Lacing a bicycle wheel

I made this today. It took about 50 minutes. Doesn't look right, but it is, so far.

Completed bicycle wheel

It must be the angle of the photo, because I've checked it carefully and it's right. The wheel isn't quite true yet but it's at least correctly laced. On the basis that lacing and truing a cycle wheel can't be so different from stringing a guitar, which I've done many times, I'm building my first: a 36-spoke touring bike front wheel in what is known as a cross 3 pattern. If this works, I'll try the rear wheel next.

Spoking the wheel

The first 9 spokes

Copying the arrangement on one of my other wheels, I began by installing 9 spokes on the right hand side – the same side as the freewheel if I was building a rear wheel – although this is a front wheel. It's important to begin at the correct hole with the first spoke, known as the key spoke. The holes in the rim are not in the centre but alternate from slightly to the left to slightly to the right of the centreline. The spokes are fitted accordingly; right to right and left to left from the rim to the hub. The correct hole for the first spoke is the first right hand side hole anti-clockwise from the valve hole, so that the valve is positioned between two spokes that are parallel, not crossed (more room for the pump).

When fitting the first 9 spokes there should be one empty hole between each spoke at the flange of the hub, and three empty holes between each spoke at the rim, and all the holes with a spoke should be on the same side of the rim as the flange. They should all pass through the flange in the same direction. Mine go from inside to out.

The second 9 spokes

Then I did the same on the left hand side. Again, it's important to begin at the correct hole. The holes in the right and left flanges of the hub aren't exactly opposite each other. They're slightly offset from one side to the other, so that the distance from each hole to its corresponding hole in the rim is exactly the same for all spokes. Installing the next spoke takes a bit of extra care. Looking at the wheel from the right hand side, the correct hole for the first spoke on the left flange is the first one anti-clockwise from the hole with the key spoke on the right flange. I rested a spoke across the flange to locate the exact one.

So the holes for the second set of 9 spokes – the first ones to be fitted on the left side of the wheel – follow the holes for the first 9 spokes in an anti-clockwise direction.

All these 18 spokes are pushed through the flange of the hub from the inside, then through the holes in the rim, where a nipple is screwed on from the outside. Just a few turns on each nipple. Everything is pretty loose at this stage.

The remaining 18 spokes

The hub is now turned anti-clockwise in relation to the rim so that the spokes 'trail' backwards, allowing the 19th spoke to be installed. This one 'trails' in the opposite direction to the first 18 and is pushed through the flange of the hub from the outside. This applies to all the remaining spokes. The trick with the 19th spoke is to find the correct hole in the rim. I counted round from the valve hole, copying my other wheel exactly, making sure the spoke passed over the outside of the third one it crosses. The second set of 18 spokes is a bit harder to pull to the rim, so I pushed the nipples right through it and screwed them onto the end of the spokes with a screwdriver, which pulled them through. The following photo shows the wheel with the first 19 spokes fitted. 17 to go.

Bicycle wheel building stage 1

Installing the remaining spokes is easy, as they all repeat the 19th, with the help of the screwdriver.

Applying tension

With the screwdriver in the outside of the nipples, I tensioned all 36 spokes until there was no thread showing where they go in. Then using a spoke key on the inner side of the rim, I tensioned them further, until each spoke protruded slightly on the outside of each nipple, and made a few further adjustments until twanging each one produced roughly the same note. On a guitar they'd all sound different but here, they all have approximately the same tension. The wheel is now pretty tight and still looks like a circle.

Finally I pressed (or pulled) each spoke about one inch from the flange of the hub to bend them against it, so that they run as straight as possible from the hub to the rim.

Reaching this stage was surprisingly easy – much easier than adjusting a three speed front mech. 40 minutes to lace the wheel, 10 minutes with the spoke key.

Of course the wheel is not yet finished. It has to be 'trued' so it doesn't wobble. The next part might be the tricky bit. But I'm confident. Tomorrow I'll attempt to true it, making sure I understand the forces that hold it together rather just than turning the nipples willy nilly. It already looks and feels like a bicycle wheel and is only slightly out of true.

See also truing a bicycle wheel »

5 comments on “Lacing a bicycle wheel”

  1. Garry wrote:

    Patrick, I've built my own wheels for about 22 years, if I have to. You will normally have to slightly compromise between even tension and a totally true wheel. Aim for the tone on each side to be within half a tone. That's enough tonal accuracy if it's not true when all the tones are even.
    Another thing. This is what I do.
    I screw each nipple down the exact same amount on each spoke. e.g. just make thread disappear on each.
    This is my starting position. I next tighten every one in turn the exact same amount, a half turn or a turn each until the wheel becomes reasonably tight. Then I start truing.
    The real secret is NO BIG ADJUSTMENTS (like full turns or more) of any particular spoke. Adjust a few at a time slightly. This way you avoid radial bumps which are very difficult to get rid of.
    Best of luck.

  2. Patrick wrote:

    Garry, thanks. I trued my wheel today. I used the method you describe, more or less. I used bits of tape to mark the places that were out, to be sure of those places when I spun the wheel before adjusting it. About half an hour of time in all. After I trued it I took it to the bike shop where I got the parts. He inspected it and said: "Good job!" I'll know next time I ride my bike.

    Back wheel next.

  3. Garry wrote:

    What you should do also is stress relieve the spokes. This prevents them developing fatigue. There are various ways to do it. What you can most easily do is put the wheel on the ground and in turn put a bit of your weight with your heel on each on in turn. I don't understand why it works. Metallurgists call it stress relieving, but there is no doubt at all that it works. Read Jobst Brandt on it on-line. You may have to slightly re-true after doing it.

  4. Patrick wrote:

    I'll do that. My guitar string comparison is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but in fact when you tune a guitar (or any stringed instrument) you keep pulling the string out with your thumb, then retuning, then pulling it, etc etc until it stays in tune.

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