Wheel Building: A First Attempt

Recently I broke the rear axle on my touring bike, and after inspecting the hub, I noticed that the hub was missing chunks of metal and was riddled with stress fractures, so I decided to replace the wheel. I bought The Bicycle Wheel last Winter and I’ve been looking for a good excuse to build a wheel after reading it, so I decided this was the perfect time to build a wheelset.

Component Selection

Front Wheel

Rear Wheel

I currently work at a bike shop and I get a great employee discount, so I decided to go hog wild on the spokes and hubs. After seeing the somewhat scary condition of my old hub after taking a long tour, I felt that getting the Phil Wood hub was justified. Also, I do a fair bit of night riding, so I’m excited to be able to ride at night and not worry about batteries being charged. The spokes are marketed as some of the most durable, so hopefully that will be the case since I intend to do some loaded touring and commuting on these wheels. I cheaped out on the rims since I figured switching to a double walled rim would be a significantly big upgrade. However, my mechanic friend pointed out that the main disadvantage of lower end rims is that they are manufactured to lower tolerances, so it is much more difficult to make a true wheel with very low variances in spoke tension. Also, Mavic and higher-end rim producers publish the maximum tension that a rim is capable of holding whereas with the Chinese manufactured Weinmann rims, you just have to guess (or call the manufacturer and ask, but unfortunately I do not speak Chinese).

Also, I think it is amazingly lucky that I was able to use the same size spokes for both hubs. This made it so I could just buy a box of very nice spokes which would not normally be stocked at a shop.

The Build

With a box of spokes, a pair of rims, a pair of very nice hubs, a bottle of triflow, a tube of anti-seize compound and The Bicycle Wheel at my side I began to work. I used triflow to lubricate the nipple holes in the rims and anti-seize to lubricate the threads. I chose to use anti-seize since I was threading a steel alloy into an aluminum alloy (Alpine III spokes come with alloy nipples). I more competent wheel builder would have used spoke prep, so I’ll have to try that next time.

I used a cross three lacing pattern for both wheels and just followed the procedure in The Bicycle Wheel to do the lacing. The only revelation that occurred here was that it is very important to give everything the same amount of turns and to make sure that the nipples are seated after the hub is rotated.

Truing and tensioning was a very long process. I think I had the wheels in a truing stand for about 7 hours when it was all said and done. My routine for tensioning was to true laterally and radially, check dishing, and increase tension. I did this until I had a spoke that had the same tension as the maximum tension for the wheel, then I prestressed the wheel using the method outlined in The Bicycle Wheel and checked true. The problem with this method was that I never took any steps to ensure that the spokes had even tension, so when I put the wheels on the first time, there was a catastrophic loss of tension. I was talking with some mechanics and the owner of the shop I work at about what I did wrong, and they convinced me that the wheels were probably undertensioned and the tension had too high of a variance between the spokes, so I retensioned the wheels but modified my method to make equalization of spoke tension a priority. When correcting radial true, I looked for spokes that had relatively low tension and tightened them in order to correct true. For lateral truing, I looked for spokes that were relatively tight or loose to correct the true and during the tensioning step, I tightened relatively loose spokes more than the other spokes.

During this process, I finally appreciated why wheel building is sometimes thought of as an art. When correcting true, it is not obvious which spoke causes the wheel to go out of true. Sometimes, the spokes at the maximum deviations from true are the culprits for pulling the wheel out of true, but sometimes, there are spokes which are adjacent to the deviation which cause the deviation and the spokes which are contained in the deviation are tensioned properly. Finding these spokes is not easy (for me, even with the aid of a tension meter), although I imagine the ability to find these spokes quickly and reliably is an important trait of a good wheel builder.

The Finished Product

My first wheelset