What’s in the toolbox? (2016 edition)

I’m a big advocate of DIY, or “do it yourself.” There’s a certain appeal in getting your hands dirty and working your tools to either maintain, fix, or create. The relative simplicity of the bicycle as a machine lends itself well to DIY, but you do need the right tools. No need to splurge on them in one fell swoop; the toolbox I have was built up over the past three years. I’d like to think I’ve covered the basics with my set, addressing most tasks any cyclist could do on his/her own. Consider this a guide towards building up your own.

Bike stand. It’s very hard to work on your bike when you need to hold it with one hand while you wrench away with another. The first thing I’d suggest buying is a means of turning your bike into a freestanding object. There are many ways of doing this, from humble display stands, to sophisticated folding work stands that either clamp a bike by one of its tubes, or cradle it by its bottom bracket shell. Mine is a simple Minoura DS-30AL display stand, which hooks over the ends of the rear quick release skewer and raises the rear wheel a few inches in mid-air.

My hex keys and Torx keys. Note the ball ends on the hex keys.

Hex keys. Often called by the brand name “Allen,” metric hex keys are indispensable for work on a bike. Don’t cheap out on these; invest in good quality hex keys to avoid rounding bolts and to keep the wrench edges intact for longer. Hex keys with long handles help with grip and allow you to apply torque more easily, while ball ends help speed up the threading of bolts, even from odd angles, until their heads snug up to the surface. The most frequently used sizes are 4, 5 and 6 mm; in fact, 95% of the bolts on my folding bike Bino can be worked on with a 5 mm hex key.

Torx keys. Although not as commonplace, there are bolts that require a Torx key to turn instead of a hex key. The most frequent use of Torx-head bolts is on six-bolt brake disc rotors, which require a T25 key. If you run SRAM components on your bike, some of their derailleurs make use of Torx-head bolts. These bolts can also be found on Zipp and 3T stems as their faceplates clamp down on handlebars. Alternatively, some cyclists have gone to the trouble of replacing their hex bolts with Torx-head ones instead, as they are harder to strip and round.

Chain breaker. While many multitools have a chain breaker built in, I’d recommend a standalone unit for home use, as their oversize handles make them both stronger and easier to use. Chain breakers are essentially press tools, pushing rivets in and out of chain links by consistent application of pressure via a screwed-in driving pin. On more sophisticated chain breakers, this driving pin can be replaced once it wears down.

Torque wrench. Due to the many lightweight aluminum and carbon parts out there, it is critical to tighten them to correct torque, lest you destroy them by crushing or crumpling. It’s very hard to measure torque by feel, so it’s best to leave this to a torque wrench. Basic beam-type torque wrenches have a freestanding secondary beam that deflects against a scale to visually show applied torque. Micrometer-type and preset torque wrenches have a clutch that will let go and click once a set torque value is reached.

Screwdrivers. There aren’t many conventional screws left on a bicycle these days. Their main use is on derailleur limit screws and brake pad retaining bolts for disc brakes. A set of magnet-tipped ones is useful for picking up fallen bolts or screws.

Normal pliers and locking pliers. These are always useful, especially in the long-nose or needle-nose variety. Usual jobs are for pulling on shift or brake inner cables taut as you tighten their anchor bolts down. Locking pliers, also called “vise-grips” or “mole grips,” are a versatile way of maintaining a firm grip on small things.

Rubber mallet vs claw hammer.

Rubber or plastic mallet. Some things on a bike require a bit of “persuasion” to remove, such as cranks and steerer tubes. You don’t really want to damage these components by subjecting them directly to the blows of a conventional claw or ball-peen hammer. A mallet with a rubber or plastic head is the best solution. The surface spreads the impact force of each tap across more of the struck surface, lessening the risk of dents.

A conventional hammer will work better if you’re using another tool to indirectly apply force to a bike component. One such example is a punch or bearing remover to knock out a press-fit headset or bottom bracket.

Park Tool CN-10 cable cutters in action.

Cable cutters. If you work on inner and outer cables, which are made up of wire strands that run lengthwise, you will want to cut them as cleanly as possible to reduce the risk of fraying or crushing the cable. Both are quite bad. Fraying or crushing can mean that your inner cables will not work well with your outer cables. A dedicated pair of cable cutters cuts both by shearing action, increasing the odds of a clean cut. Park Tool’s CN-10 is the old standby for this job, although Pedro’s, Super B and Unior also make their own versions.

Diagonal or side cutters. The only real exception to cable cutters is the cutting of conventional brake outer cable, which, unlike shift housing or inner cables, is spiral-wound. The more effective tool for this is a pair of side cutters. If you’re partial toward woven “compressionless” brake outer cable, cable cutters are better.

If you need to cut hydraulic brake hose, a sharp utility knife is the tool to have.

Park Tool’s HCW-16 is a chain whip and pedal wrench in one tool. Here it’s with the Shimano TL-LR15 cassette lockring tool and an adjustable wrench.

Chain whip and cassette lockring tool. These specialist tools allow you to remove your cassette from your rear wheel’s freehub body. Most versions of the lockring tool are basically large bolts that sink into the splines of a cassette lockring and are turned by an adjustable wrench. Some of them have long integrated handles, which I think is a bonus. Other lockring tools, such as Shimano’s TL-LR15, also come in handy for mounting and removing brake rotors that use Shimano’s Centerlock system instead of the six-bolt system.

(L-R): 15 mm combination wrench; Park Tool HCW-16 chain whip and pedal wrench; Bike Hand tire bead jack; Shimano TL-LR15 cassette lockring tool

Pedal wrench. If your pedals’ spindles come with wrench flats, there’s a good chance they’ll need a 15 mm wrench to tighten or loosen them. Any 15 mm wrench should theoretically work, but there are times when the thickness of a normal or adjustable wrench is just too much to work with. A pedal wrench is usually thinner and better able to tighten or loosen pedals with tight clearances against the crank arm. Alternatively you could use a 15 mm cone wrench for this job. Note that if your wheels have nutted axles, a 15 mm wrench will also work on those.

Tire bead jack. This is a specialist tool for mounting very stubborn tires onto rims. I’ve written about this in a separate post.

Park Tool CC-3.2 chain checker in action.

Chain checker. This, a Park Tool CC-3.2, is a simple “go/no-go” gauge made out of metal and can check for 0.5% and 0.75% wear. Hook one end over a link, and let the other, straight end drop onto another chain link. If it doesn’t fall into a link, your chain is still good; if it does, it’s time to consider replacing it. At 0.75% wear, any further delay in replacing your chain risks wear on your cassette and chainrings as well.


As of this writing, I still need the following tools and supplies to cover all repairs and maintenance:

  • Cup and cone wrenches, 13-18 mm
  • Bearing press tools, for press-fit headsets and bottom brackets (I’ve got one coming in the mail)
  • Bottom bracket wrenches, for outboard bottom brackets (e.g. Shimano Hollowtech II)
  • Crank arm pre-tensioner tools, for compression slotted cranks (e.g. Shimano Hollowtech II)
  • Vernier calipers
  • Park Tool IR-1 internal cable routing tool
  • Spoke wrenches
  • Wheel truing stand
  • Clamp-type workstand – I dream of a Park Tool PCS-10
  • A jar of shift cable ferrules
  • A jar of brake cable ferrules
  • A jar of cable end caps
  • A roll of compressionless brake cable housing
  • A roll of shift cable housing

4 thoughts on “What’s in the toolbox? (2016 edition)

  1. Hi AR (or how do you prefer to be called?)- thanks for the informative article.

    What torque wrench do you use and how do you have it calibrated?

    Quality tools for sale in the Philippines seem to be quite pricey- especially as the alternative- LBS, wrench (mecahnic) & tip are quite affordable- but I definitely agree that DIY helps a cyclist become a lot more intimate and knowledgeable with ones bikes- so any defect will be easily detected.


    1. Mine is a Bike Hand click-type/micrometer torque wrench. So far I haven’t had to calibrate it, but one method I’ve seen is to attach a beam-type torque wrench to it, then use the beam-type wrench to apply a certain torque. If calibration is still good, the clutch on the click-type torque wrench should let go at around the same torque the beam-type wrench is applying.


  2. Hi. Where can we buy a chain checker? And how much? I didn’t know that there is a specific tool for checking chains.. The rule of thumb someone gave me is if you use a one foot ruler..align the zero mark of the inches side on the center of a pin then the 12th inch mark should fall on the center of a pin also.. But I think this tool is much more accurate than eyeballing the wear of bike chains.


    1. There are various other chain checker tools. Shimano makes a couple of them; KMC has its own as well. I bought my Park Tool CC-3.2 from overseas, but there are local sellers and it’s not that expensive.


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