The Minimalist Tool Kit - How to

Is that a tool in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

Consider this: The current crop of motorcycles, and by current I mean anything built in the last decade or two, are both extremely reliable, and unfortunately, once you get past the routine adjustment/daily maintenance stage, fairly complicated, and therein lays the quandary.

In the event of a terminal roadside breakdown, the very things that make modern bikes so reliable, like EFI, and electronic ignition, also make them extremely difficult to troubleshoot and repair, especially when you don't have the proper training. Because of that, the on-board factory tool kit, like points fired ignitions and carburetor ticklers are essentially a thing of the past, a fact driven home when I recently purchased a new Triumph and found naught but a single Allen wrench in the "tool kit." Hell, when I bought my first Triumph it came with enough tools under the seat to rebuild the top end, and believe me at one time or another I used them all.

Fortunately, those days are long gone. To reinforce the point consider the following: this summer I rode over 10,000 miles, and never once removed my tool kit from the saddlebags. Now by no means am I suggesting you head into the great unknown without any iron. If you have a minor mechanical problem, something loosens up, or if the bike takes a surf along the pavement carrying enough gear on hand to set things right may well mean the difference between riding and walking, and this is especially true if you're going to be on the road for an extended period of time. But for day-to-day use, and even Sunday excursions, I've come to believe that when it comes to tools, less is almost as good as more. Especially when your cargo space is limited, as it is on many cruisers.

What we're talking about here might be called the minimalist approach. Meaning in this instance packing only a small tool set or even better, a single tool or two that can perform a variety of functions, and hopefully remain compact enough to fit into your jacket or hang from your belt. Some old codgers might argue that a tool like that has been around for years, it's called a 12-inch adjustable wrench and to some extent, I'd agree with them. In the right hands a big honking wrench can be used for everything from self-defense (you might wonder how I'd know that, but it's a tale for a different day) to more mundane uses like driving tent pegs, or even tightening bolts, but it's not exactly the type of single-purpose tool I had in mind-if nothing else they take up a lot of room in your pocket. And neither, I might add, is a cell phone and credit card, although I'll grudgingly admit that they're not only compact, but a hell'uva lot handier than anything from the Snap-On catalog under certain circumstances.

But back to the situation at hand: motorcycle-oriented multipurpose tools have been available as long as there's been motorcycles, but in the main the old ones weren't very good. They tended to be flimsy or crude, and in many cases did more harm than good. It wasn't all that uncommon to have one break or slip in your hand, which not only diminished your chances of making the repair, but usually caused you to bark your knuckle and, quite likely, damage something else when your fist crashed into it; either from frustration or inertia.

The current crop of multipurpose tools are much better. In fact, the ones I've gathered here are all excellent. Based on my personal experiences and impromptu roadside experiments, they'll allow you to affect a minor repair, make a quick adjustment or in a worst case, lash a busted bike back together. By no means is this a complete list, there are literally hundreds of multipurpose tools on the market and new stuff comes out all the time, so there's plenty of them that for one reason or another I've yet to come across. So consider this a starter list of what's available and a field guide to what I've tried and can vouch for.

Small tools
As you'd expect multipurpose tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The simplest are stamped, fabricated or machined from a sold hunk of stock, but don't be misled by their small size or seemingly elementary designs these tools can be lifesavers.

The KBL Motowrench is a mere 4 1/4 inches long and only 3/16ths of an inch thick, yet manages to encompass 6 wrenches (8-17 mm), two screwdrivers, a spark plug gapper and an ever-so-handy bottle cap lifter.

Because it's so small, you can't get much leverage out of it so this is a real emergency tool, and I wouldn't recommend it for anything else. But it is a sturdy little bugger; I've used it to adjust a chain, tighten loose bolts and replace a broken clutch lever or two and yeah, pop a bottle cap, but only after the ride. It's also useful as a backup tool when you need a second wrench, and compact enough to fit in your wallet.

Unfortunately KBL is down the tubes, however CruzTOOLS still has some in stock, (at $9.95 it's cheap insurance) and you might be able to find them online at places like Pit Posse.

T-handles provide a lot of leverage, and are a life saver when time is of the essence. Both CruzTOOLS and Motion Pro offer T-handles with either fixed or interchangeable sockets. In my experience the interchangeable socket versions are a little more useful, for starters they're more versatile, and you can custom tailor them to your own needs. They're also somewhat more compact, and the sliding-head versions can produce a lot of leverage. CruzTOOLS has both a 3/8 version, which comes with a combination of hex and screwdriver sockets, as well as 1/4 inch drive version. You can also roll your own using Sears/Craftsman or any other large tool supplier as a starting point.

That aside, the T-handle, (actually it's a Y shape), I carry most is a three way Allen set from Park tool. It's got 4,5,and 6mm hexes on it, that'll cover most of the Allen bolts used on motorcycles, and despite its small size, it's roughly 5 inches across any leg, it provides more than enough leverage to remove a stubborn case bolt.

Multi-purpose pocket tools, are the Swiss Army knives of motorcycle tools, and in most cases have just about everything you need to affect some sort of repair, even if it's a bodge. In my opinion the best motorcycle specific multitool on the market is the CruzTOOLS Outbacker. I've been using one for years and these things are hard to beat. Available in both metric and SAE sizes the Outbacker incorporates four Allen keys, a 1/4 inch driver, three sockets two wrenches, and three spoke wrenches, along with a standard and Phillips head screwdriver. The whole shebang folds up into a 3 1/2 X 1 5/8 package that weighs about 9 ounces. If you're really pressed for space it'll even fit comfortably in the pocket of your jeans, especially, if like me you prefer the "comfort cut" variety. As with any wrench if it's a nut and bolt you're trying to tighten, you'll still need something to hold the other end, but that aside the Outbacker has everything you'll need to get you out of the woods. Overall this is a really handy tool to carry, and the first one I grab when I'm grabbing just one.

A variation on the same theme is the Motion Pro Multi Purpose Tool. The MPM comes with a 1/4-inch drive and four sockets (both metric and SAE versions are available) and also includes 3/8 drive so you can upgrade. It also has two Allen keys, four screw drivers, #2 and 3 Phillips, small and medium slotted, and of course a bottle capper. The tool comes in a small carrying case, which has room for a few extra bits, and should fit neatly into most jacket pockets. I've yet to use the Motion Pro tool, but it's nicely built and based on past experiences with Motion Pro Tools I've no doubt it'll hold its own under fire.

Belt Tools
Why take up space in your jacket when you can just as easily hang a bunch of stuff from your belt? Since I have enough trouble keeping up my britches without dangling a bunch of tools around my waist I rarely carry a belt tool. That being said there are two that I do use from time to time. The first is a Victorinox, Swiss Tool that like it's army knife namesake has more functions then I know what to with, and far too many to list here. Regrettably, while it has a pair of excellent pliers built into it, they don't lock; an important consideration (we'll come to this later). Another disadvantage is their lack of any wrench-type tool, they can deal with several types of screw heads including Torx, Phillips and Allen, but when it comes to a hex headed bolt or nut, it's the pliers or nothing. It's a handy tool to have though so I usually hang it on my belt when I'm taking a long trip.

The second pair, which I carry from time to time, is a no-name knock-off of the ubiquitous Leatherman tool. These feature a locking pliers which makes them a better bet in a pinch and here's why; Ask any experienced off-road rider what the one indispensable tool is and without hesitation I guarantee he'll tell you it's a pair of small or medium locking pliers, and yes, I think Vise Grip makes the best of them. Locking pliers can be used to tighten or loosen a bolt, replace a broken shifter, or handlebar lever, clamp broken pieces together including frames, I've even seen them used to hold axles in place after the retaining nut has been lost. In short these things are like mechanical superglue, only more useful and reliable. It's the one tool I always want to have with me, especially when I'm traveling in out of the way places. So regardless of what kind of belt accessory you choose pick one with a locking pliers and you can't go wrong.

Too big for yer britches lad?
So what if you want more, and don't have anywhere to stash the stuff except your pockets? Well I tried to shove one of CruzTOOLS larger kits into my jacket, and (no surprise) it didn't exactly fit, at least not in its carrying case. The tools fit fine though so if you're hell bent on carrying a complete tool kit in your jacket pocket (as opposed to a fanny or back pack) you've got a few choices. The first is to buy a jacket with huge pockets. The second is to dump the contents of your tool kit into either a small pouch or a roll up carrier. It's probably going to be heavy and of course you're going to need some sort of riding coat, as compared to a traditional leather jacket, or T-shirt, but it is one way to carry a good sized tool kit in your pocket, which lets me segue neatly into the grand finale, namely what I recommend carrying.

At the risk of sounding obtuse, I'm going to tell you to carry what you need to feel comfortable. If that means loading up half the hardware in the Sears tool catalog then so be it. At the very least I'd recommend carrying enough to tighten a nut and bolt together, which in most cases is going to mean at least two tools, and one of them should most certainly be a locking pliers of some sort. The other can be almost anything from a Swiss Army Knife, (try to pick up one that's got some mechanics tools in it, as opposed to say a fish scaler, which in my experience is of little practical use when it comes to fixing your bike) to an adjustable wrench, although I'd suggest a motorcycle specific multipurpose tool is more useful and a way easier to carry in your pocket.

So what do I carry? As you'd expect, it varies. Out on the road there's always a complete tool kit in my saddlebags, especially when the trip takes me off the beaten path. Around the neighborhood though it's a multi tool and vise grip in one pocket, and since I always hedge my bets, a cell phone and credit card in the other.

Why no tire tools?
So why haven't I discussed a puncture repair kit of some sort here? Simple, if you've got tubeless tires you're a bit foolish for not carrying one, and in fact it's the one indispensable tool you should have on the bike at all times. But if your bike has tube-type tires it's different kettle of fish. In most cases simply removing the wheel of the bike is going to be difficult, if not impossible, and unless you're an accomplished hand with a tire iron removing the tube to replace or repair it is going to be even worse. My recommendation here is to carry either a can of flat fix, or see the section on cell phones and credit cards.

Sources

This thing is close to forty years old, it was quite innovative back in the day
Park Tool Y-handle
Motion Pro T-handle
T-handles can be a bit cumbersome but they offer lots of leverage.
The CruzTOOLS Outbacker is hard to beat; it's sturdy, compact and gets the job done.
Victorinox Swiss Tool
Nicely made and comprehensive, with any luck I'll never have to use it.
Motion Pro MPM
Nicely made, but lacking that all important locking pliers
Unbelievably this chowder head rode the bike like this for almost a year.
Cruz Tools Econo kit
Unless you've got deeper pockets than I do, you'll need to lose the zipper case.