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  1. #1
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    threaded headset keeps coming loose

    After I overhauled the bearings to my threaded headset it keeps coming loose. I am following directions from Park tools blue book, where you incrementally tighten the threaded race, tighten the locknut, test for knocking, repeat until knocking is eliminated. Each time after I finish the headset is good and tight, testing by rocking the fork as well as holding the front brake and rocking downwards on the handlebars. Then I take it for a test ride, and as soon as I hit a bump there is a weird hollow sound from the headset. Then when I test it again it is loose! I have adjusted it 3 times and this keeps happening. Well now I have some questions which I was wondering if anyone could help with:

    #1: There are basically 4 different possible configurations for the two bearing cages... is it possible that the headset will only stay tight with both in their previous positions? Unfortunately I did not make a note of how it was set up before. Park Tools says "Retainers have only one correct orientation. The open side of the ball retainer should face the cone shaped race, not the cup shaped race." This is how I have them right now and it isn't working...

    #2: While I was cleaning the cages some of the balls popped out. This was my first attempt at overhauling a headset and I was surprised that the balls came out, since I am more used to the bottom bracket cages where the balls pretty much stay in. I put the balls back in and used them anyhow. Is it possible that these retainers are the problem?

    #3: Does anyone have any other suggestions or advice? It would be greatly appreciated

    Before I got the bright idea to overhaul the headset it was staying tight without a problem, so I don't think it's the headset itself that is the problem. I think the problem is probably my own limited mechanical ability and general overall incompetence I sure would appreciate your suggestions.

  2. #2
    cab horn
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    You should never repack bearings on a loose ball headset in cages. Not only would there be no question of how the cage should be orientated but your headset lasts longer as well.
    Mes compaingnons cui j'amoie et cui j'aim,... Me di, chanson.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by operator View Post
    You should never repack bearings on a loose ball headset in cages. Not only would there be no question of how the cage should be orientated but your headset lasts longer as well.
    Just to be clear, the bearings originally were in cages, then when I cleaned them and re-greased them some of them were kind of popping out. I put them back in but it just seemed a bit odd...

    Still I think I see your point, loose balls work better and are better for the headset?
    I have a lot of bike issues

  4. #4
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    It is a lot easier with pictures or with the item in front of you...

  5. #5
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    A. Replace the cages with loose balls. 1" headsets generally take 25 5/32" bearings per side.

    B. Did you forget the keyed washer?

  6. #6
    Senior Member aesmith's Avatar
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    If its loosening, either the bearing and/or locknut are working loose, or the headset wasn't correctly assembled and is "settling" into a different position.

    Try marking the bearing and locknut with a dab of something, so you can see if they've moved.

    Maybe try adjusting with the bike upside down, so that the fork is held in the correct place by gravity.

  7. #7
    Senior Member Retro Grouch's Avatar
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    I doubt you have the orientation of the bearing cages wrong. If they were, you wouldn't be able to get the fork both tight and turning smoothly from side to side.

    You mentioned the sequence of tightening your headset, but not the tightness. The locknut has to be TIGHT against the upper bearing cone. You need to hold the bearing cone with a thin headset wrench as you tighten the locknut against it. It usually takes a couple of tries to get both the cone and locknut tightness right.

  8. #8
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    Have you checked that the cups in the headtube are secure?

    Apart from that, Retro has some good advice. Also, ensure that if you are using a brake cable hanger and/or a washer between the cone and the lock nut, that it is properly seated. Often, the hanger or washer with its keyed tab is difficult to get down the slot on the steerer tube. In addition, if you have any tension on the brake hanger (ie, assuming you have cantis, you haven't disengaged the cable from the brakes), the hanger will also be a bit difficult to seat. Technically, as you tighten down the locknut, the hanger and/or washer should flatten out and seat properly, but wear on the tab can prevent this from happening and you end up with a headset that isn't locked into place. At least, that has been some of my experience.
    Dream. Dare. Do.

  9. #9
    Senior Member Road Fan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rowan View Post
    Have you checked that the cups in the headtube are secure?

    Apart from that, Retro has some good advice. Also, ensure that if you are using a brake cable hanger and/or a washer between the cone and the lock nut, that it is properly seated. Often, the hanger or washer with its keyed tab is difficult to get down the slot on the steerer tube. In addition, if you have any tension on the brake hanger (ie, assuming you have cantis, you haven't disengaged the cable from the brakes), the hanger will also be a bit difficult to seat. Technically, as you tighten down the locknut, the hanger and/or washer should flatten out and seat properly, but wear on the tab can prevent this from happening and you end up with a headset that isn't locked into place. At least, that has been some of my experience.
    Agreed! But if you have the cages in good condition and in the correct orientation, the right number and size of balls, the cups and crown race set firmly, the cups and cages square in the frame (this is why Park and others say to face the frame), and the correct set of spacers/washers in place, there's still another possible problem.

    You might just need to have the locknut tighter against the adjustable cup! and sometimes even if you've put everything together as carefully as possible, it's really hard to get enought pressure to lock the joint AND have the bearing play versus tightness set perfectly. You might just chalk it up to a learning experience and take the bike to the LBS (a good one!!!) to get the final adjustment done. For one thing, if you do have any or all of the above problems still present in your installation, they can just take care of it, and it should not cost megabucks.

    It might also be safer to just start over with new loose balls. I think Park had a method for determining the correct number. The correct size should be the same as the balls that are in the cages.

    Getting enough wrench power without rounding the flats can be a problem, too, as one can see by looking at my bikes!

    Road Fan

  10. #10
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    If balls have been popping out, that means the cage was bent. If it was bent then it may not have been rebent properly. Dump the cage and repack loose while checking the rest of the above mentioned stuff.

    Quote Originally Posted by Road Fan View Post
    Getting enough wrench power without rounding the flats can be a problem, too, as one can see by looking at my bikes!

    Road Fan
    This should never be a problem using high quality adjustable or non adjustable wrenches.
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  11. #11
    slow as I ever was Ex Pres's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pepper Grinder View Post
    B. Did you forget the keyed washer?
    +1
    you didn't mention it and it definitely helps
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  12. #12
    cab horn
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob Barker View Post
    +1
    you didn't mention it and it definitely helps
    -1

    You don't need keyed washers. In fact i'd suggest you take them out if you have any. That's not the problem anyways.
    Mes compaingnons cui j'amoie et cui j'aim,... Me di, chanson.

  13. #13
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    Replace the cages with loose balls. 1" headsets generally take 25 5/32" bearings per side.
    I never had loose balls in cages.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rowan View Post
    Have you checked that the cups in the headtube are secure?

    Apart from that, Retro has some good advice. Also, ensure that if you are using a brake cable hanger and/or a washer between the cone and the lock nut, that it is properly seated. Often, the hanger or washer with its keyed tab is difficult to get down the slot on the steerer tube. In addition, if you have any tension on the brake hanger (ie, assuming you have cantis, you haven't disengaged the cable from the brakes), the hanger will also be a bit difficult to seat. Technically, as you tighten down the locknut, the hanger and/or washer should flatten out and seat properly, but wear on the tab can prevent this from happening and you end up with a headset that isn't locked into place. At least, that has been some of my experience.
    No, I didn't check the cups in the headtube... do you mean the part that is directly mounted onto the frame? Come to think of it, how do these stay in place? Are they just wedged in there? What is the best way to make sure they are seated correctly?

    The headset doesn't have any brake cable hangers or washers... just two notched spacers with a tooth that fits into a gap in the threading. This is not the same as the "keyed washer" people are talking about is it? If not then I'm pretty sure this headset doesn't have a keyed washer.

    As far as tightening the locknut sufficiently, I am getting it pretty tight... I've been securing the race while I tighten the locknut to prevent the locknut from turning the race as it tightens. I am using a big heavy adjustable wrench to tighten the locknut, I am fairly confident that it isn't loosening from undertightening, especially because it seems fine while I ride it until I hit a little bump, at which time I can feel something shift and I hear a weird hollow sound. This happens within 5 minutes of starting to ride it. To me doesn't seem like the locknut working its way loose but more like something which isn't properly seated shifting when it gets jostled... of course I am pretty inexperienced with headsets.

    I am thinking to get some loose bearings give it another try, seems like a good saturday afternoon project. thanks everyone for help and advice.

  15. #15
    Senior Member Road Fan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by noahjz View Post
    No, I didn't check the cups in the headtube... do you mean the part that is directly mounted onto the frame? Come to think of it, how do these stay in place? Are they just wedged in there? What is the best way to make sure they are seated correctly?

    The headset doesn't have any brake cable hangers or washers... just two notched spacers with a tooth that fits into a gap in the threading. This is not the same as the "keyed washer" people are talking about is it? If not then I'm pretty sure this headset doesn't have a keyed washer.

    As far as tightening the locknut sufficiently, I am getting it pretty tight... I've been securing the race while I tighten the locknut to prevent the locknut from turning the race as it tightens. I am using a big heavy adjustable wrench to tighten the locknut, I am fairly confident that it isn't loosening from undertightening, especially because it seems fine while I ride it until I hit a little bump, at which time I can feel something shift and I hear a weird hollow sound. This happens within 5 minutes of starting to ride it. To me doesn't seem like the locknut working its way loose but more like something which isn't properly seated shifting when it gets jostled... of course I am pretty inexperienced with headsets.

    I am thinking to get some loose bearings give it another try, seems like a good saturday afternoon project. thanks everyone for help and advice.
    The cups are held by friction with the head tube walls, you should have needed to press them in, greased and with considerable force. Generally it's recommended if you are in doubt about the seating of the cups to have it done by someone with the reaming and facign tools to establish the proper mounting surfaces. There really isn't a test to see if you have them aligned right, other than does the HS work right. So far yours doesn't.

    There's usually a washer between the adjustable top cup and the locknut. It might or might not be keyed, and it might have a flat on its inner diameter instead. These features don't matter much as long as you can get it on, but the build up of the washer can be very important in gettign the joint locked.

    I've always needed two wrenches to do this right, to positively hold the bottom as you cinch the top, and sometimes to hold the top asyou tighten the bottom against it to find the optimal point. I use Park Tool wrenches and a Campy, but even with those quality tools I sometimes cause a little rounding of the flats. I could not get a headset set right using only one wrench at a time, if that's what you're doing.

    Road Fan

  16. #16
    Senior Member Road Fan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by operator View Post

    This should never be a problem using high quality adjustable or non adjustable wrenches.
    I agree with the theory, but in practice with my Park and Campy wrenches it doesn't always hold true. But I'm not a pro mechanic like most of you, I guess.

    Please recommend some wrenches you have had no problem with for headsets, including during final adjustment.

  17. #17
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    If you left out the keyed washer, things might gratually loosen up, but they're not going to go "sproing" and be loose when you hit a bump.
    "be careful this rando stuff is addictive and dan's the 'pusher'."

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rowan View Post
    Have you checked that the cups in the headtube are secure?
    I've got the fork and headset off and was inspecting the races, it seems like the lower cup is loose in the head tube, that is it jiggles a bit when i press side to side on it. I am not too sure what keeps these things in place, do they just fit tighly in there? They aren't threaded in there? Park Tool only has instructions on how to overhaul and adjust headsets, I couldn't find any info on initial installation. I was looking through Barnett's chapter on headsets and they suggested loctite as a possible solution for a loose race. I am guessing I probably need a specific tool to remove the race, but can it be done with an adjustable wrench? I might be getting pretty close to the point where I take this into the bike shop, still I'd like to know what my options are.

  19. #19
    Senior Member aesmith's Avatar
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    Normally the races are a force-fit into the frame. Shouldn't be loose.

  20. #20
    Senior Member Road Fan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by noahjz View Post
    I've got the fork and headset off and was inspecting the races, it seems like the lower cup is loose in the head tube, that is it jiggles a bit when i press side to side on it. I am not too sure what keeps these things in place, do they just fit tighly in there? They aren't threaded in there? Park Tool only has instructions on how to overhaul and adjust headsets, I couldn't find any info on initial installation. I was looking through Barnett's chapter on headsets and they suggested loctite as a possible solution for a loose race. I am guessing I probably need a specific tool to remove the race, but can it be done with an adjustable wrench? I might be getting pretty close to the point where I take this into the bike shop, still I'd like to know what my options are.
    The headset you''re putting in is either the wrong size (diameter too small), or you frame's head tube is worn or stretched to the point where the tube is really too big. I would say take it to the shop - you're at that point. The cups in the frame are supposed to be PRESS fit with significant force, not a drop-in fit.

    Road Fan

  21. #21
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    loose cup

    I will take this bike in to the shop tomorrow and have them look at the loose cup. Thanks a lot to everyone for lots of ideas and advice, it is appreciated.

    I am wondering if anyone would care to speculate about how the cup got loose? It is the headset that the bike came with (my girlfriend bought it used), and before I overhauled it everything seemed fine. When I cleaned the parts I didn't attempt to remove the lower cup or the upper race (i.e. the parts that are press fit into the head tube). However when I was taking it apart I very stupidly had the frame in the repair stand, and when I gave the headset that final turn the fork went crashing to the floor ... then I did a nice amount of cursing. I was worried about damage to the fork but it seemed fine, but could the force of the fork falling have bumped the cup out of place? If so I am double-kicking myself for not being more careful.

    Thanks again for everyone's help

  22. #22
    Pwnerer Wordbiker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by noahjz View Post
    I am wondering if anyone would care to speculate about how the cup got loose?
    Lack of maintenance by the previous owner, most likely.

    While I appreciate the lively debates on loose versus caged, integrated versus discrete, and threaded versus threadless headset designs...lack of keeping the headset in adjustment is what ultimately destroys them all. To differing degrees, all headsets can work loose in time, but continuing to ride with a loose headset destroys bearings, causes brinnelling (indexing dents on the race) and can also allow the cups to move independently of the frame which results in the frame material deforming to the point that a press fit is no longer possible. Once the frame has "ovalized" (headset cups usually stretch the front and rear of the frame material into an oval shape), there's not much you can do.

    If the damage isn't too severe, it may be possible to reface the headtube down far enough that the cup can gain purchase on new frame material. Also, some headsets are designed with extra deep flanges that can save a lost frame, but are really designed to keep it from getting that way in the first place. Lots of engagement = less chance of ovalization. Lack of proper facing can also cause cup movement and a loose fit.

    The quick check for headset adjustment is to drop the bike. You'll typically hear a headset knock if it's loose (among other things, which makes it a versatile test). To isolate the headset adjustment, stand at the front of the bike, grab the handlebars and grip the front wheel with your knees. Rock it back and forth to feel how much play it has. It should have none if adjusted properly, but too tight is as bad if not worse. Now release the front wheel with your knees, lift the front tire and whip the bars from side to side. It should feel smooth with no resistance when adjusted properly.
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