Wheel Building

A custom wheelset offers the combination of factors that best suits your needs. We keep abreast of which rims, hubs and spokes best meet specific needs and can advise on every aspect of the wheel – spoke lacing pattern, type of nipple, and so on. We’re very careful about balancing the trueness and roundness of the wheel while maintaining nice even spoke tension. We have a number of custom made tools to achieve consistently great results.

We build with a large range of brands, because a custom wheelset is all about finding the combination of parts that works for your riding, but of our favourite parts include DT Swiss (both their hubs and their rims), Shimano hubs, H Plus Son rims and Schmidt hubs. We build exclusively with  DT Swiss butted spokes.

In Depth

We’re one of the few bike shops in Melbourne who specialise in custom wheel building and sell far more hand built wheels than factory built wheels at the medium to high end. This page is intended as a discussion of some of the variables involved, and hopefully the huge range of possibilities will highlight why hand built wheels which are tailored to a particular application are going to do that job better than factory-built wheels. Be warned, this page is long and is not a how-to guide. It has some technical discussion of both component choices and then of the process of building itself.

Hubs

When it comes to building a wheel, hub choice will be dictated by what the bike is intended to do and by the sort of wheels required by the bicycle.  There are hubs for disc brakes, internally geared hubs, cassette hubs, freewheel hubs, dynamo hubs, coaster brake hubs and many other types.  Often this is the feature of the wheel that drives the wheel build, so the choice will be already made.  For instance, we make a lot of front wheels with dynohubs to upgrade existing bikes.  Once you know what sort of hubs you want on your bike you’ll still have a number of choices.  The options are too numerous to discuss here, but some of the features deserve to be mentioned.

First, you will often have a choice between hubs with sealed cartridge bearings and alternatives with cup and cone bearings.  Cup and cone bearings are the older option, and are becoming less common. They have their advantages and downsides. For a hub of a certain size cup and cone bearings allow more ball bearings and larger ones and the combination is much more resilient. They are easier to service and can be re-greased or replaced very cheaply.  Finally, because the cones contact with the bearings at an angle they are better at dealing with side loads. The downside to cup and cone hubs is that each model requires a differently shaped cone. Because cones wear from contact with the bearings (especially if they are not well maintained with good clean grease) you will eventually wear out the cones in the hub. If you cannot get the right replacements, the bearings will never run as smoothly as they ought to. Unfortunately, after a few years the manufacturers normally stop making replacement cones for their hubs. Cartridge bearings, on the other hand, are made in standard sizes and can simply be pressed out and replaced.  Furthermore, even when they are used in a poor state they do not damage any integral part of the hub.

We’ll discuss particular hubs elsewhere. Generally though, DT Swiss hubs are great quality and come in a range of specs. They are very robust and often quite light. For many users the DT 350 is a great starting point. You cannot beat Shimano or Novatec for value-for-money.  We’re also big fans of Shimano and Schmidt dynohubs. 

Rims

There are a huge range of rims which suit different applications.  When thinking about rims it is best to have a clear idea of the sort of tyres you want to use, and the sort of brakes you want to use.  The size of the tyres you intend to use determines the width the rim has to be.  Whether or not you intend to use disc brakes determines what shape the sidewalls should be.  

We use too many rims to mention them all, but we’re huge fans of DT Swiss rims. They are really high quality – they arrive round and straight and are very strong and rigid for their weight. A key reason to go for DT Swiss rims is that they come in a huge range of widths and weights, so having picked a rim that suits your intended tyre size you still have options which trade off weight and strength. This means you can tailor your wheels to their intended use, from a racy lightweight wheelset right through to a bomb-proof offroad touring wheelset.

Spokes

Spokes are not something that captures many people’s imagination.  They just aren’t that exciting on their own.  But in a wheel they are immensely important and the right choices when it comes to spokes can separate a good wheel from a bad one.

The first question with spokes is how many to use. This is somewhat driven by the choice of rims and hubs you plan on using. Some rims and hubs are only available in certain drillings. Up to a point, more spokes will make a wheel stronger, stiffer and more reliable. That said, there’s no point going way overboard, and even the small weight savings of lower spoke counts are worth something, if they come at no real cost to the reliability of the wheel. We build the majority of our wheels with 32 spokes, but depending on your application we might advise alternatives.

The next issue with spokes is what gauge to use. On any wheel that will get serious use we will recommend butted spokes of some variety. One benefit of butted spokes is obvious – reduced weight. This is not to be sneezed at, since it’s rotating weight, but it’s certainly not the only reason to use butted spokes. Even without the weight saving we’d be using them for their mechanical properties. It’s counter-intuitive that thinner spokes can make a stronger wheel, but they do. Some people build their touring wheels and MTB wheels with straight gauge spokes thinking they’re getting a stronger wheel, but it’s a big mistake.

Even though butted spokes are thinner in the middle than plain gauge spokes they make for a stronger wheel. The main reason for this is that the two ends of the spoke are concentration points for the stresses in a wheel. The shoulder of the spoke and the end of the threads are the two places where spokes most commonly break. A thinner middle section will flex more under load and so transmit less stress to the weak points at the ends. This flex also means that the load can be shared with more of the adjacent spokes. Both of these points add significantly to the fatigue life of the wheel.

Excluding budgetary constraints, the only good application for unbutted spokes is in wheels where stiffness matters at all costs (e.g. track and trials wheels). That last little bit of stiffness can be bought at the expense of longevity by using plain gauge spokes. Using butted spokes comes with a minor extra difficulty for the builder in the form of wind-up. Tension is added to the spokes by turning the nipples. As the tension on the spoke increases, so does the friction between the threads in the nipple and between the nipple and the rim. At a certain point the spoke will want to twist up rather than move further in the threads. Good lubrication and careful building can get around this though.

The spokes we use are exclusively DT Swiss. The spoke we mostly commonly build with is their Competition. It’s double-butted – 2.0mm at either end and 1.8mm in the middle. It’s a good choice for the majority of wheels. On either side of this are Revolutions and Alpine IIIs. The Revolutions are also double-butted but 1.8mm at the ends and 1.5mm in the middle. This makes them very light, but not as strong or stiff as Competitions. The Alpine IIIs are triple-butted with 2.3mm shoulders, 1.8mm middle-sections and 2.0mm threaded sections. They are very heavy duty and great for loaded touring bikes, tandems and downhill bikes. There are two other spokes that we use less often because they are more expensive, though both are great spokes – Super Comps and Aerolites. The latter are partially bladed and are very very light and very strong. The Super Comps are triple butted, but thinner than the Alpine IIIs, being 1.8mm at the threads, 1.7mm in the middle and 2.0mm at the heads and are great for cross country disc brake wheels (among other things).

The next choice with spokes is what lacing pattern to build the wheel with. The classic choice is 3x where each spoke crosses three other spokes on its way from the hub to the rim. In most cases this is the strongest way to build a wheel, since it puts the spokes closest to 90 degrees leaving the hub (number of spokes and size of flange have an impact on this equation though). This is best because it efficiently transmits drive forces and braking forces between the hub and the rim. There are a number of other options for lacing pattern – 2x and radial being the next most common.

Process

The manual side of wheel building has a reputation as a black art, but although it requires skill, practice and patience it’s not really that mysterious when it comes down to it. There are many slightly different methods people employ, but they all aim at the same thing – producing a wheel that is laterally and radially true within accepted limits, dished correctly, and has spoke tension that is as even and as high as possible. The physical world being what it is, and manufacturing tolerances being what they are, getting each of these variables absolutely perfect is not an option. But the better the quality of your parts the closer you can get. A rim that is straight and round out of the box will be straight and round when all the spokes are pulling evenly. Eventually though, there will be a degree of choice in balancing the goals in order to produce the best possible wheel.

One classic mistake when balancing the variables is to blindly chase lateral run-out and produce a wheel that is as laterally true as possible, without regard for the other variables. For one thing this wheel will not be very radially true and will have little hops in it, which the rider will be able to feel while riding. But more significantly, the spoke tension will be radically uneven and the spokes that are at highest tension will be doing all the work. This means that the wheel won’t last as long (since some spokes do most of the work, and others are so loose that the slacken in use and so fatigue due to the movement from being loaded and unloaded).  It also means that even the lateral trueness of the wheel won’t last very long, since the loose spokes will loosen further and the alignment of the rim will change.

With good quality parts not much compromise will be needed, but where compromise is needed, all factors must be balanced, and the rim must be true enough and round enough, but with some precedence given to evenness of spoke tension. This will produce a stronger wheel that holds its shape better for longer. The only reliable way to do this is to build the wheel using a spoke tensiometer. This is a tool that measures the deflection of the spokes under a load. This deflection can then be translated into an amount of load on the spokes. Any wheel we build will have each of its spokes checked to be sure that variation in tension is minimal. There are people who will tell you that the amount of resistance on the nipple or the pitch of a plucked spoke is enough of a guide to spokes tension. However, the plucking is too blunt an instrument to rely on as a final test since audible differences in pitch are produced by larger changes in tension than are acceptable in a finished wheel. The nipple’s resistance to turning is changed by too many extraneous variables to be a reliable indicator of spoke tension, since the effectiveness of the lubricant used and small variations in the evenness of all the surfaces can add friction without any increase in tension. 

Another common mistake is to build the wheel with insufficient overall spoke tension. This will produce a weaker wheel, prone to breaking spokes at the shoulders, and the extra movement of the rim will make it prone to cracking at the spoke holes.

There are a few techniques that help balance us get even spoke tension on a true round wheel. First, lubrication is key – reducing the friction between the nipple and the spokes and between the nipple and the rim helps a great deal. This will also help the builder bring the overall tension high enough. As mentioned before, building with a tensiometer makes a huge difference, letting the builder achieve a higher degree of evenness of tension and letting them know when they have enough overall tension. Once the balance of tension and trueness has been achieved the wheel is stress-relieved and re-examined. Stressing the spokes does a few things. Firstly, it relieves any wind-up in the spoke.  This creates a pinging sound and the spoke loses tension, because the wind-up that is being removed is effectively shortening the spoke. Secondly, stress-relieving beds the shoulders of the spokes into the flanges of the hub a little bit. Thirdly, stress relieving cold-sets the spokes. By taking the metal in the spokes past its yield point, we change the shape of the spoke, which means that the spoke isn’t trying to return to the shape it was before it was built into a wheel. If there is too much wind-up then stress-relieving will dramatically throw out the balance of the wheel. All of the results of stress-relieving effectively lower over-all spoke tension, and they don’t necessarily do so in a totally even fashion, so another round of tension checking and adjustment is needed (as well as truing). The process is repeated until everything settles in, and further stress relieving makes no difference to the wheel. This stability means that the wheel will hold its shape while being used.

Next, thread-locking compound is used (weak enough that it does not impede later truing), rim tape is applied and the wheel is ready.

If you want a handbuilt wheelset you can email us, drop in or call us and we can talk about the best way to balance all these variables for your bike. We’re also always happy to build wheels for interstate customers and ship them to you.