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.
I’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: 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: Spin 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: Screw 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: 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.