Table of Contents
Introduction & Recycle-A-Bicycle: The New York Model
Laying the foundation
Project Definition
Organizational Structure
Nuts and Bolts
The Bicycle Collection Network
Curriculum Content
Public Relations
Finding the Funds
Safety, Quality Control, and Liability
Last Words
Resource Directory & Bibliography
Appendix I - Financial and administrative information
Appendix II - Forms and Materials used by RAB [1 MB]
The Authors
Thank yous

Tools for Life: 
A Start-Up Guide for Youth Recycling & Bicycling Programs

Nuts and Bolts

The Workshop

Time, now, for the concrete aspects of a Bicycle Recycling Project.

Next to staff, the single most defining aspect of your project is the space it is housed in. A bicycle recycling workshop is a classroom, a hospital (i.e. for bikes), a clubhouse, a museum, and a factory all rolled into one. Before you move into a space, make sure it can accommodate all these facets. Consider the following:

Size- Try to get the biggest space you can. Your project will expand to fit any room or building it occupies. A project can be done in a classroom, but you'll be much better off in a good-sized space of 1000 square feet or above. The bare minimum should be 500 sq. ft., but we're sure there are projects making do with less.

Suitability- Make no mistake, fixing bikes is a very dirty business. The more industrial the space is, the better. Remember that most of the bikes coming through your doors will be extremely well-used. Many of them will be caked with filth. If someone is planning to give you a space with a white floor, sit down and have a chat with your donors before moving in. Let them know that even with daily mopping, that surface will be dishwater gray in no time.

If possible, get a space at street level. Most donated bikes are heavy, and those large collections can be quite tiring if stairs are involved. Your instructor/mechanics will also need to take frequent test rides.

Access- Will you have your own key to the space or will you have to wait for a secretary or a custodian to give it to you? Can you get in any time of the day or night? Is it available on weekends?

Exclusivity- If your space is donated, do you have to share it with anyone? On what nights does the photography class come in and how much do you have to clear to make room for them?

Sanitary Facilities- Is there a bathroom on the premises? Does your space have its own water or will you have to walk three flights to get to the janitor's slop sink? Easy access to water can make all the dif- ference in the level of your shop's cleanliness.

Ventilation- Grease, lubricants, and solvents are an inescapable part of a bike shop (see Part IV). Make sure the space has windows or a good air conditioning/exhaust system.

Security- This can be one of the more vexing issues facing a project director, especially if the space is to be shared. The bikes you have may be old, but they take on value as they are repaired. Even more important, tools and supplies are expensive and highly desirable. Obviously, the best situation would be a secure room with you and your staff having the only keys, but this isn't always possible. If you can't "own" your space, acquire or build some lockable cabinets. Locking 30 or 40 bikes up is more problematic, but a very long chain can be run through the frames and/or wheels to prevent easy theft.

A workshop is not always easy to find. It's often the first reason for a project to ally itself with another organization. You may well be surprised by what you are offered. Procuring a space in New York is nearly impossible, but when TA approached the Children's Aid Society at I.S. 218, we were offered a spanking new, completely unused shop facility in the basement, complete with a blackboard, worktables, cabinets, bench vises, and a sink. The room was well-lit, spacious, and had a large bulletin board. It couldn't have been better for our purposes.

Unfortunately, classroom space was at a premium in 1994. Before long, we were forced to sacrifice part of our space to create an office for a counseling program. Our new co-tenant used another door, and we built a barricade to separate the areas, but it wasn't enough. Bikes began to disappear. It was obvious that the thieves were infiltrating through the office space, but they were never caught. The school eventually built a wall and the thefts stopped, but it took our project a few months to regain its innocence.

The moral: have a good, solid door with a lot of locks and very few keys.

Organization and Storage Space

There will be many things to store. Start planning where to put things before they start arriving at your shop.


If your project is anything like RAB, you'll get a lot of bikes. Within a couple of months of start-up, we had an inventory of over 100. And bikes take up a lot of space. Remember that discussion with your land- lord about how much dirt a project can create? At the same time, try to break the truth gently about the number of bikes that you may be accumulating.

In addition to our workshop, I.S. 218 provided us with a small extra storeroom to cram bicycles into. Even though it was packed to the rafters, we always had to store another 30 to 50 bikes in the workshop. We tried to make sure that the bikes stored in the shop were on our recycling short-list. Eventually, we built a second tier out of plywood along one wall, doubling our in-shop storage.

Keeping bikes in a separate storage space has its drawbacks (less convenient access, for one), but it will allow you to keep a more orderly workshop.

If you're really pressed for bike space, you can squeeze more in by "flattening" them. To do this, simply rotate the handlebars 90° and re- move the pedals. Be sure to securely attach the pedals to the bike. (We usually hang them from the handlebars with twine.)


Wheels are smaller, but they create problems too. Worse, they don't stack well. In pothole-ridden New York, we are deluged with wheels, most of them unusable. Our advice: process them quickly. You'll find that the most common wheel malady is a mangled rim. That still leaves you with a serviceable hub, axle, and spokes. At our Earn-A-Bike sessions, kids who want to accumulate hours are often handed a wheel and a spoke wrench and asked to dismantle it. The child learns a little bit about tensile structures, the shop gets the parts, and the rims go to a local scrap yard. We have yet to purchase a new replacement spoke!

Even with good management, the wheels will pile up. If you've got a ceiling you can drill into, buy lots of those vinyl-covered hooks and hang the wheels up high. At I.S. 218, we weren't allowed to drill into ceilings or walls, so we built a free-standing wheel rack out of 2 x 4 lumber that holds about 60 wheels. The wheel rack looked so much more professional than the piles of wheels that our credibility at the school was bumped up a notch or two with the teachers and staff.


New York is hard on bicycles. We're lucky if 50% of the bikes that come in are worth reconstructing. The ones we don't fix are not wasted, though. New children who come in for Earn-A-Bike may not yet have the skills to do reliable repairs, but with a few minutes of training, they can certainly cannibalize the real wrecks. It's important to make their job easy for them. The project will need well-marked boxes for all the loose components. Sorting not only helps kids develop good work habits, it reinforces the terminology in their minds.

NOTE: Kids are very literal-minded. When told to take something apart, they really take it apart! We had to establish the following guidelines for cannibalization:

  • Take components off, but don't take components apart. The project should have a box of brake calipers, not a box of brake caliper fragments.
  • Loose nuts and bolts go back on the parts. Those screws that hold derailleurs on can be hard to find.
  • Leave brake levers on the handlebars. Just a good way to keep all the little bits together, especially on ten-speeds.
  • Save everything! Unless a thing's broken. If it's broken, determine another purpose for it, then save it. (In one campground in Wyoming, we saw old drop handlebars used as shower hooks!)

When RAB first started, we kept all our parts in cardboard boxes. Unfortunately, cardboard doesn't have a very long life span. After dumping the contents of more boxes than we can count through rotted bottoms, we finally started replacing them with plastic milk crates. We also acquired a many-drawered steel cabinet, and a plastic small parts organizer.

Sweeping the floor after a long day's work at the shop will produce a treasure-trove of small parts, especially washers and ball-bearings. Don't throw this stuff out. It can be collected in a box and periodically sorted.

Tool Storage

Before the kids start streaming into your project, install a good system for storing the tools. Try to place them in a way that makes the repair process simple and efficient for both kids and adults. A good exercise is a tour of local bike shops. Investigate how different owners lay out their workshop and storage areas. Retailers may give you some great ideas.

We think the best way to set up tools is by hanging them on large boards made of pegboard or plywood. Experiment with different arrangements and when you hit on one you like, draw outlines around them with a magic marker and label them with the names of the tools. After each work session, kids can easily replace all the tools and the instructor can see at a glance if any are missing. Best of all, the names of the tools are reinforced in the student's minds at every session.

Security is never more of an issue than with tools. Shared spaces may necessitate toolboxes. Toolboxes are also handy if your project moves from place to place. If you've got more than one kit, color-code the boxes with the tool sets. This can be easily done with vinyl electrical tape, which comes in a rainbow of colors.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that merely snapping a lock on a toolbox will prevent theft. A thief will just pick up the box, take it home, and snip the lock at his leisure. Make sure the boxes are in a locked cabinet or closet.

The possibility of theft is not a pleasant one to consider, but it's better to take precautions before it happens. Ensuring good security will protect your kids as well. It doesn't matter whether your community is rich or poor; there will be one kid who will help himself to a cable cutter. Or a bicycle. The most demoralizing experience you can have is to stand before a class and tell them that something has been stolen and you hope the thief will return the goods. It's a clichι, but an ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure.

Selecting Tools

The tools of a bike shop are its heart and soul. A project can't exist without them. Take your time when putting together your list. Try to evaluate future needs as well as current ones. A good shop is prepared to fix any style of bike.

We must once again warn you not to underestimate the complexity of the bicycle. Many of the tools can be found in hardware stores, but you will also need some specialized ones made specifically for bikes. Practice common sense and economy, but don't cut too many comers or your mechanics and kids will wind up being frustrated.

It isn't possible for this slim volume to tell you everything you need to know about tools and their uses. For that, you'll have to go to the manuals and books listed in our bibliography. We can, however, make a few suggestions and show you what we chose to include in our tool kits. Two lists of tools are provided: List A is the deluxe set-up, the one we put together for I. S. 218. List B is the low-budget approach first used by Eastern District High School. Take a close look at both of them. Your project's inventory will probably fall somewhere between the two.

RAB is a lucky project. When I.S. 218 was being set up, Ruth Messinger, the borough president of Manhattan, gave us a grant of $5000 to buy our tools. That enabled us to get 5 Park PRS-1 workstands, 5 completely outfitted toolboxes, a Park truing stand, and a separate "holy" toolbox (as it was dubbed by one boy) filled with one-of-a-kind tools for advanced repairs.

The skills of your instructor/head mechanic will determine the level of your kits. For example, I.S. 218 has fork straightening equipment. No kid at RAB ever became proficient enough to align a fork, but George, our first instructor, salvaged quite a few while the children watched.

The number of students will determine the number of tools. We found that the ideal number of kids per work station is two, the maxi- mum four. With its five stations, RAB at I.S. 218 comfortably holds classes of 10 to 20 kids.

About the workstands: They are the most expensive items on our list, but they are also the most frequently used tools in the shop. We find that they are definitely worth the cost. They hold the bikes very securely, are a joy to work with, and lend an air of professionalism to the shop. You may see stands in catalogs for as little as $40 or $50, but your crews will spend half their time propping the bikes up. There are more expen- sive models, too, but the PRS-1's are great.

If you must cut costs in the workstand area, consider buying workbench-mounted Park stands. If you have no money at all, then make your own "suspension stand." Install two hooks in the ceiling about 40" apart and drape a long loop of rope from each. When you want to elevate a bike, lift it up with one hand and put the handlebars through one loop, the saddle through the other. It beats working on the floor, and the height the bike hangs at can be customized by changing the length of the loops. If the ceiling is low, old inner tubes also work quite well for this purpose.


As a recycling center, your need for new spare parts will be much smaller than that of the average bike shop. After a few weeks of operation, your bins will be full of old derailleurs, cranksets, stems, saddles, and brakes. Nevertheless, there are a few items you will need to order fresh on a regular basis:

Cables and Housing- Yes, you can accumulate a lot of old cables, and maybe those old ones will be just fine, but have you ever bent a paper clip over and over until it broke? That's metal fatigue, and old brake cables usually have some degree of it. Why take chances with brakes? Install new cables on all your recycled bikes. They don't cost much and they'll give you and your riders peace of mind. Gear cables are not as crucial and don't receive as much stress, so feel free to recycle them.

Brake Pads- Not every bike will need new pads, but you should have them available.

Tires- Recycle as many as you can, but some bikes scream for new tires. Order some and hide them away in your shop for the right occasions. The most common sizes are 26 X 1 3/8, 27 X 1 1/4, 26 X 1.75, and 20 X 1.75.

Ball Bearings- When commercial bike shops overhaul a bearing assembly, they usually replace all the B.B.'s. After all, even microscopic imperfections will wear down races prematurely. At RAB, we compromise: we teach our kids to recognize pits and discoloration. If the old bearings shine up well, we re-use them. Nevertheless, your shop should have a good supply of them around. The main sizes, in order of impor- tance: 1/4" (rear hubs and most bottom brackets), 3/16" (front hubs and some headsets), 5/32" (most headsets), and 1/8" (freewheels and pedals). You'll also need those king-size 5/16" retainers that fit the single-piece cranksets that come on department-store level bikes. A few higher-end road bike components take 7/32" bearings, but you won't often run into these.

Crank Cotter Pins- Have we mentioned that most of your bikes will be old ones? That means you'll be replacing a lot of these. We used to wonder why these bloody things were deliberately made of metal softer than that of the cranks or spindle... until we realized that if the cotters were made of case-hardened steel, those other large and expensive parts would wear out much, much quicker.

Tube patches and cement- This one is obvious, isn't it? What may not be as obvious is that cheap, cardboard-box patch kits will work as well for your purposes as the more expensive Rema Tip-Top brand or the new "glueless" patch kits. If possible, get patches and glue in bulk quantities. Oh, and don't waste your time trying to "make your own" patches from old inner tubes. They just don't hold as well.

Lubricants- For those of you who are new to the bike world, "grease" is the thick glop you stuff bearing assemblies with, and "oil" is the lighter liquid that you squirt onto chains, pulleys, and other moving parts. There's no better way to start an argument in a bike shop than by declaring a certain brand of grease or oil is "the best." Each staff member will have his or her own opinion, and will be prepared to defend it loudly. Though they are made from many different substances, the real truth is that any lubricant is better than none. We're partial to Phil Wood or Park grease and Tri-Flow oil, but we'll use anything we can get cheaply or for free. Incidentally, we've been told that the handyman's favorite lubricant, WD-40, is really a solvent. We've acquired it for as little as $8 a gallon, so we use it anyway.

Cleaning Supplies- You'll need tons of rags, paper towels, cleaning agents, etc.

...and Suppliers

Where does one get all this stuff? If you're a small operation, start by making friends with a bicycle shop. If a local shop owner likes your project, and doesn't perceive it as "competition," he or she may be persuaded to donate tools and supplies, or at least discount them for you. If nothing else, a bike shop can be a great source of information. Who else could answer the question "Did the 1978 Motobecane Nomade come with English, French, or Italian bottom bracket threading?" (For your information, it came with Swiss threading.)

There are also a number of mail-order companies that specialize in bikes. The prices may be lower than in a retail shop, but the service will not be as personal. It's hard to make friends with a 1-800 number. If you do order some things from a catalog, don't antagonize your bike shop buddies by boasting about it in their presence. The appeal of mail-order shopping to consumers is a major threat to small retailers.

For a larger project, it would be wise to acquire tools and parts wholesale. Bicycle-related equipment is made by so many different companies that it's not practical to try and order directly from the manufacturer. You'll want to make contact with a distributor that carries products from a large selection of manufacturers. There are many of them , and they're located all over the country.

Wholesalers are wary of selling to private individuals, so the initial contact should be handled delicately. It's unlikely that you'll have the credentials, or credit rating, of a "real" bike shop, so you'll have to convince the distributor of your project's legitimacy. Bicycle businessmen are just like everyone else, however. Once they realize that you're really working with kids, they may assume a paternal relationship with your group. This can lead to a special status with your distributor.

The Dirty Work

Scrubbing is 90% of mechanic's work. An "overhaul" is largely a very thorough cleaning of the parts you can't see. Your shop will need some way to dissolve the kind of thick sludge that accumulates on drive trains and in ball-bearing assemblies. Soap and water just don't do the trick. The job calls for solvents, which are more powerful, but raise issues of health and environment. Let's look at the options available:

Gasoline- Out of the question. It's cheap, but just too hazardous to consider, even for use by adults.

Kerosene- Inexpensive, available at any hardware store, and slow to evaporate. It's been in use for some time at I.S. 218. The kerosene is kept in medium-sized, lidded plastic containers. When a part needs to be cleaned, the kerosene is applied with old toothbrushes and wiped off with rags or paper towels. The system works reasonably well, but we're concerned with the fumes produced by the kerosene.

Commercial Parts Cleaners- There are a number of companies that serve mechanic's shops, the best-known of which is Safety-Kleen. For a monthly fee, they will supply you with a parts cleaner, which usually consists of a large drum of solvent topped by a shallow pan with a motorized pump. Attached to the pump is a hose with a stiff brush at the end. When the unit is on, the solvent is constantly re-circulated through the hose and runs through a filter before draining back into the drum. The top of the cleaner has a lid that can be closed when the unit is not in use. Safety-Kleen's solvent, which meets OSHA standards, is replaced and disposed of monthly by a driver from the company. Used by many pro bike shops, this is undoubtedly the fastest, most efficient way to clean parts. It may be safe for adults, but the solvent seems rather potent for kids. It's also expensive, with the cost of a unit estimated at $500 a year.

Simple Green, Citrus Solvents- There are a number of cleaning agents manufactured that purport to be completely safe. They certainly smell a lot safer, and may well be the best route for a kids' project. They are also not cheap. We're still looking for someone who can supply it to us in large quantities (we've only seen the citrus solvents in itty-bitty bottles). Simple Green, a brand-name, is widely available.

Staying Clean: During and After the Work

Most kids don't mind getting dirt on their hands, but unlike Charles Schultz's Pig-Pen, they're very happy to wash up afterward. Bicycle dirt is the most tenacious grime known to humankind, and it's best to use the methods of the professionals to deal with it. You will not make friends with parents and teachers if you send their kids back looking like they've crawled out of an engine room. The children, too, will be grateful, and much more willing to dive into jobs the next time they come to the shop. Especially the girls. Some families may be raising kids free from sexual stereotyping, but we find that most girls like to be cleaner than boys. They make just as good mechanics, though.

First of all, plain soap is not good enough for cleaning hands. Make sure you're well stocked with a good quality hand-cleaner, the type sold in hardware stores. If it has pumice in it, even better. We found that our kids love to use (and waste) this stuff, so dole it out carefully. Let them know what the "right" amount is ("No bigger than a walnut, guys!").

Make an ample supply of aprons part of your first tool order. They should be the kind that cover the chest, waist, and thighs (adult-sized ones work just fine). New boys sometimes balk when they have to don something like their Mom wears in the kitchen, but the resistance quickly erodes. We found that the professional look of our aprons eventually took on a certain "coolness." Aprons or not, tell your kids to wear old clothes to the shop. One good idea is to keep a box of old extra-large T- shirts in the shop. They're not as cool as aprons, but kids can throw them on over their own clothes.

Your shop should also have some heavy-duty rubber gloves in stock, especially for use with solvents. Dishwashing and surgical gloves are not durable enough for the work your kids will be doing.


When a new group of children is ushered into RAB, the first horn- consists of a solemn ritual we call "Rules and Tools." After compiling a class roster, the project's purpose and goals are carefully explained. The students are informed of what the instructor's expectations are. Stress is placed on the fact that they will be doing "real" work with "real" tools, which calls for a responsible, hard-working attitude. They are reminded that every single process they perform in class or Earn-A-Bike brings a bicycle closer to returning to the road.

The kids are then gravely asked to regard the large sign in the front of the class that lists the 10 rules of Recycle-A-Bicycle (see p. 60). Sometimes students are called upon to read them, one at a time. The meaning and importance of each rule is defined for them in an interactive, question-driven style (e.g., "What do you think it means to 'respect' your tools?"). Rules that exist for shop safety are given extra-special emphasis.

Rules and Tools winds up with an explanation of the shop's tool storage system and a reminder that no class or session is done until the tools are put away, the garbage thrown out, and the worktables wiped down.

In successive classes, the true climate of RAB is quietly brought to the fore. The students are welcomed and nurtured, good work is always praised, and jokes are regularly cracked. The students begin to realize that the bike classes are very different from the rest of the school day. For one thing, the adults are addressed by their first names. Very little homework is assigned, and performance is evaluated through observation rather than the repetition of rote knowledge. It becomes clear that the atmosphere of the shop is one of "serious fun."

Weekend and after-school volunteer/Earn-A-Bike sessions are even more relaxed. A donated tape deck plays music and snacks and beverages appear from time to time. Adults, teens, and kids mingle in a cheerful hubbub of voices and clatter. It may appear chaotic to an outsider glancing through the door, but closer inspection will reveal that everyone within is productively engaged.

Depending on your shop and the space available, there are other amenities that can make a shop comfortable. Coat racks and shelves will reduce clutter and keep jackets and back-packs away from grimy surfaces. Adult volunteers will certainly appreciate the presence of a coffee pot and/or a small refrigerator.

Introducing music into your shop will make it very popular but it can generate some problems. Kids being kids, they will almost certainly test the limits. You may want to reserve the right to restrict content, and you should certainly keep a firm hand on the volume knob.

The Office

No mechanic likes to think about paperwork, but it's a fact of modern existence. You're going to have to keep records, write letters, and fill out forms. If you're lucky, a partner organization might set you up with everything you need. If not, try to procure the following (with a little luck and a good spiel, you could get it all for free):

  • A computer (who can function without one nowadays?) and a printer or, at least, a typewriter
  • A telephone (include those monthly bills in your budget)
  • A fax machine
  • Desks and chairs
  • A filing cabinet
  • Bookshelves
  • A photocopy machine (if you're rich)

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