Monday, 25 November 2013

The Wheelbuilding Art.

Back in the day your training wheels were not that different from your race wheels. It was maybe a difference in spoke count with the race set tubular and the training set clincher. However the common factor was they were both hand built by some local wheel guru. A guy that would sit in a workshop all day on a stool talking some mumbo jumbo, choking on a Marlboro while lacing spokes and turning nipples, because he had the finesse and understanding of the art we call wheelbuilding. People sometimes refer to wheelbuilding as a lost art, like it's a thing of the past or something rarely done nowdays. The wheelbuilder is a guy that understands the art that some of us don't. But to refer to it as rare or a lost art, maybe a guy that does tubular repairs, but a guy that builds wheels, it’s more common than you think . There are still some guys/shops out there doing some nice wheels, and all to your imagination. Although not a huge fan of this fixie culture (mainly the ones that basically ride a track bike on the road) we have today, but I think it is this culture that has embraced the custom wheelbuiling scene, and in a way has brought it back to life.

With so many factory wheels on the market it’s no surprise people don’t even consider something handbuilt. Even at the Pro ranks now wheels are delivered ready built, even factory ready wheels are popping up more and more in races like Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen. Gone are the days when team mechanics had to build hundreds of wheels pre season. Some team mechanics now days don’t even know how, they can work with the latest electronic gearing but have not a clue how to build a wheel. But for a weekly punter, maybe you find the wheels your bike came with are good enough or the ready built Zipps at the local shop just looked too good on display. I think there is more factory ready built wheels these days that claim to be handbuilt then say a few years ago, are manufactures realizing it's better. Even if they are it's not the same as something handbuilt where you choose all the components yourself and have built by a guy that does everything by hand, a guy that puts his devotion into the process to create a wheel. This is the chance to have handbuilt wheels that may be a little different, unique or something even old school.

As most shops have a good range of ready built wheels available to them, they may not be willing to spend valuable time building wheels or maybe they don’t have anyone on roster that knows how. There are a few specialty places online that build custom wheels of all types and there is a chance there may even be a local guru in your neighborhood, or here’s a thought, is it something you can do yourself. More and more cycling DYIers are taking the step from doing simple bike maintance to building wheels themself. Building something classic is what I enjoy and not that hard to do for the novice builder. Wheels are probably though the one thing I hate as a mechanic. There are so many crap combinations out there that just result in poor wheels, I just want reliable. But I rarely ever had trouble with a set of wheels in where I had to put them to the side and ride something else. In my opinion a good set of training wheels is something 32H 3X, wheels like this are built for kilometers.

I first had an understanding of handbuilt wheels when I was younger, yes I had a pair built by a mumbo jumbo talking Marlboro smoking wheelbuilder (RIP Don), but never really got to practice it myself until I began working in the shop at O’mara Cycles, if I recall correctly my first sets were not so flash. While shop owner Jae had some input to get me started, for the rest I almost had to teach myself. Now I didn't go read a heap of books or type into Google about wheelbuilding, I didn't know the first thing about computers back then, I just learnt with a little practice and understanding of how it worked. No one taught me how to be a race mechanic either, if you understand it you learn it. Building wheels is something that takes practice and patience, and some more practice, and also requires some uninterrupted time. I just learnt it from feel, then when finally I learnt how to use Google I read a little to further my knowledge. But you can read stuff until your eyes pop out, building wheels is something that takes not only much practice but also attention to detail to become any good at it.

my cross wheels have so far ridden some rough terrain
and are still rolling good.
Back in 2008, now in Europe, I had to build 30 or 40 sets of alloy wheels for a Belgian Pro Conti team which then led to building some on a regular basis for wheel supplier Sonic, then you learn it very quickly. But the conditions the guy put me under didn't suit me so I gave it up. Now just recently I started building some sets just for myself.  Recently I built a set of 36H for my cross bike and now I am building one of three road sets I have planned to do. So it brings me to this post and for the readers interested I can go through the build process for this particular wheelset. Now I by no means call myself a guru but I will give my best description of the process to build a wheel as well as tools, lacing method and point out some areas that first time builders may often overlook.

my wheelbuilding tools, in the left top corner
is also hanging my spoke ruler and tension
calibration chart.
STEP 1 - GET THE TOOLS; Make sure you have all the correct tools to do the job. Now I’m a mechanic and there's nothing I like more than having tools, and having the right tool to do the job right. But you can also build a wheel with just the basic tools. The main items you will need is of course a Truing Stand, you need a spoke key of the correct size for nipples being used, a dishing tool, a nipple driver, spoke head punch (plus a hammer), tension meter (some refer to it as a tensiometer) and also some lube as well as some kind of spoke prep. Also a spoke ruler is handy to check your spoke length. Of course you can also build a wheel just using a spoke key and a screwdriver and your bike turned upside down as a truing stand, but like I said, the right tools to do the job right.

here I have ground down a flat head screwdriver bit to
make the perfect nipple driver. 

STEP 2 - WHAT LACING; There are some different methods you can use but for this build I’m doing 3X and is what I would recommend for training wheels. Other lace paterns are radial (but not on hubs more than 24H), 1X, 2X and then 4X for touring wheels which normally require a large hub flange. Also there is the much debated issue with trailing and leading spoke heads in or out. Some say trailing spokes heads out (which is the way I learnt and I think is standard practice) and there are some that prefer heads in. It doesn’t really matter, either way is fine. I’ve built wheels both ways as it depends on the type of wheels being built. Wheel guru and the main man at DT Swiss, Gerd Schraner and Belgian pro wheelbuilder from the 70’s and 80’s Louis van Roosbroeck  are two builders I know of that build trailing spokes heads in. Then there are other well known builders like Joobst Brandt and Sheldon Brown that build with trailing spokes heads facing out for bikes with rear derailleurs. You can read here for the reason of the Brandt/Brown method  The Schraner/Roosbroeck method on the other hand believes that if the trailing spokes are heads facing in, it spreads the load of the spoke elbow across the hub flange rather than solely on the spoke head, thus spreading the stance of load which results in a stronger wheel and less spoke fatigue. Neither way is right or wrong, just depends on the builders preference. I’m more with Schraner’s method as good derailleur alignment should be enough to stop the wheel from hitting the spokes. I built my cross wheels the Schraner way and have had no derailleur rubbing issues. But for this wheel build I’m going with the method I was taught, which is more or less the Brandt/Brown method. There is another thing I prefer with the Schraner method but I will get to that in a bit.

In the diagrams above you can see the difference in the two lacing methods in regards to trailing and leading spokes. The left diagram is trailing heads in and the other is trailing heads out. Whichever way you decide, you always start with the spokes that run inside the flange. Also take note of the key spoke as they are in different locations and in one method the hub is turned clockwise while the other anti clockwise.

This diagram on the left shows the Schranner method for lacing disc wheels which is standard practice as braking forces are higher than pedaling forces. Many track wheels are also built with trailing spokes heads in.

STEP 3 - WHAT TO BUY; There is an endless choice out there when it comes to building a wheelset, but finding the right combination is key. As this is a training wheelset I’m building I will stick with items not too flashy, just simple, but by all means go as crazy as you like. If you have decided on what lacing pattern then next is to choose your rim, hubs and spokes.

Rims, Training wheels I would recommend a rim that has at least single eyelets. Double eyelet rims are better, I have had good experience with the Mavic Open Pro, but the Ambrosio Excellight or some of the DT Swiss rims can be another good choice. A rim we used many times in the shop was the Velocity Fusion, despite not having any eyelets it was still a reliable rim. The rims I’m using in this build are 36H Mavic Open Pro Sport (single eyelets).
Hubs, take a pick. Go for something that will last a while, you want reliable and serviceable. Here I’m using the ever faithful Dura Ace 7800 36H front and rear. Ultegra is also perfect for a set of training wheels and will be on my next build, or you can go super bling with some Chris King.

Spokes, be sure to purchase the correct length for rim, hubs and lacing pattern being used. If you Google spoke calculator, you will find a few online calculators to determine your spoke length. Some good ones are or and
Some sites have a good selection of rims and hubs already in their data base. Spokes are mostly always in full numbers, but you may get a spoke calculation that is say 293.6, I just make it 294, or if its 292.3 I make it 292. Some slight rounding up or down has not that much effect on the build. The other option is to take a Digital Caliper and measure everything yourself, which is also not difficult and probably good practice anyway. Or you can go ask your LBS. Always check your spokes when you receive them to be sure you’ve being given the correct length. For a set of training wheels there is no need to go too flash, DT Champion or Competition (or similar) is fine. For this wheelset I’m using DT Competition 294/296 silver spokes (not a fan of black spokes) that will be laced 3X.
Nipples, only one option here for training wheels, brass. Alloy nipples are best reserved for race wheels as an alloy nipple can often fuse to a rim . It is recommended they are used with eyeleted rims when it comes to alloy. Even on race wheels the alloy nipple can sometimes fuse to the spoke in certain conditions, so lubrication is important. For the weight minded they only save 20g/wheel. For training wheels you want heavy and robust, around 1.8kg for a wheelset. When using alloy nipples you must use a lubricant and be sure the spoke goes all the way through the nipple, with all good rims now days being double walled it is good practice with even brass nipples as it avoids nipple head failure. I like to work with 12mm nipples but 14mm is also quite commonly used.

All four components above must be of good quality in order to achieve a well built wheel. So now we are ready to begin, you know your lacing pattern and you have the materials ready, but don’t start until you can make a time when you can build the wheel from start to finish, which might take you all day. This is important if using a locking agent on the spokes.  You want to avoid prepping all your spokes, lacing the wheel and then leaving it for the next day, do this and your locking agent will have cured overnight making it harder to turn the nipples and increasing the chance of spoke torsion (twisting). Wheelsmith Spoke Prep though you must let dry before lacing.

Loctie 248 in stick form, I apply the Loctite
just prior to lacing while it's still wet.
Spokes are broken into 4 groups, drive side trailing, drive side leading, non drive trailing and non drive leading. I like to set all the spokes out ready in their 4 groups, for rear wheels it is important NOT to get spokes mixed up. The lacing stage of wheel building is best done sitting at a work bench, so find a cozy stool and get comfortable.  For this build I’m using DT brass Pro Lock nipples, so no prep is required. Spoke prep refers to lubrication of the spoke threads, which is important, avoid building dry. Some builders use Linseed Oil, Wheelsmith Spoke Prep, chain lube or even grease. With normal brass nipples I often use Loctite. Now if your being reading all the forums you would of noticed plenty of people writing “never use Loctite” or “use it if you never want to true your wheels”. It is ok to use if you use the right one. Loctite 241 is a medium strength and designed for small threads and disassembly with hand tools. We used that regularly in the shop. I’ve built many wheels using my regular 248 in the stick form with no difficulties of future truing. Other Loctite options are 222 or 243, but 221 is I think the best option which is a low strength. I also experimented on my cross wheels with the DT Spoke Freeze, which is a locking agent applied after assembly.Spokes need some form of lubrication during the build process because at the end of the day it is good even tension that keeps spokes from coming loose. Even thou I use Loctite it is not for the purpose of stopping spokes from loosing. The Loctite is to ease installation and stop any possible corrosion. I find prepping with oil it eventually disappears whereas the Loctite stays put. I have even used Loctite’s Anti Seize paste before. Remember, lubrication is the key. If prepping your spokes with a form of locking agent, prep just one group of spokes at a time right before you begin lacing, though some builders might say to leave it dry for a bit.

Before you start lacing, all good wheel builders place the rim logo facing drive side. Then the tricky part comes, the hub logo must be read from the top. No logo no worries. If you do have a logo, by looking down through the valve hole you should be able to read the hubs logo. Same goes for the front hub logo but it must face in the direction so it can be read when sitting on the bike. Neither of all this logo stuff affects performance of the wheels but is a mere attention to detail when the wheel is built. So to get your logo upwards an easy way is to start by placing the rim on the bench, hold roughly in the center the hub so the logo is at 12 o’clock facing towards the valve, now roughly lay a spoke from the 3rd hole in the rim, left of the valve across to around the 1 o’clock position on the hub flange, should be about 2 or 3 flange holes right of the logo. Somewhere there will be where you need to start your Key Spoke, just keep a note of that for now.

here is the Drive Side trailing spokes laced.
I put a bolt to show where the valve is
and marked my key spoke with red tape. In normal
practice the key spoke would be the one to the right
of where my key spoke is.
Now it’s common to start with the drive side first and begin by lacing the spokes that run inside the flange, which in this build will be the trailing spokes (so spoke heads face out). I lace all 9 trailing spokes in the hub starting with the one in the 1 o'clock position, in order to get the logo correct. Then continue using every second hole in the hub flange. Now I start to lace to the rim, but probably not the normal way as most people know. As the rim I'm using is offset drilling it is important where this first spoke goes, get this wrong and the valve may be the wrong spot. I place the first spoke, aka The Key spoke (which will be the one in the 1 o’clock position on the flange) in the 3rd rim hole to the left of the valve. The normal method would be to start to the right of the valve placing the key spoke in the second hole (for offset drilling), it's the same in the end but I was taught to work left so it works for me even though I'm right handed. So going anti-clockwise I place all other trailing spokes in every 4th hole in the rim. You want to screw the nipples on only a couple of turns to keep everything loose, very important to do with the Pro Lock nipples. I’m also careful just to screw all the nipples on an even amount. Once all Drive Side Trailing spokes are in I turn the hub clockwise as far as possible to check if the logo is in the correct location, readable looking down through the valve hole as mentioned.

STEP 5 - DRIVE SIDE LEADING; Now the other part to the Schranner method I prefer is this, although I’m lacing this wheel what appears to be the Brandt/Brown way, I do not lace the non drive trailing spokes as Brown or many other builders do. Instead I go with the Schranner method of lacing all drive side spokes first, again this is the way I was taught. For beginner wheel builders this is easier because you can locate mistakes much quicker and you may just have to unlace one group of spokes instead of 3. So I flip the wheel over and thread through all the leading spokes into the hub. Then flip the wheel back to the drive side and move all the leading spokes clockwise. Take the first spoke which will be roughly at 10 o’clock on the flange, this spoke will go over 2 spokes and under the 3rd, over, over, under and be laced to the first hole left of the valve, then like the first time, all other leading spokes in every  4th hole which will be between the trailing spokes. Now on one side you should have what resembles a 3X wheel with the obvious M pattern that surrounds the flange as marked in the picture to the left.

Drive Side complete

here I push through my Non Drive trailing key spoke.
STEP 6 - NON DRIVE SIDE TRAILING; Now here it gets a little tricky and is important to get right, but it is quite easy. So now we’re looking at the wheel from the Non Drive side, locate the key spoke (the very first spoke you laced) on the drive side. Now if you poke a spoke through a hole in the left flange so it reaches the right flange, with the spoke in a straight line it should touch just behind the key spoke. So now the starting hole on the left flange will be the hole left of that spoke you poked through. It should be around the 10 o’clock spot.  Or another way is to locate the drive side spoke next to the valve (which will be a leading spoke) and follow this down to its flange hole. If you put say a ruler horizontally level across the left flange at the point of this drive side spoke head, to the left side of the ruler you will see your starting hole on the left flange, easy peasy japeneasy. Once the hole is located I lace a spoke through the hole with the head facing out. With a 32H build you will know you have the right hole as the spoke should slide directly over the lowest cross point of the drive side M pattern, but on a 36H build it will be slightly off to the left. By spreading the drive side spokes apart a little you can guide the spoke through easily. This first Non Drive trailing spoke will be laced to the rim just left of the valve. Then continue with the other spokes, again in every second hole in the flange. Once the spokes are in I then move each spoke in a clockwise direction to line up with their rim hole and continue lacing in an anti-clockwise direction, again it will be in every 4th rim hole. So you should have all the Non Drive trailing spokes laced to the rim clockwise to the Drive Side trailing spokes. If this is correct the hard part of lacing is over
the Non Drive trailing key spoke is marked with blue tape.

STEP 7 - NON DRIVE SIDE LEADING; This is where some say the method of lacing all drive side first becomes difficult, it’s not. I read on one forum where a guy wrote he found it impossible to lace the spokes without bending them and found it tough not to scratch the rim, so asked if there was an easier way. Well spokes will take a small amount of bending, but I rather call it curving. Bending for me means a kink in the spoke, and you don’t want that. In the left photo you can see how much I need to curve the spoke in order to locate it to the rim hole. A tip is to keep your finger on top to avoid scratching the rim. Now moving on. I turn the wheel to the drive side and thread the last group of spokes in all remaining flange holes which is easily done by threading them through the small triangle above the drive side flange. Then back over to the non drive side I set all the spokes out by placing them roughly at the rim hole in which to be laced . Then by working anti clockwise I start to lace the spokes to their correct hole checking it goes over, over, under the trailing spokes. At this stage to lace spokes to the rim you may need the nipple
driver to thread the nipple on. The lacing is then done.
the wheel is now fully laced.

STEP 8 - SETTING SPOKE PATH; This is a step that many people overlook and you can see it clearly on many You Tube videos. It is a crucial step to a well built wheel. Now that your wheel is fully laced you will notice the spokes curve out from the hub flange a little, more so on the outter spokes than the inner spokes. Setting the spoke path involves pushing the spokes towards the flange. To do this, starting with the drive side, by using my left hand I place two fingers under one leading spoke and one trailing spoke. With my right hand I place my thumb on the leading spoke to the right of my two fingers. Next you simply push down gently with your thumb while at the same time pushing up with your fingers. Most of the force you focus on your thumb pushing the leading spoke as this needs the most pushing as it travels a more outer path to the rim, you also want the spoke to forget its memory of its original shape. The non drive side will differ slightly in that you place your two fingers under two trailing spokes and your thumb on the next leading spoke to the right. For both sides you focus the pushing on just two spokes, one trailing and one leading. As this is a 36 spoke wheel you will do that 9 times on each side. Now the wheel is ready for the truing stand. Other common methods is to use a long screwdriver wedged in between the spokes or tap a hammer on each outside spoke.
setting spoke path drive side.
setting spoke path non drive side.

Here I use a low speed mini drill with the modified flat head
bit to bring the nipples up to the end of thread. I hold my thumb
at the end of the spoke thread as a guide to stop.

STEP 9 - NIPPLES EVEN STEVENS; Some builders will do this step with the wheel still in their lap and use a hand tool such as the DT Swiss Nipple Driver, but it also can be done in the truing stand using a mini drill. This is the stage where I bring all the nipples up to an even amount, such as the end of the spoke thread. This gives a good even base in which to start tensioning. This is harder to do with internal nipples. After this is done you can drop a little bit of lube on each nipple at the rim/eyelet interface.

STEP 10 - LOW TENSION; Now we start to get into the more delicate part of wheelbuilding, the part that takes practice. For this step it will differ from a front to a rear wheel in regards to how many times to turn the nipples. For a front wheel you turn all nipples an even amount, easy. I do 1 1/2 turns to start. For the rear wheel in this case I turn the drive side 4 turns and the non drive side 2 turns. Once the turns are done I just give the spokes a squeeze (left side will be still quite loose) to release any initial stress that may already be starting to build up. Then I proceed to true the wheel while under a low tension. Another method I'm thinking of trying is the Right to Left method, tensioning the drive side first and working on radial true using drive side only. Then tighten non drive side to dish the wheel and true laterally. This method is said to be quicker but dishing the wheel and achieving perfect drive side tension at the same time depends much on how tight you initally do the drive side, maybe on the next build.

monitoring the tension using the Park TM-1
After the wheel is trued at a low tension I then add a bit more tension. For a front wheel tighten all nipples maybe just ½-1 turn and that should be getting close to full tension, check tension and move to the next two steps before adding any more tension, if needed. For the rear wheel, ignore left side for the moment. The drive side you want close to the final tension, so for now I adjust nipples to reach a tension of about 100-110kgf, this may just be another 1-2 turns. At this time I check the tension and also check the tension balance of the drive side. When balancing the tension always balance same side spokes and just do 1/4 turns. I then give the wheel another fine true. The secret to a good wheel is in the tension, this is why a tension meter is important in order to monitor your tension/balance during the build. Wheels that have too lower tension will come loose and require constant truing, wheels that have too much will usually crack the rim, and a wheel that has bad tension balance will either end in loose or broken spokes due to the stress cycles of the wheel. The aim is, and this is what takes practice, to achieve close to an even tension balance while maintaining the true of the wheel. The variance of balanced tension is -/+20% of what you need to achieve, so with a good quality rim achieving 10% variance is also even possible. With this build I'm aiming for a final average tension of about 120kgf, the non drive side will then be around 70kgf. So in the end you want all the spokes close to these numbers, you may have one or two that are slightly higher or lower though. You hear of some builders reaching tension by pitch, which means plucking the spoke for it's tone. I'm not that musically minded so looking at a numbered figure on the tension meter is more accurate for me.

Here I seat the spoke heads.

This is another step often overlooked. You can use a normal punch but the DT Swiss one has a concaved tip designed for spoke heads. Anyway, now that there is reasonable tension on the wheel, go around each spoke head and give it a tap, this will seat the head into the flange and will reduce the chance of the spoke later seating once on the road which may result in a spoke coming loose. With the wheel back in the stand I give the spokes another squeeze and then a truing.

STEP 13 - DISHING; Now it is time to take the wheel out and start working on the dish. With the dishing tool you can see how far the wheel is off center. The front wheel should be almost spot on as nipples were turned all evenly, but you may need to tweak it slightly to the left or right. The rear wheel should now be adjusted a bit more to the left. The right side nipples you leave as they should come to final tension when you tighten all the non drive side nipples about 1-1 ½ turns. This will bring the wheel center and should see the tension and dishing stage of the rear wheel finished. Then give the wheel another true, always radially and laterally. Give the wheel another squeeze of the spokes and then re-check the tension making sure tension is close to evenly balanced around the wheel.

stress relieving using the elbow method which is a push
down with the elbows and a pull with the hands.
Call it pre-stressing or stress relieving, call it what you want. But pre-stressing in a wheel happens when you apply tension as you build the wheel, the spokes are put under stress. Stress relieving is releasing that stress that has so far built up in the wheel. With the wheel tensioned up this is where the real stress relieving begins, and is an important step not to skip. You need to repeat this a number of times in the final stage. You can do this different ways but for a front wheel I like to put the wheel on a stool with a block of wood, a low bench top will also work. I lay the hub on the wood block and put both hands opposite each other on the rim and give a firm quick push down. I will continue this all around the wheel on both sides. This is ok for a front wheel because the tension is roughly the same both sides. But for say a rear wheel I like to use a more gentle approach by resting the rim into my stomach and slightly put pressure on the wheel with my forearms. To do this your tension must be good otherwise you can damage the rim, actually bend it. Some builders might prefer to just squeeze the spokes, but you then don’t really hear that pinging sound that the spokes make when they are releasing the stress. If you hear that sound too much when first riding your new wheels, then the wheel has not being stress relieved properly and may become detensioned. With the wheel back in the stand I give it another truing and recheck the tension.
not the best photo but this is about how close
you want the wheel turning from the calipers.
The left side looks to be touching but it is
actually about 0.5mm and the wheel does
not touch.

STEP 15 - THE HOME STRETCH; With the spoke tension and dishing done, all that remains to do is final truing and stress relieving. Check the truing and give the wheel another stress release, this might need to be done 3 or 4 times until the wheel is true with just a small amount of turns on the nipples, remember true then stress. The wheel should be running straight enough and close enough to the truing stands calipers without touching, you want to aim close to 0.5-1mm. Then check your final result by checking tension, dish and trueness. If all goes well then you have built a reasonable wheel that will see you get plenty of kilometers from.

So while Lindsay has worked on her masters thesis, that is my thesis on wheelbuilding, like I said I'm no expert or guru and maybe all of what I said didn't make any sense, so if you need to go buy a heap of books or watch a heap of You Tube videos then go ahead, or you can just have an expert do it. The wheels I have built have all being alloy, so most of my experience is there, though I have built one set of carbon which was a rebuild job using Reynolds rims. It would be nice to do some more but I have no need myself for carbon wheels at this stage. Be it carbon or alloy, the build process is the same, the important factors are quality materials, tension and stress relieving. Building a set of wheels yourself will bring great pride and satisfaction of accomplishment, but then you may just appreciate something handbuilt to your requirements, and that's what it is all about, the perfect wheels.

Happy Riding


burkey said...

Nice post funk, haven't read your blog in a while. Good to catch up on it


Mark said...

Thanks Burkey,my first'How To' post,it was a task to put together. Might have more on the way for you to read.I previously mentioned Nigel and Graham but you also often leave a comment, Cheers.

Ivan Pylat said...

Fine information, many thanks to the author. It is puzzling to me now, but in general, the usefulness and importance is overwhelming. Very much thanks again and best of luck!