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Selection And Use Of Basic Hand Tools

Lets explore the various hand tools we might like to have handy, and where to buy them. We'll start with a basic philosophy about tools.

Is one wrench as good as any other?

Obviously not. And rather than spending $69.95 for that bargain mega-assortment in the local "club" store and getting the instant gratification of a full tool box, it's wiser to purchase the best tools your budget will allow. Accumulate them month by month. Good tools will quickly pay for themselves by eliminating the expense of replacing worn or broken tools and ruined fasteners.

Tool sizing can be a bit confusing, because there are four methods in common use.

The two you're most likely to run into are fractional and metric.

The size of the wrench opening coincides with the distance across two parallel sides of a six-sided bolt head. U.S. made machinery traditionally uses fractional fasteners, but be aware that this isn't always true - you might find some metric mixed in. Make sure to use the correct size wrench on a fastener, or damaged parts and skinned knuckles might result.

Metric sizing isn't something to be afraid of; it's far easier than dealing with fractional sizes once you get used to it. Say you're working on a bike with fractional fasteners, and you grab a ¼" wrench to loosen a nut. If that wrench turns out to be a bit too small, do you then grab a 5/16" or a 9/32"? Everything is sized in 32nds of an inch and reduced to the lowest common denominator.

With metric tools, almost everything is sized in whole numbers. So those of us who spent our high school days throwing spitballs can figure things out on our fingers!

The two remaining sizing schemes (please don't fall asleep here) are Whitworth and British Standard. The old joke in Brit shops used to be "What's a Whitworth? Not much! Ho ho."

These wrenches are sized based on the diameter of the threaded portion of the fastener. The size has no relation to the dimensions of the nut or bolt head. In addition, Whitworth and British Standard fasteners with the same head size have different diameter threads. For instance, a ¼" diameter British Standard bolt has the same size head as a 3/16" Whitworth.

Confused? You should be! Making matters even worse, most inexpensive Whitworth wrench sets are actually sized in British Standard. What a nightmare! If you're working on an older British bike, consider buying only the best wrenches available. I suggest Britool brand (Snap-On stopped selling these sizes many years ago).

Tools that are offered in huge sets aren't the bargain they appear to be, because you may never use half of the contents. Also, you might prefer the feel, heft, or shape of one manufacturer's wrenches but hate their screwdrivers. So buying a large, comprehensive set of tools eliminates your ability to pick and choose.

Get as many catalogs as you can from brands such as Snap-On, Mac, Proto, Matco, Craftsman, SK etc., and browse through them to get an idea of what's available and at what price. The tools typically found in discount auto parts stores or department stores are generally unfit for anything but emergency use.

Should I Work On My Own Bike?

Dale Boller, who edited Motorcyclist Magazine in the early '70s, had this to say on the subject. "The most important tool in a rider's possession is his mechanical ability.

Anyone without some measure of proven technical skill, or a budding potential eager to be developed with proper guidance, should leave repairs to the pros. There's too much at stake for a natural bungler to start aligning wheels or [even] just touching a nut with a wrench. A person is only as safe as his own riding [skills] and the [condition of the] bike.

An amateur wrench, unknowledgeable or incompetent to the point of endangering the safety of a bike must steer clear of mechanics. Save money in some other area if you don't know what you're doing.

"This advice is even more on the mark today than when Dale wrote it in 1972, because today's bikes are far more complex than machines of that day. Many parts of a bike can fail without disastrous consequences. With some parts, however, doing your own work is like packing your own parachute. Don't…unless you trust your life to your own skills and knowledge.

Open End Wrenches

There are three basic types of hand wrenches; open end, box end, and combination, As the name suggests, open end wrenches are open at both ends. The distance between jaws is designed to be loose enough to not bind on the fastener yet be tight enough to not slip and cause damage.

One advantage of this design is that the wrench can be slid on or off of the fastener without any need for vertical clearance. On the other hand, the wrench must be repositioned 60 degrees to reposition it on the fastener - a major drawback in confined quarters.

Strength is another disadvantage of this design - they don't have it. Applying heavy force to a stuck fastener with this design will often result in spreading of the wrench jaws with resultant slippage and damage - both to the fastener and to your knuckles. Of course, higher quality tools made with better materials are more resistant to this problem.

One last advantage that open end wrenches share with box end wrenches is that each end of the wrench is a different size. This means that you get 13 sizes in a 7-piece set (one size is usually duplicated).

Box Wrenches

Box end wrenches have a closed loop at each end, and the loop is broached with either 6 or 12 points to grip the fastener. The ends can be either flat or offset. The offset ones offer knuckle clearance when working on large, flat surfaces. Avoid them for working on bikes, because the tight confines of a motorcycle will often preclude their use. A 6-point box wrench is fine for use where space isn't at a premium. Its advantages are strength, and the ability to drive fasteners with damaged corners.

A disadvantage is the need to swing the wrench 60 degrees before it can be repositioned on the fastener.

The 12-point wrench can be repositioned every 30 degrees and provides just as strong a grip, provided the head of the fastener isn't damaged. Either type of box wrench is the wrench of choice when heavy force is required to turn the fastener, though the need to lift the wrench from the fastener to reposition it may be a minor annoyance.

You can eliminate that problem by purchasing the ratcheting box wrenches that have become common in the past several years. Introduced by Gear Wrench and marketed by KD Tools, they're extremely convenient.

Many competitors have popped up with their own version, but the original Gear Wrench brand is still the best value for the money.

Combination Wrenches

Combination wrenches are open on one end and box style on the other. They provide the best of both worlds and are probably the best choice for those with limited storage space or budgets. They're also convenient, because a fastener can be broken loose or final tightened with the stronger box end, while the open end is used to turn the loose fastener in or out quickly.

One variation of the combination wrench worth considering is made with one jaw of the open end modified in such a way that it pulls in one direction but slips in the other. These are often referred to as ratcheting open-end wrenches. While they do speed things up in certain circumstances, they work best on fasteners that have enough drag to cause the wrench to slip in the reverse direction.

If the nut or bolt is already loosey goosey, forget using these. A design on the box end worth considering is one that causes the wrench to drive the fastener head on the flats - not on the points.

This design first appeared around 1970 on a wrench made by Utica. Called the LocRite wrench, it was a modification of a flare nut wrench designed to be used on hydraulic fittings, and it was supposed to provide a good grip on fasteners that had been rounded off by ill fitting or poorly made tools. I don't know the particulars, but Snap-On ended up with the patent on that design in the mid '70s. They called it Flank Drive.

Berated by other tool companies till the patent ran out, it has now been incorporated into most major brands. Its major advantage is the ability to turn damaged fastener heads that conventional designs would simply damage further. But don't be dissuaded from a good deal on a conventional design. With an undamaged fastener, there's little if any advantage to the Flank Drive or its imitators.

Dos And Don'ts

Do make sure that your wrench is set squarely on the fastener head before applying force.

Do pull the wrench toward you when possible, rather than pushing. If the wrench slips, you'll be far less likely to ram your hand into something.

Do select the correct size wrench to prevent tool and fastener damage as well as personal injury. Many people fail to see the need for metric wrenches when fractional sizes seem to fit. They'll say, for instance, that 14mm is the same as 9/16", 11mm is the same as 7/16"' etc. Close, but not the same. The difference might not be apparent on a loose nut or bolt. But apply heavy force to a stuck fastener, and you're asking for problems.

If a fastener won't come loose with moderate force, excessive force is only likely to cause headaches.

Don't strike a wrench handle with anything to loosen a tight bolt, and never use an extension bar (cheater bar) on a wrench. You could spread the jaws, split open the box end, or rip the head off of the fastener. Instead, try penetrating oil and patience. Or, heat the fastener with a heat gun or propane torch (be careful around flammables and painted or non-metal surfaces), then remove it.

With apologies to Click And Clack of National Public Radio - Don't turn wrenches like my brother.
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