How To: Build A Bicycle Wheel In Ten Easy Steps

People fear wheel-building. None more so than touring cyclists. Nobody, apart from a tiny elite of skilled craftsmen in scattered bike shops across the world, should dare impinge on this secretive world of mechanical artistry.

But we all have a capacity for art, don’t we? Could it really be all that difficult? I had a new rim to fit to Tenny’s bike, which would involve taking apart the rear wheel in its entirety and rebuilding it from scratch. So I decided to find out what this wheel-building malarkey was all about. After four and a half hours of careful labour, I held in my hands what appeared to be a nice straight new wheel.

Ready to disassemble the old wheelI’m a firm believer in the Do-It-Yourself ethic. Turning your hand to a new skill is a great way to blow away a few psychological cobwebs. I didn’t find building this wheel particularly difficult, but I appreciate that experience brings an appreciation of subtlties that I probably overlooked as a beginner, which is why there will always be room for specialist professions. I also had a fantastic teacher in the form of the late Sheldon Brown, whose goldmine of a site I’d recommend for all sorts of bicycle-related technicalities. I haven’t forgotten that the wheel has yet to stand the test of time!

But without further ado, here’s a very condensed summary of how to build a (36-spoke rear) bicycle wheel for the uninitiated, scared, and specialist-equipment-less, as I was this time yesterday:

Step 1: Gather everything you need – hub, spokes, nipples, rim, screwdriver, spoke wrench, ruler, upside-down bike frame (truing stands, dish sticks and tensionometers are for the luxuriant and professional only). The terms front, back, left and right are all relative to the bike itself.

Step 2: Attaching nipples to the spokes There are four groups of spokes – left-side, right-side (freewheel-side), back-angled (trailing), and front-angled (leading). You’re going to put in all the freewheel-side trailing spokes, so grab the hub with the freewheel body towards you, and insert 9 spokes in alternate holes on the freewheel side of the hub. Insert from the outside so the spokes run from the inside of the holes (the parts with the holes are called flanges).

Step 3: Grab the rim with the label facing towards you. Look at the holes. They alternate sides rather than being centred. Find the first hole on your side to the right of the valve hole. Insert a spoke and screw on the nipple two or three turns. Now grab the spoke to the right and attach it four rim-holes to the right so there are 3 empty rim-holes between this and the previous spoke. Repeat for all nine spokes, then check the spacing.

Step 4: The new rim with all the spokes attachedSpin the wheel around and do the same in mirror-image for the left side. Each spoke should run from the flange hole just in front of the occupied one the right side, and run to the rim hole directly in front of the corresponding occupied one. Do this for all nine spokes. Grab the hub and rotate it forward a little. The spokes should go taut, giving you an idea of their final position and angle in the finished wheel. Looking from the side, no spokes should cross each other at this point.

Step 5: Hold the wheel with the freewheel towards you again. You’re going to put in the nine leading spokes on this side. Each spoke should cross three of the existing spokes on this side. Insert the spoke from the inside of the flange this time, then run it forward on the outside of two existing spokes and behind a third. Attach to the rim at the next available freewheel-side hold. Check, double-check and triple check the pattern.

Step 6: Repeat in mirror-image for the left side of the wheel. There will now only be one set of holes available in the rim, so you can’t go wrong. Check, double check and triple check the spoke pattern. Don’t get it wrong. You’ve now done the easy part. Congratulations.

Step 7: Adjusting spokes in the new rimScrew on all the nipples so that the threads just disappear. You can do this with your fingers. The idea is to get all of the spokes at the same very moderate tension. If the wheel is still very floppy after this, tighten each nipple another turn. Then put the wheel in the frame, spin it, and marvel at how wobbly and off-centre it is.

Step 8: You need to do three things now – get it straight, centred, tight. Tightness (or tension) will happen automatically as you straighten (true) and centre (dish) the wheel, because you’ll be tightening spokes to do this. The rim will wobble side to side and up and down. Use the ruler to brush against the rim as you spin the wheel to identify where the wobbles are, and fix whichever is worst at any one time. Pull a section of the rim towards one side by tightening spokes on that side with the spoke wrench whilst loosening spokes on the other. To correct vertical straightness, find the lumps and tighten spokes equally on both sides. Keep doing this until the wheel is pretty straight both laterally and vertically to within a couple of millimetres. The spokes should now be quite a bit tighter than before.

Step 9: If it’s a rear wheel, it might be straight-ish, but it won’t be centred, because the presence of the freewheel moves the hub flanges over to the left side. This means you need to pull the whole rim over the the right a little to compensate. Do this by tightening all the right-side (freewheel-side) spokes equally. Start and finish at the valve hole so you don’t forget where you started. Measure the distance from each side of the rim to the frame of the bike so you know when you’re nearly there. Once it’s centred, true the wheel again. I know, I know – it takes ages. But the effort is worth it.

Step 10: Finished wheel!Now you should have a pretty straight and centred wheel, but the spokes might be a bit loose. Get another wheel and ‘twang’ the spokes. Listen to the note and compare it with the twang from your new wheel – the freewheel side will be higher in pitch, which is normal. Now tighten all spokes equally, maybe a quarter of a turn each, until the twanging pitch is in the same ballpark as the reference wheel. You can also judge tension by squeezing pairs of spokes together where they cross. When you’re done, grab groups of four spokes (two from each side) and squeeze them until the spokes stay bent around each other. Keep doing this and trueing the wheel over and over again until the pinging noises stop and the wheel stays true after the spoke-squeezing. Stick a tyre on it and go. True again after a few rides.

That’s it – bicycle wheel building for dummies, based on my experience yesterday. Sounds easy, right?! This simple guide will get your wheel built in an emergency, but I’m not an authority on the subject – this is strictly for beginners, by a beginner!

If you have the time and inclination and want to learn more and do it thoroughly, check out the article I read in order to build the wheel properly, and let me know how you get on.

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21 Responses to “How To: Build A Bicycle Wheel In Ten Easy Steps”

  1. yvan

    …well certainly not the right place to post this comment, but anyway: just a short admirative and serious esteem for the whole adventure you've been relating to us. I've been reading the whole thing from start to end in a raw with great interest. Very well written as well and deeply affecting. I think your adventure and the quality of your story-telling beats definitly most of the other biker-around-the-world-blogger-website I have met.
    Comme on dit en France: Chapeau!
    /yvan

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Merci beaucoup Yvan. It's great to receive encouragement from readers, as well as criticism (I'd like more of that!). I hope you continue to enjoy reading the blog when I hit the road again in a few months.

      Reply
      • yvan

        Well, your whole-blogg-thing have a peculiar charm witch lies in the fact that it seemd from the beginning like you guys were one of the normal kind adventurers young riders around the world and so on. Not so excitnig in deed. The main interest I find in your story is the way it developped, with maturity coming in, lonelyness and finally, most of all, finding love in the deepest of lonelyness. This was a striking reality witch twist the neck to bike intrest : From Bike narrowminded to truely affecting love story. Not that I am longing for Love stories, but this came as a very break trough from the daily reality: your plans vanished, your blogg suffered and silence was suddently the proof of an intense life for you. Quite a scenario indeed!
        So my doubts are, as I read your last efforts to redesign website, qestionning what readers are expecting and flagging for coming next bike adventures: whats about your "normal life" in erevan? is it about to end? Is it really so that daily life is fading out and that you need to find back this original "bike adventure travelling thing"?

        Reply
        • yvan


          Once more: the point to me for your web presence is to tell your story, how personal this can be. I wish I could hear more of other thinking : about life somewhere else, about finding love in Armenia, about the way things developp in your mind, and so on…. Your talent in writing would definitly deal easy with the task and this is to me the main thing: your writnig is pleasent to read and especially when it comes to more introvert and personal thinking!

          well, Maybe a bit more critical but still impressed Yvan

          Reply
  2. Neil

    Have you ever thought of making your own wheel rim?

    Regards
    Neil

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I can't honestly say I have – doesn't that involveextruding alumnium cross-sections and welding and stuff? Well outside of my DIY range I think!

      Reply
      • Neil

        I think rolling the extrusion would be straight forward, and the new method of pinning and gluing the rim would do away with the welding.
        After reading your reply I asked at the local engineering works, and they said the rolling part is easy enough.
        Regards
        Neil

        Reply
  3. Rob

    Hi Tom, would you say it wise to build wheels myself – as a first timer with no such experience (tho fairly practical), intended for a rattling/extended tour of Africa – or would you say seek the skilled craftsmen?

    Ta

    Rob

    Reply
    • Tom

      Before I wrote this article I was in your shoes, practical but with no experience 🙂 but I can’t speak for the longevity of my finished wheel. Ask again in a few weeks after it’s done a couple of thousand km and I’ll tell you!

      Basically I think if you have the right kind of mind for things like this, you’re confident enough to take a chance on your abilities, and you take a lot of care and go for plenty of test runs, then why not? You don’t always have to pay the premium. You’ll learn a lot by doing it and if you ever need to repair a wheel you’ve got a great headstart because you built it yourself. I’d say go for it!

      Reply
      • Rob

        Thanks for the advice Tom, then at least the only person I can blame if they break in the middle of the desert, is myself! Like you say tho, at least I’d have a better chance of fixing it.

        I think I’ll give it a go, why not, how hard can it really be – hopefully fixing a dynohub is no different.

        Cheers!

        Reply
  4. Dribbles

    I’m a bit dense when it comes to this portion of building your own bike. I would definitely need someone to baby me and walk me through it. Unfortunately I live in New York City where no one will volunteer any information even if you pay for it. I’m stuck. Where can I get any kind of class or person to teach me this one very painful aspect in my area (NYC)?

    Reply
  5. Hilary

    This is a seriously useful skill to learn, esp if you only have 32 spokes in your wheels like me. I had to do some truing 2 nights ago and my bike is only a year old, although I’ve carried quite a bit of weight on it lately. It took me 2 hours to get the rear wheel true again as it was 3 years since I last did it on my Shimano RS20’s. This article is a timely one for me, so thanks Tom.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Glad to be of assistance! It’s not that difficult, just needs a lot of patience, the right tools, and a little understanding of the concept, which is something we can teach ourselves.

      Reply
      • Hilary

        Patience, definitely. I don’t fancy truing a wheel in sub-zero temperatures, but would if I had to. Learning this may be the difference between getting to the next city or scrapping the wheel and hitching or walking it. For the sake of a few hours of patience I know which i’d prefer to do. 🙂

        Reply
  6. Chris

    Great site. As someone who has recently returned to cycling I am finding this all inspirational.

    I feel like a bit of a know it all commenting on this stuff, but I was a professional wheelbuilder for a few years, and just wanted to share a couple of secrets. If you stick to the first two things, your wheel will be better than anything machine built. If you follow the third, the wheel will be as good as anything any professional can build.

    1. If it’s your first wheel, start with new stuff. Rebuilding a wheel with bits that have already deformed slightly is a much more advanced skill and the reason people think wheelbuilding is hard in the first place.
    2. Stop before you get frustrated.
    3. Get a spoke tension meter. It’s possible to build a perfect wheel by feel/ear, but a tension meter takes the guesswork out. My new touring wheels are 120kgf driveside and 80kgf non-driveside. Front is 100kgf both sides. Tension meters aren’t super-expensive, and last forever.

    Accidents aside and assuming the components were strong enough for the application, they will not fail.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      These are really good trips, Chris – thank you.

      Quick questions – as a pro wheelbuilder, what components would you recommend for 700c road touring wheels, and for 26″ heavyweight world touring wheels?

      Reply
  7. Marcie

    Hi Tom,
    Congrats on your courage to build a set of wheels! I want to build a set of wheels for a vintage bike with rear spacing of 126mm. I scored a set of vintage NOS Shimano 105 SC 1055 Front+Rear Hub Set HG HyperGlide 32H Spoke Holes!!

    I want to use the 27″ Sun Cr-18 rims to match the original 27″ wheel size (bike had no wheels when I came across it). Thanks for pointing out the 4 groups of spokes! But how do you order the correct length of spokes?

    Reply
  8. Russ

    Is the original wheel steel holding up? If not, how long did it last?

    I really want to try building my own wheel!

    Reply
  9. Steen

    Often it is just the rim, that is broken. Either the sides are worn because of braking, og it is cracked og bent because you have hit a curb or somthing else. My method is: Buy a new ring, same size as the the old, especially is inside diameter important. Then you tape the new rim onto your old wheel, three positions is fine. Remember to put the valveholes next to each other, and the writing/decals on the rim so that you can read it from the same side. This way the spoke holes will be in the same position in both rims. Next you just transfer each spoke, one at a time, to the new rim. This way you don’t get the spokes mixed up, or loose your sense of control on the wheelbuilding. The rest is truing, like from point 8 in the writing above.

    Reply

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