Friday, July 10, 2015

To Build A Wheel

I sat down this week to build a set of wheels. Building wheels is one of those jobs that any serious home mechanic should try some time. It's a rite of passage. Saint Sheldon Brown says of wheel building: "Learning to build wheels is an important milestone in the education of an apprentice mechanic. A 'mechanic' who has not mastered this basic skill cannot be considered to be a fully-qualified professional, and will always feel inferior to those who can list wheel building among their skills."

With the proliferation of special pre-built "boutique" wheels on quality bikes today, with their low spoke counts and carbon fiber rims, hand-building wheels may be something of a dying art. But it's a job I enjoy doing every now and then. I built my first pair when I was about 18 years old, with super lightweight tubular rims and classic Campagnolo Record hubs. That first pair didn't hold up well, and needed frequent re-truing. My second pair proved to be bomb-proof. Through college, I'd build wheels for my friends in the bike club, and almost all of my bikes today have hand-built wheels. It's been a few years since the last time I built a pair, though.

This set of wheels will be used on my 1980 Mercian Strada Speciale. The wheels that came with that bike (Campagnolo Tipo hubs and Rigida 1320 rims) were pretty badly out of true when I got it and had a flat spot or two. Somebody probably nailed some pretty bad potholes. On close examination I also noticed some deeply nicked spokes on the drive side of the rear wheel that indicated that somebody must have thrown the chain into the spokes, too. That could lead to spoke breakage at some point. I did my best to bring them back into shape, but after a few rides, they'd need more truing hygiene, and then again, and again. As I recall, those old Rigida rims were lovely and very light (for clinchers) but never very durable. With this set, I plan to go with a sturdier touring rim to gain some extra durability.

Getting Ready:
Getting ready to begin: Rims, hubs, spokes and nipples, a couple of spoke wrenches, and of course, Jobst Brandt's book The Bicycle Wheel. I never build a wheel without reviewing it. I always keep my spokes separated in bags, or bundled and labeled while I'm working so I don't mix them up. I have three different lengths. The longest ones are for the front wheel. There are two lengths for the rear wheel, with the shortest ones being for the drive side to help with the "dish." 

I always felt that Sun rims were a little under-appreciated, maybe because they are comparatively inexpensive. But they are traditional-looking, seem well-made, and are pretty durable. They also still have eyelets at the spoke holes, which is something I appreciate. The CR18 is a fairly wide (22.5 mm) touring model that should hold up very well. They are a bit heavy, though. That's a normal trade-off, isn't it?

My hubs are some very smooth-spinning Suzue hubs from the '80s. They were originally made for 126 mm spacing, but I shortened the rear axle slightly for the Mercian's 120 mm width and 5-speed freewheel. I picked these up lightly used and very cheap. The bearings and races are perfect, and the bodies cleaned up nicely with a little effort and some aluminum polish.

My truing stand is an Artisan Tool & Die stand from the 1970s: made in Cleveland. It looks a lot like the classic Park model seen in many bike shops today. I've seen these advertised in old issues of Bicycling magazine (the ad on the right is from 1978). I've heard the company is still in business, but I'm certain they don't make bicycle tools anymore. I got this one from Al's Bike Shop in Cleveland when they went out of business some time in the '90s. Al sold me a bunch of his old shop tools when he closed up. The dishing tool is Campagnolo - also from Al's.

With all my materials and tools ready, I turned on the Tour on T.V. and started lacing spokes. I followed the steps for lacing and truing as they are set out in Jobst Brandt's book. Jobst lays it out clearly and concisely - and I think it's hard to go wrong following his advice. Some people refer to Sheldon Brown's site for their wheel building steps, and while Sheldon explains some things a little differently, I think his steps basically agree with Jobst's. Either way, I think a person will end up with a properly built wheel.

Finished Results:

There are certain things I've learned to look for in a well-built set of bicycle wheels. Some of them are functional or practical, some are structural, and some are just aesthetic attention to detail.

A well-built wheel has the rim oriented so that the label is readable from the drive side of the bike. This is also a good place to point out that many rims are drilled so that the spoke holes are staggered as opposed to being right down the centerline of the rim. It's important to get the wheel laced so that the spokes on the right side of the hub go to the holes closer to the right side of the rim, while those on the left side of the hub go to the left side of the rim. It seems obvious, but it's easy to mess it up.
At the valve hole, one wants to have the spokes more or less parallel - to leave more room for a pump head and to simplify tire inflation.
Sheldon Brown's site describes spokes as either "trailing" or "leading" spokes. When considering the rotation direction of the wheel (the blue arrow), the "trailing" spokes leave the hub at an angle pointing away from the rotation, while the "leading" spokes angle into the rotation. Another way to think of it is that the "trailing" spokes appear to be pulled through the rotation, while the "leading" spokes appear to be pushed. In any case the rear wheel should be built so that the "trailing" spokes are on the inside of the hub flanges, while the "leading" spokes are on the outside of the flanges.  Sheldon explains that on a derailleur-equipped bike, it is important to do it this way as it slightly increases the clearance between the derailleur and the drive-side spokes. Nevertheless, I've seen a number of professional or even machine-built wheels that were the opposite. I suppose on a single-speed wheel, it wouldn't make any difference. Whether one follows Sheldon's build steps or Jobst's, the wheel should turn out this way.
This is called "attention to detail." It doesn't make any difference functionally, but I've often heard that the best wheel builders always have the hub oriented in the rim so that its logo can be read when looking through the rim's valve hole. Nailed it.

Once I got the wheels to where I was pretty satisfied with them, I took them to my local bike shop for a final check. One tool you might have noticed that I don't have in my arsenal is a spoke tension gauge, or tensiometer. Yes, I really should get one. But I don't mind letting the pro give them a final tension check to make sure they'll hold up well. As it turned out, my spoke tension was still a bit on the "loose" side, so Rich at Century Cycles brought the tension up a little.

All that's left to do now is apply some rim tape, mount some tires, and get them on the bike. Hope you enjoyed this little look at hand-built wheels.


  1. the guys at local bike shop get crazy when I check for the valve hole position on the wheels they had just built... they pay no attention on that at all. Sheldon Brown in not well-known here in Brasil

  2. The funny thing about building wheels is that when I don't rush, it goes more quickly--and I end up with a better wheel.

    You made good component choices. I use CR-18s on my commuter, and they hold up very well. They're a lot like the early Mavic double-wall clincher rims. Why Mavic still doesn't make a rim like that is beyond me.

    I will say, though, that Mavics build more easily than CR-18s, or any other Sun rim I've built.

    1. I absolutely preferred Mavic rims, but they don't have anything for a classic wheel build anymore. It seems that all they want to sell now is their expensive complete wheelsets. The MA2s were my all time favorite. They briefly had the MA3 as a replacement, but it had a deeper profile, and not quite the classic look, but you could still build a good wheel out of them.

    2. Jan Heine says he used MA2'a when he was still riding 700C wheels. He reports getting 30,000 miles of hard use out of a rear wheel with that rim.

      I think the Rigida 13-20 was an attempt to make a less-expensive version of the Mavic Module "E", the first double-wall, hook-beaded narrow clincher rim. Likewise, the Rigida 16-22 seemed to be an attempt to emulate the Super Champion 58. While the Rigida rims were pretty, they were never as durable as their Mavic or Super Champion counterparts.

    3. I remember seeing the Rigida rims on lots of bikes back in the early 80s, and it just seemed like they were so easy to damage -- flat spots and the like were just par for the course. I've heard people describe them as "soft" and I just wonder if they were made with a different grade of aluminum than the Mavic rims.

  3. No tension tool, but you have a dishing gauge?

    1. A tension gauge is not necessary to build a perfect wheel. People have been building strong durable wheels for decades without them. I'm sure this wheel you built would have been fine without the final tension gauge adjustments.

  4. Why do you need a dishing tool? Why not just use one, not both, of the adjustable arms that scrape the rim to true it, and simply flip the wheel over so the drive side faces one side, then the other. Automatic dishing with the rim equidistant between the dropouts. How can you lose doing it this way?

    1. No, you don't NEED one. But I have one. 'Nuff said.

  5. My preferences for any wheelset are: silver (highly polished definitely desired), available in 36h (32h is OK for a lightweight/faster bike), eyeletted, double-wall, silver spokes, silver hubs.

    My go-to rims are CR-18. It's quite difficult to find high-polish silver rims in 36h. And, yet, simple as can be (and cheap, too!) here are they are. I like that 27 and 700 sizes are both available.

    I am going to try H+ Son's TB14 rims on a future project. Quite a bit more spendy, though.

    Timely: Velo Orange just announced that they're doing a 27" version (36h, to boot!) of their PBP rim.
    I've had a set of VO Escapade rims built up, and they are fantastic. I have seen some other folks with other flavors of VO rims, and they always look quite nice, with an attractive classic style.

    Another "attention to detail" thing: Lining up the valve stem with the center of the tire's branding/logo, and if the tire only has that on one side, it goes on the drive side.


    1. My favorite setup - when I can get it - is 32 front, 36 rear -- but it can be hard to find a pair of hubs that way. Like you, I prefer silver, and preferably polished -- all silver.

      And yes - I always line up the label on the tire with the valve stem. I almost put that in the article.

  6. I'm not sure anyone could build a wheel after reading Jobst Brandt's book. Certainly an excellent resource once you have some background, but it's not a step-by-step for the beginner. Personally, I find it to be a bit too unopinionated (surely the result of an editor :-) and the drawings too subtle (sometimes I think I'm playing spot-the-difference).

    I'm no expert wheelbuilder but my suggestion would be to first rebuild a wheel you already have, knowing that you have all the correct parts in the correct order to begin with. Take lots of photos first.

    Simply measuring hubs correctly, and then determining which spokes to use and the correct sizes will be a major challenge for the neophyte. And be careful where you get advice - out of ten local bike shops, one has a wheelbuilder I trust. You can probably order a wheel "kit" from some online sources.

    A book I recommend is The Art of Wheelbuilding, by Gerd Schraner, which has excellent photos and diagrams and a fair amount of opinion

    1. I've seen the Schraner book - it's a good one too. I do disagree about Jobst's book though. The first chapters really do get into a lot of the technical aspects of wheels, and how they support loads, etc. - and those parts are not for beginners. But if one only wants to build a wheel, they can skip all that and go right to the chapters on wheel building. Even when I was just starting out, I don't recall feeling that the steps were hard to follow, and I always felt the illustrations were subtle but clear. Anyhow - to each his own.

      About bike shops and wheel builders - you're probably right. Like I said in the article, it seems to be a dying art.

  7. I built wheels after reading Brandt's book. And I've built ones that lasted thousands of miles under a 250# guy (me)!

    1. It's great being able to do it yourself. Very satisfying.