There’s a certain mystique surrounding the art of building a bicycle wheel.
It’s a skill all bike tourists should probably should learn, but few of us do. Instead, we take our bikes to the shop when the wheels wear out and watch the mechanics spin rims and twist spokes. They make little movements, one after the other, dancing with their hands until the wobbles are smoothed out and a perfectly round wheel emerges.
Intrigued by the idea of learning this art, we’ve spent 2 days in an old farm house in the north of the Netherlands, building wheels with the help of bike builder Marten. We’re still very much newbies in the wheel building world but our training so far has boosted our confidence enormously, and we’re no longer convinced that wheel building is that hard.
Here’s a quick overview of how to build a wheel. These instructions are for a front wheel. A back wheel is slightly more complicated because you have different length spokes on each side. Remember – these are just a newbies notes on wheel building. If you plan to build a wheel, it’s worth looking up a more detailed account and if you have tips to share, please do!
1. Find an already-built wheel. It’s good to have one as an example of how your wheel should work. Look especially to see how the spokes cross one another and how the spokes fit into the flange (raised edge) of the hub. you will see that sometimes the head of the spoke is facing out, and other times facing inward. This is important, as you’ll find out.
2. Lay out all your materials. You’ll need spokes, nipples, a rim, a hub, a spoke key, some linseed oil (preferably the more natural uncooked variety) and a screwdriver. You’ll also need a truing stand of some sort. You can use the forks of your bicycle. A dishing gauge and a meter for measuring spoke tension are both nice to have but not mandatory.
3. Oil the spokes and spoke holes on the rim. Dip the threaded ends of your spokes in the linseed oil. Take a cotton bud (q-tip) and dab a bit of oil on the spoke holes around the rim as well. The linseed oil hardens as it dries and will help fix the spokes in place.
4. Insert the spokes. Assuming you’re building a 36-spoke wheel, you’ll do this in 4 groups of 9 spokes each. Grab the hub and drop 9 spokes into one side of the hub, skipping a hole each time and making sure the heads are facing outwards.
5. Attach the spokes to the wheel. Grab a spoke (any spoke will do) and stick it in one of the two holes that follow the valve hole. Which one? For this you need to look at the rim. Note that the holes on the rim are not in a straight line. Instead, they are slightly offset to the left or the right. If your spokes are on the right-hand flange, the threaded end of the spoke should also be put into a hole that’s aligned to the right of the rim. Drop the nipple into the hole and screw it onto the spoke, just enough to hold the spoke in place.
6. Insert the remaining 8 spokes into the rim. Skip 3 holes between each one. Now, do exactly the same on the other side of the hub. In our experience, this is where you’re most likely to go wrong because it’s easy to put this second set of spokes in the wrong hole. Tom describes it well in his guide to building bicycle wheels.
“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.” –Tom Allen
If you’re totally confused by this point, watch this video:
7. Go back to the other side of the hub and drop in 9 more spokes. This time make sure the heads of the spokes are facing inward. Lace them up, crossing in front of two spokes and behind the third before the spoke finally reaches the rim hole and can be secured. If you’re confused about how they should cross, look at that fully-built wheel you gathered as an example.
8. Add the last set of spokes. If you’ve gotten this far, you can’t do too much wrong. Just drop the last 9 spokes in (with heads facing inward) and fill the remaining holes in the rim.
9. Tighten the spokes. Take a screwdriver and tighten all the nipples so the spokes are fairly taut. They shouldn’t be wiggling or move easily when you touch them.
10. Get it straight and centered. Now the fun begins. Mount the wheel in the back forks of your bike or in a truing stand and spin it. You’ll definitely see some wobbles. Use your brake pad to help spot the wobbles and start truing with the biggest wobble. If the wheel moves too far to the right, you need to pull the rim to the left. Do that by tightening the spokes on the left and loosening the spokes on the right.
You also need to ensure that the wheel is centered over the hub. In a workshop, there’s a special tool for this but you can improvise. Get a couple coffee cups or a few books and put them on a table. Set the wheel on top and measure the distance from the table to the hub locknut. Flip the wheel over and measure again. The distance should be the same. If not, tighten all the spokes on one side to move the wheel in the appropriate direction. Then start correcting for wobbles again.
Be patient! This takes time. It’s good to see the truing process, so here’s a video:
When you’re all done, smile proudly! You’ve just build your first bicycle wheel.
Want to know more? Sheldon Brown has an excellent in-depth guide to wheel building.