’m of the belief that it’s more practical than a case with a fixed tool layout.
When testing toolkits, I like to see how often I need to grab other tools during common repairs and bike work; this quickly gives you a sense of what’s missing. Credit to Park Tool: the pile of additional tools I needed was limited. These included a pair of scissors, a pick or sharpened spoke for removing seals and opening cut cable housing ends, and either a valve nut tool or a pair of needle-nose pliers. All of these tools are small and relatively cheap to buy, but given Park offers all of these, it would be nice to see them squeeze such things in, even if it raises the price slightly.
It’s surprising to me that Park Tool doesn’t include its valve core tool and a basic seal pick (though a tiny flat blade screwdriver is given). The lack of a torque wrench and even scissors is more easily excused.
Additionally, given cleaning brushes and a CM-5.2 chain cleaning device are supplied, I missed not having a dummy hub to hold the chain in place without the rear wheel. This is another product that Park Tool offers, and a good one at that. As is commonly the case due to cost, there’s no torque wrench for safe bolt tightening; adding something like Park Tool’s ATD-1 would be a great addition. And while a little heavy and something you should already own, a soft-faced hammer is sometimes the perfect tool. Like many of the tools mentioned above, it’s something Park produces and includes in more expensive kits, but not here.
Those working on disc brakes will find the common rotor straightening fork and pad/piston press to be missing, too. While I use these tools myself, the included adjustable spanner can be used in a pinch, and a large flat blade screwdriver (also not supplied) in place of the press. Dedicated tools are nice to have, but in this case, it’s not a deal-breaker.
Where the absolute limits of this kit are realised is when building a bike with any press-fit surfaces. There’s no press or bearing puller tools here, and so dedicated installation or removal tools for bottom brackets or headsets will require further investment or a step-up to Park Tool’s Professional grade kits (which are over double the price). This is fairly common, and kits that offer such specific tools, such as PRO’s Toolbox XL, are few and far between.
Additionally, if you’re a Campagnolo user, you’ll need to add a compatible cassette lockring tool, a more expensive chain breaker, and a long-reach 10mm hex key, as with nearly every other kit on the market.
A number of tools in this kit are the same as what you’ll find used in professional shops, and a smaller handful are pieces you’d find for sale within a shop, but maybe not used by the mechanics. I’d describe many of Park’s tools as the cycling equivalent of brands like Kincrome (Australia), Craftsman, or Silverline (UK). There are often more expensive options out there (and many cheaper choices), but you’ll still find examples of these brands in the toolboxes of many professional automotive mechanics. With correct use, the tools in the kit are likely to last a home mechanic a lifetime.
Many of Park Tool’s non-cycling specific tools are sourced from other tool manufacturers. Below is a mid-price Kincrome adjustable spanner that’s sold at Australia’s largest hardware store chain. Above is Park Tool’s included adjustable spanner. The Park Tool is plastic dipped, but is otherwise identical.
Park Tool outsources the manufacturing on a number of lower-end and consumer grade tools to tool specialists in Asia, while many of its professional-grade stuff is made in-house, at its St. Paul, Minnesota headquarters. In the case of a mid-tier kit like the AK-3 Advanced, the contents inside are a mix of domestic and international produced items.
The cable cutter is a quality item with cold-forged and CNC-ground blades.
Some of the more regularly used tools, such as the hex keys, Torx Y-wrench, and cable cutter are the same as what Park Tool sells for professional use. The hex keys are a simple L-shaped 1.5-10mm set, but offer great leverage and tight tolerances. Park Tool hasn’t confirmed this, but from what I can tell, the set is likely made in the US by hex-key specialist Bondhus (who also manufactures hex keys for Snap-On and Felo).
Likewise, the cable cutter is a quality item and provides a clean cut on both inner and outer cables. And the included CC-3.2 chain wear checker is an item I often recommend owning, as is the CM-5.2 Cyclone chain cleaning tool.
The kit leaves little to complain about, but there are always things that could be better.
The pedal wrench and chain whip don’t provide as much leverage and are less comfortable to use when compared to the pro-grade tools Park Tool offers. Likewise, I’ve always found the included BBT-9 bottom bracket wrench to be on the short side, too. Bottom brackets are often installed at the factory with incredible torque, and so more leverage on this tool would be welcomed, especially given the plastic bearing preload tool at the other end of the tool sits at the very edge of where you want to apply the force.
If you don’t have body mass on your side, you may need to invest in a bottom bracket socket and a long-handled ratchet handle.
This is one element I don’t understand. Why put a socket wrench at the opposite end of the chain whip? Half the time you need it, you can’t use it.
Whereas most of my complaints with the AK-3 are pretty minor, the design of the combination chain whip and socket handle (SR-12) is just plain silly. At the opposite end of the chain whip is a one-inch socket designed to hold the cassette lockring tool. However, half the time you use this is in conjunction with the chain whip. This makes the socket handle feature a waste, and Park Tool could likely reduce the cost and weight of this kit by putting a different tool, such as the pedal wrench, in its place (as is done with its cheapest chain whip).
Thankfully, a large adjustable spanner is provided, so it’s not that you can’t perform the task of removing the cassette – although Abbey Bike Tools’ Crombie wrench has ruined me here, and it pains me to pick up three separate tools (chain whip, cassette lockring, and adjustable spanner) when the task can be done with just two.
Park Tool also includes with the AK-3 a glueless patch kit and tyre boots, both of which are some of the best on the market. But while both can be useful, I’d rather see them replaced with proper tools, such as a valve tool, seal pick, or scissors. Patch kits are cheap, though, and so Park may have simply included these because they could add value without impacting the price.
Either way, credit must be given to Park Tool’s impressive collection of free “how to” content on its website, including a successful YouTube channel. Yes, you can use this information with other brands of tools, but you’ll likely gain confidence in being told exactly how and where to use the tools included in this kit.
So is it worth buying a full set of tools like this? I’d liken such a toolkit to buying a socket set from the local hardware store. You’ll likely use 20% of the included pieces a lot, while the rest sit there awaiting a just-in-case moment. If you’ve got one bike and just want to change your chain, I wouldn’t bother with a complete kit like this. However, if you’ve got a family’s worth of bikes – or a bunch of bikes yourself – you’re sure to find use for many, if not all, of the included items.
I don’t believe there are any wasted selections in this kit, either; everything serves a common purpose across many modern bikes. For most users, simply adding a work stand, your chain lube of choice, a degreaser, and some grease will be all that’s needed to create a versatile home setup.
If you’re seeking an even more portable set of tools, then something like the Feedback Sports Team Edition kit is well worth a look. Its wallet-like case can be stored beneath a car seat.
Compared to the likes of Pedro’s Apprentice Toolkit or Feedback Sports’ Team Edition toolkit, which sell for US$250, the AK-3 (US$310 / AU$500) justifies its higher asking price with a useful collection of cleaning and maintenance tools. For example, the chain wear checker, chain cleaner, and chain link pliers are all tools you’ll eventually use.
If you’re after a portable collection of tools and don’t care for the regular maintenance stuff, then the 5.67kg starting weight of this set may not be something you want to be carrying out to race starts or trying to hide in your car. In that case, the Feedback Sports Team Edition toolkit includes tools that are equal in quality, or at least only slightly off from what Park provides in the AK-3. However, the soft case is clever, and it also hits a competitive price.
Park Tool has done well with its AK-3 kit, though, and if you’re keen to get started in the world of home maintenance, it’ll serve you well. In some aspects, it’s the benchmark of kits, but depending on what you’re wanting to do, there may be some gaps in what’s included, or items you’ll never use. But if you don’t own any bicycle or chain maintenance tools and are keen to get your hands dirty, then this is an easy pick.
This included sticker may be a little aspirational, but the contents of this kit are a great start if your goal is to become a mechanic.
Park Tool includes two brushes with this kit: one with soft bristles for the frame/wheels, and a second for cleaning the chain and cogs. The cog brush is a personal favourite for cleaning cassettes and chainrings.
The CC-3.2 chain wear checker is an item I obsessively suggest to anyone that rides a bike. Keeping an eye on your chain wear can yield huge savings by preventing undue wear to more expensive drivetrain parts.
It’s highly likely that Park Tool outsources its hex manufacturing to US-based Bondhus. This is a good move, and while the included hex keys are the cheapest finish of what Bondhus offers, they’re still of a professional quality.
I’ve never loved the Park Tool BBT-9 bottom bracket wrench; it’s often too short and I’ve had interference issues on some frames, too. Instead, my preference is a deep bottom bracket socket and a long breaker bar. However, the BBT-9 will do the trick in most cases and it works perfectly with oversized Center Lock disc-brake lockrings.
The glueless patches and tyre boot are nice items, but are most appropriate for emergency use.
Park Tool produces some of my favourite tyre levers. These plastic TL-1.2 levers are super strong, easy to use, and won’t scratch your rims.
Park Tool’s spoke wrenches are almost a staple item of any service centre. The kit includes the two most common sizes.
The plastic box feels solid, with a secure and comfortable handle.