Wheelbuilding Tips

These wheelbuilding tips were gleaned from a discussion of wheelbuilding on the mailing list mtb@cyclery.com in February 1998.

Dave Fitch writes:

Personally, having both been on a wheel building course at the lbs and built 15 odd pairs of wheels I'd say some of Sheldon Brown's wheel building advice is a little dubious. Especially the bit about locktite on spokes.

[Jim Frost adds: I'll second that. Jobst Brandt (author of The Bicycle Wheel) suggests medium-weight machine oil, and that's what I did the first time out, but I prefer grease -- it works better when the wheel is tight and it stays around longer. Absolutely do not put any kind of fixative on them. If you're having a problem with nipples coming loose then you're not building the wheels tight enough. This is easily correctable even after-the-fact.]

The main thing is to understand how to lace a wheel. Once you understand that, you can move on. If you don't understand that, you'll be unavoidably detained! Don't think that if you can copy another wheel you'll understand how to lace wheels: that's not quite how it works!

Make sure that when you sight down the valve of your inner tube to the hub that the only places spokes are crossing are really close to the hub. Otherwise you'll have a hell of a time trying to pump up your tires!

Basic ideas:

[JF adds: Great tips. Sheldon's site isn't bad other than the locktite thing, but I really suggest that any budding wheelbuilder pick up a copy of Jobst Brandt's The Bicyle Wheel. There are some arguments about his conclusions in some areas but the general background is valuable and the the directions for building a wheel are excellent; I built my first wheel, which is still in service despite fairly brutal treatment, by simply following instructions.

The only thing that I found to be difficult was determining proper tension. Jobst's technique of tightening until it becomes unstable works with wimpy rims like the MA2, but the novice wheelbuilder doesn't have the experience to balance the wheel correctly so it will seem to happen sooner than it really does. I got some great advice from a local wheelbuilder: after I rode the thing for a little while I retrued it and added another half turn to each nipple. The wheel was mucho strong at that point. In addition I went back to it after I'd built and tended to more wheels and tried again, resulting in even more tension.

Speaking about even tension, that brings up another point. After the wheel gets pretty tight whack the spokes with the spoke wrench to produce a ping. The pings for each of the spokes should be the same, or very close. If any one of them is higher or lower you have uneven tension, which is bad. Loosen high tension spokes or tighten low-tension spokes. Correct truing and roundness errors that result on the adjacent spokes.]

[Dave: Getting proper tension: I've seen people refuse to tighten a wheel because of the creaking of the spokes and nipples, which freaked them out and made them think the wheel was under tremendous stress when actually it was just a sign that they hadn't used enough grease on the threads... :-)

Proper tension is one of them things that you've just got to learn by practice. Or by purchasing one of them really expensive spoke tensioning thingies... That's part of the reason I'd recommend only turning the nipples a quarter turn when the wheel gets tight, just so you feel that you're in control and gradually building up tension, rather than trying to make it all tense at once.

I've found that it helps to squeeze the spokes a lot as you spin the wheel and true it: if you notice some are tighter than others (or looser) you can focus on them, so that instead of tightening up one side and loosening the other you might just loosen one side or tighten the other. Never forget that spokes work in pairs... :-)]

Myra: And here's a warning of my own: there is a big temptation to be creative and try cool spoke patterns once you get the hang of building wheels. However, don't radially lace Shimano hubs. It adds extra stress radially from the center of the hub, and the hubs aren't designed to deal with it. The instructions that come with hubs states that the warantee is voided if you use radial lacing, and my LBS reports having problems with non-working bearing resulting from radial lacing. On the other hand, I have friends with radially laced Shimano wheels, and they seem to be OK. So try it if you want, but don't blame me if your hubs fail!

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