Special tools are designed to do one thing, really well.
How many special tools do you have in your toolbox?
How much have you spent on special tools that you’ve only ever used once, or twice or….?
How many times have you not used the correct special tool on a job when you should’ve done, and you made a mess of the job by using something ‘not fit for purpose’?
So why do we need so many special tools to do the same thing on a least two different bikes because the different manufacturers re-thought an approach to the same thing?
That’s 4 questions in 5 sentences I’ve just posed, so let’s introduce one of THE most important, and special tools first, pictured below……
Getting back to bikes, it is the designers looking to create that ultra-differentiated version of something, and they invariably end up also designing a tool to adjust, replace or remove something. Just look at the vast array of special tools required to keep 1990s Cannondale’s on the road or single track. The other big one is the evolution of the bottom bracket. I’ve got at least 9 bottom bracket tools (in the pic below) from the 1950s to the present day, and I bet that I’m missing some as well.
If there’s one thing that really, really annoys me, it is when that bottom bracket starts to creak, particularly on an aluminium full suspension bike. Most of the time, but not exclusively, you’re drawn to all of those suspension linkages as the source of the creaking noise, but invariably, it’s because that bottom bracket needs tightening or replacing. This is when you need a special tool, or 9…..
When you buy a bike, how many of you cast an eye over it to consider if you actually need more tools to fix it?
It’s the same in the kitchen. Take something as simple as the creation of mashed potato. After boiling your potatoes, mashing can take place in its most rudimentary form with a fork. It’s hard work, you need a good fork and the end result won’t necessarily look great. You can use a good old potato masher that requires a bit of force to press down on the potatoes, which will then force them through the slots in the masher plate. If your potatoes are a bit hard, it’s not easy. Alternatively, you can turn to electricity driven mashing and just use a hand held kitchen mixer. However, if you want to make light, perfectly mashed potato that melts in the mouth, and which ensures you get that amazing floury, buttery potato taste, you need a special tool. Enter the potato ricer. Ever used one? For a food dish that needs a potato topping, there is no better tool to do the job. Just drop the steaming potatoes into the press and squeeze. Out come light strands of potato that make THE most amazing mash. The texture it creates really welcomes additional toppings like cheese and butter, which are browned under the grill. It looks like the surface of a spectacular mountain range as if your looking down on it from an aeroplane. Lots of tiny peaks covered in grilled cheese. The potato ricer is a special tool, but don’t try to use it on your bike.
There are some tools that are created to be ‘not special’ and designed to do nearly all jobs. Take the adjustable spanner, monkey wrench or as it’s known in some parts of Europe, ‘The Englander’, or alternatively mole grips, or adjustable Plier grips. On their day, these tools are great. However, these tools are also the ones we turn to when we haven’t got that special tool. Things usually don’t end well, particularly if you are using them as a hammer, instead of a hammer. Temptation draws you in to use these non-special tools, so we need to be aware of the dangers of flirting with something that will make a mess of the job.
My most special tool is the one that will remove a single, 2, 3, 4 or 5 speed freewheel of the very old variety. I’m talking 1930s to 1970s here. This is well before the cassette freewheel arrived, and which also needed a special tool or two, dependant whether it is Campagnolo, Shimano etc. I don’t know how old the tool is but is weighs about twice the weight of a rear wheel and is very strongly made. It’s a simple procedure to use. You open up the jaws of the tool, put the tool over the wheel axle, ensure that the collar fits into the two notches on the freewheel, then move the jaws in so that they sit underneath one of the gears. You then tighten up the tensioner on top of the tool, hold the wheel firmly and unscrew the whole thing. The best bit about this tool is that it does not damage the notches on the freewheel, so it means that it can be replaced after removal if required. These special tools are now rare. I recently sold a similar one to this one, but it was older, made in the USA and had a big wooden handle. It went back to where is was made. My tool is made by EWAR and I haven’t been able to find out much about the company. Anyway, it is the most special tool that I have and it works. Last century freewheels that are 50 to 80 years old don’t come off very easily, but with this tool, they do come off. The modern day special tool for removing a very old freewheel is a very small socket-type-thing and which in my experience, isn’t that effective at removing a freewheel, particularly if I might want to put it back on or re-use it. Quite often, the freewheel is made of harder material than the modern socket-thing, and the stuck freewheel always wins.
There’s another thing about putting your special tools in a ‘special tools place’, because if the first 30 minutes of the job is trying to find the special tool, you are stealing part of your own life time that you won’t ever get back. Think about it, and get organised. I try to……..
I do own one special tool below, which is made by the special bike tool company, VAR, and I don’t know what it is specifically for (see pic below). Anyone out there know?
Finally, I would really like to know where all of the special bike tools end their days, because finding old ones isn’t easy. I reckon that the advantage of the special tool becomes a disadvantage to it when it is either not required for the latest technology or someone throws it away because they don’t know what it’s for, and probably because it is too special. I’ve thrown in the picture below with a few more quite, but not very special tools in it. The colourful brake adjuster kit is great for setting up old Shimano cantilever brakes, if you can work out the ‘Special tool instructions‘…….. The small, brass grease gun is from the 1940s.
All photos by the Author