Building wheels

I have a serious bias towards hand built wheels.  I’ve developed this bias from a handful of bad experiences I’ve had with mass-produced bike wheels.  The worst of these was the first time I raced in the VT 50; all the spokes in my rear wheel became loose almost half way into the race.  They were so loose that I could “rotate” the wheel three to four inches with the disc brake locked up.  I ended up riding over 25 miles with this loose wheel and went from 7th place to 35th by the finish.  Thanks.   I’ve also had problems with broken spokes or wheels that wouldn’t stay true without frequent attention with other manufactured wheels I’ve owned.

Wheel PartsOn the other hand, the hand built wheels I’ve owned have been notably trouble-free.  Generally, they  haven’t even required truing over their lives other than to repair damage done from sticks or rim damage from hitting a rock.  I was able to ride several of these wheels for years without touching them with a spoke wrench.  I think there is still some subjective aspect to building a good bicycle wheel that the automated processes doesn’t seem to address.  Regardless of the reasons, I love a good hand built wheel, and doing it myself is even more enjoyable.

I built my first wheel from scratch when I was 12 years old.  I was replacing the rear wheel on a bmx bike that I had trashed.  I bought the parts from a shop and then studied the wheel on another bicycle to see how it was all supposed to go together.  It came out okay but it had a slight hop in it that I never did correct.  Still, it wasn’t bad considering my inexperience and not having any tools other than a cheap K-mart spoke wrench.

Since then, I’ve built up a few sets of wheels with significantly better results.  I’ve also done a lot of repair work and replacing rims that I wore out (the big down side to rim brakes).  I’m far from being a master of this skill, but I can get the job done adequately for my needs.

I finally have all the parts together to build up the wheels for my current project.  The rims are Salsa’s Semi which I got a really great deal on from Five Hills Bike Shop.  I like wide rims and these fit the bill perfectly.  I’m building up the wheels with a set of White Industries disc hubs.  This will be the second time I’ve had an ENO hub.  The hubs are exceptionally well made and spin smooth as butter through years of hard use.  They make an amazing freewheel too.  I’ll be tying it all together with some double-butted (14/15/14) spokes.

Lacing up the rear wheel
Way too much concentration here.

I will be lacing up the wheels using a cross-3 pattern. I see no need for anything more.  There are other spoke patterns:  cross-2, twisted or radial lacing; but I don’t believe that any of them offer any real advantage, although they do look really nice sometimes.  With cross-2 or radial lacing you actually end up with a wheel that is structurally weaker.  In most cases, the weight savings of these other patterns is roughly what you would get from taking the change out of your pockets at the end of the day.   The same technical advantages can be experienced by closing your eyes and pretending that you’re winning the Tour de France – that too, will be in your imagination.  Cross-3 is strong, light enough and extremely well proven.  Okay, I’m a Luddite on this one but I know it works.

I will post photos of the build process in a few days depending on how much time I am able to put into these wheels.


4 thoughts on “Building wheels

  1. Pingback: Jabberwocky Review « Single-Speed Slogging

  2. TJ

    Wow, small world Mark! I was just searching the internet on this exact subject and one of the 1st things to come up was your blog entry. During the VT50 Sunday my rear wheel nearly disintegrated with about 15 miles to go, which cost me a bit of time and a several spots (I was not far back from 2nd place singlespeed but ended up 4th). After limping in to the finish line and examining the wheel I found every spoke was loose on the rear wheel (Stans ZTR Crest) but it somehow stayed together long enough for me to finish thankfully!

    Anyhow, I’m relatively inexperienced when it comes to wheel building but have a truing stand but no tensiometer. I dont understand why the spokes would have come loose like this…any suggestions? Also, any thoughts on the use of oil or loktite on the nipple threads? Ive heard of guys using one or the other but havent experimented myself. I plan to rebuild it this weekend as the radial true is pretty messed up and want to make sure this doesnt happen again.

    Thanks, TJ

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