Cool Tool Tuesday #3: Building a cycling tool kit – the foundations
Just a few tools y’all should own.
Just a few tools y’all should own.
Imagine that you had the opportunity to start your cycling tool kit from scratch. What tools would you pick first?
It may surprise many, but the tools I’d start with first aren’t cycling-specific. Rather they are the general-purpose hand tools you’d likely find in common across the toolboxes of auto mechanics, electricians, DIYers, and of course, bicycle mechanics.
Being general-purpose, these are tools that you’ll more than likely get wider use from than bicycles alone and so it should be easier to justify spending more for good quality products. Similarly, as these are tools used by multiple industries, you can often find high-quality and high-value options by looking beyond the bicycle industry. Not that there’s anything wrong with the general tools sold by bicycle tool brands (some are genuinely good) – it’s just that better-value tools often exist from specialist companies who play in larger markets.
And true to Cool Tool Tuesday, my goal isn’t to highlight tools that do the job to a satisfactory level, but rather to provide specific recommendations based on what I deem to be the best value and simply best options that can do the job to a professional standard and won’t fail you in the process. There’s enough throw-away junk in our lives; there’s no need to add tools to the list of things that end up in landfill.
Part two of this article is now live. The second part explores many basic cycling-specific tools to own.
These lists are never an easy thing to create because the needs of a rider looking to only perform chain maintenance and change tyres on a single bike are going to be vastly different to someone looking to do full overhauls in a garage filled with a variety of bike styles.
Your individual needs will vary, and while I think the content of this article is relevant to everyone looking to spin a hex key, it’s also quite possible that some of the tools suggested will be of a lower priority to some people. Still, the tools listed here are unlikely to go to waste as your skills improve. And don’t worry: future editions of Cool Tool Tuesday will fill the gaps not covered.
The foundation tools covered here assist with turning, measuring, cutting, gripping, and hitting. And the deeper you get into bike mechanics the more you’ll realise just how repetitive those actions are and how useful the listed tools can be.
A few more quick notes. This article isn’t intended to be a complete list for a starting tool kit, rather you could consider this part one of such a list. Similarly, this article focuses on tools for use when you’re not out riding – more portable options exist. I’m assuming you have the means of inflating a tyre and knowing the pressure it’s inflated to (likewise if you’ve got air-sprung suspension). And the same goes for the basics required for cleaning a chain.
Lastly, anyone reading this series, and wanting to use these tools most efficiently, should already own a repair stand.
While this article focuses on general hand tools, it’s impossible to ignore the number of pre-made cycling tool kits aimed to be one-stop-shops for getting you started. If you truly are starting fresh then some of these tool kits offer an easy and high-value base to build a larger kit from. And you’ll certainly see plenty of overlap in the types of tools I suggest versus what’s included in a pre-made kit.
Some of the pre-assembled kits, such as the Feedback Sports Team Edition kit, Unior Pro Tool Roll Set, Park Tool Advanced Mechanic kit, and Pedro’s Burrito kit (review coming soon) also give you an organised, versatile and carry-friendly storage system.
No matter how good these pre-made kits are, you’re inevitably going to want to add other items that are specifically needed for your bikes. And as is often the case, you’ll be paying for tools that you don’t need – whether that’s because they’re not required for the tasks you’re comfortable doing or because your bikes simply have no use for them.
Then there’s also the simple truth that no one brand of tools is the superior option across all tool types. Sure some brands are a reliable option, some are more consistently better than others, and having them all matchy-matchy is fun too, but there’s also something to be said about building out a kit that’s pieced together based on function and value through proven longevity. And again, when it comes to general tools, often the best options are from outside the cycling world.
Hex keys are the staple tool of any bicycle toolkit or workshop. You simply cannot work on a modern bike without some form of hex key set.
I covered the topic of hex keys in the most recent edition of Cool Tool Tuesday. As a quick refresher, I believe long L-shaped hex keys spanning 1.5-10 mm are the first set that you should own, but there is merit in owning other styles too.
Personally, my favourites are L-shaped hex keys, P-handles, ratchets with 4 and 5 mm drive sizes, and screwdriver style drivers in 2, 2.5, and 3 mm sizes. Your preferences are sure to vary.
Cheap hex keys are far more likely to damage fasteners or fail, so it pays to spend a little more – your bike deserves it.
Modern high-end bikes don’t have much use for screwdrivers, but you’ll certainly need them for anything older or lower-end. And plus, you’ll always find other uses for a screwdriver.
You don’t need a big range of screwdrivers for bicycle work – a couple of cross-head (Phillips) and a couple of slotted blades should do it.
The topic of cross-head screwdrivers deserves its own article as there are a few different fitment standards at play. But in short, most cross-head fasteners found on bicycles are either Phillips or JIS (Japanese International Standard) if older Shimano. Phillips was initially designed for speed in mass manufacturing and was intended to strip the screw instead of allowing the clamped part to be over-torqued. JIS aimed to fix this annoying design element. And this is why using good screwdriver matters.
If you’ve ever stripped out an old Shimano derailleur limit screw just by looking at it weirdly, it’s probably because you were using an old Phillips driver in a JIS screw, or just because the driver you’re using isn’t good.
Where things get trickier is that JIS is a defunct standard that’s been wrapped up into a new ISO standard (ISO 8764-1:2006), and most of the screwdrivers that claim to be “JIS” are just made to meet this newer JIS-compatible standard. Similarly, just because a driver doesn’t specifically mention JIS doesn’t mean it’s not compatible.
So here’s a quick thing to check. If your Phillips or cross-head screwdriver has a noticeably curved radius between the prongs or a sharp tip then it’s of the old Phillips standards and is more likely to strip out a screw from time to time. But you’re probably good if you have a newer driver with more squared corners between the prongs or a blunt edge. Truthfully this can be extremely hard to tell by just looking at the driver you have, and a better test is to ensure there’s a positive engagement between the driver and screw – if the driver lifts up under torque then you can do better.
For Phillips drivers the Vessel Megadora PH1 and PH2 drivers are great with amazingly good fitments. Wera is another good option that makes drivers with a great fit. And my personal favourite is PB Swiss’s Swissgrip, I’m yet to find a handle that’s more comfortable and the fastener fit is reliably secure, too.
Slotted screwdrivers are an equally big topic with different shapes and sizes at play. Gunsmiths will wax lyrical over the benefits of parallel (aka hollow ground) tips versus the ubiquitous tapered screwdrivers. The former provides a tighter fit with a greater surface area in the fastener, while the latter strips screws.
However, tapered screwdrivers – shaped more like a chisel – are typically stronger and better able to handle the misuse slotted screwdrivers often receive. Because of this, parallel-tip screwdrivers remain somewhat of a specialist item.
What I will say is that the flat-head screw used as a retaining pin on Shimano road disc brakes has a reputation for easily stripping. But I honestly believe that many of these issues (not all) could be prevented by using a better-slotted driver with a parallel tip. My most-used slotted screwdriver is a PB Swiss 8100.1-90.
Another household must, a tape measure is a handy tool for setting up the fit of a bike or replicating it over to others.
Many construction tape measures are overbuilt and oversized for bicycle purposes, and I find it far more comfortable to use a shorter 3-5 metre tape versus a 10-15 metre one.
For a long time, I wasn’t all that fussy about tape measures and would even seek out ones with cycling brands that matched my tools. However, I’ve since concluded there is value in buying one designed for trade use as the cheaper tape measures have a habit of getting kinked, twisted and stuck. And some of these cheap tapes aren’t even accurate.
Meanwhile, spend a little more on a Stanley, Lufkin, Starrett, Tajima, Milwaukee, or Dewalt and you’ll have reliable service, good accuracy, and easy handling. And even pro-level tape measures aren’t terribly expensive.
These are a close relation to hex wrenches but instead of a hexagonal interface, they offer a six-pointed star. The design aimed to be an improvement over the regular hex interface by increasing surface area engagement of the tool interface. However, in the bicycle world, Torx is often put to use on shallow fasteners where engagement is limited, and as such, using a quality tool matters.
Those casually working on bicycles are likely to only ever need T10, T25, and T30 sizes. However many other sizes are found on a number of bicycles and bicycle components.
As covered in my Most Loved Products of 2019, it’s my experience that the Euro brands typically do Torx vastly better than the rest, and my opinion hasn’t changed since I said that over two years ago. PB Swiss, Wera, and Wiha will also provide a nice secure fit with even the shallowest and most poorly made Torx fasteners that mechanics have the joy of fighting with.
Perhaps it’s just my poor eyesight or lacklustre workshop lighting, but a small flashlight has proven a gamechanger in my bike fixings. Not only is it good for closely inspecting for external signs of cracks or stress, it’s also the perfect tool for dialling in derailleur alignment gaps, sighting rubbing disc brakes, or checking whether a fastener is a T10 or 3 mm hex. And then if you ever find yourself running cables through a frame you’ll surely want a little extra light, too.
Yep the flashlight on your smart phone works perfectly in a pinch, but I find that a dedicated flashlight allows you to more easily highlight what you want to see and with a better beam in the process. Just watch for overly bright lights as you’ll likely be looking in the direction of the beam – if you do want a super bright flashlight, make sure it offers lower beam settings.
Flashlights are such an everyday item that there are dedicated communities out there who debate over what’s best for when. And just like every time I ever mention a folding knife, the mention of flashlights magically conjures up 10 different recommendations.
While I admittedly haven’t used every flashlight on the market, my favourite for bicycle repairs is a product I also recently included in my 10 Most Loved products of 2021. It’s the Coast A9R rechargeable penlight that at 9.8 mm diameter is small enough to stick down seat tubes or into some frame openings.
For far less money you can get something like the Coast G20 which uses AAA batteries and is a bit more sturdy and better suited for daily carry. Or for more money you can get something like a ThruNite Archer 2A V3 which offers an adjustable beam. Or you can just get the generic-branded one from your supermarket which will probably do the trick, too. You really just need something easy to hold that shines a non-blinding beam.
You quite likely have a pair of scissors in the house, but having a pair dedicated to your cycling kit will ensure they’re handy when you need them.
I use scissors for replacing rim tape, bar tape, and creating rags from old joke T-shirts that I’m now too embarrassed to wear in public. Just don’t use your scissors on zip-ties (more on this below).
I like to own good utility scissors without getting into the world of high-end jewellery-like scissors. That’s because at some point you’re inevitably going to use them on cardboard, paper, or plastic that greatly wears the blades.
I prefer scissors with enough blade length that you can cut your bar tape in a single snip. Something like the Wiss 10” titanium blade has proven to offer a good balance of cost and cutting without cost-cutting – just watch your fingers.
Sometimes you just have to hit things to fix them. Or if you’re Caley Fretz, hitting things is the only way to work on bikes (there’s a niche Nerd Alert podcast reference for you). Whether it’s a stuck crank or driving a bearing removal tool – a hammer is always a hit choice.
Almost any tool can be used as a hammer, but a hammer is the best tool for hammering.
The stereotypical household claw hammer hits things just fine, but a flat-faced mallet is superior for bicycle purposes. There are many kinds of mallet, but my preference is a dual-faced type that offers a soft face on one side, and a metal side on the other. Bonus points for a dead blow design that features a loose weight (often sand or pellets) contained within the head that helps to direct force and dampen the rebound when struck.
Those wanting to get real fancy will find the expensive world of “glammers”. These started in cycling with the Abbey Bike Tools Team Issue titanium hammer which has since led to a number of high-end framemakers and anodising experts doing small batch productions. Some of the more desirable examples are from Rollingdale Cycles, 44Bikes, and Noble Wheels. Certainly good fodder for a future Cool Tool Tuesday.
Of course I’ve dabbled in the glammer game, but I find the function and serviceability of dead blow mallets from other trades tough to beat in practical terms. Something like a PB Swiss 304.4 is a brilliant tool with a unique series of stacked sliding washers that serve the dead blow role. Cheaper again, both Park Tool and Pedro’s offer truly reliable and effective mallet options (although without the loose dead blow weight). Meanwhile, even the cheapest plastic dead blow mallet from your local discount auto parts or hardware store will do the trick, too. A hammer can be fancy, but it doesn’t need to be.
Arguably the ultimate multi-tool, a sharp poker tool can be used to clean out grit from tight spots, replace o-rings, mark things that need to be cut, pick out glass from tyres, and more.
In some industries this tool is called a straight angle seal pick, some may call it an awl, others call it a sharpened spoke.
You can indeed make one yourself with an old spoke and a way to grind an edge in. You can also buy such tools individually or in larger seal pick kits.
My absolute favourite is the PB Swiss 7676.3-80, not for any other reason than the steel they use has proven super durable at holding the sharp point. In my experience, most other tools tend to be either too soft or too brittle.
I’m always surprised by how many people consider a digital calliper or vernier calliper to be a pro-only tool. It’s so useful!
Designed to measure the inside, outside and depth of things, these callipers provide a useful level of precision for measuring all sorts of things on bikes.
Need to replace headset bearings in a bike? Measure them. Need to swap a stripped fastener as a result of ignoring my advice against using cheap hey keys? Measure it. Not sure the diameter of your round seapost? Measure it. Can’t decide if your disc brake pads or rotors are worn out? Measure them. Heck, you can even use a vernier calliper to keep track of chain wear.
OK, so good measurement tools cost a lot of money. Great measurement tools cost even more. And then the measurement tools used to make measurement tools are in a price category you wouldn’t believe. For years I used a cheap eBay/AliExpress-type digital vernier calliper and was never quite confident in the measurements I was being given. The tool wasn’t consistent. It also chewed batteries and eventually failed altogether.
These days I use Mitutoyo Absolute AOS digital callipers which are a pro-quality tool that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone (Starrett is another equivalent option). But yes they’re expensive. If you find them cheaply they’re most likely counterfeit (yep, that’s absolutely a thing).
For those on a budget, I’d say buy something from a reputable tool company that won’t question a warranty claim if it’s needed. For example, the digital callipers that Feedback Sports or Park Tool have their names on aren’t anything special, but both companies offer great customer support in case of issue.
Alternatively, you can buy a traditional vernier calliper (without an analogue dial or digital LCD read-out). These can be slower to read but will absolutely get the job done.
The sharp edge of a poorly cut zip-tie can be a dangerous thing. Having seen the spurting blood that resulted from one has me wishing everyone would own a set of flush cutters.
Flush cutters (which are often intended for plastic–cutting only) are quite simply a small side-cutter without a bevel on the cutting edge; rather the edge is machined flush or flat. The result is a cutter that leaves no edge to zip ties you’ve cut.
Hobby craft stores and hardware stores will often have flush cutters for just a few dollars. And these cheap tools will suffice perfectly as long as you only ever use them on plastic.
Flat-edge nail cutters are another option. Or you can go all-out and get a zip tie tensioning and cutting tool. Personally, I’ve owned them all and the hobby flush cutters remain my pick for the ability to get into tight spots.
A plier for cutting. A side cutter is designed to chomp through various materials of a small diameter or size.
I use them for opening wasteful plastic packaging, trimming bar plugs, and cutting spiral brake housing (although they’ll pinch gear housing closed).
Unlike flush cutters, a pair of side cutters will almost always have a bevel to reduce the chance of chipped blades when cutting harder metals. This means there’s a need for both side cutters and flush cutters.
An alternative to this tool is a mini bolt cutter – something that my colleague James Huang swears by. It is indeed a useful tool with a greater cutting capacity of a side cutter. It’s also more expensive and the fatter jaws can be more restrictive over where they fit. I personally get more use from a good pair of side cutters.
Brands such as Knipex, NSW, Klein, and Snap-On all offer pro-quality side cutters which will provide an incredibly long service life (I’m still on my original Knipex from a decade ago). Meanwhile cheaper outsourced options will typically do the job surprisingly well – I still get frequent use from an old pair of higher-end Stanley cutters. As is the case with most tools, buy the best you can afford.
Long-nose or mechanics pliers (and sometimes called needle-nose pliers) are basically a skinny plier used for gripping all sorts of things. You can use them as a valve core removal tool, or for removing a stuck valve nut. You can use them to help pull or hold cable when setting up old brakes. Or perhaps you haven’t washed your indoor bike through winter and now your cable housing is rusted in place – long-nose pliers are the answer.
Long-nose pliers are one of those tools where even the cheapest options can be sufficient for casual use. Spending more certainly earns you proven durability, jaws that align to each other, and more intricate gripping patterns that indeed hold better.
Those chasing quality tools won’t be disappointed by Knipex, NWS, Klein, Snap-On (most expensive), or Keiba (Japanese), to name a few. However, your local hardware will certainly have other cheaper options that will do the trick. My personal go-to is the Knipex 26-11-200 (which can also be used for cutting wires). This was my first ever Knipex and has proven to be an expensive gateway – be careful.
Is a cable cutter a specialist cycling tool or general tool? Well, a bicycle inner cable is just a Bowden cable with a thin wire rope inside. Therefore a wire rope and/or Bowden cable cutter seems like the perfect tool for the job.
Certainly, the easiest cable cutters to source are those sold by specialist cycling brands and the likes of Jagwire (also rebranded as SRAM), Shimano, and Park Tool all offer respectable options that will likely provide a casual user a lifetime of service.
Then there are the industry options which sit a level above in long-term durability. The two most well regarded are the Felco C7 and Knipex 95-62-160 (although Knipex has a range of wire rope cutters with subtle differences in cutter geometry – I’ll save this level of nerdery for a dedicated article in future, but let’s just say I use different cutters for inner cables versus gear housing).
Those often working on older bikes, cheaper bikes, and/or kids bikes will likely find a need to own a set of metric combination spanners. I recommend a set that spans from 6 mm through to 19 mm, although even larger sizes do get used from time to time.
The Pliers Wrench mentioned below does a pretty good job of making this spanner set redundant, but there are often occasions where a dedicated spanner is just easier to handle.
Spanners also come in handy on modern bikes for hub work, bleeding hydraulic disc brakes, adjusting certain rim brakes, some seatpost designs, and for driving more advanced cycling tools such as blind bearing pullers.
It’s worth paying attention to the thickness of the spanners – some run too thick (wide) for certain tasks, but otherwise, a mid-level spanner set from Craftsman, GearWrench, Tekton, Icon (Harbor Freight’s premium brand), Kincrome (Australia), or Park Tool (a proven good thickness) will serve you a lifetime. And even cheaper options will likely suffice, although speaking from experience, chrome splinters in your hand are one reason not to go too cheap.
The benefits of more expensive options over the mid-tier are present but somewhat subtle, but the likes of Hazet, Stahlwille, Snap-On, Wright and Nepros exist for those who simply want the best.
I questioned including this one as it’s a premium (expensive) and arguably specialist tool. But I also use it for so many different things that in my mind it’s a foundation tool.
With smooth jaws that clamp in parallel to each other, a pliers wrench has the ability to replace a set of spanners, tweak rotors straight, help to bend metal, work as a small bearing press, or even assist as a tiny hand-held vice.
The clamping nature of these means they’re infinitely better than an adjustable spanner and can hold most fasteners more securely than a regular spanner.
In my mind, there’s only one Pliers Wrench and that’s the original from Knipex. However the patent did just expire and so there’s now a handful of others available – but from what I’ve seen none appear to beat the original.
The Pliers Wrench comes in multiple sizes where the leverage and maximum opening size progressively increase. I find the 180 mm size the most universally useful for bicycle things. I’d be quite happy if this was the only one I owned (although I’m happier that’s it not).
An adjustable wrench may still be handy to own for turning cassette and bottom bracket sockets. Personally, I prefer using square-drive sockets and driving tools (ratchets and breaker bars). It’s really rare that I use an adjustable wrench.
Yep, a Sharpie is a foundation tool! And I’d be willing to bet that you’d struggle to find a single pro race mechanic without one.
From making your tyres sponsor-agnostic, to hiding the scratch where you slipped with your new flush cutter, to just marking the position of your saddle rails, a Sharpie is a handy item to keep around. And plus, they’re easy and cheap to buy.
I personally also view correction pens with similar high regard. By correction pen I mean the type once used to erase written mistakes made in pen before you’d fax something off. Nowadays these pens are most useful for marking your handlebar position in the stem, outlining brake hood positions, seeing if your seatpost is indeed slipping, and so on.
Is a torque wrench a foundation tool? Yes and no, but mainly yes.
I struggled over whether to include this or not too. People with lower-end bikes with all over-built aluminium components can realistically get away without ever needing a torque wrench. Likewise, those who spin tools for a living likely have a decent feel for torque and what the fastener is doing and will need a torque wrench less often.
Still, to let me sleep easy at night, I’ve included a small torque wrench in this list for anyone looking to do up a stem that’s clamping onto a carbon steerer tube or holding a carbon handlebar. And the same applies to anyone with a high-end carbon frame that’s holding a carbon seatpost.
Once again this remains a huge topic; one that I’ll torque about in a future edition of Cool Tool Tuesday.
Note: A number of the tools mentioned in Cool Tool Tuesday are not sold through traditional cycling channels and can be hard to find, which is also kind of the point of the series. Access to the tools covered will be easy for those in Europe and the United States. Use a search engine to find the products mentioned.
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Finally, part two of this article has since been published where you can learn about the often needed cycling-specific tools.