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Wheel Building by a Beginner

I have been meaning to do this for a long time, build a set of wheels and write about how I got on!

This is not going to be a step by step guide but more of a commentary on the process. I want to find out what building a wheel really takes. It can’t be that hard can it!?!

I am not one of the mechanics at the store, but I can true a wheel. My intention was to use as few of the specialist workshop tools and do this like you might do at home if you were to attempt your own wheels. Also we have a mechanic in the store all the time, I am going to ask them for advice only when I’m completely stuck. I used the internet a lot, just like you might do at home!

So here goes;

I started out with a set of hubs and rims. The first thing I had to do was get all the measurements from the hubs and the rims. This would seem simple, surely they would be written on them…Not that easy, time to get out the calipers (you could approximate this with a tape measure and still be relatively accurate). I drew a diagram of the hubs and noted the main measurements.


The next thing I needed was the ERD (Effective Rim Diameter), again surely this would be written on the rim with all the other measurements….It wasn’t (and isn’t very often).  This rim is a 700c, however the ERD is different for every rim, there can even be irregularities from the manufacturers so two rims may not be the same! A quick guide on the internet told me how to measure it using two spokes and nipples and a tape measure. See the Image below. I also checked online and found the same measurement on a wheel building thread.

Why do I need all these measurements? The first thing I need is to find out what the spoke lengths will be. This is a complex calculation so I was planning on using an ‘online spoke length calculator’(see the end of the article for links). Not all spoke calculators use the same measurements…….or explain  what the measurement is that they are asking for…..or give the same answer….(more on this later). I used the Pro Wheel Builder site to start with.

I picked out my spokes and laid everything out. I also printed a copy of the wheel building instructions from Sheldon Brown’s website. I found myself a bit of quiet space and started to work out what to do next…

As per the instructions I laced one of the wheels with the first set of spokes. I started off using the same length spokes on both sides as the measurements for the spokes were so similar, so no worries about using the wrong spoke on the wrong side. Normally there would be a 2 – 4mm difference between spoke lengths on each side. How much of a problem could it be? It is only 2mm or so…

The next step was to lace the opposite side with the second set of spokes.

Then the third, and then the fourth sets of spokes. Sheldon’s instructions are pretty good, I didn’t quite match up to his diagrams but it seemed to be going ok. Once finished I repeated the process for the other wheel.

Little did I know that these weren't going to work, laced incorrectly and with the wrong length spokes!

Once done it was time to start tightening the spokes, I tightened each nipple so no thread was showing, however something was going wrong – the spokes were still really loose and the nipples weren’t even close to being seated in the rim (on either wheel). It was time to re-check the measurements. All the hub measurements were right, the ERD measurement was right. Was it the spoke calculator? I tried a few more (about 10 in total!) and each gave a different measurement……some were as much as 10mm different! Which to trust? To be honest, I’m still not sure. At this point if you were at home, you’d be looking at spending a second $60ish on another set of spokes, an expensive mistake. Plus it takes 45mins to an hour to lace the wheels for us beginners.

Again, if to be honest it didn’t work the next time, some of the spokes were too long and some too short. What was going wrong? Turns out I wasn’t using the proper 3 cross of the spokes, mine were only 2 cross. This is acceptable but will mess with the measurements! So, it was time to start again. The first try I used the original spokes… Still too long, at least it wasn’t just my lacing that was wrong!

The proper 3 cross pattern, note that the first cross where the spoke comes out of the hub just crosses the other spoke, this was easily missed!

At this point I did ask a mechanic for advice and we came up with a new spoke length! This time we didn’t have the right size in stock for complete wheels so I ended up using a mix of black and silver, and I had to cut and thread some spokes (think very expensive workshop tool). Once done, I was ready to go and feeling pretty confident.

By now I could lace the wheels in my sleep (I had laced, and unlaced, four/five wheels by this point)! So it didn’t take long to get them together and the spoke lengths looked better than any of the other builds so far.

Now they were laced, time to start tightening the spokes and getting the wheel into shape. Again I used the Sheldon Brown instructions. I started with the front and it came together pretty quick. For this you will need a truing stand (not a cheap tool). And at some point it would be helpful to use a dishing tool (again not a cheap tool). The dishing tool will tell you how central the rim is to the hub (i.e. how central it will sit in the frame). The front came out perfectly dished first try and then it was just a case of finishing off tensioning the wheel and stressing the spokes.


The truing stand and dishing tool, you will be using these a lot if you build your own wheels!

The rear took a little bit longer but came into true in the end, I’m not convinced the spoke tension is that even and I came pretty close to rounding off a couple of the spoke nipples (which will most likely affect how long the wheel stays true for). They are now done though, and I’m pretty happy with the results – a nice set of light disc or rim brake commuter wheels.

My finished wheels ready for a ride!

So what did I learn?

Firstly I can now pretty confidently build a set of wheels, something I have always wanted to do. From start to finish this took me about 8 or 9 hours. My next set would be much quicker, probably a couple of hours, and I now have a good idea of what I’m looking for so the build quality would be much higher as well.

It is an expensive and time consuming process – I ended up using a lot of different spokes.  I could simply swap them out in the store, but it would be very expensive to try as many spokes as I did at home. Experience with wheel building seems to count for a lot!

How much difference does 2 – 4 mm make with regard to spoke length? A big difference! It will mean that the spokes don’t go reach the rim or poke through the nipple itself (likely to cause flats). Or in the case of my fist attempt, result in the wheel being impossible to build. Getting this bit right is the most important!

Which spoke calculator would I use? I would suggest trying a few and taking an average – the spokes I ended up using weren’t recommended by any of the calculators. I went as low as 288mm and as high as 296mm I ended up on 294mm and 292mm. All of the calculators I used have a disclaimer that you have to click before it gives you the lengths i.e. there is a margin for error. Seeing as I used Shimano hubs and Mavic rims I thought this would be pretty straight forward…

Could I have done this without having a full workshop at my disposal? I think I probably could (as long as I had a truing stand at home). I definitely would have found it much harder, it would have taken longer, and the quality wouldn’t have been as high. The dishing tool is pretty necessary though, although I’m sure there are ways to measure it.

Could I have done this without help? No! First of all I didn’t realise I had the spoke pattern wrong, Sheldon’s diagram of the 3 cross is not that obvious, and the spoke length was wrong (many times). I needed someone with experience to help me get it right. The truing part I had already done before – this is not the easiest thing to learn without lots of practice. Unless you are pretty confident truing wheels already I wouldn’t attempt a complete build.

Money wise is it worth it? Definitely not! Getting a set of pre-built wheels would work out much cheaper (and it is likely the spoke tension would be more equal). For this project; the rims are around $100 each, the spokes around $65 for two wheels, the hubs around $160 for a pair, plus labour ($60 per wheel) = $545! And this doesn’t include any of the tools you would need or the extra time for mistakes etc.

However none of this takes into account the satisfaction of riding a set of wheels that you built yourself!

If you want any tips on wheel building or want to come in and discuss a custom wheel build, please come by the Broadway store any time! We have access to a big range of hubs and rims and have experienced mechanics to get them built up for you.

Some helpful links;

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