Good reasons for building your own wheels

Making your own wheels is one of the most satisfying tasks you can master as a classic bike restorer. There are many benefits and possibilities, and you will save a bundle of cash. Checking the wheels of a project bike for restoration is the next thing that you should do after sizing up the frame for rust and alignment. If those wheels are true, all is usually well, although spokes may need re-tightening. If they are a little out of true but basically undamaged, you can true them yourself.

Supposing that you really want the bike but the rims are buckled, or some spokes are broken, or it has a single speed and you want a gear hub? You don't want the expense of buying new wheels. Perhaps you have already cut a nice hub out of another wheel of a different size. Maybe you want to change the rim from steel to aluminium, a worthwhile upgrade. The solution is to build your own wheels.

It's dead easy too: measure the rim and hub and count the holes; put the stats into a spoke length calculator; buy the right size spokes from an online bike shop; put them all in and tighten them up and the job's a good un. Riding on a set of true, sparkling and tight wheels, that you have built yourself with stainless steel spokes, is one of the joys of cycling. The wheels are what other people will look at almost before the paintwork. Although a proper wheel-truing stand can make the process quicker, it is not essential equipment. A set of forks is adequate.

There are some very good sites on the internet to help bicycle wheelbuilders, so on this page I shall not attempt to write another exhaustive account. Instead, I will show you my method and explain some of the nuances of building wheels that I have not seen described elsewhere. Also, I've designed some useful spoking patterns to adapt hubs that have a certain number of holes into rims that have a different number of holes.

Are small wheels easier to build than big wheels?

Silver wheels thumbSome things are a bit easier, like truing, but some thing are harder, like dishing. A small wheel is intrinsically stronger than a large one because the curve of the rim has a much smaller radius. The rim alone is a mechanically stronger, stiffer shape. In short, you can get away with more unevenly tensioned spokes on a small wheel without it relaxing into a wobble. That makes it easier to build.

The wheelbuilding process

The first step is to measure your hub and rim carefully to ensure that you buy the right sizes of spoke. This is critical. You must measure to the nearest millimetre if you possibly can. Spokes that arrive two millimetres too long seem far longer than they should be, and the same (but opposite) is true of spokes two millimetres shorter. For a spoke calculator I habitually go to the Wheelpro website which is a very fast calculator. It used to have a lot more information about measuring rims that has now been deleted.

The best method is to screw nipples on to two spokes, preferably of equal length. The nipples should be screwed down so that the spoke ends are a millimetre from the bottom of the slot in the nipple. Now thread the spokes through opposite holes in the rim and pull the nipples into the holes in the rim. If the spokes do not meet in the middle of the rim at the J ends, measure the distance between the end of the spokes at the inner curve of the J shape. Record this value. The Effective Rim Diameter (ERD) is the length of both spokes plus the distance that you have measured. Use this value in the rim calculator.

Surprisingly, you can afford to be less accurate in the hub measurement than the rim measurement, which is a good thing as I will explain. A correct geometric approach would be to measure the spokes from the very tip at the thread to the centre of the spoke after it has been bent 90 degrees, just under the nipple. But I can assure you that it is common practice among bicycle shops and spoke suppliers to measure the spoke length by pressing the end of a ruler under the button of the spoke and reading off the length at the other end. That is, the measurement is from the inside edge of the J bend, not the axis of the spoke just below the mushroom.

When it comes to the hub, the pitch circle diameter of the spoke holes is generally measured to the centres of the holes, not the outer edges. There is an obvious discrepancy about these two methods which is irritating. On a big wheel, long spokes are stretchy and a couple of millimetres either way is not a problem, but on a 16" wheel, it makes a big difference. Vexatiously, spokes will commonly arrive 2mm too long.

The lengths of spokes produced by Wheelpro depends on the number of spoke crossings. The output gives you a choice of patterns: radial, one cross, two cross, three cross and four cross. Generally, wheels for Moultons have spokes that cross twice while larger wheels cross three times. 28 hole wheels are only capable of a maximum of two crosses whilst 36 hole wheels can cross up to three times. This applies even to small wheels.

The reason for crossing spokes is to allow you to drive the rear wheel, or use a hub brake on the rear or front. Front wheels that have no hub brake may be spoked radially if the hub is a new one of a good quality. It is wrong to think that the more spoke crossings the better. The only important factor is the angle between a tangent on the hub flange and the spoke. One-cross can be sufficient on the rear of a small wheel, but does not give quite such an interesting pattern as two cross.

Spokes can be bought online in almost any common length from St. John Street Cycles at around 30p each plus p&p. They have stayed at this price for 10 years. Get stainless spokes; they look much nicer, they don't go dull over time and they are stronger. I personally prefer Sapim stainless spokes because they seem nicely made and I like the impressed logo. I buy these on ebay from "Ryan Builds Wheels". The delivery is fast and they do very short spokes. Once you have spokes, a spoke key, a screwdriver and a bit of light oil in a jar lid, take your rim and hub and you can begin.

Lacing up a wheel

I'm using a small wheel because it fits into the photo without reducing the size of the hub too much. However, this method can be used for any wheel and hub size. Front Dynohubs have keyhole slots for the spokes on the small flange side that makes lacing easier, but you need to put in a steel peg to hold the spoke head until it is tightened. This will be shown later. If you are viewing the page on a smartphone you may prefer landscape view. All the images are expandable in a new window.

Screw the nuts on to the axle and put the bottom one in the vice to hold the hub pointing vertically upwards. Protect the nut if your vice has rough jaws. (Mine is quite smooth). Dip the thread of the spoke ends in light oil and drop spokes through the flange using every second hole. This is a 28 hole hub so there will be 7 spokes to start with.  First laced bench thumb
Now take a close look at your rim and see which holes are closer to the edge on the side you are building first. Begin by putting a spoke through one of these holes and screwing on a nipple. Do the same for the other spokes missing out three holes in between. When you have put all seven in, it will look like this. Screw the nipples on so that there is still 3mm of thread showing to begin with.  Second stage thumb
Next, you have to put a spoke in that will pull the first spoke near the valve hole away from the hole. Very important. In a small wheel, the new spoke will cross two others. Note that this time the spoke is pushed upwards through the hub flange hole. On a small wheel, do not weave the spokes under other spokes.
 First side laced thumb
Continue putting the second group of seven spokes in the first side in exactly the same way, screwing on the nipples with 3mm of thread still showing as before. As they go in, you will begin to get some idea of whether the spokes are the correct length. Do not forget to dip spoke threads in light oil before putting on the nipples.  First side laced thumb
Here is the wheel with the first side completed. That didn't take long, did it? And nothing difficult about it. Now screw up the nipples so that they all just cover the threads. Provided that this does not make the first side of the wheel too tight of course.  First laced bench thumb
Begin the second side by putting in the spoke that will go through the hole next to the valve. This spoke should come through the hub hole from the outside in. Note that holes in the hub flanges are not directly opposite one another but staggered. My new spoke is to the left of the valve hole. Look at how it relates to the closest spoke to the left on the other side of the wheel; one hole anticlockwise on both the rim and hub. Trial and error will prevail.  Side two first spoke thumb
Continue around the wheel clockwise putting in spokes from the outside in and through every second hole in the hub. As you did in the first side, miss three holes on the rim between the last spoke you put in and the one you are fitting. (Of course, two of these missed holes do already have spokes in them from the other side. In practice you miss one empty hole). Don't worry if you have to put a curve in a spoke to get it in position. It will straighten.  Side two lacing thumb
All the tricky work is done now. In the last stage, push the final seven spokes through from the inside of the flange out and connect them to the appropriate holes in the rim. That is, crossing two spokes. Screw the nipples onto all the spokes to just cover the threads, if this can be done with the fingers. It is important to try and start truing with the wheel as evenly set up as possible before attempting to tighten the spokes and true the wheel.  Lacing complete thumb


Truing the wheel

The cover below is from Raleigh's wheelbuilding manual for overseas outlets. There are some nice diagrams inside but it is all copyrighted. The wheel stand that the truing craftsman is using is identical to the one that is in my workshop. As you can see, it is a very simple device with no special equipment fitted to it. In fact, a set of forks is quite adequate as long as you have some way of holding a piece of chalk steady that can highlight areas of the rim that need attention. Put another way, a clamped-on piece of wood positioned close to the rim as it is spun round. Hold the chalk against the wood and it will mark high spots on the rim as they pass.

Raleigh wheelbuildNote almost all front hubs have a width of 100mm, or close to this. An old set of front forks in a vice makes a great front wheel truing stand. For the back wheel, you could modify a second pair of front forks by bending the blades out with a bar, and filing the dropout slots to take a thicker axle. Or just use part of an old frame. Moulton owners have it a little easier as an old pair of rear forks in the vice makes an ideal truing stand.

Now comes the fun part. There are three things that you need to do to the rim in order to finish your wheel:

  • Remove the side-to-side wobble
  • Remove the high-and-low (radial) variation
  • Tighten the spokes up

Put the wheel in your jig and clamp on a piece of wood that comes very close to the outside of the rim but does not touch it. When you spin the wheel, it will be out of true side-to-side and also move in and out relative to the hub. Let the "in" movement be called a low spot and the "out" movement a high spot. Highs and lows are trickier to remove than the side-to-side wobble, so to begin with, work on radial variation. After saying that, if your rim moves more than a few mm side-to-side, you need to get rid of that before you can spot the highs and lows.

Some important points to start with

  • Remember to turn nipples: Righty tighty; Leftie loosie
  • When you tighten spokes on the right side of the wheel, the rim will move over to the right.
  • When you tighten spokes on the left side of the wheel, the rim will move over to the left.
  • If you tighten spokes on the left and right at the same time, the rim will be pulled in lower.
  • If you loosen spokes on the left and right at the same time, the rim will be spring out higher.
  • Use a well-fitting screwdriver in the nipple heads for most of the work. It is much quicker and easier than a spoke key.
  • Move on to a spoke key at the end if necessary. Your spokes will probably be gauge 14. The 15 slot in the spoke key is often a snugger fit.
  • Spokes that are tighter will have a higher musical pitch when plucked. This should be no surprise to anyone who plays a stringed musical instrument.
  • It is helpful to get all the spokes to similar tension quickly, and increase that tension evenly and steadily as the work progresses.
  • The wheel is easier to true if you work with the spokes at lower tension. Only increase the spoke tension towards the end.
  • The object is to have every single spoke pulling on the rim at very similar tension. No slackers!
  • If you are making a dished wheel, all of the spokes on the flatter side (usually the drivetrain side) will be at a higher tension than those on the left hand side.
  • Do not tighten or loosen a nipple any more than one turn at a time before moving on to the next. It is a gradual process.

Preparing the wheel for work

Initially, if the rim is making a single rapid wobble over to one side when spun, pluck the spokes on that side to find if there is a tight one. It will have a much higher musical note and may be shorter than the others. If so, loosen it off until the pitch lowers to a similar tone to the others. Go around the wheel loosening spokes in areas where the rim is pulling over to that side. Eventually, you should have a rim that will be fairly true when spun, or drifting left and right more gradually. Plucking the spokes will give a low "dum" sound, because none are resonating.

Start at the valve hole, and give each nipple a complete turn, moving around the wheel until you come back to the valve hole. Pluck the spokes again to see if the pitch has risen. Repeat the single turn spoke tightening, always going completely round the wheel from the valve hole, until you start to hear the musical tone rise in some spokes.

What you want is to even out the tension in the spokes as soon as you can so that although the wheel may not be true, at least there are no spokes doing absolutely nothing. Of course, the initial spoke tension setting you are aiming for is very low- just a "working tension". The musical pitch should be just a bit higher than the "dum" sound.

So, keep going around the wheel but leave those spokes that are already free of slack and just tighten the loose ones. If the wheel is pulling over to one side, slacken the nipples of the spokes on that side and tighten the nipples on the other side, but only a half turn. Hopefully, the rim will stay within a side-to-side variation of 10mm.

Correcting the high and low

Now you have prepared the wheel, it will respond to the nipples in a predictable way. Provided there is not too much side-to-side play, you can now tackle the highs and lows. These are likely to move in and out by up to a few mm initially. It is virtually impossible to correct radial discrepancies when the wheel is tight, but quite easy at the beginning. First, spin the wheel and hold a piece of chalk near the rim, using your wood as a steadying guide. The high spot will be chalked as it passes.

Find the middle of this and screw in the nipple closest to the middle of the high spot two turns, the nipples either side two turns and the next nipples either side one turn. The idea is that tightening spokes evenly on both sides of the wheel will pull the rim in.Note that the amount that you screw the nipple in is the actual amount that the rim itself will be pulled in. So, for example if you turn the nipples two turns, the rim will only move in about 1mm. Spin the wheel to see the effect and repeat the process until the high spot reduces. There may be more than one high spot, in which case you will have to chalk the rim again to mark it and carry out the nipple tightening on the second area.

Mid stage- preparing the wheel for truing

lacing hub smallGo around the wheel plucking all the spokes and looking for slackers- there's bound to be a few. Bring them up to the low tension of the other spokes. Now start at the valve hole and tighten all the spokes a half a turn until you get back to the valve hole. Repeat this step. Now pluck them all again and even the tension by tightening lower tension spokes. You should aim to have spokes on both sides of the wheel the same tension, for a wheel that is not dished. Note that if spokes are touching where they cross, the musical tone may not ring properly; pull the spokes apart before plucking in this case. You have not even begun to tackle side-to-side trueness at this stage.

Next, you will do something that seems harsh, but it is imperative. Go around the wheel grasping pairs of adjacent spokes and squeezing them together hard, as hard as you can without hurting your fingers. I generally squeeze all the seven parallel pairs on one side, then do the same on the other side, then squeeze the spokes across the wheel. The idea is to try and stretch the spokes a bit and also to pull the nipples against the rim. A nipple will sink into an alloy rim a little. Also, the spoke "necks" may un-bend slightly and the heads pull more firmly into the hub holes.

When you've done this, pluck all the spokes and note how the pitch has dropped right back close to the "dum" sound. Start at the valve hole, go around tightening each nipple a half turn until you have done all of them and re-test the spokes by plucking. Repeat the tightening process if the pitch still seems very low. Do any slackers more than the others to even the tension.

Correcting side-to-side variation

The main reason that we leave the actual truing to the end is because it is really quite easy to move the wheel to one side or the other. The essential evenness of the spoke tension is important to get right, and you must have this under control before you begin truing. Essentially, the simple rule is to tighten spokes on the left to make the rim go to the left and tighten spokes on the right to make the rim go to the right. You use chalk to mark the spots where the rim trends to the right, then loosen spokes on the right and tighten spokes on the left to correct it.

Note that it is a gradual process. Unlike the radial correction, the sideways movement of the rim is very responsive to nipple adjustment. You should screw the nipples in only half turns at the most. Also, the rim may make a short wobble over to one side or a long wobble, so the number of spokes that are useful in correcting it will vary. Typically it could be five or seven spokes. Don't be afraid to loosen spokes as well as tighten the opposite spokes if the rim is not moving into line.

Up to this stage you should still be able to work with a screwdriver. Sometimes the spokes are on the long side and the ends push the screwdriver out of the slot. Then you have to resort to the spoke key. Think carefully about which way to turn it to get the result you want

How do you know if the wheel is on the centreline or whether you are inadvertently dishing it? In other words, how can you tell where the centreline is? Now, the process I've described above applies to a symmetrical wheel, not a dished wheel, and the thing that keeps it symmetrical is that all the spokes were tested to be at the same tension. When you have reduced the side-to-side variation to less than about 3mm, go back to mid-stage process. Pluck all the spokes in turn, tighten the slackers, raise the tension by half a turn of the nipples, squeeze the spokes, re-tighten. Then, carry out the truing stage again. If the spoke musical tones are all approximately the same, the wheel should be very close to the centreline.

This can be easily checked by marking the position of one rim edge on the wood guide. Take the wheel out of the stand, turn it around so that right becomes left and vice-versa. Put it back in the stand and check the new position of the rim edge. If it lines up as before, you're fine. If not, your wheel does have a minor unintended dish so make another mark on the wood. The correct position of the rim edge will be half way between your two marks.

Supposing that the rim is too far over to the left, start at the valve hole and loosen all the spokes on the left of the wheel by half a turn. When you are back at the valve hole, tighten all the spokes on the right half a turn. Repeat this process until the rim reaches the centre of your two edge marks. This method is not the best way to dish wheels deliberately by any desired amount. The good news is that you can make a perfectly accurate dishing tool from a piece of cardboard cereal packet. That is a digression that I will come back to when discussing building rear wheels.

Finishing the wheel

By now, you should be getting the picture that building a wheel involves repeating a small number of tasks that gradually produce a truer and tighter wheel. It sounds more involved in writing than it actually is in practice. It is all a question of diving in and having a go.

Some useful things you pick up after a while are knowing to turn the nipples tighter in the middle of a variation and "feather" the increased tension to the ends of the wobble. Also, when you tighten a spoke, the spokes next to it will become looser. In fact, all the spokes have an effect on other spokes, which is why odd variations appear out of the blue. If you loosen, say, seven spokes next to one another, it does not mean that those seven spokes will all be loose, because other spokes will still be able to pull them tight.

To finish the wheel, you must raise the tension in the spokes fairly high. Start at the valve hole and go around tightening every spoke half a turn, or a whole turn if you are confident. Pluck to check the tensions, even them, correct the trueness and tighten again. Correcting minor trueness errors at this stage usually only means tightening on one side, not loosening. You should repeat this, moving on to the spoke key, until either you get pinging or ticking noises at the nipples or it feels as if the spoke key might slip and damage the nipple. Finally, give the spokes a good squeeze and re-check tension by plucking. By this time, you will find that squeezing does not affect musical pitch. The wheel will be stable and long-lasting in use.

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