Building bicycle wheels: the best builder is you

Fifty miles in, the bicycle wheels I built for myself a few days ago are as true as an arrow from Robin Hood's bow. They did not fly into pieces at the first bump in the road and there is no reason why they should. Bicycle wheel building is much easier than, say, knitting or basket weaving. The difference between a wheel built by a professional and one that you build yourself is probably about two hours – a pro will build them a lot faster – but yours will be as good, or possibly better.

The most difficult part is calculating the length of the spokes to buy. The bike shop might do it for you but it's worth checking because my LBS got them wrong. Some measurements are required but they can usually be found online. Mine were:

Shimano Deore XT HB-M756L front hub measurements:
Left flange diameter 61.0 mm
Right flange diameter 61.0 mm
Centre to right flange 31.7 mm
Centre to left flange 21.1 mm
Spoke hole diameter 2.6 mm

Shimano Deore XT FH-M756L rear hub measurements:
Left flange diameter 61.0 mm
Right flange diameter 61.0 mm
Centre to right flange 18.5 mm
Centre to left flange 32.0 mm
Spoke hole diameter 2.6 mm

DT Swiss TK540 rim diameter (ERD):
600 mm

Spokes required (using the DT Swiss online spoke length calculator):
Front: L 290 mm R 292 mm
Rear: L 291 mm R 290 mm

The rest is very easy. It only requires a methodical approach. So I followed my own instructions from a couple of years ago and it was just as straightforward as it had been then. It also helps to have a built-up wheel to check the lacing against but it must be the same pattern, conventional three cross in my case.

However, there is a decision to make. Trailing spokes can be fitted with their heads either inboard or outboard of the hub flanges and here, there are two opposing schools of thought. If it matters, it matters more on the rear wheel because trailing spokes – the ones which at the hub are angled backwards from the direction of the wheel's rotation – are the spokes that deliver pedal power to the rim. On a bicycle with braking discs attached to the hubs, the leading spokes – the spokes that point from the hub towards the direction of rotation – receive the braking forces.

The significance of heads inboard or heads outboard is that the strains from pedalling begin from a more direct line when the heads of trailing spokes are on the outside of the hub flange. As these spokes emerge from the inside of the flange (on the opposite side from the head) they are closer to the centreline of the bicycle. In one sense this is better but they will be bent over the third spoke they cross, pulling their line of travel outboard. Instinctively I would rather have most of the length of power spokes – which happens to be the part leading to the rim – acting from closer to the centreline so I've laced my wheels with trailing spoke heads inboard (see photos below).



In the centre of the second photo, against the right edge of the hub, a trailing spoke (head inboard) crosses under a leading spoke (head outboard) which pulls it inboard towards the centreline of the bicycle. I prefer this. Others may disagree. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

Either way, a self-builder can more easily afford to spend whatever time it takes to tension the spokes so that the wheel is perfectly true and that all the spokes on any side are pulling equally, subject to normal imperfections in the construction of the rim. I've often seen references to the 'art' of bicycle wheelbuilding – this is nonsense. There is not the slightest bit of art involved, except perhaps in hearing that the musical pitch of one plucked spoke is the same as the next.

New wheels fitted to bike

Rims: DT Swiss TK540
Hubs: Shimano Deore XT
Spokes: DT Swiss Alpine III
Tyres: Vittoria Cross XN Pro
Rotors: Teppan Yaki SP5
Cassette: Shimano Deore XT

Also on this website: lacing a bicycle wheel and truing a bicycle wheel (Nov 09)

15 comments on “Building bicycle wheels: the best builder is you”

  1. Stephen Almond wrote:

    Excellent stuff, Patrick. You've inspired me to have a go myself...


  2. Patrick wrote:

    Great! Do let us know how you get on.

  3. Garry wrote:

    I've built wheels for more than 20 years and it does take me time but when you get it right the wheel is perfect.
    Something that is not stressed enough in the books is that a rigid stiff rim, especially with a triangular or deep cross-section, gives less trouble than an old-fashioned light one.

    There are spoke-length calculators on line where you measure variables and put them in and you can calculate the length of the spokes, or Jobst Brandt's book has the formula.
    Being able to true a wheel is a very handy skill for bike-touring.

  4. Hilary wrote:

    You make it sound so easy Patrick! But I'm still not convinced!! At the mention of flange diameters, spoke length calculators, inboard or outboard heads I'm afraid I can feel my eyes glazing over, it seems like all those things I could never understand in geometry lessons at school. Maths and physics have always been a complete mystery to me and I suspect that a certain aptitude for these things is necessary for successful wheel building. I'm also not sure that I could tell by eye whether my creation (if it ever got that far) was perfectly true or not. It must be a very satisfying thing to do but I just don't think its for me.

    I'm also puzzled by why, if its so straightforward, some people eg Harry Rowland, Pete Matthews or Steve Gravenites (USA) are considered 'great' wheelbuilders. Is it their ability to select components that exactly match the customers' requirements as well as their technical skill? I don't know.

    My cycling library includes a copy of Jobst Brandt's 'The Bicycle Wheel' but I'm afraid that is as far as my wheel building is ever likely to get.

  5. Patrick wrote:

    Hilary wrote: 'great' wheelbuilders / their ability to select components that exactly match the customers' requirements

    You might be right there Hilary, together with in-depth knowledge and experience to deal with all situations and types of wheel, not just average ones like mine.

    Given the same components, though, I don't see a reason why they would true a wheel any better than a patient amateur. A spoke and nipple are essentially an elongated nut and bolt. You just feed the 'bolts' through the holes and tighten the 'nuts'. After that the only variable is the turns of a spoke key and an element of visual judgement, but you can narrow this down with sticky tape and whatnot. I think Garry is right: very handy for bike-touring.

  6. Kern wrote:

    Good article, Patrick, though I'm more inclined to Hilary's school of thought. I think wheel building is one of those character-building experiences in life – it looks like sorcery until you've tried it.

    Garry is right, though – being able to true a wheel would be a very handy skill for touring. We have relied on an LBS twice on our tours – maybe it's time to ratchet up the skills.

  7. Patrick wrote:

    Well Kern, there is no better time of year for a relaxing evening with the spoke key. Find an old wheel and take it to pieces on the kitchen table, then crack open some wine and put it back together.

  8. Hilary wrote:

    Patrick wrote

    crack open some wine and put it back together.

    Then it definitely wouldn't be true!

    I agree its certainly a good skill to have.
    This post has got me pondering what I would like for my perfect wheels (not that there is anything wrong with the 2 pairs I have altho 1 front rim will need replacing soon). I've got as far as Royce hubs, possibly Ambrosio Excellence rims and whatever spokes the builder recommends. The cost of getting someone to build them for me will be a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of the components. Maybe 32 spoke rear, 28 front. I'm going for fast and light (and very shiny) here. May need a lottery win tho, still, I can dream......! 🙂

  9. Patrick wrote:

    Bladed spokes Hilary, then you will be set up for your forthcoming sportives!

  10. jim wrote:

    I recently had a mishap on my French tour when the rear mech decided to bury itself in the wheel taking the chain with it. This was on a forest path in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain. I eventually dismantled everything and shortened the chain to run on one cog but the spokes had been bent in the wheel and the wheel was so far out of true it was rubbing on the frame. With the wheel in situ I bent the spokes straight as much as possible and then just by instinct and desperation trued the wheel using the small tool in a cheap kit. I managed to get the wheel rideable and carried on with the tour [I've sadly got a picture of the damage somewhere, but can't post it]. On returning home I took the wheel to the LBS to be trued properly. He said it was hardly out of true and did not really need any adjusting. So I thought, well done me, I can true a wheel. I recently had a wheel on another bike running out of true so I confidently decided to do it myself. I made such a cock of it it was miles out by the time I had finished with it. Wobble city. Moral of this long boring tale. For me. take it to the LBS. I don't have the patience or the skill. The French thing was just good luck.

  11. Kern wrote:

    Your tale, Jim, validates Patrick's advice. That bottle of French wine you consumed before heading into the forest must have done the trick :). (For me it would take a case.)

  12. Chris wrote:

    The difference between the price at which I could buy the individual components and the amount of money "my" wheelbuilder charges for the custom wheels I want is so small that it wouldn't justify the time it would take me to attempt to build a pair of wheels.

    There's no doubt a great feeling of cycling along with the knowledge that you have built your own wheels, but I'm probably just too much of a wuss to risk it 🙁

  13. Col wrote:

    Hi, I came across this old thread while looking for advice on wheel building. The spoked bicycle wheel is amazingly resilient and tough.
    It reminded me of an occasion back in the late 70's while out on a training run in Normandy, I came across a guy sat forlornly by the side of the road, bike on it's side, front wheel out and almost in a figure 8. Poor guy had been side swiped by a car and knocked into a ditch.
    He was a bit knocked about and miles from home. I had a spoke key on me and offered to help. I whipped off the tub and used a lot of force to pull the rim straight before getting to work with the key. In about 15 mins I had the wheel running reasonably straight as the spokes weren't really bent, just the rim, but it had no creases. He was amazed it was strong enough to ride and we rode slowly to the a bicycle shop about 10km away and had a coffee together while they rebuilt the wheel properly. There was a gorgeous pink Mercier in the shop window. He didn't have enough on him to pay for this unexpected repair but the guys in the shop trusted him to come back 😀

  14. Patrick wrote:

    Col wrote: ...I whipped off the tub and used a lot of force to pull the rim straight before getting to work with the key. In about 15 mins I had the wheel running reasonably straight...

    Well done!

  15. Paul wrote:

    Nice article, and good encouragement for a first time builder. I built a set of wheels (my first and only, so far) as a college student back in 1982. Took my time, used Brandt's book as a guide, and my bike frame as the building stand and dishing guide. Project was very successful. But I'm a detail guy (and was finishing my Mechanical Engineering degree), so it was a good challenge for me.

    I rode these wheels about 1,000 miles with a fully loaded bike on Wisconsin and Michigan back-road bike tours, a few years commuting to school in Madison, WI, and all the years in between. Still true, still going strong.

    I would highly recommend building if you are a DIY'er and get satisfaction of building your own, and it is excellent for understanding what makes a wheel work.

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