By Jim Langley
Jim’s Tech Talk
Last week I told how to regrease a couple of popular pedals, Look’s Classic and Max clipless models. I mentioned that I didn’t have the right tool to fit the pedals and couldn’t find the one Look makes to order, either. And I said that I decided to use regular old pliers to take the pedals apart, protecting the pedals by slipping little pieces cut from a used inner tube over the jaws.
If you missed the story, click to catch up: https://www.roadbikerider.com/greasing-look-keo-classic-max-pedals/.
Pliers! Oh, No!
When I typed p-l-i-e-r-s, I knew full well I’d take some flack because whenever the issue of pliers, or perish the thought, Vice-Grips, is raised, readers cry foul! From 1989 to 1999 I was the technical editor of Bicycling Magazine with well over a million readers. You can’t believe the uproar back then – all in actual letters, too – when I’d tout the merits of these simple yet amazingly effective tools.
But, from RBR readers there was only one sort of negative comment, from roadie “Bigborg,” who wrote:
“Yes, 12-point box wrench or deep socket [he’s replying to a previous comment] .. duh. No need to damage them with pliers.”
There’s Nothing Wrong With Using Any Tool If It Does The Job
The part Bigborb got wrong is that, as I explained in the story, the pliers won’t damage the pedals if you cover the jaws and use care when working on the pedals.
And, if you work on your own bike, I guarantee that at some point you’re going to run into something you don’t have the proper or recommended tool to fix. Also, you might need to fix it right away and not be able to wait to order a tool or even have time to drive to a bike shop to pick it up.
When that happens, I find that the most resourceful bicycle mechanics will come up with a workaround. I truly admire this trait – the ability to think outside the box, work with what you have on hand and fix whatever problem you’re addressing – maybe even make your own tool for the job!
I thought to inspire your mechanical resourcefulness and so you can understand my decision to use pliers, I’d share three examples.
My Apprentice, Adam
Adam had a rough family life and left home at 15. He loved bikes and came looking for a job at The Bicycle Center in Santa Cruz where I was the service manager. I forget the details but we helped him find a safe place to stay and we were able to hire him even though he was so young.
While he really wanted to work in a bike shop, he exhibited little bicycle technical knowledge, so I started him as the shop gofer, sweeper, garbage taker-outer and bike cleaner. He was delighted to do whatever we asked of him.
One afternoon, all the other mechanics were busy and a just-sold BMX bike needed the grips changed for a different color. Since I was heading out to pick up lunch, I asked Adam if he’d seen the other mechanics blow off grips with the compressor and install new ones. And if so would he please swap out the grips and roll the new bike back to the customer. He gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
I was back in about 10 minutes. Walking in through the employees-only workshop entrance, I saw the BMX bike in the repair stand, grips still in place. I figured that Adam didn’t actually know how to blow grips off and had just given the thumbs up hoping he could find a way to do it.
I started to walk over to show him how to blow off the grips when I spotted something I’d never seen before. Adam had gotten a half dozen spokes out of the bicycle spokes cabinet and he had wiggled them underneath the grip all around its circumference. As I watched, quite amazed, he rolled the grip off the handlebar as nicely as you please!
I asked him how in the world he came up with the idea and he said, “Well, the Egyptians used logs underneath those giant stone blocks to move them and build the pyramids and I thought that might work with these grips.”
I probably don’t need to tell you that Adam had a stellar career at The Bicycle Center and now works for the City of Santa Cruz as a mechanic.
Across the street from The Bicycle Center was a small shop run by a talented mechanic named Jeff Napier. Even though his was a tiny shop mostly specializing in repairs I went over on my day off to meet him.
Before I worked at The Bicycle Center, a major California bike shop, I had worked in a shop as small as Jeff’s in New Hampshire. So I wanted to say hi and see his operation. He was friendly and proud of his setup.
Lots of small bike shops are run by individual owners who have to do everything from the bookkeeping to all the bicycle work. And, often they simply don’t have the budget to buy every special tool they might wish they had. So instead, they make their own. Jeff was one of those guys.
Back then, most bikes had basic cup and cone loose ball bearing hubs. For these the ideal tools were and are cone wrenches. These thin wrenches are still available (and handy to have) and come in a wide size range from 13mm to 18mm – even larger. It’s best to have two of each. Which means to have a complete set gets expensive.
I didn’t see any cone wrenches hanging on Jeff’s toolboard above his bench so I asked where they were. He said, “I don’t use cone wrenches, Jim, I made something better.” He reached and took what looked to me to be water pump pliers off his workbench (Channel-Lock is a brand name you might know: https://channellock.com/pliers/tongue-groove/#).
He told me to look closely. But I didn’t need to look closely because it was obvious what he’d done. He had carefully ground down the jaws on the water pump pliers to the thickness of cone wrenches. Plus he had done it to two of them. He had also ground smooth the teeth on the jaws.
The result was two pairs of pliers with jaws that stay parallel to fit hub cones and locknuts of every size. As I looked in awe at his one-size-fits-all custom cone wrenches, he bragged that he bet he could beat me in a hub overhaul race any day since he didn’t have to find the right size wrenches to start taking a hub apart. I didn’t take the bet.
Howard C. Hawkins and Art Engstrom Circa 1956
If you’ve been a bike mechanic going back far enough, this story is the stuff of legend and you surely know it. But no tale hits the theme of making your own tools and being resourceful better than this one.
Howard’s son, Eric Hawkins tells it best,
“My father, Howard, and his business partner, Art Engstrom, were both “hands on” guys, usually figuring problems out for themselves. Both were up to the challenge as they crafted their own problem solvers. Most of these early tools were built from scratch with whatever materials and leftovers they could find.
One of the first time-savers they invented was a stand that held the bike off the ground allowing easy, back saving access to any part of the bike. This original stand was put together using legs from a dining room table, an empty shell casing and a truck axle from a 37 Ford. As other shops, and eventually Schwinn Bicycle Company, saw the stand in action, requests were made for a production model. Park Tool Company was born!”
To explain how revolutionary this was, back in the 50s and 60s, most people either hung bikes from ropes or flipped them upside down to work on them.
Hanging them got them higher to make working on them a little more convenient, however bikes tended to swing around. That made things like truing wheels more difficult. While flipping bikes onto their bars and saddles, meant you had to sit or bend over to work on the bike and also you didn’t have gravity on your side to remove the wheels. Worse, when pedaling, everything was upside-down, which was confusing.
Here’s Art and Howard telling their story,
I hope these stories inspire you in your bicycle mechanics. If you have already invented some of your own tools or have some workarounds you use, please share them in a comment. Thanks!
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. A pro mechanic & cycling writer for more than 40 years, he’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Tune in to Jim’s popular YouTube channel for wheel building & bike repair how-to’s. Jim’s also known for his cycling streak that ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.