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19th June 2006

Tech: Basic Tools

Most classic bike riders, over time, develop a certain familiarity with a range of workshop tools. PaulG80 has a rummage through his toolchest...

We all know that Humbernut is a really clever bloke, but if like me you have a surfeit of enthusiasm and a lack of talent, or are just starting out on the classic path, I thought it would be a great idea to touch on what makes a good basic tool kit. Save moving on to lathes for later! Most of the recommendations will help with tools to service whichever bike you have, but obviously, we can't touch on special tools as they are mostly make-specific. There is a school of thought that says you should be able to service your steed with the tools you carry all the time. But sometimes this isn't practical.

You do carry tools don't you?

'Will I need all these tools?' you may ask. Well no, but they make life a lot easier as adjustable spanners and bits of wood and a rock only have a limited uses. Plus some quality tools are good investment, as they will probably outlast you. I know this because I am the second owner of a lot of mine. If I am preaching to the converted then please ignore my inane ramblings and read something far more interesting.

Let's start with the fun stuff:


Yes that's right, I thought we would get the good stuff out of the way first. Hammers have a variety of uses but mainly get used as a last resort. The correct application of a hammer can save a lot of messing about in the long run.

I have four types of hammer but we will only consider three, starting with the smallest. My little one is actually a plenishing hammer used for body repairs but it still has lots of other uses. For instance, if you have something small and delicate that needs to have a tight fit you can use this small hammer to gently tap it home.

Next we have the ball-pein hammer, which has two useful ends on the head. The first is the round end which is great for rounding the heads of rivets over on chains and suchlike. The other is the normal flat end. These come in a variety weights and sizes and I would suggest a medium size would be a good idea.

Wooden handles are better than steel ones; they pass fewer shocks through to your wrist.

Next we have the copper and hide mallet (known amongst these hallowed pages as Thor, King of Hammers). If you only buy/acquire one hammer this is the one to have. It has two faces and both have different uses. The hide face is the one you need for tapping seized wheel spindles free or gently moving engine cases that have been glued in place. This face will not normally leave any marks or damage, well… except for the odd dent if you hit it too hard. The other face or copper end gives you a soft metal area to strike hard metals with. A lot of professionals now use rubber mallets in place of these hammers but, in my opinion, you can't beat a good quality copper/hide mallet. In fact this is the hammer I reach for first every time.

A good quality hammer will have a wooden or metal shaft with a rubber handgrip on the metal type

While we are on the subject of hammers something I see all too regularly is people using these tools at less than maximum efficiency. The correct way to wield a hammer is to hold it at the base of the shaft (ooerr) with your thumb pointing up towards the head (double ooerr). This will aid accuracy as it keeps your wrist straight and lets the hammer do the work for you. Most people hold it midway or at the top. This means their arm muscles are doing the work and they have little or no control. Also using a hammer the wrong way will mean that instead of one good impact you get lots of little ones that make the job longer.


Three basic types of spanner exist:-

Ring spanner: where the spanner totally encloses the outside edge of the fastener that you are working with.

Open-Ended spanner: The end of the spanner is a U-shape and is cranked off line slightly.

Ratchet spanner: like a ring spanner but with and ingenious ratchet mechanism to allow you work in a tight space. More on this type later on.

Glow in the dark spanners are easier to find during nocturnal breakdowns...

Most spanners are what are called combination spanners. This doesn't mean you need a code to use them -- rather that they have different ends. This difference is either a different size or style. A good example is a spanner with a 13mm open end and 13mm ring end or a 13mm open end and a 14mm open end. Both of these examples can be called combination spanners.

A good rule of thumb to remember is (wherever possible) you should use a ring spanner as you get a much better grip on the fastener. Always make sure you use the right size of spanner. If you aren't sure then try two or three until you get the best fit. That way you will avoid most episodes of skinned knuckles. If you have to use an open-ended then make sure the spanner is fully on the fastener and that when it moves the spanner and the fastener move together. This is the instance where cheap, nasty spanners' jaws open and slip. I'll define cheap and nasty later on.


Essentially there are three types of screwdriver; flat-headed, Phillips-headed and Posidrive. The last two are cross headed and the difference is that Posidrive has a central cross with four extra lines to each corner (like the Union Flag). Phillips has just a central cross. A Phillips would be the better out of the two as it also fits a Posidrive. Also Phillips is far more common than the Posidrive.

When choosing screwdrivers, make sure the handle is comfortable in your hand and is preferably insulated. As a good starting point you'll probably need a small one for any electrical connectors with screws, a medium one for general stuff and a large one for things like AMC gearbox oil filler caps, etc.

Impact driver; essential for knackered cross-head screws on 70's Jap bikes.

Sockets and Ratchets

Sockets are a great tool to have as they give you the opportunity of driving all sides of the fastener plus a ratchet mechanism, so you get quick removal of any fastener and the capability to remove a fastener from an area with a restricted swing. The ratchet mechanism allows the fastener to be turned then lets you swing the wrench back without moving the fastener you are undoing. Again remember that you get what you pay for so if you buy a £5 set you may only use them once before having to throw them away.

Most sockets come in sets of sizes, for instance mine run from 6mm to 19mm. Now here's the difficult bit, you will need to have at the least a ratchet to drive your sockets. All these types of tools come in three sizes, which are always measured in imperial, they are ¼ (quarter), 3/8 (three-eighths) and ½ (half inch), and all of these relate to the size of the square that drives them in inches.

So ¼ will be the smallest and ½ the biggest. As a good all round set you can't beat 3/8 as this will give the best compromise between undoing stuff and not over tightening stuff. A good way to decide which set you need is to use this rule of thumb: ¼ drive is good for 13mm (1/2 inch) and down. 3/8 drive is good for 10mm (7/16) to 17mm (5/8). ½ drive is good for 17mm (5/8) upwards. So if you were loosening your wheel spindle you would use a ½ drive but to loosen the terminal nuts on the base of your ammeter you would use a ¼ drive.

As well as a ratchet, a breaker bar is also a good idea to have. This will allow you to loosen tight stuff without damaging the teeth in your ratchet. One bad point about using sockets and ratchets is that it is all too easy to over-tighten fasteners and break them. (Don't ask me how I know this). This is mainly due to the extra leverage you get from the ratchet or breaker bar you are driving the socket with.

If you remember when we discussed hammers (you were paying attention, right?) we were holding the hammer at the base of the shaft and letting gravity and leverage do all the work. Well I have found that when tightening fasteners with a ratchet or bar that by holding the rounded part directly over the socket (or as near to it as you can get) this reduces the leverage and stops all those creak-ping-snap! episodes.


Really you only need two pairs of pliers. One general purpose pair which will enable you to grip things and cut and strip wire. The other pair could be a pair of cutters, which I only ever use for cutting wire and cable ties.

Circlip pliers. Get a good set.


This can vary wildly from an old ammo box, to a piece of pegboard on the wall with shapes drawn in, to a cabinet on wheels with a stacking chest on top. Drawers fall into two distinct camps. First there is the 'chuck all the same sort of thing in one section' camp, which is the one to which I subscribe. Then there is the camp who have the drawers inlaid with foam with all the shapes cut out so you see what's missing. Use whatever you feel happy with and upgrade when you run out of room. This way you will always have space to buy new ones.

From one extreme...
Random Tools on

Little Luxuries

These are tools you probably need at some point and which can be gradually amassed over time.

An electrical tester is a god-send. These can range from two pieces of wire soldered to a bulb to an all-singing, all-dancing digital multimeter. If all you want to do is check that electricity is getting to where it should (and let's face it, where Joe Lucas is concerned this isn't always the case) then the former is all you need. If you need to know how much electricity is going to a certain point then a multimeter is a better bet. For instance I have a small pointy screwdriver with a bulb in it and a lead attached. It cost me a pound from a market stall and is great; if it breaks I can throw it away at that price. However if I need to check charging or something then my meter comes out.

A vice on some sort of bench is a good idea too. Now I know everyone doesn't have the luxury of space for a bench but if you do then they are a piece of cake to make from odd bits of wood. I made mine by screwing a piece of 2 x 4 to the wall (making sure its straight and horizontal obviously) then luckily I had some old kitchen worktops so I screwed these to the batten, then used some lengths of 2 x 4 to make legs. Voila! Instant bench -- and it must be easy as I managed it. Where were we… ah yes, a vice. If you need to drill something, undo something tight or just bash something against another thing then a vice is fantastic. I have a small one (now, now, you lot…) which opens to about three inches wide. This is more than adequate for what I use it for.

An electric drill is always handy too because, let's face it, some pattern parts are always going to need modifying. Also it's a great tool to have for when you break something off and need to drill it out.

I touched earlier on ratchet spanners. These are one tool that no shed/garage should be without. I have a particularly good set (from Halfords of all places). Normally a ratchet spanner is quite a bit thicker than a normal one due to the mechanism. My set has a slim line mechanism and no switch to turn the ratchet the other way. You simply turn the head of the spanner through 180 degrees and it reverses. This makes my ratchet spanners the width of a normal one. Ratchet spanners are a god-send for fasteners in tight spaces where a socket can't reach and you only have a restricted swing. A set really is worth saving for or dropping big hints for at birthdays or Christmas.

So where do I buy and what do I buy?

Boot sales are a great source of previously enjoyed tools especially if you are just starting out. But don't fall into the cheap new tool trap as these are mostly poor quality seconds. I have also found that the Halfords Professional range is an extremely good compromise between value and quality. Remember we are back to the old adage of you get what you pay for. There are lots and lots of tool manufacturers so try to stick with ones you have heard of. They can also vary hugely in price, for example, if you buy Snap-On tools you are buying the best of the best and you pay for the privilege. The same sort of thing will cost less from Britool or Draper while suffering no loss in quality.

A good set of tools won't happen overnight and your toolkit will constantly evolve to suit the jobs you do on your bikes. The main thing to remember is that as your skills and confidence grows, so you will have need for more and more tools.

But remember -- good tools do not dictate a good job. That's all down to the nut holding the tool…

So what's your favourite tool?


Buy one of these and yo'll need a good toolkit...


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