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Take a peek through the toolboxes of professional mountain bike, cyclocross and road race mechanics and you’ll likely find one common specific tool – the Knipex Pliers Wrench. This tool combines the flat and parallel jaws of an adjustable spanner (aka, crescent wrench) with the leverage, secure holding and easy adjustment of a multi-grip plier. It’s a tool that first earned wide appraisal with plumbers, air-con specialists and other tradies, and has since found a similar hardcore following amongst professional bicycle mechanics.
And while a single Pliers Wrench can replace the need for whole sets of spanners and sometimes even sockets, its jaw width has been a limiting factor with bicycle mechanics. After all, bicycles call for some uniquely thin spanners when hubs, rim brake calipers, threaded headsets and even pedals are involved.
This is exactly what lead professional race mechanic Will Bryan down the path of a custom tool some four years ago. Since then, that tool has been spoken about amongst top-level race mechanics as if it were a unicorn in the wild. More recently another race mechanic (and aeronautical engineer) Erik Cho crossed paths with Bryan after years of hearing about and searching for the mythical tool, and now, with the pair working together, the 2mm thick Knipex Pliers Wrench Mod — or as I like to call it, the Pliers (Cone) Wrench — is no longer vapourware.
- Too long, didn’t read?
- What is it? A modified adjustable spanner that’s just 2mm thick, the same as a cone wrench, with the easy functionality of pliers
- Why? One tool to replace over a dozen others, that can also be squeezed onto the fastener.
- What’s the weight? 236g (180mm version)
- Size range? 0-35mm (180mm version, larger versions available)
- How much? US$150. Yep, it’s a pro tool.
Where it began
For Will Bryan, the idea originated while he was working full time for the USA national cycling team. “I had an amalgamation of bikes and material to maintain that required a large spectrum of tools,” he says. “The difficulty, of course, was keeping my toolbox manageable and compliant with the 50lb [23kg] weight limit of airlines.
“I was the head mechanic for the track team before the Rio Olympics and needed to keep a full pair of cone wrenches to ensure I could work on the variety of axles and aero extensions that came my way.
“The drawback to all those separate wrenches was not only the space and weight, but also not being able to make rapid adjustments whether at a race or on-the-clock at the wind tunnel. I searched for an adjustable cone wrench but didn’t see anything worthwhile.
“The Knipex, with its quality steel and fast action, fit the bill. The only problem was the width of the jaws. I decided to machine them down so I could have the exact tool I needed, no compromise.”
After some research, Bryan found that electrical discharge machining or EDM was the ideal process to remove the excess width from the steel tool jaws. According to Erik Cho, “Electrical Discharge Machining is using rapid electrical discharges or sparks between two electrodes, that are submerged or flooded in a dielectric fluid, to erode material and the fluid carries the debris away. While there are a few types of EDM such as Die-sinker and fast hole drilling, Will and I use wire EDM for the Knipex mod which employs a brass wire under de-ionized water.“
Speaking of the EDM process, Bryan said “it is super precise, relatively quick, and doesn’t ruin the temper of the steel. The drawback, of course, is the price (it’s extremely heavy on the electricity bill…).”
With the finer details sorted, Bryan found a few like-minded people online to justify producing a small first batch. “I wanted spare sets in case mine got lost,” he says. “I did a production of 10 units and all of them went to fellow race mechanics. I never did end up with that spare set.”
Those 10 tools have been circling the world since, and apparently, standing up just fine to daily abuse. “I’ve used my original pliers almost daily for the past four years,” Bryan explains, “fixing everything from delicate bike components to team cars.”
“I’d heard about the pliers wrench mod back in 2016, but had no clue what it looked like,” says Erik Cho. “It was always a piece of gear that everyone (mechanics) were talking about. Regardless of support disciplines — road race, mountain bike, touring alike — no one really likes to work late into the night so I’ll take anything that will help complete tasks a little faster”. Unfortunately for Cho, his search for the elusive tool proved unsuccessful.
Vincent Gee, a former team mechanic with US Postal, worked with Will Bryan at USA Cycling. He was one of the lucky first ten to own the modded tool, and recently acquired a second. He explained that he doesn’t use them too much, but that they’re great when working with track riders. “Sprinters can really move a wheel, I can put this tool on the inside nut and tighten the axle nut a LOT,” explained Gee.
Prior to the start of this 2019, there were just 10 of these tools in the world. That changed when Bryan and Cho met while wrenching at the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, a seven-day journey down the California coast to San Diego.
“The mods are now done by both Will and I,” said Cho. “Will just restarted modifications on his end in Colorado with a machinist and I do all of the machining myself here in the San Francisco Bay Area. After meeting Will last year, he graciously gave me permission to start replicating them and now he too is doing them, again.
“It is very much a joint venture for those who are race mechanics, shop wrench, anyone who needs or wants this tool.”
Unfortunately for Bryan and Cho, the Pliers Wrench Mod arrives at a time when threaded headsets and hub cones are a rarity to those who own new bikes. Still, professional mechanics regularly find need for thin cone and headset spanners, and these could prove to be yet another favourite tool in the quiver.
For Bryan, his creation still serves a specific purpose.
“The pliers are designed for the traveling mechanic but they are not out of place in the shop,” he says. “A traditional cone wrench can offer some better leverage and the Knipex does require more grip strength to keep the cam from moving when applying torque. But if you can’t get a fixture to turn or some metal to bend with these you should probably ride your bike less and pick up some weights. Or the job requires a bench vice and hammer.”
Perhaps the only thing preventing these from ruining the sales of cone wrench sets is the price. The German-made Knipex Pliers Wrench is an expensive item to begin with (typically upwards of US$65), and obviously, a modified version costs more. Fancy your own cone wrench multitool? Expect to pay US$150 (inc. domestic US shipping) — double what a 14-piece Park Tool Shop Cone Wrench set sells for.
“Knipex mod primarily negates having a big set of cone wrenches, reduces clutter/weight, and improves workflow efficiency,” says Cho. “I use them for those who have cup and cone hubs, bending rotors and centering single pivot rim calipers.
“I just want to make simple solutions to unnecessarily complicated problems.”
I can’t help but think we’ll be seeing more from this duo.