Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
In two recent Tech Talks I mentioned that my wife and I drove cross country from our California home to our former home of New England. Traveling part way with us and also crossing the USA – except headed to the Carolinas, were our pals and fellow RVers Tony and Kathy. While we drive a Class C motorhome, they cruise in a Mercedes Sprinter pulling an Escape trailer (here’s a link in case you’re looking for an RV https://escapetrailer.com/).
Tony is a longtime bicycle mechanic at the REI store in Marina, California. As we were planning our trip east we came up with the idea of visiting Park Tool headquarters, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since 1956, Park has been committed to designing and manufacturing the finest bicycle tools for shops and cyclists. Having made our living using their tools, we thought it would be great to see where the magic happens.
I have several good friends at Park so I told Tony I’d reach out and see if we could visit. One of my contacts there, product manager John Krawczyk (say “krawf-chick”) replied telling me that they don’t actually do tours, but that since they are closed on Mondays (the day we planned to be there), as a special favor they would make an exception! We were able to make camping reservations at the beautiful William O’Brien State Park next to the St. Croix River not too far from Park’s headquarters.
What follows are photos from our tour with some of what I recall our hosts telling us. A special thanks to John and also Calvin Jones (Park’s director of education and YouTube sensation), who came in on their day off to open the factory and show us around.
Park Tool is located in a beautiful area of Minnesota. On our drive there from the campground in Tony’s Sprinter van we stopped in the tiny town of Marine where the state’s oldest general store has been doing business since 1870. In a happy coincidence, they had an antique farmer’s tool exhibit, which readied us for our visit to Park Tool.
Park’s 80,000 square foot facility is impressive outside and in. Here they design, manufacture and distribute their tools. And a lot more goes on as you’ll see.
A few pristine classic Schwinns from Park Tool’s extensive collection. Park and Schwinn worked together to upgrade bike shop tooling and help the industry modernize and improve as bicycles and cycling changed from the 50s onward.
He probably doesn’t need an introduction, but here’s Calvin Jones. He’s the mechanic in Park’s excellent how-to videos. I first met him at the USA Cycling Mechanics clinic in 1989 where he was one of the instructors. He also mans their booth at the big industry bike shows and consumer events too, like The Sea Otter Classic.
Here’s my friend and REI mechanic Tony standing in front of the entry desk. To the right is a rack full of more of Park’s vintage bike collection.
A better look at the eye candy. Best I can tell there are seven excellent original-condition Krate series Schwinn Sting-Rays below and on top I spy an 1890s Iver Johnson Truss Bridge bike (see the curved second top tube?). There’s also a Harley Davidson cruiser.
Calvin demonstrates the circa 1950s prototype version of what many consider among the greatest cycling inventions, the Park repair stand. Today, their modern versions are the standard in bike shops around the world. Before Park introduced this revolutionary tool, most bike shop mechanics flipped bikes upside-down and bent over or kneeled to work on them. Or, another common approach was to hang them from rope or chains. Look closely and you might recognize that the handle is made from a hockey stick – both the inventors, Howard Hawkins and Art Engstrom played hockey.
Here’s Park Tool’s studio where Calvin and Truman’s videos are shot. It looks a lot bigger in the photo than in person. Having shot quite a few videos on my cell phone, I appreciated all the video and audio gear and how nicely it was set up and organized.
This is the view across the factory floor from outside the video studio. The bikes in the rafters are more of Park’s vintage bicycle collection. Had it been a work day my camera would surely have caught some of the 75 Park employees. To get that number I asked John and Calvin ‘How many people work here?’ Calvin laughed and replied, ‘About half of them.’
You have to look hard to see the branding (bottom left corner) – but this was the world’s first bike hook and Park Tool invented it.
Park Tool introduces new tools regularly and this was one Tony and I hadn’t seen yet, their JH-3 Wall-Mounted Socket, Bit & Torque Tool Organizer. What a great way to keep these frequently used tools right at hand in the workshop.
A pile of steel stock ready to be fed into one of Park’s many machines, some of which run around the clock to produce the individual components that make up their tools.
One of the CNC machines at work. Even though the factory was closed, some of the machines were working away. There are employees that check on them even when the factory is closed.
A hopper full of freshly machined parts that will now be used in assembling one of Park’s repair stand models – if I remember correctly what John and Calvin told us. I was quite distracted by the many different machines and stations on the factory floor and could have asked many more questions and definitely spent more time looking at things.
It was John and Calvin’s day off so we couldn’t hang out in the factory any longer. Before leaving Calvin showed us one of his latest creations, a hilarious “clown” bike with off-center wheels that he’d built for a local parade. Then, since he had ridden in to the office, I suited up and joined John for the ride back to our campground, which isn’t far from his house. We rode 20 miles and amazingly 95% of it was on car-free bike paths making a great finish to a fabulous day.
For more behind-the-scenes of the factory, here’s Park’s video tour of their operation:
And here’s the video on Calvin’s “clown” wheels:
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak 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.