Basic Equipment for the Home and Community Bike Mechanic

Josh Bisker – March 2020 (and updated sporadically)

Friends, we’ve compiled a list of the best cost-effective tools and supplies for home-bound workshops and community repair jams. Welcome to the life of the neighborhood bike mechanic!

Notable home mechanic and activist, Tony Stark

Background: We run this bike co-op to help overthrow inequality and develop resiliency against large-scale social challenges. Right now, people everywhere urgently need bike repairs—and are facing even greater-than-normal barriers to accessing them. That means that more of us need to practice wrenching at home, both so we can keep money in our own pockets and so we can serve as community mechanics. And that means more of us need affordable tools at home.

So: we spent a lot of time searching out the best-value tools that we could trust, and clustered most of the links into a few websites for expedient shipping. Don’t dither about buying them; the global supply chain is shutting down, so prices and availability might evaporate. If you’re keen to learn but can’t afford the tools, reach out and we’ll help you acquire some to get you started. We’re training each other so we can help our communities, after all, and that makes this all worthwhile.

Types of Equipment

Full descriptions are below, but here’s the rough breakdown of what you’ll find in each section. Also, we condensed them all into this spreadsheet here in case that’s easier to look through. Here’s what’s in each section:

  • Tools: allen keys, screwdrivers, a couple wrenches, tire levers, a patch kit, lube, grease, rags, a pump, spoke wrench, a repair book, and options for cone wrenches and chain breakers. Note: This list doesn’t include tools for servicing bottom brackets, headsets, or freewheels / cassettes, which fall outside the “basic tools” category.
  • Supplies to make your life happier: a repair stand, dropcloth, degreaser, and good hand cleaner. Level up with a magnetic bowl, fly apron, and toolbox or tool roll.
  • Add-ons for Community Bike Repair Kits: if you’re working on other bikes besides your own, or participating in group bike repairs, you might want some extra equipment.
  • Repair stands: We have opinions, people.

First, Though: Costs

Cost-Effectiveness. If you need to spend as little money as possible, and the rest of the list looks daunting, here’s our suggestions.

  1. We’re wild about using this terrific mini ratchet to take the place of most of your allen keys, screwdrivers, and torx bits. (This one is also good, but (a) it’s on Amazon and (b) also the low-quality ratchet handle will eventually break down. Caveat emptor.)
  2. Pair that guy with this pair of slip-jaw pliers. Portable, versatile, cute, this little chomper and that tadpole above will give you right tools for most everyday bike repairs.
  3. Get a pair of Pedro’s tire levers and a patch kit at any bike shop — you can even ask us to give you a free set if you’re in need.
  4. The Chainbreaker Bike Book is the best learning tool around. Seriously!

A note about multi-tools: there are some really great bikey multitools out there to help you save money. However, they’re mostly designed for portability over functionality. If you’re going to do really any non-emergency bike work at home, you’ll just about always be happier with dedicated tools over multi-tools.

That said, the two tools we just recommended above – the bit ratchet and slip-jaw pliers – are, we think, the best multi-tool-esque gadgets around. We’re actually recommending them to everyone, even those who already have fuller tool sets, because they’re so efficient, especially for offering community repairs. There’s one more multi-tool-esque thing we recommend: this combination pedal wrench and 14mm/15mm socket wrench. It will get you out of a million jams. For some reason, the major bike tool manufacturers don’t make one like it, but we love it.

The Tools

Allen keys. They’ve been the most essential bike tool for like, fifty years. Crappy ones suck the fun out of wrenching, and can easily damage your bike. Try one of these three suggestions.

  • Normal allen keys: This rainbow colored set is sturdy, smart, useful, affordable, and just too beautiful to ignore, a jewel in the toolbox crown. The gold standard for these guys is the Hozan W110 set. FYI, some sets have little plastic holders that fold in half; some mechanics find these inevitably annoying.
  • P-handled allen keys: If you’re doing lots of bike work, it’s nice to have these burly types of allens, called P handled or L handled. You should be able to find a set for ~$35.
  • Ratchet: This mini ratchet is just stellar. It’s cheap yet sturdy, includes just about all the allen bits you need (plus screwdrivers), and fits into tight spaces better than just about anything.

Screwdrivers. If you already have some, you’re probably set. If not, how about these cuties? It’s nice to have one normal one and one skinny one of each type (phillips and flat).

Wrenches. Just about all bikes use metric sizes for nuts and bolts, and you’ll need a set of wrenches that goes from 8mm to 17mm. Here’s some good options for you:

  • Get a full wrench set like this or this. It can save you some headache to buy a set from a bike shop or bike website, because normal hardware store sets often skip the sizes you need.
  • Please, also get this terrrrrrrrrrific little guy. It is $11 very well spent. We recommend this tool even if you have a full wrench set—it’s a perfect travel tool and a real effort-saver when doing community repairs.
  • If you’re disinclined to get a full set of wrenches and looking to save money, an 8” adjustable wrench plus the little guy above can do a lot of what you need. Also, if you are working on lots of toy store kids bikes or weird old English bikes, you may need an adjustable wrench to deal with non-metric sizes.
  • FYI most repairs take 8mm, 10mm, and 15mm wrenches. Kids bikes sometimes use 13mm or 16mm. Rack bolts and cable fixing bolts can take 9mm or 11mm. Axle nuts and saddle clamps may take 14s. Axle locknuts are usually 17. Oy!

Tire Levers and Patch Kits. Everyone makes tire levers, but everyone should stop making them except for Pedro’s. They’re the best. Buy them from a shop for $5.

Patch kits. Rema and Park Tool are the gold standard here. Get them from a shop for a few bucks.

FYI, we just ordered a million high quality lever and patch kit sets. Let us know if you need them. Sliding scale: $0-5 for a pair of Pedro’s levers, $0-3 for the patch kit, add a couple bucks for shipping or delivery.

Lube. Whether I’m at a bike shop or Babeland, I get totally overwhelmed by the abundance of different lubes out there. At our bike coop, we use Triflow, and it’s great. Finishline Dry has always been fine for me too. (One day I’ll splurge for the luxury NixFixShun stuff, cough cough, x-mas gift, cough cough.) Note: steer clear of wax-based lubes, ones that advertise having little metal particles in them, and things marked “wet lube” unless you live underwater or in the Pacific Northwest, but otherwise really get whatever you want. Also note: these recommendations are for your bike!

Grease. Grease is different than lube, and is completely vital to bike maintenance and repair. Every time you screw anything into anything else, there should be grease in those screw threads. You can get a big tub and use your fingers or something to do it BUT oh my gosh get this re-usable home grease gun with included grease instead! Your life will be so much better for it. [UPDATE: that item is sold out maybe forever, but we still HIGHLY recommend getting a mini grease gun (here’s a video we made on how to fill them up!).

Pump. You ride bikes a lot. Get a pump. There’s some good sale ones here. If it’s a floor pump, make sure it has a pressure gauge. For both floor and travel pumps, make sure they can take both Schraeder and Presta valves. A $30 floor pump will last you maybe forever.

Book. If your bike is just a good old normal bicycle, and you’re just a good old normal person, you’ll probably get the most out of the Chainbreaker Bike Book. The new Third Edition is under twenty bucks. The Second Edition can be had for peanuts, but please support the amazing small press publisher and author with a new copy if you can. If you’re a gearhead or have a fancy new rocketship bike, get one of the Zinn & the Art of Bicycle Maintenance books. It really doesn’t matter what edition you get, or whether it’s the Road Bike or Mountain Bike book (unless you have fancy suspension — then get the mountain bike book).

Spoke wrench: Fix your swimmy, wobbly wheels. There’s no way to know which of the three standard spoke wrench sizes you’ll need, so get this combination tool that has them all. Note: avoid the spoke wrenches that include a well-intentioned but annoying little magnet in them.

Chain tool. You’ll need a chainbreaker or chain tool to remove an old chain or take links out of a new one (that’s how you make it the right length for your bike’s gear combination). Jeepers, apparently there are $200 chain tools out there, but this $5-10 version will do an equivalent if not better job.

Extra credit: At some point, a decent set of cone wrenches will let you adjust your hubs to roll buttery-smooth like they did when they were new. To be honest, you may be happier with a set of these travel ones instead of a full set of normal ones. For once, we like the Park Tool version better than the Pedro’s; you’ll need Park Tool DCW-1 -2 -3 and -4.

Extra extra credit: If you want to work on your cables, you’ll need a cable cutter. A wire cutter or whatever won’t work.

Supplies to Make Your Life Happier

Rags. Old T-shirts make the best rags. This is scientific fact.

Repair stand: Get a cheap, cute, little stand for basic maintenance. It will seriously make your life WAY, WAY better. This coat-hanger style stand is the best for most bikes, but its funny shape might make it hard to store. This version folds up, but it’s a little less stable than the rigid one. If your bike’s downtube is abnormally huge, though, you need this model. And if you want a real-deal big stand, I have whole like, dissertation about bike repair stands down below. I have OPINIONS.

Dropcloth: What beats getting oil and dirt all over your floor? What’s better than laying out crappy old cardboard boxes under your bike? Yes, it’s a cheap, light, durable, dropcloth. This one here is big enough to double up or cut up and save half for later.

Degreaser. Get some natural or citrus based degreaser. We like Simple Green. It comes in a cheap spray bottle, and there’s a “bike” version that must be exactly the same as the normal version, but, you know, marketing! Avoid the aerosol kind. Degreaser is probably cheapest at a hardware store.

Hand cleaner. You want the citrus + pumice stuff. Here’s the best value for the home mechanic. (Also, FYI, it’s a reliably great Secret Santa gift idea for bike folks.)

Gloves: Remember the Before Times, when we didn’t all have a million gloves? Anyway, you’ll want the Nitrile kind for bike repair. The latex ones will break apart right quick.

Magnetic Bowl. How do they work? We’ll never know. At least now all our stuff doesn’t roll away while we’re working.

Apron (Hella Fly). You want to get you a hella fly apron. Actually, I’ve got a bunch of apron designs I’ll be trying to roll out in a few months, but until then there are some really adorable options on ebay. Or maybe holler at a friend who’s sick of making masks and commission an apron from them.

Toolbox. Storing your tools well will make your whole life feel better. We’re not going to recommend a specific toolbox here, but offer a note of experience: don’t get one of the big rectangular bucket style toolboxes that you most commonly see. They will drive you effing crazy if you use your tools often at all. To keep your mind intact and make it so you don’t hate using your tools, we advise home mechanics to get a toolbox with drawers. Yes, these can sometimes be expensive, but they’ll last for a hundred years and will preserve your sanity. Look for a used one on Craigslist or eBay, or splurge.

Tool roll! A tool roll is way better suited to both home bike mechanics and community mechanics than most tool boxes are. There are lots of good ready-to-order options. OR EVEN MORE BETTER YET, since we have all this time indoors, why not try making a tool roll yourself, or asking a seamster/seamstrix friend to make one? It’s a great, easy DIY sewing project. FYI, you don’t need any Cordura© Ripstop© Macho-Tactical© fabric. Like, literally anything will work. Mine’s made out of circus costume off-cuts. It works great.

Add-ons for Mobile Repair or Community Repair Kits

In brief:

  • The two Park Tool CBW wrenches are incredibly useful. Thin enough to do jobs that a lot of normal box wrenches can’t, sturdy enough to handle any task, and small enough to fit in your go-pouch. They are double-sided: The CBW-1 is 8mm and 10mm, the CBW-4 is 9mm and 11mm. They’re perfect.
  • Plenty of people’s brake troubles are about centering. Solve caliper brake issues with an offset brake wrench. The OBW-3 has little ears that are good for manipulating older single-pivot caliper brakes by their springs. The OBW-4 has 90-degree wrench flats for adjusting most types of caliper brakes.
  • Someone always has headset trouble. A full compliment of headset wrenches is heavy and expensive. A good-enough solution is one of these multi-wrench headset tools for tightening the cone, and this wide-mouth adjustable guy for tightening the locknut. It’s not ideal; headsets are annoying to adjust without the right tools, and these aren’t them. But this is an okay place to pinch pennies and get something that satisfices, since the tools are otherwise pretty specialized and a pain in the butt to buy and bring around.

Bike Repair Stands

First, let me reward you reading this far with a gift: a curated playlist of songs that are, as any reasonable person would have to conclude, about bike repair stands. Now, crank those tunes and come along in, starting with the best:

Feedback Sports Repair Stands: Gold Standard

Even the lowest-tier stand from Feedback Sports is so much further evolved than any of the Park Tools stands that comparing them feels like stacking Homo Sapiens next to Neanderthals.  Previously at the Mechanical Gardens, we had inherited all our repair stands from other shops or else bought them cheap at bike jumbles, so it had been nothing but Park Tools for us (plus one Pedro’s stand that is, well, not good). Then, thanks to the NYC Department of Transportation, we were able to but two Feedback Sports stands for our mobile repair kits. Life changing. We’re never going back.

Weird Little Stands: Hell Yes.

This thing is my favorite home-mechanic bike repair stand. It’s $25, sturdy, and lets you do juuuuuuust about everything you want to do. Most crucially, it makes it really fun to work on your bike! It’s not a real-deal shop stand, and still makes you bend down unless you can put it up on a work bench, but it’s fun, cheap, easy to use, and a real boost to productivity. Here’s how to use it:Topeak makes two folding versions of this same thing: the Flashstand, and the Flashstand RX. The RX might appear to be more versatile, because it can accommodate bikes with very oversized downtubes, such as modern mountain bikes … but this is a mistake. The RX really is only good for bikes with oversize downtubes; otherwise it will not raise your rear wheel high enough off the ground to remain stable while you work. Normal bike, normal Flashstand. Big ol’ tubed bike, RX.

Park Tool Stands: Boo.

The Park Tool PCS 10 is decent, and the new version, the PCS 10.2 is probably better. But you’ll eventually – possibly sooner rather than later – hate it. It’s really, really cumbersome: heavy as hell, a pain in the ass to lug around, a pain to set up and tear down, and it relies on weak, failure-prone parts at several key locations despite being a tool with only, like, five moving pieces. It will feel badly designed—and this is because it is badly designed. I was very glad to get mine a few years ago. But now, any time I want to lug it out from the closet to use it, I am immediately, even preliminarily, exhausted at the bare thought of using it. I hate it.

The PCS 9 and its successors are inexcusable pieces of garbage. Throw them into a fire and melt them to slag. Whoever okayed their sale to the public should be forced to resign, and their photo hung upside-down inside the Park Tool offices to let the shame of their disgrace cast a pall over the whole, culpable company. I could go into why … but, why? Fuck the PS9.

(While we’re at it, the PCS-4 line is also pretty awful, although probably less awful if you have a suburban dedicated workspace and never need to fold it up. But still: awful.)

The long out-of-production PRS-5 is the best stand they ever made, light and foldy and sturdy and versatile, but you will not find one around. If you do, please give it to the Mechanical Gardens.

The new PRS-25 seems fine, but it’s expensive as hell, and might not, in fact, be fine, based on their lackluster track record otherwise.

Cheapo Stands: Who Knows?

There’s a whole world of budget repair stands, and I don’t know anything about them. Send me one and I’ll review it 🙂

That’s all for us, folks. Hope these recommendations help you get wrenching!