A person’s favourite, most-used tools say a lot about them.
Highly-polished gleaming instruments, possibly better suited to the medical operating theatre than the garage or workshop, might indicate their owner or user is fastidious about maintenance and has astute attention to detail.
Cheap and cheerful tools could tell you their user is just beginning on their journey of mechanical enlightenment.
And there are others who have well-used, but highly functional items to help them carry out routine jobs, but quite possibly don’t want to spend a fortune on the latest and greatest.
My tools – and my character – don’t fall directly into any of these (inexhaustive) categories.
But, take a look at my favourite tools and you’ll notice a theme.
They’re good at achieving a few basic things:
- Hitting something hard
- Hitting something less hard
- Being hit in order to hit something else
- Holding something to make it easier to hit
- Protecting something from being hit
- Acting as a giant lever
Although, once again, this list isn’t exhaustive, it represents my most fundamental requirements and expectations of what tools should be able to do.
You’ll also notice the tools are old. Very old. And well used, especially the ones designed for hitting or being hit by something else.
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Maybe they say a lot about my character and my attitude to mechanics (best described as impatient and care-free). And, to be honest, if you want to infer any other traits from my selection of tools, I don’t blame you.
So, on to the tools. Let’s start with the least bashy.
Soft-edged Fat Spanner Allen key set
I bought this beautiful set of Allen keys in 2008 from a bike shop I used to work in called Alpine Sports in Morzine, France.
The then owners gave me a great discount and before I knew it, I’d swapped €10 for this set of delicious bolt-turning Allen keys.
Of course, when they were new each of the key’s heads was sharp and shiny and the plastic carrier’s writing hadn’t faded or worn off.
Having super-sharp tools was a revelation, especially for someone who likes to do bolts up tight enough to make sure they never accidentally come undone.
Before I got my hands on this set, torquing bolts up until the veins on my arms were close to popping out my skin did have some minor drawbacks. One of which was plenty of rounded-out bolt heads.
Thankfully these keys let me set my bike’s bolts to the ‘correct’ torque without fear of ripping the carefully crafted hexagonal shape into a circle.
As a bonus for someone who’s a keen enthusiast of saving money wherever possible, they’ve endured nearly 14 years of use so far. This means they’ve cost me €0.71 a year or €0.0019 a day. Now that’s a bargain.
Anyway, those lovely square edges have since turned into what can only be described as shadows of their former selves; the edges now rounded, their finish tainted with use, and their shine totally gone.
That doesn’t stop me picking them up to fettle my bikes, though, despite now enjoying the use of the Allen keys in Topeak’s Prepbox I reviewed in 2020.
Care does need to be taken when undoing or doing up bolts with the Fat Spanner keys, but I like to think of this as a built-in torque wrench.
The oldest Park Tool SR-1 chain whip
This Park Tool SR-1 chain whip (SR is short of sprocket remover) has seen some use and not only as a chain whip.
Although it performs its primary function well (unless you’re looking to delicately remove a 12-speed cassette because the chain is 8-, 9- and 10-speed compatible only) despite the sticky links and rusty appearance, it has also been used to increase the available power output from my spaghetti-like arms.
The open end slips perfectly over most 1/2in drivers and provides an extra bit of oomph for stuck bolts or for tightening them up to my preferred torque.
And because it’s Park Tool quality, the handle has remained impressively straight, despite being used as a giant lever.
Battled, scarred mole grips
As I progress through my list of favourite and most-used tools, each one creeps a little closer to facilitating my preferred way to do mechanics.
The mole grips are the next step.
Their attractive orange colour once covered the entirety of their surface, but a life spent rattling around in my tool box – that’s been their home for as long as I can remember – has certainly taken its toll on the aesthetics.
But that’s not a comment on functionality because they work as good now as I speculate they did when they were brand new.
Mole grips are most commonly used to remove rounded off nuts, act as a portable vice or even, if pressure is applied delicately, as a ‘third hand’.
Their unfaltering grasp is impressive and should be used to your advantage.
Mine mostly get used to hold things I am trying to hit with a hammer, whether that’s a bolt, a screwdriver (see below), headset, block of wood, bushing, something that’s bent and shouldn’t be, or anything else I might be able to open their jaws wide enough to clamp on to.
Hitting things is great, but hitting the thing while it is being held by these mole grips is even better.
I’m unable to date these, but my father has frequently requested that I give back ‘his’ orange mole grips, suggesting they’re at least as old as me.
They don’t make ’em like they used.
The broken screwdriver
Getting ever closer to the apogee of tools reveals more delights; the broken screwdriver being the next rung on the ladder.
I couldn’t accurately tell you how long this has been in my tool kit (but it’s over 10 years), and neither could I tell you whether it was a flat head or Philips version before it suffered a life-changing accident.
But none of those bits of information are relevant now, seeing as the end has indeed snapped off and that’s now why I like it.
The diameter of its shaft miraculously bridges the gap between the inner and outer races on the most commonly used bearings in the mountain bike world.
Almost invariably it gets used to remove and replace bearings thanks to its canny physical make-up that inhibits it from inflicting damage on the fragile bearing balls.
Of course, bearing removal isn’t the broken screwdriver’s only application; its uses are widespread and impressive. I’ve been known to install headset races with it, create perfectly-formed dents in flat surfaces, remove and install press-fit bottom brackets, and use it to knock out undone but stuck bolts.
Quite obviously, this is the tool that gets hit to hit something else with.
A bent cork mallet
My mallet is a true survivor.
Not only has it been operated in a fashion so violently that the handle’s shaft has bent (in multiple directions) on impact, it has also served as the shock damper between a hammer and whatever I was intending to hit with that hammer.
The ‘patina’ on the rubber portion of the handle is evidence of the latter, while the less-than-true shaft illustrates the former well.
Although, it’s not perfect, despite sitting high up on my list of favourite tools.
My main complaint about the cork-based mallet is the debris its soft hitting-surface leaves behind, sometimes requiring a lengthy removal process. I don’t personally have time for that.
The second mallet-based moan simply focuses on its inability to be operated with enough vigour without incurring more damage.
But there’s a solution for both of these problems. Keep reading…
My ancient hammer
This wooden-handled hammer is a family heirloom. Not only has it withstood the test of time in my ownership – clocking up just over 17 years of use – it was my father’s before me.
Admittedly, it’s not the biggest or brawniest hitting device out there, but the ferocity and efficacy with which I am able to hit things with it invariably put a smile on my face.
The handle is smooth to touch and sports circular battle scars where it has doubled up – much like my trusty mallet – as a middleman between another hammer and an object I was hoping to protect.
It’s heavy enough to swing with conviction, but not so cumbersome that accuracy is compromised.
Arguably, its beauty focuses on its simplicity. Hitting things with something else feels great, and this is the perfect tool for the job.
Not only is this hammer a tool-box staple it’s also my favourite tool, period.