I like breaking/fixing things since my childhood, so it’s no surprise I’m fixing, maintaining, or even building my bikes. This proved to be a good habit because if I can’t, I’d suffer a lot. I read a lot of romantic stuff about bikes these days, especially becoming more common with Covid-19 and e-bike frenzy, but let’s face it: bikes can be dangerous. Lots of people die when riding a bike. You may say, lots of people die, also when taking a shower, but it’s not the same thing: an unmaintained shower head cannot kill you. A loose pedal getting off the crankset when you’re pedaling downhill at 90 km/h is disastrous, and more common than you think.
I learned to never trust a mechanic, even the manufacturer. There are lots of skillful, capable, well-mannered people in the business, but some are careless, incapable, greedy, or just plain dumb; and it’s hard to judge it by the looks. It’s better safe than be sorry.
Bikes are not complex devices. But that doesn’t mean they need less attention than more complex vehicles, like cars. Let me give you an example: a damaged, unbalanced car rim will just cause annoying shimmy at some speeds, or a bit of wobble, and uneven tire wear. It does not kill you. When descending at 90 km/h, an out-of-true wheel can cause immense wobble that may cause loss of control.
Formula 1 racers, top predators in the motoring world, have very in-depth knowledge of their cars because even a 0.5mm camber adjustment can change their life, their earnings, and their position in the race. They instruct, sometimes check mechanics’ work. It’s no surprise most successful racers in the old times are mechanics: when there were no crazy logistics, big teams available in their times, they are the ones first to know their car falling apart, how to drive it cautiously so at least they can finish the race, or do some “roadside” repairs.
It’s no big deal if you get a flat tire when you’re riding indoors with your smart trainer, but a big issue when you’re 50 km away from any human, your bike loaded with 20 kg of camping stuff.
You may not still maintain or repair your bike, but have to know what a mechanic did to your bike, for good or bad.
A toolset for bike repair/maintenance is not expensive, or complex unless you want to buy more sophisticated ones, like the bottom bracket reamer. Most special tools can be made DIY with minimum skills or equipment, which I’ll cover from time to time.
Let’s start with the basics.
Basic tools (must-haves)
These are the tools you first need, for almost anything. Even if you don’t maintain or repair bikes, you’ll need the time to time, for very basic needs like installing a phone holder, or maybe just changing your grips.
A caliper is a must-have tool for anyone doing anything with their bare hands. This is a precise measurement device you’ll use anywhere, from measuring brake rotor thickness to rim spoke radius.
You certainly won’t need a Mitutoyo, probably more expensive than your bike, and the gold standard for vernier calipers. But don’t be so cheap to buy a plastic, disposable one. Funnily, those plastic vernier calipers are heat stable, meaning measurements won’t change if you’re in Alaska or Saharan desert, but obviously, they’re not made to be precise. Some nasty chemicals will melt them, and they cannot be cleaned properly.
Buy an electronic one, as these are almost as cheap as “analog” ones, and you’re not aiming for 1/100 mm precision. If you’re not using these devices for a few decades, electronic ones are much easier to
read for a beginner.
Allen head bolts are hex head bolts, inverted: Their “heads” are inset. The advantage is obvious; they do not need bulky sockets to cover the bolt head, making pocket knife-like multitools possible.
Your multi-tool does not replace a good, even inferior quality Allen key set: they are fiddly, most of them are not good quality steel hardened enough, and do not provide enough leverage.
Buy decent-quality Allen keys with long handles. Short ones are hard to work with and do not have enough leverage to say, install or remove GXP crankarm retainer bolts. People generally tend to buy larger-size tools with good quality, but smaller ones with inferior. I’d do the opposite: it’s much easier to strip heads of bolts/tools in smaller sizes.
I use Wera. This is a top-notch German brand, used by Lamborghini authorized services. They are not cheap, but also not crazy expensive. These things are built like Swiss watch watches, with extreme precision, which sometimes causes problems! They fit very tight to some cheap Allen bolts and are hard(ish) to release. Can be used as an indicator to see if you have a nice product or a sub-standard one!
Whenever you get an Allen set, get a full set; not just the ones you think you will need. Bolt sizes are consistent and standard amongst brands like Shimano or Sram but don’t think every manufacturer follows the standards, or maybe your second-hand bike does have a different Allen bolt size for enlarged caliper mounts because of their threads stripped and the previous owner opted for a larger size.
Some tools have color markers to help you identify the size. Yet I can, or any mechanic can judge the size by the look, surely it helps.
Do not cut corners. A bit set with a screwdriver or T-handle does not replace this tool: screwdriver handles do not provide any leverage, and T-handles are awkward to use, or not usable at all, due to their shape.
You’ll use this tool on stems, grip retainers, calipers, every kind of brake or shifter mounts, and accessories. This is the tool you’ll use most. It’s important to “like” a tool when you use them a lot. So don’t try to save a penny.
Torx head set
Torx head bolts getting more common, almost everywhere. Advantage of this bolt type is, they provide more surface area for tool to grip; so especially for smaller screws, its hard to damage bolt head, UNLESS its full of debris. Unfortunately, this is the case for most bikes. So, before using your Torx tools, make sure tool fits snugly.
Get good quality tools. I’ve various sets of Torx tools as I have a French car, where all bolts are Torx. For first time buyers buying a single set, “L” shaped, long handle tools like Allen keys is the best option.
Hex bolts are not common in bikes. To bleed Shimano brakes, you’ll need a 7mm spanner.
To remove old-style wheelsets without QR or thru-axles, you’ll need 14,15, or 17mm, depending on manufacturers’ mood at the time of production.
I have a small socket to remove cassette retainers or QR-style centerlock bolts and square taper bottom brackets. If I’m correct, it’s 24mm. This was a very cheap one, probably bought it for 1$, but works very well, but since I love precision, I’d go for the best if I have to buy again. This is probably the second tool I use most and can use it in my torque wrench.
If I were to make a toolset for just bike maintenance and repair, I’d get an adjustable wrench to remove the old-style wheels -solid axles- and fit it to my slotted socket, that covers those ranges, up to 40mm, for old-style, 1′ headset nuts. (Ones I’ve seen so far are 34 or 36mm, but 40mm is a safer choice)
To service your wheel hubs, at least most of them like Shimano, you’ll need hub spanners, which are
spanners with narrow edges. You’ll need these because ordinary spanners won’t fit into inner nuts that are narrower than normal nuts.
Once, I tried to grind the sides of a cheap Chinese spanner to fit into these nuts, then reshape the inner side with an angle grinder and Dremel. Looks to fit fine, but it started to flex like mad, causing stripped nuts on my precious Deore XT hubs. Lesson learned? False economy.
If you have high-carbon, hardened steel bars with correct thickness, you can try to make your own, but the time and electricity spent on such an endeavor won’t be worth it. These are cheap things if you don’t go uber-premium stuff. Since you don’t need to tighten these bolts as tight as a tirans’ servant lips, an ordinary set will suffice.
You’ll need this to shorten chains or insert connecting pins on Shimano chains if you are old school and
want to follow orders although they don’t make sense.
Get a one with a longer handle, preferably wrapped with silicone. Your hands will be grateful. I have a very lousy one, admittedly, and I detest my choice each time I need to break a chain.
Bottom bracket tool for outboard bearing types
I use a genuine Shimano tool. It doesn’t look fancy, but it’s a strong and sturdy tool, and also fits GXP. This is much like a spanner with teeth inside that fits into bottom bracket cups. It also comes with a plastic tool used for preload bolts.
Some may prefer socket-type tools; these are much more expensive. If you want to use a torque wrench,
you’ll need socket types.
Depending on your bottom bracket type, you will have to buy the necessary tool or tools. The one you buy from Shimano won’t fit into T47 cups.
Bottom bracket tool for inboard bearing types
I’m not in the restoration of 60 years old vintage bike business, a single tool for square taper bottom brackets caters to all my needs. This is the tool I use most after Allen set. Because it also fits cassette and centerlock disc retainers. So, this is a must-have tool, too.
This is also a must-have tool. I never bought such a tool, instead, made myself a one. You’ll need a chain
whip to remove cassettes.
You’ll need a nice Philips set to adjust derailleur bolts or open up shifters to change cables.
A secondary role of a screwdriver is to poke, break, or pry something. I think it is a small crowbar. I have a huge screwdriver with a broken nose, used for these purposes only.
Get yourself a nice set, preferably a Chrome-Vanadium one. I have a mix of high-end and rubbish screwdrivers, but rubbish ones are pretty ok for everything bike-related. Surprisingly, you’ll not need these common tools that much. Again, multi-tool doesn’t count.
I’m changing tires since childhood, so most of the time, I do not even use a tire lever at all. Even the tires notorious for getting in/out to the rims hardly don’t pose a threat to me, but I know people breaking plastic levers like toothpicks, yet a toothpick is good enough for me to serve as a tire lever(!).
It’s common sense to get a good, strong, and big thing when prying involved. You don’t need to pay 50$ for that. Lately, I found nice levers made by Unior, my latest favorite brand. They were so cheap that I bought 4 of them.
Every lousy repair starts with a hammer and crowbar 🙂
You’ll need a medium size hammer, preferably 300-500g to install and remove headset cups, for example.
A hammer is also needed to remove stuck items. Keep a wooden block. Hammering directly to aluminum is not a good practice. Never use hammer on anything carbon fiber, unless you go postal.
Brake bleeding kit
Since I use Shimano brakes, I bought a Shimano branded cup to fit my brake levers. Depending on your
brake manufacturer, get this unit only. Other items you need is: a syringe, 1 or 1.5 meter of aquarium air hose and a jar.
Here is the devised setup I use for my bleeding brakes / changing oil.
A steel container to wash / clean parts
I use old stainless steel cookware to wash parts. Nasty, petroleum based chemicals does not harm steel, and steel is easy to clean up. Do not use plastic containers.
These are perfect for cleaning hard to reach places, and also the chains. I never bought a brush to wash parts in my entire life. I love to use what is available, and hate to contribute plastic trash mountains / islands.
Secondary tools (that can be replaced by another tool)
You won’t have to buy these tools. Though I’m cheap, I appreciate a nice tool, and will happily pay most of the time. But the thing is, I don’t like to invest in any tool that I’ll use 2 times a year. Or, that tool is not super needed. For example, you’ll normally use a chain whip maybe 1 minute in a year, but it’s an irreplaceable tool. (or, go crazy and use vise grips, which will bend some teeth, but who cares, you saved 3$ already!)
These tools are nice-to-haves.
I appreciate this tool, but for me, there are 2 pitfalls: they go blunt as side cutters do, but side cutters are much cheaper.
I don’t have cable cutters now. I use Dremel, angle grinder, or side-cutters, then try to fix the messy job I’ve done, with various tools.
Take your time to read my length post on torque wrenches. I have a torque wrench because I was building engines. I used to have many. Torque wrenches are necessary if you’re dealing with cylinder heads. In fact, for best results, you’ll need to have 2 of them; one for torque, and the second one for angle. These are 2 different tools, the second one not being a torque wrench.
I wouldn’t buy a torque wrench, just for bike maintenance, yet it’s still good to have a tool. In an ideal world, you’ll want to tighten every bolt with it.
For carbon parts, a torque wrench is a must for most people, but not me. I’d probably tighten millions of nuts and bolts, to every material available. My hands are calibrated! Did I ever fail? For bikes, 1-2 times, that can be fixed very easily. Regarding how much time I spent on bikes, and what it cost me because I’m not doing business while investing time on that, it’s worthwhile for me to skip the torque wrench part, which would cost me more time, hence money.
Torque wrenches are not for amateurs. They need to be calibrated. You cannot throw them as if they’re ordinary wrenches, because it messes calibration. And, you must know the technique, which is nothing special, but crucial to know: I see younger mechanics in many Youtube videos, who have no idea how to use the tool: they are using them as ratchets, which messes the torque. To use it correctly, you tighten the bolt (or nut) until it’s slightly tight, then progressively and evenly tighten with a torque wrench, until it clicks, turns freely, or displays the correct torque, depending on the type.
For serious torque wrench users: you have to have a calibration machine to make sure your torque wrench is operating accurately.
I think the best torque wrench type for carbon item owners is the cheapest one that has a preset torque value like 5nm. These are precise enough for the job, do not need calibration, and probably serve long enough.
For cassettes or cranksets, a torque wrench is a nice-to-have item, but not a necessity. Use common sense. 40nm means, “about 40kg” of force applied to nut or bolt if your wrench is 1m long. This is pretty tight, some people may even need a small cheater bar. But you don’t necessarily, exactly tighten it to 40nm.
A small set of quality files
Files are good for deburring anything, from cleaning up the inside of a seat post to freshly cut cables with a blunt device as I use.
Make sure they are good quality, but good quality ones are expensive and very fragile if dropped. Once, I dropped a very expensive file, and it shattered like glass, due to excessive hardening and carbon content to achieve diamond-like hardness.
Cheap files don’t worth it, a single, good file is generally 30$ or more. You can buy a Dremel, which is more versatile in most cases, but suitable for very precise work.
Hanger alignment tool
I’d definitely put this tool into “must-haves” list, if it was not so expensive. These things cost somewhere in the 100$ band. It’s cheaper to replace derailleur hangers when you’ re in doubt. But of course, this thing is valueless if you have a vintage steel bike with integral hangers.
It’s not super hard to make a one for yourself.
Rotor Truing Tool
Well, rotors bend, always and often, so this is a handy device. I did not put it in the “must haves” list just because they sell this tool quite expensive, but actually, it’s a steel block with a groove on it. Just grab a iron / steel bar, and use your angle grinder.
Pipe cutter is a nice tool that lets you cut seatposts, fork tubes, bars. Clean cuts with minimal effort. A useless one for me because I did not have to cut anything if I recall correctly. Good ones are expensive, cheap ones are junk.
There are also many options, like a hacksaw or jig saw or cut off saw. To be honest, I have a pipe cutter already, but not for using on bikes. I don’t even remember when I last use it.
Headset cup remover
I don’t frequently remove headset cups. My old, dependable, crowbar-size screwdriver perfectly replaces this tool.
If you do need one, its just a pipe with correct diameter, cut into slices. I’ll probably explain how to make one.
I don’t see any point in paying this expensive tool, if you’re not in service business. With some large washers, a threaded rod and nuts, you can make yourself one. It’s dead cheap, and also works as a bottom bracket press for press fit cups.
A sturdy repair stand will make your job 10x easier in most cases, but its bulky.
Probably waste of money tools (unless you have a bike shop)
When anything to retract your calipers’ pistons is within a arms’ reach, paying for these silly things don’t make sense to me.
Reamers remove any irregularities from the faces of bottom brackets or head tubes. These things are expensive: a bottom bracket set will set you back about 300$ a set. It’s really hard to damage those faces, so unless you run a bike shop, these things won’t be necessary or worthwhile.
Most cases, a large and flat file can do the job instead, if it’s not that bad. If so, visiting the bike shop will definitely be cheaper.
Crown race setters / removers
A long bolt with a hammer will do the job. Or, you can build your own.
Dropout alignment gauges
These things are nice if you have a steel frame: it is useful in two ways: you can enlarge dropouts to fit larger hubs. Most old steel frames have 130mm or less spacing. By enlarging them, you can fit 135mm MTB rear hubs. Some frames can be enlarged to accept 142mm hubs too, but going beyond it may be risky.
You probably don’t have a steel frame, and these things are not cheap. Still, you can build them yourself. They are also used to fix bent steel forks or rear ends. They have no use on aluminum, and obviously carbon fiber frames.
Pedal thread taps
If your crankarms’ threads are bust, you need 2 taps, because they tighten in different ways. Even at AliExpress, these things will cost you 30-40$. Then, you need helicoil or thread inserts, which needs additional tools. Also, big size, like 15-15.5 drill bits that won’t fit into normal drill chucks – meaning, you must have drill press, or you go to a shop with a drill press. Repairing a single crankset, buying all the tools needed, will cost you at least 100-150$. For one crankset, that is quite big. If you are to repair, say, 3 cranksets at least, and assuming they’re not junk, go for it. For a single crankset; I’d throw it away instead of spending 100$.
Chains elongate, and wear out almost all drivetrain components. It is nice to have a wear gauge. So, why
this tool here?
Well; even the “premium” ones are junk, just because…With these gauges, you’ re looking for a very tiny amount of wear, something so small that probably in Mitutoyo range (they make the best vernier calipers and micrometers). A 1$ have almost no use, and some ancient methods without using any tools is probably even better. They’ re junk, not just because precision is off, but also metallurgically inaccurate: they should be made from the same alloy that is used in chain, so they contract / expand in same ratio to your chain, which is not the case. I’d prefer plastic ones to metals if there is any, and surprised to see noone thought of using much more heat stable metal, like brass.
What about wheel stuff ?
For beginners, I strongly suggest not touching their wheelset unless you have a spare. Wheelbuilding, or even truing is a dark art. Yet; I’ll cover this topic. I will not suggest what to buy / what to avoid, as for me, wheel related stuff is a topic of its own.
Not because they’re inferior. In fact, they’re quite good. Problem is, there are better alternatives at a much more fair price.
I use 2 grades of grease, ATF VI fluid instead of mineral oil for brakes, and my secret formula, copper grease. I use copper grease where different grades of aluminum or aluminum/steel mate. This really slows down corrosion and happens to stop water ingress much better than anything else. You should not use it on bearings. Or on brake bosses, for V brakes or cantilevers if you have.
Shimano Mineral Oil for 50ml is 8$ right now in my country. For exactly the same price, I got a liter of Motul ATF VI recently. It’s 20 times cheaper! I got perfect results with it. I cannot access the properties of Shimano Mineral Oil but found Motorex Mineral Oil specs, which is a premium brand. ATF VI is less viscous than their mineral oil, which is not a bad thing. On the other hand, other parameters fit.
Shimano’s 125ml grease is about 11 dollars. Sram grease is not available right now. As I said, I use 2 types of grease, one is Mobil XHP 222, Grade 3. This is a thick grease that I use in headsets, crankset bearings, and most general stuff. Another one is a Shell, don’t remember the product name, but it’s Grade 2, less thick, having the same consistency as Shimano’s yellowish-green grease. It gets well with water, but Mobil’s grease is much like a premium marine grease. In fact, when I had a Yamaha shop, there was speculation that Yamaha grease was actually Mobile XHP 222. I’d believe that because I used Mobil XHP 222 in the marine environment with zero problems at all. I bought a 390 gr pack a few years ago and used only half of it. Price? 7$; almost 5x cheaper than Shimano grease. For Shell, it’s even better: I bought a 1kg pack, and it was about 8$, which is 10x cheaper! It’s still somewhat water-resistant, but not like Mobil. And there is no need to be crazy about it. When there is too much water ingress in your hub, no chemical will save it. Get good quality hubs with good sealing, and don’t jet-wash your bike. If I were to buy new grease, I’ll skip both and get Motul Nautic Grease. %30 is expensive, but really good stuff.
I am not using a suspension fork for years, but there is a cheaper alternative to Sram’s Butter Grease, which is 50$ for 500ml, which is crazy. I use silicone grease (food grade) for years when packing car brake calipers and hydraulic pumps. This stuff is really nice and easy on seals and o-rings and doesn’t decompose under pressure. It’s just 2x cheaper here, because not a known grease type. You’ll probably have more alternatives and lower prices in certain countries. Alternatively, you can also use Molykote 55, which is not food grade (poisonous, if you’re using the wrong fork to eat!) but a better choice. This stuff is used by the aerospace industry, but 2x expensive then Sram Butter Grease. No surprise, Molykote products are super expensive, but there are cheaper alternatives, too. Basically, the main difference of Sram Butter Grease from others is, its not petrol based, as petrol based grease will ruin rubber parts.
Though I prefer waxing my chains, I also use lubes when I feel lazy. I do not prefer a particular brand, but I try to avoid PTFE additive. Do not use grease, MoS2 sprays, olive oil or any vegetable oil, especially used engine oil. In wet, I use 5w-30 engine oil, which I also use with my car. My car takes 4.5l of oil, I buy 5l packs. So everytime I change oil, which is 6 month, or up to 12 months if I’m lazy at the time, I get half a liter of oil. Probably that’s enough for the whole town I live. Admittedly, I generally use dry oil in wet, because I have many of them, and prefer wax to anything else. It’s quite hard to change wax / oil regime in between. If you start waxing a chain, go with it. If you lubed it, go with lube. Cleaning a chain is more labor intensive then waxing it.
I rarely use WD-40 or similar chemicals as rust removers. What works great for me, better than any other chemical is, %50 ATF, %50 acetone mix. Since acetone is very volatile, I mix them in small amounts prior to use, and keep them in small squirt bottles. It has remarkable penetration, next to nothing else. DOT fluids also work, but its very harsh on painted surfaces, so I do not use them.
What to use as a toolbox ?
If you’re moving a lot like me, a plastic container big enough to contain your equipment but small enough to fit your bike’s rear rack, if you have any, is superb.
Keep your chemicals and equipment separate. Chemicals have a bad habit of spilling, and messing things up. Stackable, plastic and transparent containers is great: they can fit your bike rack, and can quickly see what is missing.