Learn to Build Your Own Wheels (or Die Trying)
Here's why you should stop Zwifting and start truing
Unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere or you live in one of those fantasy states where you get to ride in shorts all year round, winter is beginning in earnest, which means that at some point or another you’re going to find yourself stuck inside and unable to ride.
Thanks to the miracle of the Internet there are all sorts of ways to stave off cabin fever and keep yourself from killing and devouring your housemates: Zwifting, binge-watching Netflix, making adorable TikToks of your cat… Still, even in the 21st century there’s nothing more edifying than making a tangible thing with your own two hands, and to that end I strongly recommend that you build yourself a pair of wheels this winter.
The wheels you build for yourself don’t have to be fancy; in fact, if it’s your first time doing so they shouldn’t be, since you don’t want to destroy a costly set of carbon fiber rims with a spoke wrench and your own incompetence. Surely you’ve got an older bike that could do with some new wheels—and a pair of good quality rim-brake aluminum rims and mid-level quick-release front and rear Shimano hubs shouldn’t set you back much more than a couple hundred bucks. You can also cut costs by opting for straight-gauge spokes instead of double-butted. Yes, the latter are lighter and ultimately more durable—how often do you get that combo with bike parts?—but the former will hold up just fine too. (And don’t bother with aluminum spoke nipples, either; brass is cheaper and more durable for a negligible weight penalty.) Best of all, if you do even a halfway decent job, your new wheels will last you roughly forever. And you can always attempt a fancier set next winter.
Ever knock a wheel out of whack at the height of the riding season and have to leave it at the shop for a week? Ever try to true one yourself and wind up with a pretzel instead? Ever just stare agog at a wheelset with Insane Clown Posse-like wonder and mutter to yourself, “Fuckin’ bike wheels, how do they work?”
Yes, for many cyclists the intricate structure of the bicycle wheel is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a tire. Of all your bike’s components, the wheels are the ones that most appear to work by magic, and somehow your attempts to true them always seem to make them even worse. It’s like trying to re-fold the shirts at the Gap—they just never seem to go back to the way they were.
Building a wheel from scratch will solve the mystery for you once and for all. This is because instead of walking in on the middle of the movie, you’re seeing the whole thing from the beginning, and suddenly everything makes sense. Not only will this project net you a new pair of wheels, but it will also teach you how to maintain the ones you already have, which in the long run could pay for itself.
Okay, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. “Contemplative” and “rewarding” may be more like it; this is a project that requires you to be patient and methodical. You may not be able to impart order on the universe, but you can turn a pile of random stuff into the elegantly balanced and profoundly efficient structure that is a bicycle wheel, and that’s pretty satisfying too.
It’s (Relatively) Easy!
If you can build a model, put together a jigsaw puzzle, or bake a cake, you can build a set of wheels. It’s basically just a list of ingredients you have to put together. Sure, you could always just spend the winter building models, putting together jigsaw puzzles, or baking cakes, but you can’t ride those afterwards.
Not convinced? Looking for the hidden costs? Okay, fine: to build a wheel you’ll need more than just the hubs, nipples, and spokes. However, none of the items you need are particularly extravagant, some of them are free, and pretty much all of them are bound to come in handy in the future. Here’s your list.
The definitive book on the subject is Jobst Brand’s The Bicycle Wheel. Every serious wheelbuilder should read it. Having said that, I’ve never actually read The Bicycle Wheel, though I did read a lot of his Internet newsgroup posts back in the old days, which should count for something. Instead, when I needed a step-by-step guide to build my first wheel I turned to Sheldon Brown, which was more than sufficient for a basic three-cross setup—that’s the most common and reliable spoke-lacing pattern, in which each spoke crosses three others between the hub flange and the rim. (Use the free spocalc on the site to determine what length spokes you need.)
A Truing Stand
Once you’ve laced your wheels, you’ll need place them in a truing stand, which you’ll use to make sure they’re straight both laterally and radially when you bring them up to tension. Arguably this is something you should have anyway so you can touch up these or any of your other wheels if you ever notice they’ve gone out of true—which you’ll know how to do after you build a wheel. A pro-quality truing stand can be expensive, but cheaper options are also available and will also get the job done. If you’re not overly concerned with perfection or you’re extremely frugal (or both, since those two qualities often go together) you could also just use your frame and the brake pads as your truing stand. Just make sure to use another true and properly dished set of wheels as a reference when setting pad position.
A Spoke Wrench
I mean, obviously.
A Tension Meter
Proper spoke tension is crucial when building a wheel. Too little tension and the wheel won’t stay true; too much and stuff starts breaking. Using an actual tension meter is optional (there are various ways of estimating spoke tension, including plucking them, as Sheldon Brown explains in his guide above) but it will definitely save you a lot of guesswork, and possibly your hubs and rims. A tension meter like the Park Tool TM-1 will set you back quite a few bucks, but in addition to helping you with your wheelbuilding it can also come in handy for diagnosing issues with any wheels you may already have. Then again, plucking is free, so if you’d rather go Frank Zappa it’s up to you.
Rim tape, spoke nipple lubricant, and personal lubricant (e.g., beer) because it helps to be relaxed. In all, everything you need to build a basic set of wheels should still cost you a fraction of what a pair of Enve’s would, even if the personal lubricant you opt for is a bottle of single malt.
In addition to the above, you should have a calm and uncluttered place to work and be reasonably free from distraction. Obviously, this precludes the presence of any young children, as there is nothing that will undermine your wheelbuilding project as quickly and thoroughly as a child. In fact, children are the reason I have not built a wheel in a number of years. However, it’s high on my list of things to start again when they get older, right up there with cursing openly around them. (And yes, if you’re stuck inside due to weather you’re probably also stuck inside with the kids, in which case a wheelbuilding project may not be viable unless your home is equipped with a soundproofed basement or panic room.)
Most importantly, take your time! What’s the big hurry, anyway? You’ve got all winter.