Tools, choosing and using.
There are thousands of tool makers, a huge variation in prices and an even larger variation in quality. The tools you buy will largely be determined by how much you can afford and where you buy them. Also, while multi-tools are great for getting you out of a jam when you’re on the trail, you’ll soon discover their limitations and relatively poor ergonomics when you’re handling them a lot at home. You will also find better quality tools for less at your hardware store or tool specialist. So, for your screwdrivers, Allen/Hex keys, spanners, sockets and wrenches, it’s always worth shopping around away from your local bike shop. For a good value Allen Key starter /occasional use set, you could try the Stanley Turball range (see pic below). If you’re swapping or replacing parts every week, or if you’re also doing lots of work on other people’s bikes, my recommendation would be to cough up a little more cash for something like Bondhus or Wera keys, which are also backed with a lifetime warranty.
The difference in prices between manufacturers for these tools can vary considerably, as can the quality. Take a look at the three Allen keys in this picture…
The left-hand (Stanley Turball) and, to a lesser extent, the middle (J-tech) Allen Keys in the next photo are clearly better made than the cheaper generic key on the right. The two silver colored keys are approximately the same age. Although cost isn’t always an accurate indication of quality, from the left we have a key from a £15, £10 and £6 set respectively. Given that a Bondhus or Wera set is only around £20 – less if you shop around on eBay – it’s not too big of a step to pick yourself up a top quaility set of keys with a lifetime guarantee. The kind of quality issue demonstrated by the right-hand key in the picture to the right, makes tools much more prone to slipping or jumping out under load and increasing the possibility of damage to components (rounded-out bolts), the tool, the bike and even yourself (think skinned knuckles…). I’ve been using a Wera Premium Plus set for the last couple of years and find them to be of excellent quality. They fit the bolt interface perfectly and the head design prevents any distortion of the bolt. At around £25 for a 9-piece set they aren’t exactly cheap – that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good value, though.
For all specialist bike tools I strongly recommend buying the best you can; Park Tool or Shimano are the names to watch out for. Specialist bike tools are likely only to be found at the LBS or at online cycle stores; things like cassette lock-nut removal tool; bottom bracket tool, chain whip, chain tool; cone wrenches; crank removal tool; etc., etc.. Buy the cheap stuff and you’ll be back in no time for a replacement, guaranteed. Whichever tools you have, though, you can help to ensure that they last as long as possible by always making sure that the tool is fully and properly fitted to or inserted into the nut or bolt you’re working on. Even good quality tools will be damaged and rendered useless by carelessness. I know that putting an Allen key into bolt head or placing a spanner onto a nut seems like the kind of task you can’t do wrong, but if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing you’ll greatly increase the chances of rounding (taking the straight edges off) a nut or jamming an Allen key in a bolt head. Your brain is the best tool you have at your disposal, so make sure that you use it.
Some retailers sell ‘mechanic sets’ which contain a multitude of bike tools. These kits, as with all products, will vary in price and quality. In general, I would hesitate to recommend these types of kits, especially the cheap ones. The better quality kits like those from Park are good if you’re going to be doing lots of work on lots of different types/ages of bike, but otherwise you’ll probably find that some of the tools are obsolete (headset wrench, for example). Check your bike’s components for their specific interface types and price up good quality individual tools.
Torque wrenches seem to be rising in popularity. These crafty tools, when set correctly, will allow you to tighten a bolt to a specific torque. Whilst I can see the benefits in owning one, they certainly aren’t a necessity and, as they start at around £/$30, could even be considered a luxury. In addition to this, I believe that the skill of being able to personally determine whether or not you’ve tightened something correctly is infinitely more valuable.
Most bolts on a bike will be steel, and most of them will be threaded into aluminium. Steel is very hard, aluminium relatively soft, so it’s almost a recipe for disaster. It needn’t be, though. Most bike components only need enough torque to keep them in place. Levers and shifters should only be tightened sufficiently top stop them moving under normal load; it’s actually useful if they move under impact as they’ll slip around the bar if you crash, rather than snap or bend. A good trick is to tighten slowly until you can no longer move them by using them to lift the front of the bike off the floor. It’s trial and error (as most things are) but you’ll get the hang of it and it’s a good place to start to get a feel for your tools.
The more you do it, and I’d advise playing around with old, broken components, the more you’ll begin to feel when the torque is correct, and what a bolt feels like that split second before it rounds the threads. It’s not unusual for the bottom of the learning curve to be littered with threaded components.
If you can, start out with short handled tools; the less leverage you have, the less likely you are to over do it. Turn Allen keys from as close to the bend as you can, using the bottom of your fingers for leverage or, better yet, use the short end of the key as your lever. This will drastically reduce the amount of torque that you can apply to a bolt. Tighten your grip (and use the palm more) as the need dictates. Take care also to make sure that you’re applying force directly down the tool to the bolt/screw head.
Before you refit any bolts or threaded components, it’s a good idea to wipe down the threads as best you can. I find that gripping a bolt tightly with a cloth between finger/thumb and bolt then using your Allen key to ‘unscrew’ the bolt from your grasp will usually remove most of the crud. Pressing the cloth into the thread with your thumbnail also works well. Apply either a small amount* of grease or a thread lock adhesive, depending on the part, before refitting. I only use thread lock (Loctite 243) on my stem clamp bolts, caliper bolts and rotor bolts.
Although there are a couple of instances of ‘reverse’ threads on bicycles (non-drive side pedal and drive side bottom bracket thread) everything covered in this guide assumes that you will be turning a bolt/screw clockwise to tighten and anti-clockwise to loosen.
*apply grease/threadlock to one side of the threads of a bolt, starting around 2 or 3 threads from the tip, to reduce the likelihood of hydraulic lock.
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