Friday, November 23, 2007

Multi-tool Personalities...

Reviewed: Park Tool I-Beam Mini Fold-Up w/ Chain Tool (IB-3)

Ah, the multi-tool...where would we cyclists be without this jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none? A good multi-tool eschews the glorious, self-aggrandizing path of the specialist, preferring a more cosmopolitan approach to the world, where "getting by" in a variety of situations is more practical than excelling in any one. It's the socialist of the tool world, a classless microcosm where no single implement dominates or exploits another.

Exordium -
The Park Tool IB-3 sits at the top of the company's trinity of I-beam themed multi-tools, offering up to fourteen (depending on how you count) tools in a compact, relatively lightweight design. The "award winning" I-beam configuration, in addition to lending strength to the tool body, affords four "compartments" in which the separate tools recess. The whole package has a low profile and a nice hand-feel. Weight (6.4 oz. or 180 g.) is respectable, given the steel and aluminum-alloy construction, and compares favorably to similar offerings from other companies.

I carry this tool in a seat bag on my fixed gear and I've owned it for about 3 months.

Ingredients -
Features play out as follows, stolen from the Park Tool website and slightly modified for brevity:
  • 1.5 hex wrench
  • 2 hex wrench
  • 2.5 hex wrench
  • 3 hex wrench
  • 4 hex wrench
  • 5 hex wrench
  • 6 hex wrench
  • 8 hex wrench
  • T25 star (brake rotor bolt) driver
  • standard screwdriver
  • composite-wrapped tire lever
  • two spoke-wrenches:
    1. "0" (3.23mm nipples)
    2. "2" (3.45mm nipples)
  • 10-speed compatible chain tool
Design -

The IB-3 is aesthetically pleasing. The comparatively compact configuration, recessed tools, and absence of sharp edges mean that it rides well in a saddle pack or pocket. The aluminum alloy I-beam body is light, strong, and flex-free—a characteristic sorely lacking in many multi-tools that feature a plastic housing. The blue color, a Park Tool standby, comes off a bit prissy on a hand tool, owing to an odd and presumably unintentional shade disparity—a common issue with anodization—and a glossy sheen that is anything but proletariat.

The I-beam design is not exactly palm-friendly in action. The unused tools tend to bite into flesh when applying torque (e.g., using a hex wrench). The discomfort may be reduced by prophylactic use of a glove, something I don't often wear out on the road during the summer. A minor snag, really, but I thought I'd point it out for the delicate of hand.

Function -

All hex wrenches are made of hardened steel of an undisclosed alloy. As mentioned above, they fold nicely into the I-beam body, with the slotted tire lever/chain-tool handle sliding onto tabs along one side. The star driver is nice to have if you run disc brakes and need to tighten or loosen rotor bolts in situ. The chain tool/I-beam interface is solid and offers ample leverage. The slim tool body means easy rotation when turning a bolt with the wrench extended 180°. Overall, the tool feels solid and durable, with no discernable play at the junction where each tool attaches to the body.

All of the "driving" tools are very short, even for a multi-tool. A short shaft (cue the cock jokes) is an open call to battered knuckles, greasy hands, and a bad fit in tight places where the tool body bangs against parts of the bike. A slip on a tough rotor bolt could mean fillet of hand. Of course, this downside is the trade off you make when you're going for a short, compact design. There is no Phillips head screwdriver or bottle opener (very important to some of us).

The "composite-wrapped" (read: plastic) tire lever features a metal core to lend it strength. However, Park mysteriously failed to extend the metal core into the plastic lever tip. The result is a business end that is noodley under force, as I discovered recently while fixing an obstinate flat. This oversight, and the fact that there is only one lever with this tool, makes this feature all but worthless in most real-world applications, and raises the perennial question, do these engineer types even ride? The lever could be removed and discarded except for the fact that it also functions as the handle for the chaintool and as a spoke wrench.

Regarding the latter, the tire lever does an adequate job of adjusting the two most common sizes of spoke nipples. However, because it is a lever design, you cannot spin it 180° around the spoke as with a typical spoke wrench; thus, adjustments are made only in small increments and require a bit more dexterity and a modicum of patience.

The 8mm hex wrench is really a cap that fits over the end of the 6mm wrench—a common concession in the multi-tool world. In use, the 8mm wrench works as expected. The downside is that this small cap is easily lost in the field or on the street. What's more, it does not fit snugly enough on the end of the 6mm wrench to remain in place while somersaulting around in a seat bag.

The chain tool, though it is well-built, solid, and streamlined, is not without its drawbacks. Its weakness is the dead-horse tire lever, which has a nut-shaped hole in the center that fits like a box wrench over the head of the chain-tool drive shaft. Once attached, you spin the lever like a propeller to drive the shaft and push the rivet pin out of the chain. The problem here is not so much one of concept as it is of execution: the tire lever is so thin that it walks off the head of the drive shaft under force. Again, it works, but requires care and finesse, qualities in short supply when you're in a hurry or stranded in bad weather.

Purchase Worthiness -
Hmm...this is a tough one. I like the compact shape of this tool. The wrenches are tough and resilient. On the other hand, when I pay for something that has multiple features, I expect all of them to work satisfactorily, at a minimum. The lame tire lever, while clever enough in concept, blows it on the execution. This alone is no deal breaker, since I'm unflinchingly faithful to the Pedro's Milk Levers and wouldn't be caught flat on the bike without them. The quality of the other tools, the overall design, and the tool's fierce resistance to self-dissection in my seat bag—an underrated feature not "found" on several offerings from competitors—means the Park IB-3 gets a passing rating, though without a helluva lot of fanfare. Park Tool, if you're listening, some suggestions: beef up the tire lever, magnetize the 8mm wrench cap (or find some other effective way of holding it fast to the tool), and field test the prototype before unleashing it again on the public. With minimal modification, this would be a fine addition to any portable tool stable.


gwadzilla said...


who has the best tool on the market?

Crank Brothers?

gwadzilla said...

you know it is a good chain tool when you pull it out of your pack when doing a repair in your shop!

Icon O. Classt said...

I like the Crank Bros, but I've had two of them come apart in my pack, thus prompting this purchase. CB needs to threadlock the bolts that hold the whole kit together.