Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mechanic's Corner: Removing/Installing a Headset

Recently, Sam offered some opinions on bicycles and his role as house mechanic, and I thought it might be nice to have him do a little "mechanic's corner" post every once in awhile. Today, he's talking about removing and installing a headset.  If you've ever wanted to know how to perform this task, here's your opportunity to get a mini-tutorial.

Changing a headset is something you don't need to do often, but why not do it yourself?  Sure, you could roll into a bike shop, and pay $25 (maybe more) just for the installation, but doing it yourself is so much fun!

Recently I found myself in need of a new headset - not because it was bad, old, or ugly, but because this headset was missing the top cap, and it was simply cheaper to purchasee another headset for $9.

Okay, so we are going to swap out a headset on my Frank-en race bike, in no less than 30 minutes, using homemade, specialized tools.

Step 1:  Get your tools together

Here is what you will need:
1. Standard hex wrenches that you would use to dissemble your bike
2. A hammer (any kind, of reasonable size)
3. A 3/8 inch bolt (as long as possible), with or without a head, threaded as far as it can be (this could be slightly larger, if it's all you can find)
4. Four (4) thick washers for the bolt mentioned above, and at least 3 nuts that fit it (Two to lock the washers on, one side, and one to tighten on the other when you press the headset)
5. A copper or aluminum pipe (copper will bend better without breaking, but I used an old seat post made of aluminum that I put a 3 inch cut in down the middle)
6. A hacksaw
7. Two adjustable wrenches, or fitted ones to tighten your frank-en press
8. Grease, of some sort (I use bearing grease - it's red, yay!)

First, make a 3 inch (or so) cut down the middle of your pipe/seat post. 
Cutting the pipe/seat post
Then splay it out a bit, so it can reach both sides of the inside of the headset cups (this is the special tool). I happen to be using a long screw driver for this task.
Splaying the end of the pipe/seat post
What the pipe/seat post looks like after "splaying."
Step 2:  Tear apart the frond end of the bike

1. Remove the front wheel, fork, handlebars, and any associated cables/spacers
2. Keep an eye on the order your parts and spacers are in for re-assembly. Document it, if neccesary
Removing the handlebars - sometimes, the Labrador must get involved!
Removing fork/front tire from head tube
Now your bike should be like a "T-Rex" with all the junk in the trunk, if you will... and you are ready to remove the old headset.

Step 3: Remove the headset

1. Be sure everything is removed from the headset, sealed bearings, cages, etc
2. Use your new tool!  Place the removal pipe into the head tube (it should just fit through the cup), and you should be able to catch the lip of the headset cup
3. Once you can feel it catching the lip, gently tap the pipe on each side so it removes the old cup evenly (this may be difficlult, depending upon how old/what material your frame is. Mine was easy, as I have a fairly new aluminum frame)
4. Repeat this on the other cup, and you should end up with an empty and clean head tube
Using "special" tool to remove headset 
Removed headset/empty head tube
Step 4: Your new headset - install it

1. Unpack the new, awesome or cheap, or awesome AND cheap headset!  Take note of the top and bottom. Usually this does not matter, but sometimes it does.  The most inportant part is in the details.  Use the crown race, and seal on the bottom, and the top cap and star nut on the top (for this how-to, I re-used the existing star-nut, and my crown race, as they were identical to the old headset. I'm saving the new crown race for a new fork someday)
2. Let's get it on.  Place one cup on one side, and then use your "press", to slowly tighten the cup.  Be careful to check every turn, and make sure that the cup is going in straight, it will want to move around, and you will need to adjust your tool slightly to get it "right"
3. Place the other cup in the head tube, and repeat step number two above.  You should now have a head-tube with 2 empty cups (see photos below)
Unpacking the new headset
Yep, there are bearings in the headset!

Step 5: Reassemble

1. Let's put the bearings, the seals, and everything else back together.  It should go in this order - First, put the lower bearing and seal together on the fork crown, grease the bearing, and place the fork into the bottom cup - bearing-seal and all.  Then place the bearing into the top cup, around the fork top, grease the bearing, and drop on the remaining seals and top cap
2. Replace the handlebars/stem/spacer
3. use your stem cap to tighten/adjust the headset.  It should be firm enough to the headset has no "play", but does not bind
4.  Tighten everything WELL
5.  Be happy - you now have a new, installed headset!
Greasing it up - You may or may not need a refreshing drink to get this job done
Re-installing the fork
More greasing taking place
Re-installing the handlebars
Installed headset
Notes and musing:

This is not all inclusive, and there are details you may know better/do better than me.  There are somewhere in the range of one million tutorials on this if you search Google, everyone does it slightly different, or thinks about it differently, etc. Your mileage may vary.
I have done about 10 headsets at this point, and I find that steel frames, particularly older ones are much harder to get headsets OUT of.  My Bianchi took monster truck force to remove the headset.  There was some bleeding, cursing, and anger {G.E.'s note: He's not lyin' about this one folks!}. Always take your time, and do it right.  When in doubt, go to a bike shop you trust. They have awesome tools.  I simply like doing things myself, and sometimes like the pain too.  Lastly, If you think you are doing it wrong, or don't feel safe, don't even start!  I am rather cavalier, and confident with bicycles.  Never compromise safety, ever!

Speaking as the observer of this project, I will say that it didn't look so horrible, and I even thought that perhaps I, the mechanically-inept individual in the house, could manage it (under the right circumstances). It didn't take very long at all (after all the tools were found - as the mechanic didn't follow his own advice and line up the tools first). As a visual learner, I appreciated being able to see the headset removal/installation process, and hopefully, this will help someone else out there who's looking to do more bike changes/repairs for him/herself.


  1. I would like to add, that there's usually a better/more efficient way to do it (no matter what I seem to do), so If you have a better way, chime in! I'm sure it won't be my last headset..

  2. LOVE your blog. Just discovered it - stumbled upon it from some other bike-related site. I made myself the very same headset press a few months ago and it works great. Bought the cup remover though... you're an inspiration! Keep up the great work.


    1. Well, thank you very much... I'm glad you stumbled upon the blog. :O)


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