The Top 10 Tools You Will Need to Work on Your Own Bicycle

English: A Park Tool crank extractor and cone ...
English: A Park Tool crank extractor and cone wrench (with an off-brand adjustable wrench). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess if you’re going to work on your own bike, you’re going to need tools. Nothing worse than using the wrong tools to work on your bike. When you use the wrong tools, things get broken and pretty soon you are in the bicycle shop with a surly mechanic looking over your handy work. Real surly. Hence, that defeats the purpose of this blog, which is to teach you how to work on your own bike, not the surly bike mechanic. Hint: Handcrafted beer goes a long way to soothing that surliness.

So here’s that list of tools:

  1. Combination Wrenches
  2. Allen Wrenches (Hex Keys)
  3. #1 Philips Screwdriver
  4. 1/4″ Flathead Screwdriver
  5. Floor Pump with a Pressure Gauge
  6. Patch Kit
  7. Degreaser
  8. Bicycle Specific Lube
  9. Tire Levers
  10. Shop Rags
Keep in mind, this list isn’t all inclusive and it’s not in any particular order. It will definitely get you through most repairs that don’t involve a lot of swearing and a 200-page technical manual. Just a list isn’t all that helpful, so see the details of each item after the break.

Combination Wrenches

I am going to assume you have a modern bicycle. By modern, I mean manufactured after 1990. An argument could be made for the bikes from the 80s, but Schwinn was still kicking around and it messes things up a bit. That’s a history lesson for later though.
Combination wrenches are also known as open-ended wrenches. What I mean by combination wrenches are the wrenches that look like a “C” on one end, and an “O” on the other.
wrench
wrench (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The pic should help out. So before you go out and buy these, and believe me, I know you’re anxious. New tools are always a good reason to go out and shop. You need to get metric wrenches. Again, this goes back to the modern bicycle comment I made earlier. Nearly all modern bicycles use metric fasteners, you know, nuts and bolts. Your grandfather, and maybe your father might not be okay with this, but it is what it is. The rest of the civilized world uses metric, so get used to it.
These usually come in sets. You might as well as buy a set because you never know if you’ll ever need to put together something from Ikea. Get a set that covers 8mm to 17mm. The “mm” stands for millimeter. You won’t use weird ones like 16mm or 11mm much if at all, but a set is generally less expensive to buy than individual wrenches.
Which brings me to the “which brand should I buy” or “cheap or expensive” tool segment. I won’t go into brands only because the only cheap brands I really know are sold at places like Harbor Freight, or the no-name stuff at your local mass merchant. So I tend to go buy price. In tools, you generally get what you pay for. Here is where you have to look at how many times you see yourself servicing your bicycle. If it isn’t that often, the cheap stuff tends to work. Just to let you know though, the first time that cheap wrench flares out and rounds off a nut on you, you’ll be real mad. More expensive tools are made of better material and have better tolerances. If you do need a place to start looking, go to Park Tool‘s website. Park Tool makes bicycle specific tools. They are on the mid to high range in terms of price, but they work.

Allen Wrenches

Hexagon...
Hexagon… (Photo credit: Heartlover1717)
A.K.A. Hex wrenches. It’s because they are six sided. If you’re not sure what these look like, they’re the bolts that aren’t made for screwdrivers for combination wrenches. Look at the pretty picture, that’s what it looks like.
Again, get these in metric. I can’t stress that enough. You want to cover at least 4mm, 5mm, and 6mm. That covers 99% of the bolts on the bike. If you want to play it safe, get a set that covers 2mm to 10mm. That will pretty much cover them all except for crazy manufacturer specific doodads that drive mechanics nuts. With these, you can use the loose style, which look like an “L” or the folding sets. I use both interchangeably depending on what I am tightening down. The loose set tends to fit in more places on the bicycle.
HERE IS A WARNING ABOUT THE LOOSE SETS: You will see sets that have ball-ends. These ball-ends allow the wrench to turn the fastener while sitting an angle. This lets you turn bolts that are hard to reach or in tight spots. THE BALL-END IS JUST FOR THE INITIAL TIGHTENING OF THE FASTENER, NOT THE FINAL TORQUE. What I mean by this is that the ball-end will tighten the bolt down, but can easily strip the bolt or itself if you try to tighten down the bolt with a large amount of force. Most bolts don’t need to be rhino-tightened (more on torque specs later). Believe me, remember this and it will save your tools.

#1 Philips Screwdriver

I’m not talking about the best Philips screwdriver in the world, though if you want to buy the best one, that is entirely up to you. The “#1” refers to the size of the screwdriver. Yes. They come in sizes. This size will take care of 92% of the Philips head fasteners on your bicycle. What’s a Philips head? Its the bolt or screw that looks like a plus sign. I won’t go into the history of why it’s called a Philips. I found out a long time ago and I promptly forgot about it. So pick one up. Or two, or eight. These things tend to find their way to the land of left socks. I prefer the six inch length but there is no hardfast rule as to what length you need. It doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it anyway.

1/4″ Flathead Screwdriver

This isn’t sized like the Philips screwdriver. It’s good ol’ imperial measurements on this guy and it goes by width. One-quarter of an inch. That’s all you need. In fact, it is rare to see a flathead-only fasteners. Most of them will a be a hybrid that takes both. The only reason this is on the must-have list is because in the  bike maintenance world, if you don’t have it, you will need it for some crazy reason. It also makes a good mini-pry bar, just not for anything that needs major prying. I have to say that for safety’s sake.

Floor Pump with Pressure Gauge

I can’t stress this one enough. Well I could use a really big font size, but I don’t want to abuse your screen real estate. Buy this at your local bike shop. Please. This is because of the low-quality pumps they sell at mass merchants. With the exception of REI, most pumps are pure garbage. All plastic, bad tolerances, and bad ergonomics. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention the gas station air compressor. Look at your bike tires. Look at your car tires. Look at your bike tires again. Tell them they’re pretty. See the difference? Yes. Not the same. Two tools for two different things. Try pumping up a car tire with a bicycle pump and you’ll catch my drift. Most new bike pumps area also universal in that they’ll pump up the two different valves on bike tubes (to be covered in a post) and things like basketballs, kiddie pools, and inflatable, um, human replicants. The gauge is important because there is a recommended pressure for tires. I like them better than just a handheld pressure gauge, just for speed’s sake. If you do get a handheld gauge, get a bicycle specific gauge, all for the same reasons for getting a bicycle specific pump.

Patch Kit

For patching tubes, not relationships. Call me old-fashioned or a tightwad, but I like patching tubes. At the very least, a patch kit for the ride is good to have. You have two different styles of patch kits: the traditional Vulcanizing patch kit which is the glue and patches that everyone remembers. The other kind is a newer version which is like a sticker. Adhesive-backed patch just sticks to the tube. These are nice for the on-road stash.

Degreaser

Degreaser. This is on the list because bikes get dirty, and by dirty, I mean greasy. It’s amazing how much greasy crap the bike picks up and this stuff will save the elbow grease for something more fun like video games.

Bicycle Specific Lube

I mean bicycle-specific lube. One of the major reasons I put degreaser on the list is because people always use non-bike specific lube. Bike lube is lighter and less prone to picking up dirt than regular ol’ sewing machine oil (which a lot of people seem to have a lot of). WD-40 is not, I repeat NOT, a lubricant. WD stands for “water displacement.” There is no mention of lubrication in that name regardless of what the can says. WD-40 does make a lubricant for bicycles, and that is okay to use. In a pinch, lube for firearms works as well because it shares the same properties. If  you are unsure of what lube to use, ask your local bike mechanic. You may get a bunch of different answers, but they’re all legitimate.

Tire Levers

These are life savers. Or more appropriately, thumb savers. Tires can be very tight to take off of the wheel and tire levers allow you to remove tires with minimal fuss. Tire levers usually come in plastic, but you can also get them in metal, or plastic-coated metal. Go plastic. You may break a few, but they don’t scratch the crap out of your $5000 carbon fiber wheelset either.

Shop Rags

Because the dirt that comes off of the bicycle ends up on your hands, then your food, your children, your pets, and your wife’s Coach purse.
You will notice I really didn’t make any recommendations as to what brands to get with the exception of the combination wrenches. Part of the fun is looking at all the cool tools. If you stay bicycle-specific, you’ll be fine. Even though you are wanting to work on your bike yourself, most bike mechanics have no problem recommending a brand. We mechanics all have favorite tools and children. If it bugs you to the point of losing sleep, you can always shoot me an email. I try to answer in a day or two. Also, keep your tools clean. Not those tools. The tools you use to fix your bicycle. Clean tools last longer and it’s easier to see if they are going to fail.

Bonus Tools

Here are some tools that you can add but may not need right away, it’s your money:
  • The venerable adjustable wrench. I didn’t add it because it’s really not needed with a good range on the combination wrenches. They also have a tendency to round nuts and fasteners if they’re not adjusted correctly.
  • Spoke and Cone Wrenches. I didn’t add these either because they’re pretty specialized tools. I will go over them when I write a post about using these specific tools.
  • Grease. Why didn’t I add grease to this list? Well, it’ll come later. I wanted to start out with easy stuff. If you need grease, I will let you know, and it’s about to get all intermediate up in here when you do.
  • A bookmark to my blog. It goes without saying and you bookmarked it the minute you found this blog anyway.
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