- motivation for newbies or
How to build, maintain and evaluate your own wheels.
Last site updates -- June 16th 2016
- Spline Drive Nipples
June 26th 2016 - dish gauge (in Tools)
Brought to you from the mountains of SW Ontario Canada -
Welcome to my webpage about wheels and wheelbuilding. The following information has encouraged many people to try wheelbuilding for the first time. I get lots of e-mails from people thanking me for giving them the motivation to give it a try. No-one ever regrets taking their first steps into wheelbuilding & maintenance.
Have you ever tried to get into something new, whether it be a new sport, buying new windows for your house, a new camera or you're researching what kind of dog to get or a myriad of other things? The first thing you do is to Google the topic and you're greeted with a multitude of sites and many of them have conflicting information. Now you're frustrated and just as confused as you were before you waded into the mess. I do this all the time. All I need is for someone to clear away the info and junk that I don't need and give me the staraight dope. My Wheelbuilding site's goal is to do that for you. Here you will find what you need to know about wheels and wheelbuilding. Follow its advice and you will know how to choose the right wheels for you, how to fix your wheels and how to build wheels. And for the information that is not here (and there is lots that is not here) I give you the best links that I know of so that you can find it.
Even if you don't take up wheelbuilding and decide to go the pre-built wheel route (either 'boutique' wheels, custom wheels or pre-builts using standard parts; more on this later) this info will give you some knowledge of wheels, their parts and what's involved in building and maintaining wheels. You will know what it takes for a wheel build to be considered good. You will also learn how to evaluate the condition of wheels too - whether they be a used set you're considering buying or your own wheels and you're wondering whether they need to be replaced. Knowledge is power.
There is nothing mystical about wheelbuilding all it takes is a minor amount of equipment, some written instructions and some patience along with a willingness to learn. You will feel very proud of yourself when you take your first ride on your first set of wheels. Nothing in cycle mechanics compares.
This information page is dedicated to helping you build your first wheelset without fancy special equipment. If you had to buy $100-300 worth of tools to build your first set, you might not do it. Don't listen to those who say you can't build good and accurate wheels using my tips, other resource sites and minimum equipment. Oh sure, if you're going into semi production or doing cutting edge ultralite wheels then good equipment is more of a benefit, but this site is not about that. It's about the average guy who wants to try wheelbuilding and who might eventually want to build himself and a buddy one or two sets of wheels per year or replace the odd rim here & there. Of course it's good for on-going wheel maintenance, repair and wheel purchasing knowledge also.
And check back often too as this page is, and always has been, a work in progress. Hardly a week goes by where I don't add something. I learn from you - from reading about your frustrations; your tips on forums; your e-mail comments.
If there is something on this site that you don't understand, or some info is missing, please contact me and tell me what it is. This is the way the site grows and gets better. Thanks.
I love this quote from professional wheelbuilder Gerd Schraner's book "The Art of Wheelbuilding" -
"It is always the wheelbuilder who makes a good job of truing wheels, not the truing tools. It is therefore not necessary to have the latest high-tech, sophisticated toy to attain a high quality wheel. I learned how to true wheels using an old bicycle fork and my fingernail to measure misalignment".
And then there is this one from Jobst Brandt in his definitive book "The Bicycle Wheel" -
"The only tool essential for wheel building is a spoke wrench. The bicycle can serve as a good and adequate truing stand. Brake pads can be used as a reference from which to observe wheel alignment. Some builders prefer to use their thumb as a gauge even when using a well-equipped stand."
I’ve built many of wheels for myself and others over my past fifty+ years in this sport. I won’t tell you how to actually do the lacing and truing as that is well covered by people with far more typing time than I have. What I offer you is encouragement and motivation plus many tips that you may not find anywhere else. There are references at the end of this section for the sites that will help you with the actual lacing and other important things. My passion is wheels and wheelbuilding and those resources are the best that I know of. They do the job far better than I ever could.
A good question came up on mtbr.com's "Wheels" forum - titled "Great Wheel Builder. Your definition."
"What sets a great wheel builder apart from the good? I know true and round, but how about something more?"
I answered - "That's easy - one who specs or advises you on the best parts for you, your riding and your budget. One who builds the wheels that are correctly built with sufficient tension, equal tension, stresses relieved, spokes bedded and rims acceptably true. The wheels wouldn't go out of true or tension during the life of the wheel (unless the rim is bent) and if this happened, the wheels could be re-trued (due to lubricated nipple threads). All this is easily doable by the home wheelbuilder and doesn't have to be the sole domain of some acclaimed mystical guru."
I've been building my own wheels for a long time and in the early days (maybe the first 35 years) when there was no wheelbuilding information (and certainly no internet info) I had spokes break and spokes loosen off - maybe 1 per year. But I did a lot of riding, training and racing then and assumed this was the price to be paid for mucho wheel use.
But fast forward to the Internet age. The increasing plethora of easily obtained info led me to a quest leading to a passion - building the best wheels possible. I soaked up all available info and slowly started putting it on this website, one that still grows at least weekly and sometimes daily. And as I got the info for free, I share it for free.
Since I discovered that the secret to correctly built wheels was equal tensions, sufficient tension, bedding parts, stress relief and spoke twist removal, I haven't had one spoke loosen or break or one wheel come out of true (unless the rim got tweaked or bent). No wheel has had to be touched with a wrench after coming out of the workshop, except maybe for the very occasional fine-tune at bike clean time. I can't remember the last time I did that.
I'll bet the difference between a bad wheel and a "perfect" wheel is ten extra minutes of time, using knowledge, care and passion during its building. That isn't much of an investment is it?
Here's the simple equipment that I use. Some of it is shown on my new Tools page -
This is what you dont need - expensive stuff like a wheel stand, dishing gauge, spoke tension meter, commerical "spoke prep" (thread lube), an electric or manual "nippledriver".
A fork and bike frame to use as a truing stand.
See below for how to make your own low-budget, high-efficiency wheel truing stand.
A pair of simple inside calipers to check dishing (see pic below).
A spoke wrench of the correct size. Get a good one here. Cheap ones will ruin your nipples ;o) See below.
An old Phillips screwdriver with two webs ground off (see pic below).
Grease or oil. Anything will do.
Small tin of Permatex Anti-Seize Compound. (get at an auto parts store)
Plastic tipped hammer.
Long punch (6-8" drift punch)
Not much in the way of expensive dedicated wheelbuilding tools eh?
To be honest, wheels can be built with just one tool - a spoke wrench plus a blob of grease or a spoonful of oil. Everything else just makes the job a little easier.
But whatever you do, get a good spokewrench as it will last a lifetime. Cheap ones will round off the nipples quickly. Get the right size for your spoke nipples - usually 14g nipples take a 3.3 or 3.25 wrench.
Here is my current collection of spoke wrenches. Please don't ever buy the one in the top left corner. This is a multi-size wrench and it is Walmart quality and its precision is poor.
Clockwise from there -
The black Park wrench. A good stand-by but my least favorite for comfort. This goes with me on rides.
The red Cyclus - a wonderful $7 tool. Plastic with a hardened steel insert. Very light and comfortable. A great one to carry on rides. From Wheel Fanatyk.
The red P&K Lie - a precision made $25 wrench. Very comfortable to use. From Wheel Fanatyk.
The blue Unior - a well-made $20 wrench. From Bike Hub Store.
The silver one in the center is my decades old Cyclo. It's a U-shaped 2-sided wrench (more on that below) and I use it when there is no tension on the spokes. It's quick & easy to use.
When buying a spoke wrench, always buy one of the four corner or four sided types shown below. They do not round off the corners of nipples when tensions get high and are almost mandatory when softer aluminum nipples are being worked on. My old Cyclo is one of the U-shaped 2-sided ones - harder on nipples but faster to use.
Here is my hi-tech Nipple Driver. It's an old worn-out cheap Phillips screwdriver with two webs ground off. It's got a piece of tape applied so that you can easily see and count the number of turns. It's truly hi-tech as it has two gears - high & low - twirl the shaft or twirl the handle between finger & thumb to vary the gearing. Go buy a Phillips at the local dollar store if you don't have an old one. I should patent the damn thing as it works perfectly.
This is used for spinning the nipples down before tension makes a spoke wrench necessary.
Here is my hi-tech Nipple Starter and Nipple Seat Greaser. It's a Q-Tip out of the bathroom cupboard. Dip the Q-Tip in grease and poke it though the rim nipple hole (from outside the rim) and grease the seat where the nipple will sit. Do both rims. Then, cut off the greasy end with a sharp knife and sharpen the shaft like a pencil. Jam a nipple on and poke it into the rim when you're adding nipples to spokes. Give a couple of twists and the nipple's on. The deeper the rim, the more effective this is. Don't put it back in the cupboard when you're done ok?
Makes of spokes - DT, Sapim and Wheelsmith make the most popular ones. They're all too equal to worry about any differences.
I like Sapim because they're good and my buddy imports them - www.ThorUSA.com. Spokes are Sapim's only business.World champions and record breakers use them.
Probably the most important part of a spoke is its Length - You must use a spoke length calculator to find the length that is correct for your wheel parts.
Spoke lengths depend on a few factors -
- Rim ERD (Effective Rim Diameter) - This is the distance from the end of a spoke to the end of the spoke directly across from it in a built wheel. It is not the rim diameter that you normally know (700c, 26", 29" etcetera) but a number like "542" or around 590 for 700c road rims. It can sometimes be obtained from the manufacturers' websites or some spoke calculators will have a listing chart but you have no idea if the information is correct or not. You will be the one to suffer from incorrect information. Used spokes can never be returned and the spokes will be used spokes by the time you figure out that you have the wrong length. By far the best way of getting the ERD is to measure it yourself. The Wheelpro spoke calculator linked from the resources at the end of this page shows you how to measure the ERD. Roger, of Wheelpro fame, shows you how to make the simple measuring tool. Please learn how to do this simple but important job.
**See my new page on ERD measurement methods.** My favorite methods are here.
If you choose to use another spoke calculator other than Roger's, I'd suggest you find out how they measure ERD for their calculator. It could be different than Roger's. Just sayin'.
- Hub dimensions (flange diameter, flange spacing) - again the best way - measure them yourself using the info on the Wheelpro calculator. Some hub makers list their hub measurements. But again - use others' measurements at your own risk - they have been known to be wrong. Check the calculator you plan to use to see how they measure hubs. Don't use a calculator that doesn't show you!!
- Spoke crosses - are you going to use 3x, 2x, 1x or radial? It makes a big difference in spoke length.
When you use a spoke calculator you will probably end up with between two and four different lengths of spokes recommended for your wheels. This is because of the spacing of the hubs' flanges from the center of the axle. Flanges are spaced differently to accommodate gear cassettes and disc brake rotors. Many times you can round the measurements up or down to combine two or more lengths of spokes. For example, if you get lengths of 261.6 and 262.4, round them both to 262. We need to be within +/-1mm when choosing spoke lengths and the closer we do this rounding, the better. For example, a length of 260.7 should be taken down to 260 and not up to 262.
Ideally, when spokes are the correct length and at the correct tension, the end of the spoke will be just at the top of the nipple or at the bottom of its slot. We have a leeway of about 1mm in either direction before we run into problems. Most spokes are only stocked in 2mm increments and in even numbers. Some sellers do stock odd numbered lengths too or only odd numbers. Check spoke sellers' advertising closely.
Some spoke calculators are listed at the end of this section. Roger Musson's is a very good one. It's the one I use.
Roger even wrote it himself (he's an engineer) and if it didn't work perfectly, he would change it so that it did.
A request from me - please don't contact me to ask if I will double-check your spoke calculations, or calculate spokes for you. I don't have the time and I don't want the responsibility, plus I have no idea if your input numbers are correct. Information on hub & rim measurement has been made as easy as possible for you (Roger's site!) and doing this yourself is part of the wheelbuilding process. Trust the method and your own measurements and again, don't rush. Thanks. In the end you'll be a much better wheelbuilder for it.
Spokes, types and gauges - You will likely be confused over what make of spokes to buy, what length and what thickness (gauge).
Spoke Gauge - there are two main types - plain gauge (equal thickness all the way along) and double butted (thinner in the middle).
Plain gauge - cheaper, easier to build with than butted spokes (not as much twisting or "wind-up" when turning nipple). You'll see thicknesses of 14g (or 2.0mm) or 15g (1.8mm). They cost about $0.50 per spoke. They transmit more shock to the hub flanges than -
Double butted - more money and a little harder to build with (the thinner middle twists a bit). You'll see thicknesses of 14/15/14g (2.0/1.8/2.0mm). DBs absorb shock better and build a more forgiving wheel. There are some spokes with extreme butting (very thin mid section) - spokes like DT Revolution and Sapim Laser. Please don't use these for your first wheelbuild as they twist more than spokes with thicker midsections and take lots of skill to identify and remove the twist. Double butted spokes cost about $0.75 to $1.50 per spoke. If and when you do use them, your spoke twist removal must me exemplary.
Bladed spokes - some of the very high end spokes are bladed (flattened). The Sapim CX-Ray is the most famous example. Very expensive. They cost about $3 per spoke. But - you can actually see the spoke twist and you use a special slotted tool to stop the spoke from twisting - or, to remove any slight twist afterwards. Their bladed aero cross section, in theory, make for "faster" wheels but you will never notice this in use. As they are actually made from Sapim Laser spokes (they're flattened with a stamping die) they weigh just the same as Lasers.
Titanium spokes - let's not even go there. This is a site for wheelbuilding beginners.
For your first few wheelbuilds you'd be well advised to stay with 14g double butted or plain gauge if cost is a factor (about $16 less for a pair of wheels). You have been warned.
Let's see what wheelbuilding book writer and engineer, the late Jobst Brandt says about double butted spokes, or to use the correct term - Swaged spokes -
"The diameter reduction increases spoke elasticity, increases strength by work hardening, and reduces weight. However, the most valuable contribution of swaging is that peak stresses are absorbed in the straight midsection rather than concentrated in the threads and elbow, thereby substantially reducing fatigue failures. Swaged spokes act like strain screws commonly used in high-performance machinery."
Buying spokes - For most wheelsets you will need two different lengths of spokes. For some wheelsets you may need three different lengths (rounding lengths up and down might allow you to combine lengths). So for 32 spoke wheels (64 spokes total) you might need 48 of one length (front wheel and non-drive side rear) and 16 of another length (drive side rear). Some sellers will only sell spokes in boxes of 72, 100 or 140. Please don't accept this method of spoke selling. What are you going to do with all those extra spokes? But all is not lost - some sellers will sell you one spoke if that's all you want - and certainly they will sell you just as many as you need. Patronize those sellers as they deserve your business. A businesses that sells single spokes is BikeHubStore.com. There may be others. By the way - get extras of each length (say 2 per length) and store them away for emergencies. Label them with their length. I use masking tape.
Lacing - This is the act of crossing spokes to give the wheel strength and rigidity and to transmit torque whether it be from a gear cog or a disc brake rotor. Look at most wheels - the spokes cross each other - this is called "Lacing". 99% of all wheels are laced cross-3 (usually written x3) - each spoke crosses three others. Other lacing is x4, x2, x1 and "radial" spoking (no spoke crosses any other spoke, it goes straight to the rim from the hub). One method of lacing isn't any harder to do than another.
Rims come in a multitude of varieties with the differences being quality, weight, width, depth (aero or box section), color, drilling (# of spoke holes), valve stem drilling (Presta valve or Schrader?), disc brake or rim brake, welded or pinned joint, hard anodized or not, stainless eyelets or not, aluminum or carbon fibre. There are probably other things I didn't think of. You must choose a rim to suit the intended application. You can't expect a 370 gram ultra light mountain bike xc racing rim to stand up to the rocks and roots of "freeride" and your 325lb body. You can't expect a 400 gram light 700c road rim to support your 250 lb body and a week's touring gear. Rims range from about $30 to $130 and usually, more money equals better quality.
Custom wheels, whether they be built for you by someone else or by yourself, will tailor the rim's weight to your body weight, riding style and road or trail conditions. Usually higher weight equals more strength and less flex. There are very few miracles here so don't be unrealistic.
For tubeless-ready rim & tire information see the section just above "References - links" below.
Probably less critical for wheel integrity than rims and spokes. But buy some quality. Hubs like Shimano XT (mtb hubs) or Shimano 105 or Ultegra (road hubs) are a good basic quality and quite inexpensive. Then prices and quality soar with names like King, DT-Swiss, Shimano (XTR and DuraAce), White Industries, Hope, Hadley, and Phil Wood being at the top of the pile. More recently we're seeing many hubs made in Taiwan and even Mainland China. Most of these hubs are excellnt for their cost (roughly $110 for the pair) and they are all "sealed cartridge bearing" hubs. They are easy to service and repair. A few factories make them and they almost always get re-labeled with names of North American companies that we sometimes know.
Rear hubs are different widths for mtb and road bike. They are usually 130mm wide for road rim brake wheels and 135mm for mtb and road disc brake bikes. For mtb there are disc and rim brake hubs, single-speed or multi gear. For road bikes there are 11-speed hubs (which will take 8, 9 & 10-spd cassettes too, with a spacer) or 10-spd hubs that will not take 11-spd cassettes. The new road bike disc brake hubs seem to have settled on the 135mm mountain bike hub width. Confusing eh? Do your homework here. Ask questions. Read maker's spec sheets (but never believe their hub specs for spoke calculator use!)
Front hubs are almost all 100mm width - mtb or road, rim brake or disc brake.
Axle diameters are now confusing. You have QR and Thru-Axle stuff. Do homework before ordering.
All hubs have a drilling number (32hole, 36, 28, 24, 20 etc) that must match the number of holes in the rim! Just DON'T ask if you can lace a 32h rim to a 28h hub or vice-versa.
The standard material for nipples is brass. They are nickel plated which gives them their chrome appearance. They may also be bought in black finish at extra cost.
Nipples come in two gauges - for 14g spokes (2.0mm dia) and for 15g spokes (1.8mm dia) and they are not interchangable. Don't get spare ones mixed up at home if you have both diameters as the difference is very hard to spot. I keep mine in labelled jars.
Aluminum nipples are also available (as an extra cost item) and they come in a few colors - see below. Their main purpose is weight saving (they save about 20g per wheel per 32 spokes) but this weight saving will not be noticed while riding. For most of us, the colors are the real benefit. And that's ok.
It must be said that aluminum nipples, as they are a softer material than brass, can be more easily damaged if care isn't taken during building. Spoke wrenches must fit properly and be seated properly or the nipple corners can be rounded off. This makes wheels untruable. The new spoke wrenches that grab all 4 flats are preferred. Nipple thread and seat lubrication is more crucial too.
Spoke length is more crucial with aluminum nipples. If the spoke isn't well up into the head of the nipple, the head will have more of a chance to snap off at its neck. The nipple neck must be fully reinforced by the spoke.
Self-locking nipples are available. Usually they have some form of goop in the threads or deformed threads like Sapim Secure Lock. I don't need this feature as I know correctly tensioned spokes don't loosen off. You shouldn't need it either because you're not going to do a sloppy build either are you? If you do use them, do not use this feature as a fix for poor wheelbuilding skills.
Standard nipple length is 12mm. Longer ones are available (14 & 16mm) and they are for some deeper section rims.
I have had no problems with aluminum nipples during many years of use and you should be ok too if you follow all my tips on care, lubrication and spoke wrenches. Some people who live near the ocean and report aluminum nipple corrosion which leads to failure. The shiny nipple on the left is brass and all the others are aluminum -
Spline Drive Nipples
Recently, Spline Drive nipples, an idea that was around in the early '90s, was ressurected by Ric Hjertberg of Wheelfanatyk fame (and prior to that, Wheelsmith spoke fame). There are a few advantages to spline drive nipples over the old square drive ones -
Lighter than square drive (about 0.31g versus 0.35g)
Wrench fits every 60 degrees rather than 90 degrees (easier the get better wrench leverage).
Cannot strip (the spoke will break first).
Aerospace aluminum (2024-T6)
Nearly impossible to scratch the color.
For further reading on Wheelfanatyk spline drive nipples, Ric's blog says it way better than I ever could (plus he's already written it!)
I've just finished my first wheelset using these nipples and they are nice to work with. A great feature is that you now have three positions in which to place the wrench for better leverage, rather than two. At higher spoke tensions this makes a difference.
During the planning of my own recent personal wheel build I considered and researched nipple washers.
Years ago, most rims came with spoke hole "ferrules" or "eyelets" that reinforced the spoke holes against cracking from spoke tension and nipple pressure.
In more recent years, more & more rims are being made without these eyelets. Some rims have great success without eyelets and some develop cracks around the nipple holes.
I'm not here to debate which type of rim is better or worse as both typs of rims offer good value and service and they all suffer spoke hole cracks, even ones with eyelets.
But it's possible to use special "nipple washers" that will possibly provide a few advantages and hopefully add to rim longevity.
So, for the following reasons I decided to include nipple washers to my recent wheels -
1. They provide a known smooth smooth surface for nipple seating and turning. Bare rims holes will vary in quality.
2. They remove some nipple shoulder pressure from the edge of the nipple hole.
3. They provide a bigger surface area for the given nipple pressure thus reducing psi at this potentially vulnerable location. Lower pressure should equal less cracks.
Nipple washers are quite inexpensive and light - mine weighed just 9 grams for my 24/28 spoke wheels (total - 52 washers; 4g front, 5g rear).
Make sure you have a few extras on hand before starting the job. A couple of mine vanished forever when they hit the floor.
Place the nipple on the sharpened Q-Tip, hold upright, place washer over nipple (get the concave side correct!), push the nipple up into the rim from below and screw onto the spoke. Gravity now holds the washer in place. Ta-daaaa! If you do lose any inside the rim, shake them out after all the lacing is done through the valve hole. Have fun with that.
I used the 7mm round Polyax HM washers marketed by Sapim. BikeHubStore.com sells them.
They measured 0.7mm thick so they would add 1.4mm to the rim ERD - don't forget to include them in your spoke length calculations. I installed them on my ERD dummy measuring spokes so I wouldn't forget to add the extra thickness.
The nipple washer is exactly 7.2mm diameter and the nipple is 6mm diameter.
For nipple seat lube, where I normally use grease for ferrule seats or non-ferrule seats, I installed the nipples and washers and then applied one drop of oil per nipple-to-washer interface, before tensioning. This allows the oil to run between the nipple and the washer.
The question came up as to whether nipple washers can be added to already built wheels. The answer is yes - if the spokes are long enough to accept an extra 0.7mm of washer depth. Look at the pic above. The ideal spoke length is between what you see in the pic (the end of the spoke is at the bottom of the slot) to the top of the slot (or top of the nipple). If your spokes are already as seen in the pic (bottom of the slot) then adding a washer will lower the spoke 0.7mm. The end of the spoke must be within the head of the nipple - and the further in the better. The lower the spoke is, the bigger the strain on the nipple shaft-to-head junction (the neck) and the bigger the chance of the head snapping off. Plus, of course - to add the washers, all the nipples have to be removed (yes you can do this one at a time), washers added and wheels re-tensioned and re-trued. You shouldn't try to re-true after every washer is added - that's just totally time consuming.
Double wall eyelet
Single wall eyelet
Rim with eyelets
My dummy ERD measuring spokes with nipple
- Warning for Newbs -
The following things make the act of wheelbuilding harder, and details more crucial, for those with little or no experience.
- thinner spokes like DT Revolution, Sapim Laser or thin straight gauge spokes (plain 15g) - they twist (wind-up) more than thicker spokes. Straight 14g are the easiest followed by double butted 14/15g. The latter (double butted 14/15g) is your best bet, all things considered - performance, ease of building and cost.
- less spokes. 28 (or less) spokes make the job much harder than 32 spokes. As we reduce spokes, each one has much more effect on the rim and adjustment is crucial. 32/32 spoke wheels are the standard. Or maybe 28 front, 32 rear if you're 200-220lb. Ok, if you're under about 190lbs, 24f/28r will be fine. No matter what weight you are I think that's as low as you should go. Break a spoke in a set of 20/24 spoke wheels and you'll be carrying the bike home as the wheel probably won't turn in the frame or fork.
- spoke crosses. The standard is "cross 3" or 3x. Less crosses (2x, 1x or radial) are not as much of an issue and don't make the job any more difficult. Less crosses use slightly shorter spokes but the weight savings is very minimal. 24 spoke wheels need 2x maximum crosses but 28h and 32h can take either 3x or 2x - it's all down to spoke head interference at the hub end.
- light rims. There's just less material (and strength) than "normal" rims (425g+) and everything about them is less forgiving. Correct tension and even tension are crucial.
There is no magic potion here - less rim weight = more fragile rim. Be realistic here - 200+lb people shouldn't be riding around on the lightest rims (or the lowest numbers of spokes)
- no eyelets. The easiest rims to build with have stainless eyelets where the nipples seat. Very light rims cut all the corners in their quest for low weight and cheap rims cut the same corners to keep the cost down. As you just read above, I'm now loving nipple washers, which do just about the same job as eyelets.
Just about only Mavic and DT Swiss rims come with eyelets now.
- aluminum nipples. The standard are "brass". Aluminum ones are more fragile for spoke wrench work and thread lube and correct length spokes are crucial.
The ideal wheels for your first builds, taking everything into account, are -
- Good quality name brand rims with stainless eyelets (or nipple washers). Less and less rims are now coming with eyelets.
- 32 spokes per wheel. Ok, maybe 24/28 if you're under 190lb.
- 14/15 gauge double butted spokes. Sapim Race, DT Competition or Wheelsmith.
- Laced x3 all round. Maybe radial or 1x, 2x front and 3x or 2x rear for 28 or 32.
- Brass nipples.
I get lots of e-mails asking my opinon on what wheel parts are right for people. And that's ok; I don't mind at all. But please don't contact me with the question that starts with "Do you think I can get away with........." and the rest of the sentence will be some ridiculously low spoke numbers or a very light rim. Smoke comes out my ears when I read such stuff. The penalty for choosing too few spokes or too light a rim are cracked rim spoke holes, as less spokes have to do the same work as more spokes and lighter rims have less material in the nipple seat. Plus you have a set of hubs that now don't have enough holes for a heavier rebuild.
I don't know how few spokes you can get away and unless you have a pro racing contact you shouldn't care. But then you won't have to worry anyway as the correct wheels will be given to you for free.
Spoke tension meters
Let's mention spoke tension meters here. These are a tool, that when used with a cross-reference chart, allow us to gauge the tension of a spoke. Rims and their integrity are the limiting factor in how much tension we should place on a spoke even though rim tension figures are not easy to find.
In any wheelbuild, the lighter the rim, the thinner the spokes, the less the number of spokes, then the more that each spoke is contributing and the more that each spoke is relied on for wheel integrity. So then it follows that the building of the wheel will have to be more precise and the less room there is for error. It then follows that a tensiometer, and the information it provides, would be of more use here.
But light rims (sub 425grams maybe), thin spokes (DT Revolution/Sapim Lazer 2.0/1.5/2.0mm) and low spoke numbers (sub 32) are at the cutting edge of wheel technology and not the place where Newby wheelbuilders should be getting their start into the art. So let's learn to walk before we start to run. I stand behind the fact (I can prove it so it is a fact) that good wheels can be built without tensiometers but maybe even *I* would use one if I was building a 24 spoke wheel with Revolution spokes. This article is not about those kinds of wheels.
I personally do not own a tension meter and never have. But I don't build cutting edge, ultra light wheels with small numbers of spokes either. I gauge tension from experience - just like a mechanic, without the use of a torque wrench, gauges the tightness of a bolt. I'm not suggesting you don't need one or should not get one. I'm just living proof that good wheels can built without one and you can do it too. What's the basic definition of a "good" wheel? One where the spokes don't break, rims don't crack and nipples don't unscrew? My wheels fit those criteria without the use of a tention meter and always have, for decades.
An update!! Recently I was given a spoke tension meter by Ric Hjertberg of WheelFanatyk.com fame. I'm in the process of using it on all my wheels and evaluating it and my past wheel tensioning guesswork! It's interesting. More later!
I've now added a new page - about my new tensiometer. The article is the basis of a column I wrote for the weekly e-newsletter from RoadBikeRider.com
Here we go!
this point, choose what resource you're going to use to actually lace your
wheels. I'm not going to give you that information as I've explained my
stand on this before.
My Links section at the end give links to my favorite sites - Roger Musson's e-book and Sheldon Brown's site. There is also Jobst Brandt's wheelbuilding book.
Gerd Schraner's wheelbuilding book exists too but it's my least favorite. I own them all. Roger's e-book is the best IMO - by far.
Here are some important tips that Ive found over a lifetime of wheelbuilding. Some may be found in other literature on wheels and some may not.
Probably the most important thing to remember is not to rush your wheels. Go slowly and work with patience, care and passion. You can probably do a better job than some "professional" wheelbuilders as you have unlimited time to do a perfect job. Try to make your first wheel as perfect as possible. When you get experienced you will find ways to make building faster. If you're doing one or two sets of wheels per year like the average bike rider then what's an extra couple of hours?
Before you begin, assemble all your tools and supplies. I sit on a low stool with everything spread around me on the floor so I cant drop anything too far. You only need to put the wheels into the frame or wheelstand for final tensioning and truing. You have a long way to go before that stage.
Nipple seat lubrication - Take the Q-Tip or that 4" piece of spoke and screw a nipple onto it upside down. Dip the Q-Tip or nipple into grease and grease each nipple seat in the rim. This reduces friction for tensioning & truing. Or you can drop one drop of oil (any oil) down between the nipple where it sticks through the rim and the eyelet.
Spoke threads lubrication - Paint the threads of all the spokes with anti-seize compound. This allows you to easily re-true years down the road. That stuff is messy so be sparing and careful. If you don't want to buy anti-seize at least use grease or oil but it probably won't last as long as the anti-seize. Use something though. Don't build wheels with dry spoke threads.
Tip for using anti-seize compound - as it's quite messy, use as little of it as possible. Grab 4 spokes at once, paint the compound just on the threads (use the brush in the can or find a brush), roll the ends of all four spokes pinched gently in a rag. This leaves just the compound in the threads.
Please do not ever use LocTite, as properly tensioned wheels do not need gluing together. They are also hard to re-true. The spokes will tend to wind up instead of the nipples turning. It's correct spoke tension that holds wheels together, gives them their strength and prevents nipples from unscrewing.
Locktite - Yes I use blue locktite for some applications but the extremely small radius of the spoke cross section has a hard time resisting the torque required to overcome the drag imposed by the locktite on spoke threads. Thus, instead of the nipple turning on the spoke threads, the spoke tends to twist. This is called "spoke wind-up" and it results in incorrect tension - you THINK you tightened the nipple a 1/8th turn while in effect you twisted the spoke an 1/8th turn. When the wheel is stress relieved, this twist comes out and the wheel loosens off minutely.
Make sure you have your spokes in four groups or bunches. Place them on a piece of paper, marked with the wheel (f or r) and the side of the wheel (l or r) that they're meant for. Front spokes are sometimes the same lengths as non-drive rears but drive side rears are usually shorter. DO NOT MIX THEM UP!! Bring the bunch (16?) you're working with near to you and keep all the others away, still in their respective bunches.
Make sure the rim labels can be read from the right side of the bike and the hub names can be read from the rear of the bike and that tire valves come out between the parallel spokes. Why? Re-read my sentence on "Care and Passion" have pride in your wheels and try to do them as perfectly as possible. Those are the first things that Wheelbuilders look for when someone shows them a set of wheels and says "My first wheels, waddya think?"
With hollow rims it is easy to get nipples lost inside the rim. To make it easier to install nipples in some rims, screw one onto your 4" piece of spoke about two turns and poke it down through the rim hole. If you can do this with your fingers then do it as it's much quicker. Or use the sharpened Q-Tip for this. Cut one end off and sharpen it to a point. Jam the nipple onto that and stuff it in the rim hole going upwards as then gravity helps keep the nipple on the Q-Tip.
Apply masking tape to the rim at the valve hole. This gives you a frame of reference when going around the rim bringing spokes up to tension. ALWAYS start and stop at the valve hole and don't let anything disturb you or you'll lose your place. Ignore the phone and the doorbell; ship the kids out to Gramma's for a couple of days. Only stop if you smell smoke, see flames or the Swat team bursts in. Texting is strictly prohibited. Turn the damn cellphone off.
When screwing down the nipples, do everything EVENLY all the way around the wheel so you do not get the rim off center or get hops in it. I can't stress this important part enough.
One of the most important, fundamental things when building the wheel is to get the first spoke (the Key Spoke) into the correct location. All wheelbuilding literature stresses this step and it's very important to get it right. Put the rim over your head like a halo and look closely at the piece of rim opposite your eyes. Get the valve hole dead center. Look at the spoke holes on each side of it. Most are staggered ~ usually, one will be offset up and the other one down. They alternate like this all round the rim. Of course all the holes on one side of the rim go to the hub flange on that side.
There are some rims that are center drill and the spoke holes do not alternate left and right (or up and down!). If you find that, check this before you proceed -
Some rims might be drilled on the rim's centerline but they were probably drilled at an angle - and angled alternately towards each hub flange. This is usually quite subtle but nevertheless quite important. Check this way - look at the holes in the tire side of the rim - are they offset? If so, they are always offset opposite to the hub flange that they point at. But they are angled to that flange. Try this - look closely at the tire-side rim hole. Peer through the hole to the hub-side hole. Get the hub-side hole visually dead center in the tire-side hole. Eyeball it closely. The sight path, through the two holes, will point to one side of the rim or the other. This shows the correct path from rim to hub flange. They will alternate flanges.
Back to the key spoke. Make sure it's exactly where it's supposed to be - and that's usually the first 'up' hole to the left of the valve hole - depending on whose wheel lacing instructions you use.
Screw the nipples on about 2 turns this step is not crucial approx 2 turns is close enough but don't do it more than 4 or you might not get the final few nipples on. I just give four twists with finger & thumb. When you have all the nipples on double check the lacing. Make sure both sides have the same # of crosses!! and that all the spokes are over or under where they are supposed to be. With your modified Phillips screwdriver, screw all nipples down until 1/8" of thread remains. Now take them all down until two threads remain and then once again until all threads JUST vanish inside the nipple. Stop here and take a breather.
DO NOT RUSH or cut short the above step as it is your only means of making sure all the nipples area screwed down evenly. It ensures a hub centered perfectly in the rim.
From this point on you have NO FRAME OF REFERENCE of how much the nipples are screwed down relative to each other when tensioning. You must do everything evenly until you come to final equalizing and truing. Make sure from now on that you count spoke wrench turns or fractions of a turn. Example: If you turn the wrench ¼ of a turn for one nipple make sure you turn all other nipples the same.
Lay the wheel in your lap. Start tensioning the wheels by tightening the nipples 1 turn each. Go around once. If they are still mostly loose, go around again with another turn. If some were getting tight then go with ½ or ¼ turn all round next time. Remember to keep the turns even for one whole revolution of the rim!! It's far better to go round 5x doing half turns than to go round once doing two turns and then find out you can't get two turns out of the last few spokes. Ignore this advice at your peril. If you have the correct length spokes you will probably have to go around about four to six times. Don't get bored and rush the process - just do one nipple turn per round. Chill out man, this is your apprenticeship.
Rules of thumb for nipple tightening -
Make sure the wrench is good quality, of the right size and it's worn out. It's easy to round nipples off if you're unlucky.
Make sure the wrench is full seated on the nipple.
Initial tensioning (until you have some tension on the spokes) - go around one whole rim revolution doing one turn of the nipple (do not rush and do two!).
When you have some tension on some of the spokes go to 1/2 turns of the wrench.
When you have lots of tension on all the spokes go to 1/4 turns and eventually 1/8 turns.
For truing and dishing, use 1/2 turns maximum and maybe down to 1/8 turns.
Failure to follow the above can get you in a whole pile of trouble.
I just gave this advice to a forum wheelbuiling Newby who was having doubts about doing the job - "Your first build will be fine and over confidence is probably the least desirable trait for a Newby Wheebuilder. Tread lightly, take breaks, go slow (no, VERY slow) and don't accept mediocrity. If things get screwed up, just back all nipples off to "one thread showing" and start again. The experienced gained from doing this is well worth the bit of extra time."
It's very important to do everything even and if you're anything like me you drop the ol' spoke wrench once in a while. So you bend down to pick it up and you've forgotten where you were on the wheel. Now waddya do? Well........I keep an extra spoke wrench in my pocket for such times and I never let go of the spoke I'm working on. The cheap way is to keep a piece of tape handy and before you bend down to pick up the wrench, just stick the tape to the last spoke you tightened. Dead simple eh? Whatever method you use don't forget the last spoke you turned, the number of turns you were doing and the direction in which you were going.
Here's a good tip that was given to me at MTBR.com - get two colored clothes pins, a red and a green and if you have to leave the wheel, place the red one on the last spoke you worked on and the green on the next spoke in the direction of travel that you were going. Hopefully you always go the same way around the wheel. I go clockwise - all the time.
Tip Time again - (full of 'em aren't I?).
Take a few seconds to truly analyze which way the nipple screws onto the spoke. We all know nuts screw onto bolts clockwise but many people, when they are screwing nipples onto spokes, forget which way everything is oriented. If you get a few directions right and then a few wrong (through losing concentration) you're really in a big mess. The only way to fix it is to loosen all the nipples off and start right from scratch. So.............nipples tighten clockwise but only when you're looking at the end of the spoke. Sit and contemplate this for a while. After you're done contemplating -
All Newbie wheelbuilders get excited and
want to ride the wheels that they are building so they start to rush and cut corners.
Taking down all the nipples by very small amounts and doing this evenly is
consuming. You guys all wanna rush this stage and try those babies, right? I
Before you even start, get on the bike and ride for two hours sooooo hard that you can't ride again for two days. Ok, Buster, back to the reading; coffee break's over.
...........Then, after ALL the dire warnings above, I see this post on a forum - "Well Mike, you described me to a tee in your wheel building write up. I was way to [sic] eager to get er done. Should have went [sic] for a ride first like the article suggested. I pulled the whole wheel apart and relaced it. This time taking a little more time and it came out great."
And then one poster offered up this pithy nugget -
is no substitute for taking your time and avoiding short cuts"
Spoke Twist, or Spoke Wind-up and its relief.
- or, two steps forward and one step back.
When we're tensioning and truing wheels, the phenomenon that we have to be very aware of is "spoke twist" or "spoke wind-up". As the tension of the spokes gets tighter, the pressure and friction within the threads increases greatly and it eventually overcomes the spoke's ability to resist twisting - so instead of the nipple turning on the spoke threads, the spoke itself twists until the torsional resistance of the spoke overcomes the friction, and the nipple itself turns on the threads. This can be about a ¼ twist of the spoke.
The thinner the spoke, the lower the spoke’s resistance to twisting and this is why it's much harder to build wheels with skinny center section spokes like Sapim Laser and DT Revolution. The resistance to twist of the 1.5mm centers is far less than the 2.0mm thickness of plain gauge spokes or the 1.8mm centers of normal butted spokes. With Lasers, the spoke can twist up to about a ¼ of a turn, maybe even more, without the nipple moving on its threads at all. So you think you tightened a spoke a ¼ turn and when it stress-relieves itself on the first ride (if you don't remove the twist while building the wheel!) the spoke unwinds back to normal and your once-true wheel isn't true anymore. Multiply this by up to all the spokes in the wheel and you have a potential wheelbuilding disaster.
So first we have to be aware that spoke twist exists, then we have to identify it (see it or feel it - more on this later) and then we have to remove it.
How to identify spoke twist – tape flags.
You can stick simple masking-tape or electrical tape flags to each spoke. You now have a visual indicator of exactly what's happening. When the spoke twists, the flag moves! In time, as you gain experience, you won't have to use spoke flags and allowing for spoke twist will be a subconscious act.
We turn the wrench, the spoke twists and then stops twisting. From here we add the intended amount of tightening to the spoke.
Here are photos showing flags and spoke twist –Photo 1 – The starting point. Flag at 90 degrees to the rim axis. It doesn't matter which way the spoke wrench points.
Photo 2 – Flag stops turning, This is a 1/5th twist in the spoke. The nipple now starts turning on the spoke
Photo 3 – A ½ turn of the wrench & nipple past where the twist stopped.
Photo 4 – The 1/5th twist is removed.
We're now left with a net of 1/2 a turn of actual spoke tightening.
How to identify spoke twist - by feel.
Once you have experience with twist you might want to eliminate the flags. The next best method to use is the Tactile Sensation method (hey, that's fancy words for "feel"). Grab the spoke just above the wrench and you can feel the actual twist starting and stopping. Deal with it just as you would with tape flags.
How to totally prevent spoke twist!
Here we have the Newby Beginner Wheelbuilder's dream - zero twist! All we need are a set of Sapim CX-Ray spokes and the dedicated spoke holder. The flattened aero spoke fits into the slot in the tool and all twist is totally prevented. But, that all comes at a cost (surprise!) - CX-Rays are about $3 per spoke (normal spokes are about $1) and the tool is around $20 but you can make something yourself.
Keep going with this until you have a fair amount (judgment-call time!) of tension in the wheels. Start to work on trueness and dish at this time. Bbefore you get too much tension on the spokes. Don't be concerned that some nipples turn easier than others or some spokes are looser or tighter - they will all even out soon. If you've followed all the above advice you're doing just fine.
At this point you should be reading someone else's resources on tensioning and trueing. It's too big of a topic for me to cover on my site. The very best resource is Roger Musson's downloadable e-book.
This is my favorite part of wheelbuilding (apart from the first ride after they have been built) and I put a lot of effort into trying for perfection here.
Here I am showing care and true passion while relieving my own personal stress at the same time -
Spokes, when they are first tensioned, tend to straighten out and bed into the soft alloy of the hub flanges. We want to take all that stuff out of them while we are doing the actual building. If we dont, they will continue to stretch, straighten and bed on our first few rides and they will slacken off and allow the wheel to go out of true. I've seen wheels loosen off so bad (not mine of course!) during their first ride that they were unridable.
Also when we build, we "wind up" the spokes (impart a twist into them) due to turning the nipples and the thread friction. Thread lubrication lessesns this. This wind-up must be eliminated and it was coverd above. Stress relief, below, especially Step 5, will eliminate any windup left over.
There are six techniques that achieve the above three steps of pre-stretching, removing wind-up, relieving stresses and bedding. Each separate method achieves more than one effect so I will lump them all together under the name - Optimising.
Optimising your spokes -
Method 1. Perform this once only, just after you have got a fair amount of tension in the wheels. Where the "heads in" spokes exit the hubs take the plastic tipped hammer and tap the spoke bend a little flatter. This does not take much effort. You can also use your thumb to flatten this curve when lacing these "heads in" spokes. They will reach the rim easier and better. You're actually bending the spoke where it exits the hub. You need to do this so that the spoke contains no residual tension due to this curve. Verrrry important!
Here is a pic of two spokes - one, a head-out spoke that doesn't need the neck angle setting and the other, a head-in spoke that needs the neck angle setting. You can see the difference in the bends after they have been laced into a wheel, the angle set and wheel tensioned.
Method 2. Perform this after every "round" of truing or tensioning. Grasp parallel pairs of spokes on each side one pair in each hand - while wearing leather gloves and squeeze them in the hands as hard as you can. Go all around the wheel once.
Method 3. Perform once. Take the screwdriver handle and slightly twist the final spoke crosses around each other. Be gentle here. Place the screwdriver handle in the final cross and above it, press down slightly and twist the two spokes around each other. This is not really a "twist" but just a slight, very slight bending. The spokes will do this themselves if you don't do it but then they might lose a minute bit of tension too.
Method 4. Do this after each "round" of added tension - press down into the final spoke crossing, from the rim side of the cross, towards the hub. I use an old screwdriver handle for this (it's my nipple driver above). Use a screwdriver handle, an old LH crank or a wooden dowel (like a 6" piece of old broom handle).
Method 5. Do this once after you have a fair amount of tension on the spokes. Take a thin punch and a hammer. Tap the head of each spoke to seat the head squarely in the hub flange. I said "tap"................not "pound the shit out of". We're just seating the head in the flange and aligning the head.
Method 6. Place wheel flat on floor with the rim part nearest to you touching the floor. A piece of cardboard or carpet will prevent the QR from scratches. With hands at 9 & 3 o'clock, press down gently but firmly and quickly. Rotate wheel 1/8th turn & repeat for one full turn of the wheel. Turn wheel over and repeat. The pings you hear are spokes unwinding. But if you have identified and removed all twist, as outlined above in the section "Spoke Twist......" there shouldn't be any left. Check for true afterwards. Repeat this after each stage or "round". You can't repeat this one too often.
People on forums debate and argue every day about some or all of the methods above. It gets really boring. I don't care which one is the "best" or what scientific function it provides. I just do them all. If I could find an angel to kiss them I'd do that too.
Wheelbuilder Eric (Ergott) from RBR.com came up with this beaut of a quote - "I don't care about the physics of it. What I do makes the wheels stay true for a long time."
Method 2 above is the only step that most
wheelbuilders perform. Even pro builders. I have the time to use all
of the above methods which amount to maybe another five minutes in a whole
wheelbuild. They give me great peace of mind that I've done everything in
my knowledge and power to optimize the wheel integrity.
When you have some degree of tension in the wheels (judgment call here), place the wheels in the frame, fork or stand and check and adjust the 'dish'. Do this before you get a lot of tension into the wheel.
DISH "centering of the rim between the hub locknuts". What you're actually doing is centering the rim on the center line of the bike - a worthy goal eh?
Wheels must run along the same line as the centerline of the bike's frame. The middle of the axle (or really half way between the axle locknuts) is the center line of the frame. But hub flanges aren't equidistant from the locknuts due to the space need by the cassette and disc brake rotors. Take a close look at a hub and you will see what I mean. Your rim will not necessarily be centered between the hub's flanges - this will happen only on non-disc front wheels and some single speed rear wheels.
To achieve Dish, some spokes (gear or disc side) will be more upright than the non drive side or disc side spokes. Those more upright spokes will have more tension due to their lower pulling angle. There is nothing wrong with this. It's normal on all wheels except non disc brake front wheels.
Measure with the inside calipers from rim wall to stay or blade or flip-flop the wheel in the stand and take two measurements from one side. Slacken all the spokes on one side of the wheel 1/4 turn and tighten an equal 1/4 turn on all spokes on the other side. This will move the rim over. Repeat until centering is really close. Use 1/8 turns if necessary.
Dish is a scary thing to many newby wheelbuilders. Why, I have no idea. All rims on all wheels have to be centered between the hub locknuts and that's all you're doing when you 'dish' a wheel.
Begin to true the wheels. Check Roger's e-book, Sheldon Brown's site, Jobst Brandt's book or Park Tool's site (references below) for the fine details of truing. Work on wobbles from each side of the wheel alternately. Hold a screwdriver against the stay or blade and let the rim scrape it to indicate the high spots. Move the screwdriver away until you just get a slight zing - this is the apex of the high spot. If it's a big high spot, loosen about three spokes on either side of it. Radiate outwards from it in lesser amounts of turning. Say do a ¼ turn at the apex spoke, half that on the spoke either side of it and half that again on the two further away. Sure you can't measure this but just be aware of doing it lesser and lesser as you move outwards. Make damn sure you always working on the spokes on the correct side of the rim!!! Make sure you turn the nipples the right way!
Check for out of round hops. If you took my advice at the start to screw all nipples down evenly then there will be no major hops. Minor ones can be ignored. I don't bother about 1mm hops but others might.
When you have trued, stress relieved and bedded the spokes and you are getting to what you consider to be the end of the process (another judgment call) then you need to "tune" the spokes. This tells you the relative tension (see the box below) of all the spokes to each other. Obviously each spoke should be the same tension as all the others so that they all bear the same stress. Equal musical pitch equals equal tension! So pluck the spokes halfway along their length and adjust as necessary. Just make sure ping equals ping instead of pong. BTW non-drive side spokes will be less tension than drive side spokes so do not compare the two sides. Front disc brake wheels will be different side to side too. Best not compare any side with another side.
When the spokes are tuned, then go back to truing and stress relieving and keep working back and forth until you cannot make the wheels any better. Only tune once though as the act of truing the wheels will make some spokes have slightly different tension. This is unavoidable and normal as no rims or spoke gauges are perfect.
Tension probably the hardest part of wheelbuilding (for me anyway) is deciding how much tension is enough. Oh, sure there are expensive tension meters on the market built specially for this job but millions of wheels have been built successfully over the last hundred years without them. Many of us use our experience to judge tension with great results. Probably the best thing to do is to squeeze pairs of spokes on known good wheels (try expensive bikes at the bike shop) and commit the feel to memory.
When we talk about 'tension' in bike wheels, it takes two forms -
1. Final tension - A bike wheel is arguably the strongest structure in the world and spoke tension is the stuff that gives the wheel its enormous strength. The final tension must be adequate to prevent the wheels from flexing too much in use. This flexing, which leads to spokes suffering great swings of tension as the wheels rotate and the spokes are loaded and unloaded, is what makes the metal of spokes fatigue and break - usually at the elbow. The tighter the spoke, the less the tension fluctuation. But the tension must be within the rim's ability to support and absorb that tension. Too much tension leads to rim cracking at the spoke eyelets. It's really impossible to over tension good spokes as the rim is the weak spot in the system. Spokes, in a correctly tensioned wheel, are at about 2/3rd of their yeild strength.
2. Equal tension - the goal is to have all the spokes in a wheel at the same tension so that they each share the same amount of strain. It's pointless to have only some of the spokes doing most of the work. That makes them fatigue faster. We can check even tension with a tensiometer or with the very efficient, accurate and quick "pluck" method described above.
It is almost impossible to get too much tension to the point where things start to break or crack. Just be reasonable here. When you think you have enough tension then you probably have. Spoke makers have a big range for their spokes' recommended tensions and rim makers' suggested tensions are probably a touch on the low side (for their liability!) so there is a good chance you will be within that range. My final tensioning is usually down to 1/8th turns or less. Do not concern yourself with the differences between drive side and non drive side tensions - or side to side differences in disc brake wheels which are dished too - the differences will be what they have to be to allow the dish to happen.
As a new wheelbuilder you should get into the habit of squeezing parallel pairs of spokes on almost all wheels you come across. Do it on new bikes in bike shops and on your own and friends' wheels. You will soon gain an appreciation for all levels of spoke tensions - both good and bad. It won't take you long to form an opinion of what you consider good and bad tension.
Eventually you will not be able to improve the wheels at all. That is the time to wipe off all the grease (I use disc brake Isopropyl Alcohol), mount the rim tapes, tires, tubes and cassette and go for a ride to marvel in the wonder of how such fragile individual parts have the combined ability to hold up so much weight.
Ready built wheels
Recently we have seen a big upsurge in ready built mailorder wheels that use "normal" parts (I'm not talking "boutique" wheels here). The prices on these wheelsets are usually much lower than we can buy the component parts for. I guess by buying and selling in large volumes they can get the parts at great prices and sell competitively priced wheelsets. I recently bought a set of these wheels and the whole wheelset cost me $200 less than I could buy just the hubs, rims and spokes for at normal mailorder places. Tough to beat even for me who's built my own wheels for decades.
The last few years have seen the wheel market flooded with ready-built wheels from the two biggest bike parts makers and many wheel specialist houses. All these wheels are easily identified from a distance by their colors, spoking patterns and rim profiles. We get a proliferation of reduced spokes, paired spokes and triple spokes and every visual combination in between. These wheelsets all come with great claims about the benefits of their creativity.
While the high-priced advertising that accompanies these wheels would have us believe differently, there is nothing magic about fewer spokes and spokes arranged in fancy groups. A wheel has to support x amount of weight no matter how many spokes it has and if there are less spokes then those spokes have to share a bigger load than if there were the normal amount of spokes (32 is normal). That isn't rocket science. It's fact.
Also, if there are large amounts of rim without any spokes (check the paired and tripled spoke wheels!) then the unsupported rim has to be stronger (heavier) than the same section of rim supported by more spokes.
When one spoke breaks in a low spoked wheel it will go much further out of true than a normal spoke wheel - so much so that it could be unridable.
So what we have here are not lighter, stronger or magic wheels. We just have wheels that are visually different. And that, my friends, is an advertiser's dream.
These wheelsets are standard for all low to high-end factory bikes. It must be far better for a bike company to order up a boxcar of prebuilt wheels than to employ many wheelbuilders and stock a fortune in rims, hubs and spokes - and have to do the warranty on the returns. But we the consumer suffer. We get wheelsets where the LBS doesn't stock replacement parts. We get wheelsts that quite often, have to be returned to the wheelset factory for repair. This usually takes many weeks.
Oh yes, one more thing. If you think these boutique wheels are great, just check the price and availability of those fancy spokes that hold them together. They're spokes specially made for those wheels. You'll get a shock when you ask the bike shop for a couple of spares - or worse still - ask if they can fix a broken spoke wheel for Sunday's ride. Check on the availability and cost of a replacement rim too. The chances of a replacement spoke being in stock is close to zero and the chances of a replacement rim is an almost certain zero. With "normal" wheels you'll be out the door with a $0.75 spoke in your hand and with this guide, be able to fix it yourself in about five minutes.
If found this gem recently at RoadBikeReview -
Poster - "I broke a spoke on a Shimano C50 wheel less then a week and about 100 miles into them. Shimano told me to just send the wheel to them and they will repair, or replace the wheel and send it back. Except that it would take 2-3 weeks for the whole thing. Instead I chose to have my LBS repair the wheel for $30, took 5 days to get the parts."
My Response - "This is the reason why lots of us prefer hand-built wheels with normal $0.50 ~ $3.00 spokes, available at any real bike shop (or from my home stash) that can be installed by anyone who knows how to use a spoke wrench and tune a wheel in minutes. If that doesn't put you off buying pre-made boutique wheels then at least you'll be doing it with eyes wide open and you won't get a big surprise if you break a spoke."
Also at RoadBikeReview, a fellow's LBS returned a K-word wheel to the factory for a replacement rim under warranty. The wheel was gone for 5 weeks. Do you have a plan in place for dealing with that?
After you have built your new wheels and before you jet off down the road to test your handiwork, there is a very important adjustment that you should make.
Because all rear hub and cassette specifications & tolerances are slightly different, the adjustment for the rear derailer low gear (the biggest cog) adjustment should be checked every time another rear wheel, cassette, rear derailer or derailer hanger is installed.
Also, it's a good habit to make this check every time the bike has fallen on its right side (derailer side) and every time the bike is cleaned.
It is extremely important that this adjustment is checked and changed, if necessary, to prevent the chain being derailed over the top of the cassette.
If this happens, this is the damage that could occur -
1. Chewed up spokes to the point that their replacement is needed.
2. Derailer goes into the spokes and gets dragged around by the wheel thus wrecking the derailer and the spokes.
3. Bent derailer hanger (replacement needed).
4. Bent frame dropout (frame replacement needed).
It's a good habit to get into that this adjustment is checked every time you're working around the derailer, cassette for any reason.
Very good sources for this adjustment information are these places -
1. The product information sheet that comes with a new derailer.
2. The website of your derailer's maker.
3. The Park Tool website - http://www.parktool.com/blog/repair-help/rear-derailler-adjustments-derailleur
**Do not use any of this information for electric shifting systems. Check with the maker's instructions**
Park Tool suggest not using the shift levers when making this check but by pulling down on the bare gear cable alongside the downtube. This takes any shifter indexing issues out of the equation. Indexing adjustments must come after high and low gear stop adjustments. I go one step further and here is my big tip for you -
Shift the rear derailer into the next to biggest rear cog.
As per the photograph below, grip the derailer top pivot knuckle with your first three fingers of your left hand.
Push the lower derailer pivot knuckle with your thumb, while rotating the crank with your right hand, thus shifting the chain onto the biggest cog.
Push as hard as you can and try to shift the chain over the top of the cassette.
If the chain goes over, get it back on the 2nd biggest cog and adjust the low gear derailer stop screw by 1/4 turn (screw it inwards ~ clockwise) until the chain won't go over the top. Check it a few times. Push like crazy.
Perform Park Tools' cable-pull check - from their site link above. After all of the above, the important low gear adjustment is taken care of. Now check out the rest of the derailer adjustments -
Adjust the high gear (smallest cog) derailer stop screw (as per the Park Tool instructions also).
Perform the derailer shifting index checks and adjustments (as per the Park Tool instructions).
You're now confident that a badly adjusted derailer will not ruin your new rear wheel (and worse).
Here's the damage caused by the chain going into the spokes -
Which way do we turn those &^%$ nipples?
Most newby wheelbuilders have the issue of which way to turn the nipple. As you will realize from the wheelbuilding tips above, we must know which way to turn nipples and we must not forget and turn one the wrong way. If we do, and don't correct the mistake immediately, then we're sunk and the spokes' tensions will be all out of whack. Let's take a few minutes to cement forever into our brains what it is that we're trying to do.
Grab a spoke and a nipple and look at it. It's really just a long skinny bolt and a tiny nut isn't it? Push the nipple onto the spoke (don't screw it on yet). The threads don't come all the way from top to bottom of the nipple so the spoke goes up inside the nipple about 4mm before it even meets any threads. About 6mm of threads will be sticking out of the nipple.
Twist the nipple onto the spoke. It has a normal right-handed thread, just like a normal bolt & nut. So the term "tighty-righty & lefty-loosey" fits. But that all depends where you're standing, relative to the spoke's end doesn't it? And this is where most newbs come undone when screwing nipples onto spokes. So spend a bit of time here to figure it all out for yourself on just how the nipple screws onto the spoke. It won't be time wasted. Hold the bend pointing away from you and screw the nipple on and then hold the spoke with the bend pointing towards you and screw the nipple on. The nipple screws on "the other way" doesn't it? You'll understand this when you start turning nipples when the wheel is in the stand or the bike frame.
When we screw a nipple onto a spoke were making the spoke's effective length (j-bend to nipple seat) shorter. As we screw the nipple off the spoke we're making the spoke's effective length longer. The distance from the j-bend to the nipple seat (the 45 degree bit between the shaft and the head) is the length we're concerned with when we're tensioning and truing wheels. Read that last sentence 3x.
Make that distance shorter and we exert pressure on the rim. Make that distance longer and we remove pressure from the rim. Read that one 3x too. This is the whole basic concept of wheel tensioning and truing.
To remove a wobble we must move the rim over at the point of the wobble. To do this we most loosen one spoke at the height of the wobble and tighten another at the low point of the wobble. But a wobble is not just at, or caused by one spoke being too tight or too loose - it's a few spokes. And the high spot or apex of the wobble tapers off until there is no wobble. So we must loosen and tighten spokes for the length of the wobble and we do this more at the wobble's high point and feather it out less towards the end of the wobble. So we might use these fractions of a turn on each side of the wobble (both loosening and tightening!) - 1/2, 1/4, 1/8th. We're working on two sides of the rim and on both sides of the wobbles apex. Confusing? Not really if you sit and think about it for a minute before diving in at the deep end.
So this is why it's imperative to know which way a nipple screws onto a spoke and what that action causes. Get it right an wheelbuilding is easy; get it wrong and you'll wish you had never started.
Eventually the day will come that you break a spoke. It's an easy job to replace a spoke and doing it yourself gets you back on the road or trail quickly without having to wait for the bike shop to get around to it. For the price of a $0.75 spoke and five to fifteen minutes of work you can be back riding quickly. Drive side rear spokes are a bit more involved as the cassette (or freewheel) has to be removed and replaced. That's not much of a job if you have the tools (a chain whip and a lockring remover). Of course, bikes with disc brakes will need the rotor removed.
For the instructions for this job, go to the Park Tool site - http://www.parktool.com/repair/readhowto.asp?id=48 and scroll down to "Cassette Cog Lockring Removal and Installation". Most bikes have "cassette" rear gear clusters. If you have the old style "freewheel" you will find the info for that too.
Most spokes break at the bend. Unscrew the remaining piece of spoke out of the nipple and take it along to the bike shop or if you're anything like me, just compare its length to your stash of extra spokes. Get a spoke of the same length, making sure that the broken piece gets accounted for. This is important as spoke length to +/-1mm is important.
With the new spoke in hand, pass it through the hub flange making sure that its head is facing the opposite way to the other spokes on each side of it! Think about that! Spoke heads alternate on each side of the flange so yours needs to be opposite to those on either side.
Check the next spoke in the flange that heads in the direction that this new spoke is going to head (from hole to nipple). You will see that this other spoke probably passes over two other spokes and under the third one (with x3 wheels). Make your new spoke do the same thing. You will have to bend the spoke slightly to get it to wind in and out of the other spokes. This is ok; just don't kink it. Don't scratch the rim either! Put a piece of masking tape on the new spoke so that when tensioning and truing, you won't forget which one it is. That's a very important tip as all spokes look alike.
Thread it into the nipple (after lubing its threads). Think about which way the nipple will have to be turned for this. A nipple is no more than a nut screwing onto the end of a bolt. Tighten the nipple until you get some tension in the spoke. To get its tension equal to those around it (not a bad idea eh!) start plucking the two spokes on either side of it and get its tone to match the other spokes. When this is done, true the wheel as per normal wheel truing instructions. Don't forget to Stress Relieve!
Most spokes break from them being undertensioned. This leads to metal fatigue. I'd suggest checking the tension of all the spokes in the wheel.
It could be that other spokes in the undertensioned wheel are fatigued too. If you break one or two more in that wheel it should be rebuilt with new spokes and sufficient (and even!) tension.
Replacing wheel components
Eventually the question arises - "Can I change my rims (or spokes, or hubs, or nipples)?"
And the answer is, of course you can if you follow this advice -
Anything in a wheelset can be replaced and doing so involves a complete wheel re-build. Whether other pieces of the wheel need to be changed at the same time depends on a few factors -
Changing rims - yes you can install new rims. And you can re-use the same hubs. You can use the same spokes if the ERD of the new rim is exactly the same as the old one. The only way you will know will be to measure it yourself. Trust no-one else. But unless you can buy the exact same model rim, you probably won't find one with the same ERD - and even then, some rims get updated and the specs change. Don't assume anything - measure!
It's possible to tape the new rim to the old rim and move the spokes over. Don't try to re-tension each spoke as it is moved. Switch all of them and then re-tension & true the wheel as a whole. Make sure you get left spokes going to left spoke holes.....yada-yada.
Changing hubs - yes you can install new hubs. You can use the same spokes if the critical dimensions of the new hub is exactly the same as the old one. The only way you will know will be to measure it yourself. Trust no-one else.
But, as the rim ERD and the hub dimensions have to be the same when switching those parts, if you want to re-use the old spokes, it's probably best to just buy new spokes. Then, finding new parts with the same dimensions of the old parts doesn't matter.
Changing spokes - yes you can install new spokes and you can re-use the same hubs and rims. You must determine whether the old spokes were the correct length for the wheel. You probably have 2-3 different lengths of spokes in the old wheels.
Changing nipples - yes you can change nipples. Make sure you get the right gauge and length.
This assumes that the remaining wheel parts are worth re-using. Evaluate the remaining parts (the info should be in the piece on wheelset evaluation above).
All the information needed to measure ERD, hub dimensions and determine perfect spoke length has already been covered on this site.
Tubeless Ready (or Tubeless Compatible) Rims & Tires.
When you're rim shopping you're going to run into the terms "Tubeless Ready" or "Tubeless Compatible" and probably you're going to be confused as to what this means or whether this is what you should be buying. I'm not an expert on this but this is the info I know at this time. I'll update this section as I learn more.
For a few short years, we've been able to buy wheelsets or rims with a "tubeless ready" designation. What does this mean? Let's get this out of the way first - there are four main types of rims and tires on bicycles today -
1. Tubular tires and rims. (Don't confuse this with "tubeless"). This is what almost all top racing cyclists use and have for a hundred years. The edges of the tire are literally sewn together and the tire contains an inner-tube. A base tape protects the sewing threads and allows us to glue the tire to a special tubular tire rim. If you need a better explanation than this basic one, Google the topic. All of us "sporty" cyclists used them years ago (until about 1980'ish) as there were no good light "clincher" tires on the market. When they came on the scene, almost all of us, except the top racers, switched. Fitting, glueing and repairing tubulars was too much of a hassle for us.
2. Clincher tires and rims. This is the normal u-shaped tire that needs an inner-tube and a rim with hook flanges to hold the tire from blowing off the rim. Almost all bikes have this system.
3. Tubeless tires and rims. This is what the family car uses. In 2006, Shimano (wheelset maker) and Hutchinson tires colaborated to make & market a true tubeless rim & tire system for high-end bikes. This required a rim with no spoke holes through the inner wall. It still exists but it never caught on. The concept of "no inner-tube" stayed with us in this next form - .
4. Tubeless Ready or Tubeless Compatible tires and rims. This was the next step. The rim does have spoke holes through the inner wall and these must be sealed by a special rim tape. The tire must be non-porus and must hold air pressure. The flanges of the rim need a special hooked bead to hold the tire on. The tire & rim interior needs sealing with a special fluid that is installed during tire fitting. The fluid seals small punctures and seals the tire bead.
Normal tires can be used on these Tubeless-ready rims but you MUST use an inner-tube and then the setup works just like a normal Clincher rim setup (#2 above).
For tubeless operation, Tubeless Ready tires MUST be used and they must be sealed with the special sealing fluid. No exceptions here.
I'm not going to go into the benefits of each system - and there are benefits to each one and you must decide what system is best for you. Google the issues. I have strong opinions on each one but I'll try my best not to let them show here. I'll try just to give straight "info" but my own choice might shine through.
Tubeless - (true tubeless! see above) - very little choice in rims and tires.
Tubeless ready - lots of rim choices. Almost all of them are the "new" wider 23mm rim width (normal clincher rims are usually 19mm). They all have special hooked flanges to hold the tire from blowing off the rim during inflation. They must be sealed with special thin rim tape (Stan's or Pacenti are two well known ones). Tubeless Ready tires - not many choices and most tire makers don't seem to be jumping on the bandwagon like the rim makers are. Hutchinson is the main one and there are maybe 1-2 more. They must be sealed with a special fluid that is injected just before the last 6" of tire installation. They fit quite tight on the rim. During installation, large volumes of air are needed to get the tire beads to seat. You can only seat the beads with air pressure. You either use a compressor or, if lucky, a normal floor pump. The fluid will seal most small punctures. For large ones (torn sidewalls, large holes etc) you must install an inner tube that you will carry with you (if you're smart!) and you then ride home on a normal Clincher tire arrangement.
As the tires fit quite tight on the tubless compatible rims, they tend to be harder to install & remove than most normal clinchers. I use the terms "tend" and "most" as there are no definites here as rim and tire specs vary. If you go the tubeless-ready route, I would strongly advise you to practise removing a tire, installing a tube and re-installing the tire. You might get quite a surprise of you have to do this out on the road and some less-strong people and those with low tire skills might not be able to do it. Decide what you are going to do about this before you are stranded on the road.
Tubeless ready rims and normal clincher tires - if you want to buy 23mm wide rims (compared to the normal 19mm rims), so far, your only choices are "tubeless ready" rims. It's fine to use normal tires and tubes on these rims BUT - tire removal and replacement will probably be much harder than with 19mm rims. Again, practise at home before you get a big shock out on the highway.
My personal findings - for many years I've used normal 19mm wide rims and normal clincher tires (I use 25mm tires). I can remove and replace all my tires on all my rims just by using fingers, with very little effort. I don't use tire levers. Recently I built up a set of wheels with wider 23mm rims (24mm actually) as an experiment and the tire installation difference was like night & day. I find it a struggle to remove the tires even with a tire lever. I refuse to use a lever for installing the tires as this greatly increses the chance of pinching a tube (thus putting a hole in it).
I wish someone would come out with a 23mm wide rim that was not tubeless compatible.
In conclusion - research what tire and rim system is best for your needs. Read up on tire removal and installation and flat tire repair. Practise all this in the comfort of home - NOT out on the road.
More to come as I learn more, I'm sure..................
Rim widths and Tire widths
- this section to come next.
References & Links -
Wheel parts for "build 'em yourself" wheels - Brandon's Bike Hub Store -
Wheel Fanatyk - Eric is more wheel passionate than *I* am!! See the tools he sells! Read his blog and his library!
WheelPro - the best wheelbuilding info resource I've found. Get an e-copy -
For the physical act of wheelbuilding try Sheldon Brown’s free website -
Park Tool wheel truing info -
WheelPro - A really good spoke length calculator. Very easy to use -
Tuning spokes by ear. An interesting site -
Get Sapim spokes here too -
Paul Morningstar, the tool inventor -
Here is a low budget but highly effective wheel truing stand for you - find yourself an old fork (mtb, road, it doesn't matter) and clamp it in a bench vise. You don't have a vise? Well GET one! They're cheap from tool discount houses or hardware type places. If you don't have a workbench then bolt it to a 24" square piece of plywood. Then you have a fine portable workbench cum wheel stand! You could even sit this rig on Momma's dining room table.
Attach a couple of zipties and snip them off a 1/4" longer than the leg to rim distance. These indicate the wobbles. I much prefer a screwdriver held against the fork leg though.
Forks are for 100mm front hubs so if you want to use it for 120 - 135mm rear hubs just mount the hub outside of one of the legs! This one legged approach is no different than a popular wheelstand on the market! Google Image "ultimate wheel truing" and see what I mean.
To center or dish the rim just flip-flop the wheel in the stand. No need for a factory dishing gauge! Get both sides equal to one of the zipties.
What could be easier and cheaper? Answer - nothing.
An ingenious wheel truing stand
This stand was sent to me by Roger Musson of WheelPro fame. Roger had these made by a cabinet maker for his wheelbuilding classes and usually the students bought them after the class. This stand works as well as anything on the market. Information on this stand and how to use the gauges are in Roger's wheelbuilding e-book.
The wheel truing table was made by me. The edging wood is cherry.
This section is to help you evaluate the condition and properties of a wheelset - either one you intend to buy (used or new) or your own current wheels with the thought of whether they need to be replaced or not. Many wheel problem are subtle and quite hard to spot. You are much better armed if you look at the wheels knowing just what details to look for.
Let's start with the hubs.
Hubs - they come in two main types - loose ball bearing type (example - Shimano) and cartridge bearing types (example - almost everything else).
The main things that can go wrong with hubs are -
Worn out bearings or badly adjusted bearings (loose ball only for this last one). Grip the axle end and spin the wheel. Feels rumbly or gritty?
That's either caused by worn out bearings (cartridge bearing hubs) or worn out or badly adjusted loose bearing hubs. With the former, the bearing cartridges need replacing and with the latter the bearings need adjusting or the cups/cones/balls are worn out. The only way to know is to strip the hub and look. Check the cones and cups very carefully after they have been cleaned. A thin grey line is fine, pitting is not. The ball bearings can become pitted too.
Worn & pitted cups can't be replaced in Shimano hubs and the hub is junk (they usually can be replaced on Campagnolo). Cones and balls can be replaced if you can source them. Clean and re-lube while the hub is apart and re-adjust properly. Getting the cones too tight will lead to early wear on cones, balls and cups. You must know how to do this correctly. A VERY tiny bit of axle side-to-side play is optimal. If you can just feel it, then it's fine. Usually, tightening the axle quick release will remove this bit of play. If you can feel hub play when the wheel is installed and trying to move the rim side to side, then it's too much. Try sites like Park Tool or Sheldon Brown for correct steps. You will need cone wrenches.
Grab both ends of the axle and wiggle the axle back & forth. If you feel anything more than the slightest perceptible play then the bearings need adjustment (loose ball hubs) or cartridge replacement (cartridge bearing hubs).
Check the flanges for cracks radiating from the spoke holes. This is rare but parts of flanges have been known to break off which is often caused by radial spoking on hubs not designed for it. Double butted spokes, with their shock-absorbing thinner center sections, transmit less shock and stress to the hub flanges.
Check the drive shell (the splined thing that the cassette fits onto). Slight indentations caused by the cassette cogs digging into the body of the shell (if it's aluminum) are acceptable. Some cassette carriers (Shimano DuraAce & White Industries are two of them) are made from titanium and don't indent. Steel ones on less expensive hubs don't either. Lots of high-end hubs have aluminum cassette carriers (like Chris King) so the presence of an aluminum carrier is not detrimental. Heavy indentations can make cassette removal harder.
Check the freewheel action of the cassette carrier. Is it gummed up with old lube? Shimano ones can't be dismantled but you can flush and re-lube them. Most others can be disassembled for service - many very easily with no tools required (Like DT-Swiss 240 hubs and many Taiwan hubs that I'm familiar with).
If hubs need to be replaced then the wheelset should be questioned as it's probably not cost effective to replace hubs. Most pro builders won't re-use old rims and certainly won't re-use old spokes. Of course you're free to replace hubs yourself and re-use rims and spokes. To be able to re-use old spokes they should be in good condition and the new hub has to be the same dimensional specs as the old hub.
Spokes - due to the constant load/unload action on them from the wheel's rotation, spokes have a fatigue life. The quality of the job done by a wheelbuilder goes a long way towards their longevity.
Low spoke tension or uneven tensions cause a spoke's life to be short. Fatigued spokes usually break right at the j-bend at the hub flange. If, in a fairly short period of time (a few weeks or months?) you have more than one spoke break then you should consider getting the spokes replaced by a competent wheelbuilder. He may or may not be willing to re-use your old rim.
Spokes can get damaged by rocks and sticks so look for kinked or bent spokes. This isn't necessarily all that detrimental to a wheel unless the trauma is bad or is seen on more than a couple of spokes.
Chains can derail over the top of the large rear sprocket (if the low gear derailer stop isn't adjusted properly). If this happens, usually the heads-in spokes get their elbows gouged. This can lead to failure as this part of a spoke is its most heavily stressed area.
The info in this next paragraph is very important and the outcome of your findings will tell you how well a wheel was built and maintained plus what its potential lifespan is. Problems here will lead to rapid metal fatigue in the spokes and resulting breakage -
Check spoke tension and equalness (is that a word?) of tensions - grasp parallel pairs of spokes - one set on each side of the wheel in each hand and squeeze them.
If they flex lots and feel loose to you then they probably are too loose and need re-tensioning.
Here's my favorite - Pluck the spokes around the wheel and listen to the tone of their tensions - compare spokes only one side! (because of dishing) They should be fairly equal in tone and the tone should be "quite high". Unequal tones mean unequal tension and therefore some spokes are doing far more work than others.
Only lots of personal experience or a spoke tension meter will tell you whether the tension is high enough.
Check the end of the spoke (with the tire, tube and rim tape off) and its relationship to the top of the nipple. The spoke should be about flush with the top of the nipple or as low as the bottom of the screwdriver slot. If the spoke ends are lower than this, too much stress is imparted on the neck of the nipple and the head can snap off.
This will show how good the wheelbuilder's spoke length calculations were.
Rims - as rims are fairly expensive, any damage here can be a wheelset game-ender. Rims cost about $35-$100 each for normal rims or many times that for factory "boutique" wheelset rims. Plus you have to add re-build cost and new spokes. Most factory wheelset rims can only be replaced by returning the wheel to the factory. This will be very expensive and time-consuming. It could take weeks.
Look closely for -
Bent flanges (where someone has hit an immovable object like a curb), cracked flanges (same cause) and worn out sidewalls (from brake pad scoring). Sometimes bent rim flanges can be bent gently back into position. Worn out sidewalls can cause the rim flange to actually crack off. If the rim sidwall looks and feels hollow (from brake pad wear) then the rims are getting close to the end of their life.
Cracked spoke nipple holes - check very closely after cleaning the rim. These cracks, radiating out from a spoke hole, can be quite tiny or they can be large. If one spoke loosens for no good reason, suspect a cracked rim and check closely. A cracked rim is a junk rim.
Bulging spoke nipple holes - usually this is the stage before the spoke holes crack. It's showing that the rim material can't resist the pull of the spokes.
If you can, spin the wheels in the bike and check their trueness both side-to-side and up & down. Sight between the brake pad and the rim for this. Don't let tire rubber irregularities fool you here - it's just rim wobble we're checking. Any more than, say, 1-1.5mm is too much. Most wheels with large rim wobbles can't be re-trued and the rims should be considered bent. To pull them back into true using spoke tension will make some spokes much tighter than others - this will shorten their life greatly.
Carbon rims - this wheel site is not really about carbon rim wheelsets (and especially carbon spoke wheelsets!) even though many of the problems with aluminum rims will pertain. As well as the stuff already mentioned, look very closely for carbon layer delamination and pieces broken off the tire bead hooks. Tubular tire rims can suffer from carbon layers being pulled off the base tape seat by tire cement when removing tires. Also, carbon rims (with carbon brake tracks) need special brake pads. If these haven't been used then the brake track might be runined from excess friction and/or heat. Some carbon rims have aluminum brake tracks so the checks for those are the same as for aluminum rims.
Nipples - check for corroded aluminum nipples. We can usually tell whether nipples are aluminum by their color - all colored nipples are aluminum. Brass nipples come in just silver and black. Aluminum ones come in silver and black too plus lots of other colors. Corroded aluminum nipples are junk. Brass ones don't corroded but a very subtle problem that won't be visible can be caused from lack of spoke thread lubrication during the building of the wheel. This can cause the nipples to be very hard to adjust or to be completely seized. Check all nipples for the flats being rounded off from a poor spoke wrench or wheelbuilder. A rounded off nipple can't be adjusted.
In general - if you're looking to buy wheels, make sure they are suitable for your weight, riding style and terrain. After all, if you're 130 lbs and ride light on good roads you don't need to be on wheels intended for a 260lb person doing loaded touring in the back country. On the other hand, it's just silly for heavy people to ride on the lightest of wheels. Rims and spokes' lives are shortened by the amount of work they have to do. Rim weight, numbers of spokes, spoke lacing, nipple material, hub weight and quality are all variable and you need to be realistic when choosing parts or a complete wheelset. There is no magic here - 32 spoke wheels will support more load and last longer than 20 spoke wheels. Heavier rims will take more punishment than light rims. Yes we all want light stuff but how much gain can there really be from saving about six grams per spoke or 20 grams on a rim?
Pre-built factory wheels are usually much more expensive to have repaired. Their spokes and rims are almost always "proprietary" (meaning - made especially for this model of wheelset and therefore more expensive and harder to obtain). Frequently, the maker insists that the wheel be returned to the factory for evaluation and repair. This could take weeks to months. Unfortunately most bikes available for sale in bike shops come with these types of wheels as standard. Some factory pre-built wheelsets get abandoned by the maker - which means their rims and spokes aren't supported by them anymore. Buyer beware!!
Hand built wheels (built by a pro wheelbuilder, your LBS, a friend or yourself) can be custom tailored to you and your requirements (quality, cost, riding terrain, body weight) and almost always use easily available and reasonably priced rims and spokes. They can be serviced or repaired by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of wheel repair.
This is the old art of making a wheel stiffer and more homogenous. This art used to be used many years ago on the wheels of track racers and some road racers and more recently it has been used on mtb wheels.
I'll make no claims for its usefulness and just tell you how I do it. The final spoke cross is wrapped with thin wire and then the wire is soldered to hold it from unraveling. This in effect makes the strain on one spoke transfer to the spoke it's tied to and thus maybe it spreads the strain more evenly around the wheel.
I use thin copper wire from an old truck wiring harness. Go along to an automotive electrical shop or junkyard and ask if they have any old wiring harnesses that you might have. I skin-off the insulation and strip out the copper wire strands. I cut the wire strands into 12" lengths. Schraner uses tinned iron wire and DT-Swiss sell the stuff. Here's my stuff. It's 0.45mm or 0.018" (eighteen thou) thickness -
Recently I saw spools of thin gauge copper wire in the local auto/hardware store.
Also you will need a roll of multi-core solder and a tin of paste flux plus an electric soldering iron or gun.
Look at the picture here. Lay the wire up along the spoke cross and then neatly wrap the wire 5 times back downwards over the loose end of the wire . Please be neat here and snug the wraps up nicely. Then finish off as shown. We don't need any fancy knots or twists as the solder is going to keep everything together. When the solder has hardened (in seconds) wiggle the loose ends of the wire until they break off.
When all the wrapping is done, apply some paste flux to the wire, heat with the soldering gun and neatly apply solder. Apply a very thin layer and knock off all blobs and excess solder before it solidifies. You should be still able to see the wire wraps but they should be sealed with solder. When everything is finished wash off the flux with soapy water and wipe dry. It takes me a ½ hour per wheel.
A few years ago I was on a ride where we had two torn tire sidewalls in 15 minutes. And it was the first fifteen minutes of a long ride too. The ride would have been a disaster but for the fact I had about three feet of duct tape wrapped around my pump waiting for such an occasion. I put a double patch on the inside for these two unfortunate fellows and away we went. Duct tape rules !
Since that day I've used my duct tape to tape the blown out bead of a tire back onto the casing. Another ride saved! Let's not even think of the five mile walk if no duct tape was carried.
Another suggestion for emergency boot material, carry a piece of lawn chair webbing with you! Then when you get a slit sidewall, slide this inside the tire. Better still, tape it in place with your duct tape -
There are many other things you can use as boot material - powerbar wrappers, dollar bills, candy wrappers - use your imagination here. The most important part is pre-planning. Just assume that at sometime, you or someone you can help, is going to get a ripped sidewall or large hole in the tread. Being prepared doesn't take much effort and certainly no weight. I use pieces of thin suede cut from an old coat.
More tips - remove your tubes and baby-powder them as we had one that was almost welded inside the tire.
Do not practice flat tire repair for the first time out on the trail, practice at home and then you'll see just how many tire levers you'll need for your tires and just how poor your shitty little mini-pump really is. Get the most expensive mini-pump you can find.
Wrap your spare tube in an old sock so holes won't be worn into it through jiggling around in your bag. Carry a repair kit of instant patches for your second and third flat tire of the day.
Still more tips - always mount the tire makers' label at the tire valve and on the right side of the bike. Then when you get a flat tire you can find the hole in the tube and relate the area to a specific place on the tire. Maybe you will find a thorn still sticking through the tire. Mark the tube before insertion so you will know how it was oriented inside the tire.
When you have found one thorn (or whatever caused the puncture) feel around the inside of the tire casing for a second one. Remove the tire entirely and feel all round the interior with four fingers flattened. I learned that one the hard way today - patch the tube, remove the thorn, inflate the tire and five minutes later it's flat again. Sheesh. Check again and find a second thorn. Darn!
To make tube re-insertion easier and have less chance of pinching a tube, put a small amount of air in the tube just to make it round. This is easy with a Presta valve - just inflate by mouth. Try not to use tire levers when re-installing a tire - they make it easy to pinch the tube.
Installing a new tube the correct way - to prevent pinching it under the tire bead and the resulting explosion -
Everything goes much easier if the tube is talcum powdered before use. I use a plastic grocery bag - squirt in a little talc, drop the unrolled tube in, clamp bag neck shut, shake bag once, remove tube, shake, inflate by mouth and install or roll and place in under-seat bag (tube inside an old sock!!). Store the bag for future use.
1. Inflate the tube by mouth before inserting into tire (this lessens the chance of tube getting trapped under the bead).
2. Have one side of the tire on the rim.
3. Place valve in rim hole. Place tube in tire.
4. Starting at the valve, install tire on rim working both sides at once, away from the valve. Push remainder of tire over rim edge with thumbs. Try never to use levers.
5. Put very little pressure in the tube (maybe 10-20pis) and push the bead away from the rim, all the way around and on both sides and check that no tube is visible under the bead. This takes time but it is important.
6. Inflate to about 40psi.
7. Check that the mold line(s) on the tire sidewall are concentric with the rim all the way around and on both sides. If it's not concentric, roll tire sideways with thumbs and get it into place.
8. Inflate to normal operating pressure (100psi?)
About - Mike built his first set of wheels in 1962 at age 14 out of sheer necessity. He was building up the first of many custom bikes in his lifetime and needed wheels for it. As a mechanically inclined person he opted to build them himself rather than pay the LBS to do it. Back then there were no books on the subject and certainly no internet. So the only way for him to proceed was to copy another wheel. From that shaky start, wheelbuilding, as with all bike mechanical jobs, became a life-long passion. He built wheels for himself and later for family and friends and decided that he would never charge for his services.
Fast forward fifty years. He's built many wheelsets for himself and others but has never made a penny from it. It will always remain a labor of love. He is constantly researching wheelbuilding techniques and related information. This web-page is a compliment to that and a result of that passion.
His first set of wheels was built with nothing more than a spoke wrench and a frame & fork as his stand. To encourage others to take up wheelbuilding, and to prove that it can be done, he continued to build them that way for over forty years.