Thursday, 3 November 2011

Building up a basic tool kit

Many people prefer to leave maintenance and repair to their local bike shop, but this will become expensive over time – as bicycles are not complicated machines, carrying out the majority of everyday maintenance tasks and putting right common malfunctions are well within the realms of possibility for virtually everyone. Give it a go, even – in fact especially – if you consider yourself lacking in mechanical expertise and ability: you'll be surprised at how simple it is to keep a bike in good working order and with a bit of luck you'll save yourself a considerable amount of money too. To do this, you'll need some tools.

A well-selected basic kit will fit into a saddle pack, leaving
it close to hand if it becomes necessary to perform a
roadside repair
(image credit: The walrus CC BY-SA 3.0)

In this article, we'll attempt to provide a guide written in non-technical language that even absolute beginner can follow aimed at helping readers select the tools they'll require in a very basic maintenance kit, with sufficient scope to carry out a range of tasks while remaining light and compact enough to be carried on the bike or in a bag so that it can also be used to repair the majority of common roadside failures.

Good tools can be a pleasure to use – and even if you hate working on your bike, it's still worth buying good tools for two reasons: A, they won't break under strain (anyone who has ever had a spanner snap, causing them to smash their knuckles into the chain rings will know about this) and won't damage components; B; the old adage “buy cheap, buy twice” is never more true than when applied to tools. A few dollars or pounds will buy you a tool that may last for a year, a few dollars more will buy you a tool that will last a lifetime. This means, of course, that a comprehensive tool kit can cost a vast amount of money – easily stretching into the thousands of dollars if you demand only the very best. Meanwhile, here in the real world, very few of us need that sort of equipment and since the majority of us will still turn our bikes over into the care of an experienced mechanic if more complex work needs to be carried out, the majority of cyclists can get along fine with a basic kit. If you subsequently find that you wish to perform more tasks at home.

Of course, if you want to just get all the tools necessary for a basic kit in one go, you can simply walk into any bike shop and purchase a bicycle tool kit. They start at around £30 for reasonable sets – cheaper versions are available but, unless selling at a heavily discounted price, are not worthy of consideration because a manufacturer will have had to cut corners on quality in order for the kit to retail at that low a point.

"Ready-made" tool kits can offer good value for money,
but make sure that all the tools are compatible with your
bike before purchasing
The drawback to bike tool kits such as these is that most will include tools that are not required by the beginner such as headset spanners, bottom bracket tools and spoke wrenches. All of these are designed to perform tasks that will in most cases be outside of the beginner's remit and as such are for the time being best left to a more experienced mechanic (indeed, many cyclists never learn to use a spoke wrench), so you might as well save the money for now and just buy the tools you need. Secondly, the humble bike has developed enormously since the 1980s, meaning that whereas 30 years ago a tool would be suitable for 95% of bikes, nowadays there's a massive amount of variation. Thus, it's often better to buy individual tools knowing that they will work for your bike rather than buy a tool kit containing some that will and some that will not.

For the same sort of price you could buy a good multitool, a device similar to a bike-specific Swiss army knife with just about all the tools you're every likely to need when repairing your bike at the roadside. The problem here is that whereas a multitool is an extremely useful object when out and about – my TopPeak Alien was probably the best £40 I ever spent – simple ergonomics makes them unsuited to regular use. Jobs that are fiddly and annoying with miniaturised multitool tools become simple and straightforward with full-size tools.

Here are the basic tools the beginner home mechanic will require:

Puncture Repair Kit

Some people seem to never get punctures, whereas others rarely complete even a short ride without one. For example, many years ago I employed a young Czech woman who showed up late for work one morning. Being the nice kind of boss rather than a fascist, I don't mind too much if this sort of thing doesn't happen often and so she was happy to tell me that the reason she'd been late was that her bike got a puncture on the way and she'd had to push it for four miles. The worst thing, she said, was that she'd have to take it to the bike shop during her lunch hour to have it fixed.

Take it to the shop?” I said. “How much will they charge you for that then?”

£6,” she told me. Since I also got to work by bike and always have a puncture repair kit with me, I told her I'd do it for free.

It turned out that, even though she'd bought the bike when she first came to the UK four years previously and had used it almost daily, she'd not had a single puncture in all that time. In contrast, I once had nine. In under a mile. I can only assume frequency of punctures relates to actions in a past life or something.

Contents of a good quality puncture repair kit
You are very, very, very unlikely to be as lucky as my Czech ex-employee and so you're going to need to get a puncture repair kit. In fact, if you don't get one you don't really count as a cyclist – it's the one tool that you simply must own. So it's a good thing they don't cost very much.

A puncture kit should contain some rubber patches, a tube of vulcanising solution and a little square of sandpaper (sometimes replaced with a metal file, as shown in the image) at the absolute minimum. Most will also include a cube of chalk and a little yellow crayon. Some will also include two or three tyre levers.
Some even have a spanner with variously-sized holes to accommodate the various-sized nuts and bolts. If yours has a spanner like this, take it out and throw it in the trash. They're rubbish and it'll snap the first time you try to use it.

Try to buy a kit with all of these (except the spanner), but at the very least with the patches, vulcanising solution and sandpaper as these are the essentials. The other parts can be added – use a small tin to keep them all together if the plastic box supplied isn't large enough.

The patches, as most of you will suspect, are used to cover the puncture. In addition to the orange-edged “bulls-eye” patches shown above, there are also plain patches which may be black on both sides or red on the underneath. Coloured patches are also sometimes seen, but in my experience can degrade over time. It's also possible to buy a large strip of patch material so that patches of the correct size can be cut out as and when needed, in which case you'll need a sharp blade or scissors in your kit (those folding nail scissors are ideal).

The vulcanising solution is used to help the patches adhere to the inner tube. Patches are self-adhesive but do not have the sticking power to provide a sufficiently tight seal to prevent air escaping when the inner tube is pressurised, so the solution melts the surface of both the tube and the patch to create a permanent bond. So-called glueless patches (a misnomer since the part they replace – the vulcanising solution – is not glue) are widely available but do not yet seem to be as effective as traditional patches.

The sandpaper or file is used to clean and roughen the surface of the inner tube before the vulcanising solution is applied by removing a thin layer of rubber to ensure grease is removed and promote a proper airtight bond. A file can also be used to powder chalk and is a useful addition in a home-made repair kit, while most commercial kits will have a roughened area on the box for the chalk.

The crayon is used to mark the point at which the tube is punctured, allowing you to relocate it when applying the patch. A ball-point pen or marker can also be used.

The chalk is powdered before being applied to the patch once it's stuck in place, preventing the vulcanising solution from causing the tube to adhere to the inner surface of the tyre.

The tyre levers are used to remove the tyre from the wheel rim, allowing access to the inner tube within. It's not always necessary to use them as the fit between tyre and wheel varies greatly in tightness – some tyres are quite loose, others can be a very tight fit. All can be removed without them, but it becomes considerably easier to remove a tight tyre with levers.

Depending on the type of wheels fitted to your bike, you may also need to add a spanner to the kit (more information on spanners below). Many bikes use quick release wheels nowadays, in which case they can be quickly and easily removed by simply flipping a lever attached to the axle. However, axles fastened to the frame using nuts are also common, especially in the case of old or cheap bikes. Newer examples will usually feature metric nuts with a 15mm cap size, whereas older examples can be any one of an assortment of Imperial sizes – if you don't know which, take the bike to a shop and ask them to measure them. You can use an adjustable spanner instead, but these are far heavier than a conventional spanner of the correct size and are more likely to slip and round off the nut, making it very difficult to remove.

Allen keys and spanners

Top - allen bolts. Bottom - hex cap bolt
Allen keys are used to fasten or loosen allen bolts (top) which, since the late 1980s, have almost entirely replaced the conventional hex cap bolt (bottom) on bicycles from £50 supermarket specials to £10,000 Tour de France exotics. They can also be called inbus, unbrako or zeta keys while the correct name for the system is internal-wrenching hexagon drive, but we shan't concern ourselves with any of that.

It's easy to distinguish one from the other – an allen bolt has a round head with a hexagonal centre section, whereas a hex cap bolt has a hexagonal head (when people talk about hex keys, they're referring to allen keys rather than
spanners as used to fasten hex cap bolts. I prefer to stick to allen key so as to avoid confusion). However, the degree to which they are used varies – some bikes have a few, others replace all hex cap bolts with them and some have a mixture of allen bolts and torx bolts (a similar design we'll discuss in the future). If you have an old bike or a modern machine of extremely traditional construction (such as some Dutch bikes, though most are much more modern that they at first appear), you might not need allen keys at all. We're betting you will, though: have a close look at your bike and it's more likely than not that there'll be an allen bolt somewhere.

An excellent quality set of allen keys can be had for as
little as £10. Why spend less on rubbish ones?
The keys can be bought individually but usually come as a set, often with a piece of plastic to hold them together. The number of keys varies, but most will include keys in 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10mm sizes – beginners will only need a few of these, but it's worth having the others standing by. If the shop has individual keys too, buy an extra 5mm one as it's the size you'll use most and the size which tends to be misplaced most. If possible, buy a set with ball-ended keys (see image below) rather than plain as these will allow you to unfasten bolts at awkward angles should the need arise.

As stated above, spanners are not required to repair some modern bikes as hex cap bolts have been replaced by allen bolts. If this applies to you, very well – but check carefully before deciding not to buy a set.

Unlike allen keys, spanners work with both nuts and bolts; and while nuts and bolts come in a variety of shapes, those used on bikes are almost invariably the standard hex cap type as depicted alongside some allen bolts above. There are two main types of spanner: open-ended spanners have the advantage of being able to reach nuts and bolts in confined spaces or when fitted in a stack (as is common in the case of some bike brakes) while ring spanners completely encircle the nut or bolt and thus prevent it rounding off. Combination spanners have an open end and a ring end, offering the best of both worlds. There are also adjustable spanners with jaws that open and close to accommodate bolts on different sizes - these need to be used with a little more care to prevent them damaging the head of the nut or bolt, but they have a multitude of uses and as such are a valuable addition to your tool kit.
Combination spanners have one open end and one ring end, offering the best of both worlds
The process of making a spanner is considerably more involved that making an allen key, hence the higher price. As stated above, the bargain bin at your local ironmongery is a good place to look if you want to save money, as are yard sales where spanners can often be purchased individually for very little money. Complete sets of spanners are often seen selling for a few dollars in yard sales, but unless you've developed a tool fetish (as many home mechanics do) there's no real point in buying them as you won't need most of the sizes. A reasonable set of spanners can be bought new for around Aus$30 and will contain metric sizes 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17 & 19mm and Imperial 1/4", 5/16", 3/8", 7/16", 1/2", 9/16", 5/8", 11/16" & ¾". But, as you won't require all of these, it still makes more sense to buy spanners individually if you've decided news ones are the way to go. 10, 12, 13 and 15mm are the sizes you're most likely to need.

Cable cutters
A tool you won't need until later? Pah - cable cutters are one of the most important and  essential tools in your toolbox
Cable cutters are usually included on lists of items for the more experienced mechanic. I couldn't disagree more - correctly known as Bowden control cables, bike cables are engineered to transfer mechanical energy or force from one point to another and need to be in excellent condition to do so, and cutters are essential to keep them in such a state. Faulty cables can make an otherwise perfectly good bike absolutely horrible to ride and, since they allow the rider to operate the brakes, can cause injury if they fail. Due to this importance, they need to be replaced approximately once a year depending on milage and, when you do this, you'll need a means to cut them cleanly: standard wire cutters or pliers will crush the cable, making it impossible to thread through the cable outers and will leave a frayed end with extremely sharp bits of thin wire that hurt like hell when they stab you under the fingernails, which they will. They cost around £15 and upwards.

Grease Gun

A grease gun allows you apply grease precisely and cleanly. With one, it becomes possible to carry out some tasks – such a relubricating pedals – without the need to first disassemble the component. They also make it far easier to replace free ball bearings in headsets, pedals and wheel hubs, all items we'll look at in more detail in the future and can be bought for as little as £10. The best type for bike maintenance are those with a threaded connector allowing a tube of grease to be screwed on. The button at the back is then pushed to force grease out through the nozzle at the front.
This type of grease gun, designed to screw onto a tube of grease, is small  and cheap
Grease gun injuries

Incredible though it may seem, at least a few people in any area manage to get themselves committed to hospital every year after sustaining grease gun injuries. These happen when the button that forces grease is activated while the nozzle is held firmly against the skin, injecting grease into the bloodstream. While it's difficult to imagine a situation in which this might happen accidentally – or at the very least without the application of a large dose of stupidity – take care not to join them.

Left - Phillips. Right - flat

Screwdrivers don't have many uses in everyday bike maintenance, screws having mostly gone the same way as hex cap bolts. However, they're still required for certain tasks such as adjusting derailleur gears and some brake levers as well as often proving useful when changing handlebar grips and removing rubber seals. You're unlikely to need more than four – two cross-headed or Phillips type, one small and one medium and two flat in the same sizes, but as is the case with most of the tools we've discussed other sizes may be required for older bikes.

Cleaning and Lubrication

In addition to tools, your basic toolkit will need a selection of cleaning and lubricating products. When it comes to cleaning fluid, there is nothing quite so effective as Muc-Off(TM); a bright pink fluid that, when sprayed onto dirt, immediately begins to break it down so that it can be removed with a sponge or hose. If your bike shop doesn't sell Muc-Off, ask them which other product they recommend – I've tried several and while the all work to a greater or lesser degree, none of them eat through dirt quite like Muc-Off does.

The only other cleaning product you'll need is degreaser, which is usually supplied in an aerosol can and is essential for removing old, dirty grease before relubricating bike parts. Citrus-based versions are widely available and are both more environmentally friendly and kinder to the skin than solvent-based products while remaining every bit as effective.

Even the most hard-to-reach areas are easy to clean with
the correct tools
Bikes, due to many of their mechanical parts being exposed to the elements, collect dirt in a variety of hard-to-reach places – perhaps the hardest of them all being the spaces between the gear cogs on bikes equipped with derailleur gears. The ideal device to remove it is a proper gear-cleaning brush, which has a stiff brush on one end and a serrated crescent on the other. Both ends will fit between the cogs, allowing you to remove dirt and entangled matter such as grass stems with ease. Most bike shops sell brush sets which, in addition to the gear brush, include a selection of brushes each designed with a specific task in mind. Save your money – a normal toothbrush works equally as well.

Grease has a thousand and one uses in bike maintenance because it both lubricates and prevents corrosion. As such, it's used on moving parts to reduce friction and non-moving parts such as the seat pillar and anywhere that metal touches metal to prevent parts rusting and becoming stuck together. That means it's a part of your tool kit that you should never be without. The most suitable type for bike use is a synthetic, silicone-based product with added Teflon and water-repellent. Bike shops sell it in tubes similar to toothpaste tubes, allowing it to be used with a grease gun for easy and clean application.

Talk to twenty cyclists and you'll get thirty opinions on the best way to lubricate a bike chain. Many people have their own preferences, but an understanding of how the chain works and what stresses and factors affect it added to an understanding of the benefits and disadvantages of different lubricants helps no end. First of all, the lubricant needs to be “heavy” (ie thick) enough for it not to be flung off the chain when the bike is in motion – this is undesirable not just because it leaves the chain without lubrication but also because the lubricant can contaminate brake pads and/or tyres, reducing their effectiveness and degrading the rubber. Secondly, it needs to be “light” (ie fluid) enough that it won't turn into a thick gunge once dirt gets anywhere near it. Thirdly, it needs to be able to perform well in whichever weather conditions you're most likely to encounter during a ride.
Left - dry wax. Right - spray-on wax
With this in mind, motor vehicle oil is too heavy and penetrating oils are too light for use on the chain. Fortunately, a wide range of lubricants formulated especially with bike chains in mind are available in bike shops – and these will be either liquid lubricants (oil) or dry lubricants (wax). Liquid lubricants reduce friction and repel water, making them ideal choice if you regularly ride in wet conditions or live in an area that experiences high rainfall. However, since even lighter liquid lubricants will attract dust and grit (forming an effective grinding paste that can wear out bike components very rapidly), they're not suited to use in very dry or dusty environments such as areas that have low rainfall - this is where waxes come in. Some types are sold in solid form, usually in a tin and need to be melted on a stove before the chain is dipped in, left for a short while so the molten wax penetrates the rollers and bushes before being removed and left to dry; others are supplied in an aerosol can with a solvent carrier that, when the product is sprayed onto the chain, evaporates to leave the wax behind. The aerosol is by far the easier method, but nothing lubricates quite like the molten wax method.

We'll take a look at cleaning and lubricating your bike in more detail in a future article.


With a tool kit including the items above, you'll find yourself able to tackle all the maintenance and repair jobs that you're likely to face during your first few months of bike ownership. You will also be equipped to carry out the tasks that we'll be looking at in the next few articles, thus keeping your bike in good and safe working order, and have an excellent base to which further more specialised tools can be added in the future. We'll describe those tools and their purposes as the tasks covered in the articles become increasingly complex with the aim of leaving readers who wish to learn bicycle maintenance with both the tool kit and knowledge to be entirely self-reliant.

(Image credits:
Puncture kit Bjorn Appel CC BY-SA 3.0
Ball ended allen keys IC Lenilucho CC BY-SA 3.0
hex cap bolt M. Minderhoud CC BY-SA 3.0)


  1. Very useful, thanks a lot!!!!!!

  2. Hi,
    I just wanted to take a minute to tell you that you have a great site! Keep up the good work.

  3. Many thanks to both of you. :-)