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  1. #1
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    Why are handbuilt wheels better than machine-built wheels?

    The title is my question. Why are handbuilt wheels considered better than machine-built wheels? Or, put another way, what is it about building a great set of wheels that apparently cannot be automated?

    I'm baffled because it seems like an operation that a well-designed machine could do more consistently and evenly than a human.
    I don't even use the offensive term "Fred." -- Sheldon "All Cyclists Are My Friends" Brown (1944-2008)

  2. #2
    It's MY mountain DiabloScott's Avatar
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    Machines can lace up a wheel faster than any human ever could, it's really interesting to watch.

    But a machine can't tell when the nipple is actually screwing on to the spoke, or if the spoke is winding up - it can only tell tension or torque on the nipple. So a machine built wheel taking it up to 75% tension and then finished by hand will be as good as a completely hand built one.
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  3. #3
    awaiting uci approval tombailey's Avatar
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    I'm no expert on wheels but in general a machine could build better wheels (or widgets or sprockets), more quickly than a human. But all machines have to have a tolerance. The lower the tolerance the higher, and more consistent, the quality. But with a lower tolerance also comes a higher cost (to build, run and maintain).

    A well trained, expert human who spends a couple of hours carefully matching rims, hubs and spokes is likely to have a higher tolerance than a machine in a huge factory banging out 200 wheels per minute (or whatever). The human may buy machine made parts but will probably have a higher quality control level than the factory and won't build your wheels with anything less than a perfect (or darn close to perfect) part.

    It goes without saying that a handmade wheel will cost more.

    There may also be some artisitc element to wheel building that I don't know about. I'm sure someone will fill us in on that.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by tombailey
    A well trained, expert human......
    That's the essence of the problem. Being sure you have one of these isn't easy as the mediocre far outnumber the truly expert. The machines are predictable, the hand builders aren't.

  5. #5
    The Red Lantern Rev.Chuck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tombailey
    There may also be some artisitc element to wheel building that I don't know about. I'm sure someone will fill us in on that.

    Not an artistic skill, but the skill of an artisan. Like quality weld work, or a well built chair, a quality hand built wheel has someone who is attentive, who has many years of experience, and has the desire to create the highest quality making it.
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  6. #6
    Mr. Dopolina Bob Dopolina's Avatar
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    There are several additional steps that are taken by a wheel builder that a machine doesn't do; Making sure the spoke heads are properly seated in the hub flange, de-stressing spokes, eliminating wind-up that is giving a false tension reading, tension balancing... (I don't want to give away too many secrets here) but I think you get the point.

    As someone mentioned, If you want good wheels, find a builder and stick with them. This is especially true for MTB bikes where you trash wheels far more often than on the road. Long term it makes more sense to replace a rim and spokes (ALWAYS NEW SPOKES!!!) but to keep your perfectly good hub than it does to buy a complete machine built wheel every time. Plus, you are always riding on decent wheels.

    Years ago I built wheels for a living and offered lifetime service on every wheel I built. I eventually had a group of customers who would come to me for regular truing and would believe me when I told them that I couldn't fix their tacoed wheel, this time, and it was time for a new rim and spokes.

    As a side note, I find it very relaxing to build wheels. It's kinda like knitting...in a way...
    Last edited by Bob Dopolina; 06-27-07 at 03:48 AM.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob Dopolina
    There are several additional steps that are taken by a wheel builder that a machine doesn't do; Making sure the spoke heads are properly seated in the hub flange, de-stressing spokes, eliminating wind-up that is giving a false tension reading, tension balancing... (I don't want to give away too many secrets here) but I think you get the point.
    I don't see why a machine couldn't be designed to do those things. Somebody designed a machine to clean salmon 75 years ago. But perhaps a wheelbuilding machine that took care of all the issues would need to be sophisticated (thus expensive) and would require extensive setup time to change between different designs of wheels. It's probably cheaper to have a machine do most of the grunt work and have a person do a final tuning.

    EDIT: Mr. Dopolina, I looked at your other posts and noticed that you are in the bike biz in Taiwan. So maybe I should shut up; I'm sure you know what you're talking about.
    I don't even use the offensive term "Fred." -- Sheldon "All Cyclists Are My Friends" Brown (1944-2008)

  8. #8
    Mr. Dopolina Bob Dopolina's Avatar
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    Correct. I do work in the bike industry in Taiwan and have experience with wheel building machines.

    You are also correct that to design a machine to do all the things I mentioned (and more) would require a much more sophisticated machine. There are issues of set-up, as you also mentioned, when you need to change between different lacing patterns and such. It comes down to a cost calculation.

    There are many brands that build by machine and then finish by hand. This may be the most cost efficient way to get some of the benefits of hand-built but the lower production cost of machine built.

    Having said that, there is still something about a 100% hand-built wheel that just seems to feel better. It could be the relationship and trust you have with the person who built it or the satisfaction of having created something both intrinsically beautiful and functional with your own hands.

    For most people, there are very few things left in our daily life that have been graced by the hands of an Artisan. In my humble opinion, a fine set of hand-built wheels might be the closest we can get anymore.

  9. #9
    Rat Bastard mcoomer's Avatar
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    Off topic but related, how many of you drink Starbucks? I'm an addict myself and generally go in 3-4 times a week. It used to be cool to watch the barista pull the shots of espresso, steam the milk and build the foam in the steaming pitcher, and pour it all into the cup with a dollop of that light steamed foam on top. I always felt obliged to tip a barista for the show they put on for me.

    Now, most Starbucks locations use automatic machines. The barista fills a steaming pitcher with milk, builds a little foam, and then set the pitcher down and works on something else because they know that the steam wand has a thermometer in it that will close the steam valve at 160*. To pull shots of espresso they push a couple of buttons to tell the machine what they need, the coffee is ground, the ground are packed, and water is pushed through. All the barista has to do is make sure the bean hopper doesn't run empty. I rarely tip baristas anymore. There isn't any real skill involved in building my drink and the show is gone.

    When I decided to upgrade my wheels I could have bought some Cross Max's and dropped some big coin on them. I'm sure they would have been just fine. But instead I peiced together hubs, spokes, and rims and learned how to lace them and tension them so that they were strong and true. I'm no expert by any means, but I realize that taking the time and effort to do the work makes a wheel mean a lot more to me. Not everyone will bother to learn how to lace a wheel or take the time to make sure that that wheel is true and the spokes are tensioned properly. Building a wheel is a bit of a show, and I always tip at shows.
    It's better to burn out than fade away...or slip out of your pedal and face plant on the side of the road!!!

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  10. #10
    Senior Member z415's Avatar
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    Machines don't go back to the wheel and make sure it is perfect and I don't think they take into account torsion in spokes, which may or may not occur, that throws off the true afterthe first couple of rides.
    Falling is learning...[SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]...learn to not fall in a box.
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  11. #11
    Senior Member miamijim's Avatar
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    Custom wheel builders are way over rated. Are hand built wheels better than machine built wheels? It depends on the skill level of the builder as mentioned earlier.

    Most wheel failures are caused by 1 of 2 things. Either:

    A. Stupidity. If you dont do stupid things you wont damage your wheel.
    B. Miles. If you put enough miles on a wheel you'll wear it out.

    A very good handbuilt wheel may decrease the liklyness of miles being a contributing factor...may.....
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  12. #12
    Bikaholic blamp28's Avatar
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    Is a massage by a real massuse "better" than a massage chair?

    A machine can lace a wheel very precisely and quickly making it cost effective. A machine can true and tension a wheel cost effectively but with a bit less repeatability due to the variations in materials and tolerances. You can engineer these variances to be minimised but not removed and the costs of manufacturing would go through the roof. The most cost effective way to get a nice set of wheels is to buy machine built wheels and re-tension them to introduce that "hand built touch" I have done just that with great results but i still want to hand build my next set - not for cost savings but for component combination and for the personal satisfaction of my personal touch. No machine will take the time to adjust to the "n"th degree that I will. But then, it's not about the money - it's about the finished product.

  13. #13
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    Hand built wheels are only as good as the skill of the builder and the care he takes in building them.
    Machine built wheels are only as good as the tolerances determined by the machine operator. There is no operation that a hand builder can perform that a machine cannot duplicate with greater precision. For cost reasons, most machine built wheels are not built at the highest tolerances that machines are capable of. I doubt that even the best builders could consistently match the quality of the best machine built wheels.

    em

  14. #14
    Bikaholic blamp28's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by eddy m
    Hand built wheels are only as good as the skill of the builder and the care he takes in building them.
    Machine built wheels are only as good as the tolerances determined by the machine operator. There is no operation that a hand builder can perform that a machine cannot duplicate with greater precision. For cost reasons, most machine built wheels are not built at the highest tolerances that machines are capable of. I doubt that even the best builders could consistently match the quality of the best machine built wheels.

    em
    As long as you include the cost factor, we are primarily saying the same thing. We can certainly build a machine to perform almost any task consistently. To duplicate the hands on precision of a hand tuned wheel, the costs would be outrageous and the market will not bear that kind of return. To perfect this process, we would need to tighten the tolerances on all components to unrealistic levels given the end use market. Do you really want to pay that much for wheels? Oh that's right you can now by going to a competent builder with a track record for quality.

  15. #15
    In beaurocratic limbo urbanknight's Avatar
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    As mentioned above, it depends on the skill of the particular wheel builder. But you could also take a machine built wheel and have the builder go over it and it will be just as good.

    My reason for liking handbuilt wheels is two fold:
    1) I can build them myself and feel good about my accomlishment
    2) I can choose the exact components I want and not rely on the flavor of the year

  16. #16
    Mr. Dopolina Bob Dopolina's Avatar
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    The idea that a wheel building machine can be designed/improved/programmed to build a perfect set of wheels cheaply, butter your toast, turn you into a 9 year old Hindu boy or whatever is not what should be focused on.

    We are talking about what you can go out and buy TODAY, not what is possibly in our imaginations.

    I had a conversation with an engineer from Holland Machines (one of the largest suppliers of wheel building machines globally) and he told me that even the most sophisticated companies are not designing wheels that push the limits of their machines' current capabilities. So even if these machines are capable, these abilities aren't being utilized.

    For the most part, the operators of these machines are not skilled wheel builders, they are semi-skilled labourers who are only concerned with getting the wheel within tolerance and not with creating a piece of art.

    Does this mean machine built wheels are junk. No. Does this mean that these factories (usually in Asia) are incapable of building a decent wheel, whether totally hand built or laced by a machine and the finished by hand? No. (BTW, guess where those nice Mavic wheels you just shelled out some serious coin are assembled????).

    My point is this. If I walk down to my local bike shop, slap down some coin and buy a decent set of machine laced wheels, OR I do a little leg work and find a crusty old fart who builds a damn fine set of wheels, am I going to notice a difference? Long term. Maybe. Under some conditions. Maybe.

    I return to my original point from a previous post. ART. The Artisan. Can most of us tell the difference between a $100 dollar bottle of wine and one costing 3 times as much. Probably not. But in our minds we know the difference and can appreciate the human touch ( I hesitate to use the word love here but I guess I mean giving a damn about what our efforts produce). AND if you take the next step and build some wheels yourself, that satisfaction can't be matched by any machine.

    To sum up - judge for yourself. Machine built wheels are, for the most part, a good value. Hand built wheels are arguably better for a whole bunch of minute reasons that, in sum, may produce a wheel that stays truer longer (under most conditions) and lasts a little longer (under most conditions). What wheel building machines are capable of remains to be seen. What it comes down to in the end is satisfaction and appreciation for a product that may be better for reasons that can't be measured or guaged with any accuracy.

  17. #17
    The Red Lantern Rev.Chuck's Avatar
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    Another arguement for handbuilt is the guy that wants a specific hub/spoke/rim in a specific pattern and spoke count.
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  18. #18
    In beaurocratic limbo urbanknight's Avatar
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    ^ That's my reason.

  19. #19
    Pwnerer Wordbiker's Avatar
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    The one thing that a person can do that a machine can't is tell when you're lying about your weight or your riding style.

    "These wheels are built for a 180 lb XC finesse rider"

    "I'm 175 and smooth as silk"

    "Yeah, right. I've seen your previously wrecked wheels and your car at the downhill trailhead."
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  20. #20
    cab horn
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    Meh. If you're not a clyde and you know how to check a machine built wheel. There's no reason to have it "handmade".
    Mes compaingnons cui j'amoie et cui j'aim,... Me di, chanson.

  21. #21
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    "what is it about building a great set of wheels that apparently cannot be automated?"

    The market for extreme precision in bike wheels is very small. Bikes meant for Tour de France. Building a machine to make those wheels would not be cost effective due to small volume. Since those wheels will also have to be constantly maintained you would still have to pay a wheel builder. Master Wheel builders are not highly paid or numerous so there is little to be gained by eliminating them.

    It is the same with cars. Race cars are in a sense hand made.
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