New life for old bicycles


It's been awhile since I last posted due to some real-life things happening and a minor workshop overhaul, which led me to thinking a bit about the tools I use.

I see a lot of folks on various bicycle repair groups asking what tools they should buy to get started working on bicycles. Most times, they're pointed to some sort of collection of beautifully made Park tools.

While Park definitely makes wonderful tools, it really doesn't make much sense for most folks to spend hundreds of dollars to fix a bike. Bicycle tools are not magic.

So what do you really need?

Basic hand tools #

First, you'll need a handful of decent wrenches in a few common sizes. Pay attention to the thickness of them and don't buy junk -- sloppy tolerances and bendy wrenches are a good way to ruin bolts (and your knuckles). At the same time, any good quality wrenches are fine. My favorites were originally in the toolkit of a BMW, decades ago when BMW put toolkits in their trunk. They were nice wrenches. Thank you, BMW of yore.

If you really don't have any wrenches laying around you can use, I'd suggest buying very thin wrenches. They'll fit in places bigger wrenches won't and are more than strong enough for most low-torque bicycle specs.

Unless you have a vintage Schwinn (and maybe not even then) just get a metric set. You'll never use SAE, so if you skip it you get better wrenches for the same money (and less clutter).

Similarly, you'll need an assortment of metric allen wrenches. Any will do, including the ones that came in that IKEA furniture you bought, but some decent T-handle allen wrenches are game-changers. Keep the IKEA ones handy too. I reach for that IKEA 8mm with the ball end all the time. Again, skip SAE sets, since you'd only be spending money on something you're unlikely to use.

Get yourself a decent smallish Phillips screwdriver. You won't use it much, since most fasteners on bikes are usually allen head. But when you do need a screwdriver, you'll be glad you have a good one. I like my Wera screw drivers quite a bit. They're very comfortable in the hand and are less likely to slip and strip screw heads than other, lesser screwdrivers I have laying around.

If you have a carbon or aluminum framed bike, or if you don't have a really good feel for how much you've cranked on a bolt, there is one other tool that's really a must-have, even though it is a bit more expensive: a good torque wrench.

Without it, you will almost definitely either fail to tighten something up enough or you will over-crank and break something fragile and expensive -- maybe even your frame. If you have a lot of experience and a great inherent 'feel' for torque you can probably forgo the torque wrench, but if you have any doubt, you should get one. Be sure to get one with a size and torque range appropriate for bicycles.

You're also going to need a good cable cutter, because if you try to cut brake or shifter cable with anything less you're going to end up with frayed and dangerous mess.

Miscellaneous shop basics #

There are some things I find indispensible in the shop that may not immediately come to mind as tools. In particular, I don't think I go a day without reaching for my heavy-duty utility scissors and a good quality metal ruler. These things are just useful for so many things, you've got to keep them nearby.

I also keep a bunch of velcro straps handy. They're great for holding all sorts of things in place, but especially useful for keeping front wheels from flapping about when the bike is on the stand.

That covers most of the fundamentals. After that you start getting into more specialized things that you can buy as you need them. In that case, there are some things you'll probably need sooner, and some you may need someday, or not at all.

General bicycle tools #

For the things you need to buy first, just think of the things all bikes have: Chains, tires, and so on. You'll want tools to deal with those things.

A good quality chain breaker is a must have. You can pick up a handy kit with all your chain tool needs or, if you want to minimize, you can just get a breaker for less than $10.

The other must-have for even a basic shop is decent tire levers. A good set of tire levers will last you forever. Bad ones won't last a week and may be dangerous. Just get some good ones and save yourself the pain of cheap ones.

Of course, if you're changing tires and tubes you're going to need a decent pump. A cheap Harbor Freight or Bell pump will do the job fine. If you want to get fancy, pick up a portable inverter/compressor that will air up your tires, recharge your iPhone, power the blender for post-wrenching margaritas and, if needed, jump-start your car.

Finally, you're really going to want a repair stand. It's nearly a necessity for brake and derailleur work, and it's a definite nice-to-have for most other jobs. Even cleaning your bike is easier with one. It's possible to spend a lot of money on one, but basic ones can work for home use. I picked up one for less than $75 that works well. If I had it to do over again I'd probably spend a few bucks more for a Bikehand, which folds up smaller and appears to have nicer, easier-to-use articulation and clamping.

More advanced bicycle tools #

When you start buying tools for specific bikes, one of the first things you'll inevitably need is the correct freewheel or cassette tool for your bike. It seems like every new mechanic tries to get out of buying one of these and then usually ends up damaging the hub or cassette. Work on enough bikes and you'll end up with a good size collection of them, but you don't have to worry about that now: just get the right one for your bike. For newer bikes, that's probably a Shimano cassette tool and chain whip. For older bikes, it could be a Shimano freewheel, a Suntour four-notch, a Suntour two-notch or something else. You'll just have to check and buy the right one for whatever you have.

As you collect more of these it's smart to label them. It's easy to mix them up since they all look so similar, and using the wrong splines for your freewheel or cassette can be disastrous.

Eventually, you'll also want a spoke wrench. I'm not going to get into the lengthy topic of trueing wheels at home, or the different types of spoke wrenches and how everybody has a preference. Find one that's accurately machined and comfortable in your hand. That's what's important.

Over time I'll update this list as more things come to mind.
Last updated: December 17, 2020.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links and we may receive a small commission for purchases made through these links. This does not cost you anything, nor does it affect our opinion of the products.

Tags: musings tips