As I have written before, wheel building is now considered an optional skill for most cyclists. However, if you ride a vintage or custom bike, or enjoy doing your own wrenching, acquiring the knowledge to build your own wheels can prove invaluable.
Vintage bicycles often need a replacement wheelset of the same era, which requires sourcing period hubs and rims. Or, the original wheelset may need an overhaul, with new spokes. Because older bicycles have narrower rear drop outs compared to modern bicycles, learning to build wheels can help you complete a restoration project that would otherwise be impossible, as new rear hubs generally cannot be used for older machines.
Serving as the inspiration for this post, the rear hub on my winter bike needed to be replaced – a Quando/Quanta hub whose cartridge bearings had failed. The wheelset is one that I previously built and served as the platform for “Part I”. To replace my failed hub, I ordered a new Velo Orange Grand Cru 126mm hub with freewheel threads and 36 holes – exactly what I needed to complete my task.
First of all, let me say that there are excellent resources on the web and in print for anyone who wants to learn how to build bicycle wheels. Many years ago, I built several wheels on my own, with no classes or any training, by following Sheldon Brown’s wheel building guide and using Jobst Brandt’s book, The Bicycle Wheel, as a technical resource. Those wheels are still perfectly true and in service. So, if you are methodical, patient, and not drinking or smoking anything while building the wheel, you may be able to be a completely self taught wheel builder. However, I also later took several wheel building classes which helped with those little tricks and tips that only an experienced builder can show you.
I can’t say enough about Sheldon Brown’s online wheel building guide. In it, you will find an overview of the process, a list of all the tools and materials you will need, and an easy and non-geeky step by step process which can instruct novices and experienced wheel builders alike. And, it is a free resource. I printed out my copy years ago, but checking the link recently I see that it has been updated with new information.
Before starting you need to determine what length spokes will work for the hub and rim that you have selected. You will need to take some key measurements off the hub, unless you are able to locate your hub in one of the on line spoke length calculators available. If you are using a vintage hub, Sheldon Brown, again, has a helpful resource which shows you how to measure the key elements of your hub. The VO hubs that I am using for this example, though modern, were not included in the Spocalc spreadsheet data base – which is a great tool developed by Damon Rinard. Fortunately, VO’s website gave me all the measurements needed, so I plugged those numbers into the spreadsheet, as shown above, and that yielded spoke lengths of 260mm for the non drive side and 258mm for the drive side (for a dished rear wheel, the non drive side spokes will always be about 2 mm longer that the drive side spokes, due to the greater distance they must travel). You will also need to take measurements from the rim you will be using. If it is a vintage rim, it will not appear in data base of the spoke calculator you decide to use, so you’ll need to measure the effective rim diameter.
I always use 14 gauge spokes (butted or straight depending on the application) and 2mm brass nipples. Generally, I use DT spokes and nipples, which have a good reputation for reliability and strength. The spokes, which are always under tension, need to have their threads treated with something that will act as a lubricant, and ultimately as a thread locker. I use Wheelsmith’s Spoke Prep.
You must follow the Spoke Prep instructions and dip your drive side and non drive side spokes into the solution, and then let it dry completely. Since I was working outside to build this wheel, I put each set of spokes on a separate chair. Drive side and non drive side spokes must not be allowed to mingle! And it’s best to separate each spoke after dipping it into the Spoke Prep solution, so that when it dries you won’t have to separate it from the other spokes. The above photos show the spokes before I have separated each one to dry.
I haven’t invested in any high end spoke nipple drivers or spoke wrenches. I use Park spoke wrenches, plus a square wooden handled screwdriver with a straight blade that I have filed slightly to a point, so that it will contact the spoke nipples with more gusto. And, the square handle of the screwdriver makes for easy manipulation of the spoke nipple.
The night before, I got out the hub and rim to select the location of the Key Spoke. By setting up the Key Spoke correctly, the hub’s logo will be visible by peering through the valve hole, and there will be no crossing spokes above the valve. Setting up the Key Spoke correctly is the mark of a mindful wheel builder.
I used a water soluble marker to indicate which hub hole and rim hole were to be use for the Key Spoke (which I will later clean off). In my case, the SunRims CR18 rims were set up so that the Key Spoke hole was 2 holes to the right of the valve hole when looking at the rim from the right hand side. The Key Spoke is a trailing spoke, meaning that it angles backwards from the hub when you look at it straight on.
I lubricate the spoke nipples with a drizzle of automotive oil. This helps the spoke nipples seat against the rim eyelets and move around as needed while you are bringing up the tension on the wheel.
My VO hub looks very nice – it came packaged in this elegant black draw string bag. A touch of marketing finesse. The hub is cold forged and then CNC machined. Hopefully, the cartridge bearings were installed correctly and will last for many thousands of miles. I wear protective gloves for the initial spoke installation. Spoke Prep and automotive oil are bad things to have going into your skin. Later, I’ll take my gloves off for the truing and tensioning process. The night before wheel building, I re-read Sheldon and Jobst’ guides. Since I don’t build wheels every day, it is important to refresh my brain with an overview of the process and of the physics and engineering concepts involved.
The photo above shows the trailing spokes, which are inserted from the outside of the hub shell. You start with the drive side spokes first (after inserting the Key Spoke), then move on to the non drive side. Then you twist the hub clockwise as far as it can go. The above photo shows my wheel after inserting the trailing spokes and twisting the hub clockwise.
Now it is time to install the leading spokes. These spokes are inserted from the inside of the hub and angle toward the front of the bike. In a 36 hole 3 cross pattern, the leading spokes cross over two trailing spokes, and then are laced inside the 3rd spoke before securing them to the rim
Once that is done you have laced your wheel. That is actually the hardest part of this process. Now it is time to begin bringing up the tension on the wheel so that it can be trued and dished.
A source of comfort is seeing that you have installed the Key Spoke correctly and can not only see the hub logo through the valve hole, but you can also see that the valve hole has no crossing spokes above it.
You should now gradually tighten all the spokes so that their overall tension is equal. I follow the musical note method, by plucking the spokes, and bringing them all up to the same level. Then it is time to true the wheel, then check for radial (up down truing), and check for proper dishing. For this particular wheel, the wheel tension came up much quicker than expected, so I ended up backing down the spoke tension after checking the maximum tension for this rim. I use the “musical note method” to check spoke tension, but I also reference my spoke tension back to the rim OEM manufacturers specs, if those can be found. If not, take your tension meter and check other wheels on hand (being mindful that rear wheels and front wheels may have different spoke tension, and that smaller diameter wheels will have higher tension). If you have handled a lot of wheels, you’ll have a feel for proper spoke tension that will be confirmed by using a Tension Meter or a musical note. If not, don’t panic. Rims can tolerate a lot of variance in spoke tension. Mainly, you want to true the wheel, laterally and radially, and bring it into dish. And, it is critical that you relieve spoke stress by mashing the heads of the spokes against the hubs and by pulling pairs of parallel spokes against each other. Also, when you tighten spokes you need to be mindful of spoke wind-up – which happens when the spoke twists instead of the nipple threading into the spoke threads. You can do so by holding a finger over the spoke while tightening to feel for this, and then backing off your effort slightly to unwind the spoke.
Now my wheel is built and its time to install the rim protector. I always use Velox rim protectors for rims with double walls. Be careful not to use too wide a size, as that will prevent the tire from seating correctly. Now, I look forward to installing the wheel and getting back out on the road.