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Are separate hex (Allen) keys better than a multi-tool for adjusting and maintaining a bike at home?


Some of the separated sets also have ball-ends for the 4/5/6mm keys:


IceToolz


Apart from Torx T25 screws for the disc brakes*, my bike has hex screws mostly everywhere — so a small multi-tool would do the trick:

Park Tool

In other words, if you had to pick one or the other:

  1. Does having each hex wrench separate offer any notable advantages? What about torque (e.g. for pedals)?
  2. For day-to-day purposes on a modern bike (where most screws are easily accessible), will the ball-ends be useful?


* In my case, I only need the Torx T25 to adjust disc brake pads — little force required.

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FWIW, I think the ball ends are evil. They make the larger keys very slightly easier to use, but on the smaller (<= 3mm) ones you will just quickly round out the bolt. –  Ken Hiatt Jun 3 '13 at 7:06
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Actually, if I had to pick one or the other I'd probably go with the multi-tool, or, better, a similar tool with only Allen wrenches in it. The tool fits just about everywhere on a regular bike (bikes don't tend to have fasteners in confined areas), and the handle provides better leverage than the separate wrenches. (Plus you always know you have the right size, vs poking around for a handful of separate wrenches that "look about right".) –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 3 '13 at 17:06
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4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

For use at home, there's no question that separate keys are more useful and more economical.

A multi-tool has limitations that make it cumbersome to use in tight spots because all the keys are attached to the tool. Separate keys suffer no such limitation.

Separate keys can be bought and replaced individually and very inexpensively -- not so with a multi-tool.

I wouldn't buy the ridiculously expensive set of keys you show in your post. Just buy the keys you actually need. Drop by any local hardware or automotive parts store and buy the hex keys you actually need. They are inexpensive and should last a lifetime as long as you don't buy the cheapest thing they have. Like all tools, it pays to buy quality. Although you can buy them online, I prefer to buy tools where mechanics buy them. Automotive supply shops such as NAPA in the US are usually your best bet. They cater to mechanics so they won't sell cheap crap.

Torque: There's no way you'll ever produce correct torque with a multi-tool unless you're an experienced mechanic who "knows by feel" from thousands of repair jobs. Individual wrenches are also longer and give you more torque than a multi-tool. If you need even more torque in order to remove things like pedals, you just use a bit of pipe to add leverage. I keep a narrow piece of steel pipe about 12 inches long in my toolbox just for this. You just slip it over the long end of the Allen key and it gives you all the torque you'll ever need. Some people prefer the wrenches with plastic handles attached such as those made by Park Tools, but that's purely a matter of personal preference. I prefer plain wrenches with no handles on them since the handle means it can only be used in one orientation, not two like a wrench without a handle.

Losing them: My set of Allen wrenches dates to the 70s. I don't understand how you lose tools from your own garage.

But on the road? Yeah, sure, I carry a multi-tool like everyone else; but your question was about home use.

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How do the ball ends reduce the number of tools you have to carry? They allow you to turn the screw without being perfectly straight out from the head, which are really nice when you have obstructions in the way. –  Ehryk Jun 3 '13 at 15:38
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"Those are a set, not separate at all." I agree with everything in the answer but this. It's much more economical to buy a set of tools than to buy each one individually. And if you want them to be "seperate," you can then throw out the plastic piece that holds them together. :) –  amcnabb Jun 3 '13 at 16:01
    
@Ehryk You and amcnabb are correct and I've edited my answer accordingly. –  Carey Gregory Jun 3 '13 at 16:32
    
@Baumr Edited to clarify the pedals thing. –  Carey Gregory Jun 3 '13 at 18:09
    
Thanks, I ended up purchasing the multi-tool because when buying the separate set, I'd also need to buy a single T25, which can be costly if you include postage. I think the multi-tool should give enough torque for pedal changing, but will confirm that. –  Baumr Jun 9 '13 at 0:53
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the individual keys give you more flexibility than the multitool, but if you're anything like me it won't take long before you lose one of the common ones such as a 5 or 6. Personally I've evolved over the years to own a couple of multitools and a couple more key sets - that way I can generally find something when I need it. That's at home - on a ride the multitool is better for me, again for reasons of loss.

As regards flexibility, an example that springs to mind is fixing a bottle cage to your frame. Sure, you can do it with a multitool (your photo has got maybe an inch stem?) but it'd probably be easier (i.e. less awkward) with an individual key (with a three or four inch stem).

Also you mention torque - a good multitool can give quite a bit of torque, so I wouldn't get too stressed about that, but I would certainly suggest that a dedicated torque wrench is a good investment over and above what you're talking about here. For many bike parts I'd be just as worried about over-tightening than under-tightening (especially if your bike is carbon).

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You should always have a multi-tool. There are few cases where I really need separate Allen keys on the road. However, I tend to keep a long 5mm Allen key for tightening Drop bar lever clamps, which can't be accessed easily by a stubby multi tool.

Ball ends can help when you can't got a straight shot at a bolt and have to try to mate the wrench at a gentle angle, it has more chance of stripping your bolt though.

I find that separate keys can give you better torque, but I find that more useful for removing stuck bolts (or overtightened seatpost clamps) than tightening.

I also recommend carrying a multi-tool that has a chain tool on it. When you need it, it's a godsend. If you're running a 9 or 10 speed bike, a spare quicklink is very good to have. Additionally, depending on the bike, I like to carry a separate small crescent wrench with a 15mm capacity for track nuts, cantilever cable hanger yolks, and rack or brake nuts.

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You definitely need the multi-tool to take it with you on your rides. Most multi-tools also come with a flat- and cross-blade, which can come in handy.

I'd only look at the separated set as an addition to multi-tool. Though, I don't see much of a reason to get them. Unless maybe when you do a lot of bicycle work - but then you should know better and wouldn't be really asking this question.

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Thanks for your answer. Both are actually small enough to take on a ride (at least for me), but I am most concerned about using them at home –  Baumr Jun 2 '13 at 19:52
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