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Replacing A Mountain Bike Headset Without Special Tools

Updated on September 28, 2012


Headsets come in differing styles for mountain and road bikes. They can be found in standard, zerostack or integrated styles. This guide is going to show you a method to install standard and most zerostack headsets. This will not cover the installation of integrated headsets.

When choosing a headset style for your bike it is important to know a few important things.

  • what kind of riding you typically do - XC and Freeride headsets will be much different in character, size weight and purpose. Choose the right style of headset for your riding
  • Which size headset will fit your frame - Do not just assume you can order an headset, check with the frame manufacturer, or as before you purchase a headset to ensure compatibility.
  • What size headset will fit your fork -Do you have a standard threadless fork or is it tapered or over-sized, make sure you know what size you need to fit your fork.

Prices for headsets will range from typically $30 for bottom of the line sets to upwards of $200 for top of the line headsets. You will get what you pay for in terms of durability and performance. However, many quality headsets can be found in the $50 to $75 range (often on sale) and high performance headsets will typically run you $100 to $150 dollars. I would not recommend choosing a low end headset with a good fork, or if you choose to ride aggressively.

Tools you will need, note that the photo shows two tubes one pre cut and one cut to use as a removal tool
Tools you will need, note that the photo shows two tubes one pre cut and one cut to use as a removal tool | Source
Inserting the removal tool
Inserting the removal tool | Source

Removing the old headset

To remove an older headset without tools, there are a few options for materials but one basic premise. The idea is to create a tube that will press against the headset from the inside of your headtube allowing you to hammer out the headset cup while not damaging it. For this operation it is best to use either PVC piping or copper tubing which are softer than the frame of your bike and will bend before they scratch the headtube. You can also use aluminum or steel tubes, but personally steel is not recommended as it is harder to cut and shape for use. I personally prefer the PVC option as it is cheaper, less damaging and easier to manipulate with basic tools

  • What you need
  • A hacksaw
  • A Rubber Mallet ( a regular hammer will work if you don't have a mallet)
  • A Length of Tubing about 8 inches long and 1 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter
  • Pliers

The first step is to cut 4 slots in the tube about 2 inches long and using a pair of pliers gently bend them outward. This will create a cone shaped bottom portion with 4 'blades' or 'flaps 'that should be larger than your headset and head tube. Make sure that the blades are all bent out evenly and that one is not bent further out than the others,

To remove the headset insert the tube you made into the head tube until the blades of the portion you cut are to wide to fit inside. Now pull upward on the other end of the tube, pulling the blades into the headtube until you hear an audible click. This will indicate that the 4 blades of the tube have set themselves against the inside headset. Pull upward about another 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch and make sure all the blades are set against the headset.

Now, using a rubber mallet hammer the tube downward lightly to remove the headset. The headset should pop out of the bottom with moderate effort, you should not be hammering excessively hard on the tube. You will then repeat this in the opposite direction for the other side of the head set. Be careful to have the headset drop onto a cloth or soft surface, you don't want it clanging off your basement of garage floor.

The tools you will need to press your headset
The tools you will need to press your headset | Source
Example of how to use the press
Example of how to use the press | Source

Installing the new headset

Installing the new headset is also fairly easy.

  • What you need:
  • A 3/8 inch or 1/2 inch threaded rod about 8 inches in diameter
  • 2 sections of 2 X 4 - ( I just square off the last 3 inches of the end )
  • 2 1/2 inch nuts
  • 2 large washers (ones that do not slide over the nuts)
  • 2 Adjustable wrenches or 2 crescent wrenches to turn the nuts
  • Drill with 1/2 inch bit.

Drill a hole in the center of each piece of wood. then thread on nut on to the rod and drop the washer first, then the wood down on top of it. Place the bottom headset cup onto the rod and insert the unit into the head tube so the rod sticks up from the top of the headtube. Then slide the other piece of wood and washer onto the rod and thread the nut down on top.

Tighten both nuts finger tight and make sure the entire unit is lined up straight. Secure the upper bolt with a wrench and using a second wrench begin to turn the bottom nut (the one near the cup you are installing) slowly and it will begin to press the cup into the headset. Check the block of 2 x 4 frequently and make sure the headset is entering the headtube evenly. Once the headset is pressed in completely there should be no space between the bottom of the headtube and the headset.

To install the top piece simply repeat the same process, this time turning the upper bolt and holding the lower bolt. Remember to check frequently the evenness of the headset installation and make sure that the headset is pressed into the headtube evenly and with no space when you are finished.

If the rod begins to shift one direction, you can lightly recenter it by tapping with your hammer. Once the initial press begins it is fairy easy to maintain the evenness of the install. The finer threads that you have on the rod, the easier it will be to keep the headset straight when installing. Minimal unevenness will be compensated for as the headset cup is pressed but is is important to avoid this if at all possible as you could damage the inside of your headtube.

I have done this process on a number of bikes with glowing results, and have never had a technical issue with a headset while riding. Remember to go slowly, set up your press correctly and you should have no issues.


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