Basic Equipment for the Home and Community Bike Mechanic

Josh Bisker – March 2020

We compiled a list of the best cost-effective tools and supplies for your apartment-bound workshop. Welcome to the life of the home mechanic!

We run a bike co-op partly to overcome inequality and discrimination, and partly so that people don’t have to spend money (or much money) to have their bikes work. Our goals have always been bigger than that, though: we’re here to prepare each other with skills that create community resiliency during large-scale social challenges, like the current pandemic. We cannot open a communal workshop right now, but people everywhere urgently need bike repair. That means more of us need to practice wrenching at home so we can activate as community mechanics as it becomes safe to do so. And that means that more of us need tools at home.

We spent a hefty amount of time searching out the best value tools that we could trust, and clustered most of the links into the same website for expedient shipping to help with costs. Don’t dither, because the sale 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 worthwhile.

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 this terrific mini ratchet to take the place of most of your allen keys and screwdrivers. (This one is also very good.) The ratchet handles aren’t the strongest, but there’re pretty durable, and they come with the right attachment bits. (2) Pair that guy with this pair of slip-jaw pliers. Portable, versatile, cute, this tadpole and chomper set will give you right tools for most everyday bike repairs. (3) Get a pair of tire levers and a patch kit — you can even ask us to give you a free set.

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 any non-emergency bike work at home, you’ll just about always be happier with tools over multi-tools. The two tools we just recommended above are, we think, the best use and value for multi-tool-esque gadgets; 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.

The Tools

We talk about three kinds of things.

  • Tools: allen keys, screwdrivers, a couple wrenches, tire levers, a patch kit, lube, grease, rags, a pump, and a repair book. Level up with spoke wrenches and cone wrenches.
  • 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.
  • Repair stands: We have opinions.
  • Not pictured: This list doesn’t include tools for servicing bottom brackets, headsets, or freewheels / cassettes.

Full text descriptions are below, but they’re also in a spreadsheet here in case that’s easier to look through.

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

  • This rainbow colored set is sturdy, smart, useful, affordable, and just too beautiful to ignore. A jewel in the toolbox crown.
  • If you’re doing lots of bike work, it’s nice to have these burly types of allens, called P handled or L handled.
  • This mini ratchet is stellar. It’s cheap, 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?

Wrenches. Just about all bikes use metric sizes, and mostly it’s 8mm, 10mm, and 15mm. Kids bikes sometimes use 13mm or 16mm. Some rack bolts and cable fixing bolts take 9mm or 11mm. Some axle nuts are 14s. Here’s some good options:

  • Get a full wrench set like this or this.
  • Omg get this terrrrrrrrrrific little guy. It is $11 very well spent. We’re actually recommending this tool even if you have a full wrench set — it’s the 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 mostly what you need.

Tire Levers and Patch Kits. Actually, 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. I get totally overwhelmed by the abundance of lubes out there. I use Triflow out of habit, and it’s great. Finishline Dry has always been fine too. One day I’ll splurge for the luxury NixFixShun stuff (x-mas list, cough cough, hint hint, cough cough). Steer clear of wax-based lubes, ones that advertise having little metal particles in them, and things marked “wet lube,” but otherwise get whatever you want.

Grease. Grease is actually 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.

Pump. You ride bikes a lot, and we live in our apartments now, and can’t touch other people’s stuff. 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.

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: there’s a new Third Edition that’s under twenty bucks, and the Second Edition can be had for peanuts. (Please support the amazing small press publisher and author 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 spoke wrench you’ll need, so get this combination one that has all three standard sizes. (Avoid the kind that include a well-intentioned but annoying little magnet.)

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 tools: 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. If you want to work on your cables, you’ll need a cable cutter.

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 one folds up. This one doesn’t. If your downtube is abnormally huge, you need this model. I have whole separate dissertation about bike repair stands, y’all. I have OPINIONS here.

Dropcloth: What beats getting oil and dirt all over your floor, or laying out like, carboard boxes under your bike? A cheap, light, durable, dropcloth. There’s enough there to double it up or cut it up and save 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. It’s probably cheapest at a hardware store, if you can go to one safely.

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

Magnetic Bowl. Suddenly all your stuff doesn’t just roll away!

Fly Apron. Actually I’ve got a bunch of apron designs I’ll be rolling out in a few months, but until then there are some really adorable options on ebay

Toolbox. Storing your tools well will make your whole life feel better. We’re not going to recommend a specific toolbox here, but just a note of experience: the big rectangular bucket style toolboxes that you most commonly see 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 recommend that aspiring home mechanics get a toolbox with drawers. These can sometimes be expensive, although they’ll last for a hundred years. Look for a used one on Craigslist or eBay, or splurge. OR BETTER YET, get a …

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 …

DIY TOOL ROLL! Since we have all this time indoors, why not try making a tool roll yourself? It’s a great, easy DIY sewing project. FYI, you don’t need all Cordura© Ripstop© So Damn Tough© fabric; like, literally anything will work. Maybe we can make it a group challenge!

Add-ons for Mobile Repair or Community Repair Kits

Section to come! But look out for Park Tool CBW-1, Park Tool CBW-4, Park Tool OBW-11 and Park Tool CBW-13, and some other fun stuff.

Bike Repair Stands

If a deep dive into home bike repair stands isn’t your cup of tea, please let me send you along with this humble parting gift of a Spotify playlist full of songs that are, as any reasonable person would have to assume, about bike repair stands. The rest of you, put that playlist on and come along in:

Park Tool Stands: Not Great.

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 places 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 shit. Throw them into fire and melt them to slag. Whoever okayed their sale to the public should be forced to resign, their photo hung upside-down inside the Park Tool offices to let their disgrace wash over the whole 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.

Feedback Stands: Rumored to be Great.

At most bike coops, the mechanics I talk to are big fans of Feedback brand repair stands. At the Mechanical Gardens, we’ve inherited all our repair stands from shops, or else bought them cheap at bike jumbles, so it’s been nothing but Park Tools for us (plus one Pedro’s stand that is, well, not good). If we’re ever in a position to buy new stands, it will be the Feedback ones, for sure.

Weird Little Stands: Hell Yes.

THIS THING is my favorite bike repair stand. It’s $20-$25, sturdy, and lets you do juuuuuuust about everything you want to pretty well — and makes it fun to work on your bike! It’s not a real-deal shop stand — for that try the Feedback ones. But it’s fun and easy to use, and a real boost to productivity. Here’s how to use it.

Topeak makes two folding versions of this coat-hanger style stand: 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.

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 🙂