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  1. #1
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    Wheelbuilding: how hard is it really?

    So I went down to one of my LBS today, all excited to buy the parts to build a new front wheel. I had previously bought an old clunker of a road bike, and my plan is to rebuild it part-by-part and learn in the process. Also, I'm going to be putting an internal hub on the rear wheel, so will either need to build that one or get it built, and I figured I could learn from the front wheel.

    I had read articles online about the process, and decided that a 3-leading-3-trailing design looked both awesome and not so hard to build, from these nice step-by-step instructions.

    So, excited at the prospect, I tell the bike guy my plan and he shakes he head. "No. Building a wheel is really hard. You want to get a professional to do that." When I explain that learning was part of what was interesting to me, he sighs and says "well, I guess you could take a wheel building class at the local bike school."

    He basically said that wheel building wasn't something that you could learn on your own. Also, he said that it wasn't worth investing that amount of time in my old bike.

    So, question to people who have built a wheel before: Is it really impossible to learn how to build a wheel from instructions and YouTube videos? Or was this guy just a jerk?

  2. #2
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    I think it would be easier and with better results if you start with a standard 3-cross pattern. It is also easier to build from scratch instead of transferring one spoke at a time from an old build to a new build. I recommend that you start with instructions from the Jobst Brandt book, "The Bicycle Wheel" or similar online instructions from Sheldon Brown. I recommend that you not use instructions that suggest buying spokes extra long because you will likely run out of threads before reaching sufficient tension.

  3. #3
    Senior Member bikeman715's Avatar
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    this guy was jerk your chain , wheelbuilding isn't all that hard . the hardest part is getting the right length in spokes . different hubs and rims sizes use different length . just follow the video you found and you'll be fine. sure when you are done with the wheel take it to the shop and let them check out your work .
    bikeman715

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    Constant tinkerer FastJake's Avatar
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    If you are already proficient at bike maintenance in general, IMO wheelbuilding is not difficult. I built my first wheel using Sheldon's article and some online spoke length calculator and it came out fine. It is a bit of an art and your first wheel will probably not be perfect but everyone has to start somewhere.

    If you've never touched a tool before I would not recommend wheelbuilding as your first project.
    Why "derailer" is the correct way to spell the gear-change mechanism: sheldonbrown.com/derailer.html

  5. #5
    Can'tre Member 3alarmer's Avatar
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    It might be really hard for him.

    Everybody who learns to do it well has to put in
    about the same amount of time and attention,
    even if you take a class.

    I'm teaching one right now in a symposium format
    at the bike coop here. Some guys pick it up quickly,
    some take a little longer.

    Mostly the problem right now is that quality spokes are
    way expensive, and machine assembled wheels as a
    package are much cheaper.

    But as you've found, you cannot buy the particular
    wheels you want so you have to build them.

    http://www.wheelpro.co.uk/spokecalc/
    Does a good job of explaining and accomplishing
    spoke length calculations and measuring hubs and
    rims.

    There are a couple of online sites that have Jobst
    Brandt's book up. I won't link for fear of violating
    some BF policy guidelines.
    Quote Originally Posted by Terrierman View Post
    No wonder everybody hates you.

  6. #6
    Gammal cyklist Reynolds's Avatar
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    As others said, it's not difficult if you start with good quality parts and have some mechanical ability. Sheldon Brown's instructions and Spocalc calculator are very useful.

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    I agree with most of the sentiments above.

    But from the bike guys point of view, it is possible he has seen more lousy first attempts at wheel building than good ones, and is just trying to not encourage another. If the OP was buying parts from him he also may feel liable if something (or the OP) is damaged do to an in-experienced build. Or as others have said maybe he personally sucks at it.

  8. #8
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    I wonder why some folks want to reinvent the wheel. 36 spoked, 3 cross wheels done right are a thing of beauty and boringly durable.

  9. #9
    Insane Bicycle Mechanic Jeff Wills's Avatar
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    Building wheels isn't that hard. Building good wheels, with the proper amount of balanced tension, takes patience and practice. I was building my own wheels without guidance soon after I was taught by a master mechanic. However, my first couple attempts had flaws- many times they loosened up on their own due to insufficient tension. Going the other way (overtensioning) resulted in a couple warped rims and one exploded spoke flange (well... radial spoking a 36-hole hub isn't a good idea either).

    If you're willing to build a few "normal" wheels and see how they come out and learn from your mistakes, then I'd say you can move on to exotic lacing. It can be fun and attention-getting, but there's no practical purpose to it.
    Jeff Wills

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    Ok, that all makes me feel better. I think I'll go to a different shop to get my parts (in Cambridge I have about 6 LBS to choose from... the others were closed today, which is why I went to this one), and I think I will go with a generic 3x 36 wheel for my first build, like people have suggested.

    I'm a pretty patient guy and have trued wheels before, so I'm not that scared of it. And I'll bring it to the (other) LBS for inspection after I'm done with it.

    If the first wheel works out well, maybe I'll go for a more advanced wheel like 3-leading-3-trailing or Crow's Foot for my rear wheel.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. #11
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    i would do some reading about what makes a good wheel and how to get there. what each adjustment does, why stress relieving is important. not blindly turning the spoke till the tension meter reads 33. wheel building is not hard for me but a wheel is a system. i like minimal distractions between each "round" i like to build in stages. lace and bring all nipples to last thread. take a break and go back. i can do a normal wheel in about an hour if i have all parts lined up

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by SamSam View Post


    He basically said that wheel building wasn't something that you could learn on your own. Also, he said that it wasn't worth investing that amount of time in my old bike.

    So, question to people who have built a wheel before: Is it really impossible to learn how to build a wheel from instructions and YouTube videos? Or was this guy just a jerk?
    I can't say whether investing the time and expense into your old bike makes sense, that's strictly your call. To help decide, figure how much the wheel will involve, then what other work would be needed, and compare what a comparable bike would cost. Don't forget to consider that you're comparing used to new and make the allowance for it.

    As for how hard is wheel building, it's one of those things that's easy --- if you know how. It isn't hard to learn the basics from a tutorial (I suggest multiple tutorials to get a good sense of it), and lacing won't be difficult. Tightening and aligning is a bit trickier, but if you're building a classic 3 cross 32 or 36 spoke wheel with a fairly stout (approx 500grams) rim it won't be a bear. Like all newbies you'll stumble and fall into a few unexpected traps, but it won't kill you. The key is to be patient and work by degrees.

    Much is made of getting even tension, and that is very important, and in case it isn't mentioned in the tutorial here's the secret. You don't want to try to get the tension even at the end, you want to keep it even all the way through. Likewise you want to get the rim spinning true fairly early on, and keep it true as you progressively and fairly evenly add tension.

    Here's where some skill and experience come in. If you start aligning it too much early on you'll lose your even tension, but if you wait too long it'll require major tension imbalance to force it into true. It's a judgement call, so try to keep it reasonably aligned, but don't let spokes have more than one turn of the nipple with respect to each other. Also focus on radial mis-alignment first because this is hardest to correct later on, and the wobble can be brought into check as you move along.

    best of luck as you go along, let us know how it works out.
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  13. #13
    Flat Ire
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    'nuther question. Can you save some pretty good money building wheels?

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by lesiz View Post
    'nuther question. Can you save some pretty good money building wheels?
    yes and no, or maybe not usually is more accurate.

    These days you can get some pretty decent wheels complete for about what the spokes and rim alone would cost you. The hub and labor are essentially free.

    However, as you move up in quality, it changes a bit because the hub has more value so rebuilding on one you already own will pay off. Obviously this doesn't apply if you have to buy the hub.

    The real payoff is by building your own you can get the exact wheels you want, with your choice of hub, rim and spokes. Try finding a non-areo tubular wheel with a 3 speed IGH hub 32 double butted spokes, and you'll see what I mean. Also if you're good you'll know that the wheels are as good or more likely better than what you can buy cheap.

    So comparing apples to apples with good stuff, you can probably save a bit, or at least break even.
    FB
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    An ounce of diagnosis is worth a pound of cure.

    “Never argue with an idiot. He will only bring you down to his level and beat you with experience.”, George Carlin

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    WARNING, I'm from New York. Thin skinned people should maintain safe distance.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by FBinNY View Post
    These days you can get some pretty decent wheels complete for about what the spokes and rim alone would cost you. The hub and labor are essentially free.

    However, as you move up in quality, it changes a bit because the hub has more value so rebuilding on one you already own will pay off. Obviously this doesn't apply if you have to buy the hub.

    The real payoff is by building your own you can get the exact wheels you want, with your choice of hub, rim and spokes. Try finding a non-areo tubular wheel with a 3 speed IGH hub 32 double butted spokes, and you'll see what I mean. Also if you're good you'll know that the wheels are as good or more likely better than what you can buy cheap.
    Where I find that I save money by building my own wheels is when it's only the rim that needs replacing. Usually when I need a new wheel it's because the brake track on the rim has worn too thin. Buying another rim with a similar ERD lets me reuse both the hub and the spokes and is generally much less expensive than buying a new wheel.

  16. #16
    Si Senior dbg's Avatar
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    There are subtle lessons and issues that you'll stumble into. I agree with Sheldon and Barnetts on the drive-side trailing versus leading spoke groups being on the outside versus inside -contrary to Jobst Brandt. Do you plan to use a drop of oil at the spoke hole? Do you plan to use threadlocker compounds? What happens when the nipple grabs the rim and refuses to twist and you round off the edges so the spoke wrench is useless to tighten or loosen and you can't use a screw driver because the spoke has extended too far into the hole? Do you know about the holes always pointing to one side or the other even if they don't appear to? Have you pre-measured all your spokes to make sure you got what you ordered? A few mm wrong length can prevent a correct build. Do you trust the ERD measurement?

    Sorry. Just trying to throw out some issues that will hit you eventually.
    David Green, Naperville, IL USA "The older I get, the better I used to be" --Lee Trevino

  17. #17
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    He basically said that wheel building wasn't something that you could learn on your own. Also, he said that it wasn't worth investing that amount of time in my old bike.
    Over the last thirty years plenty of cyclists found _The Bicycle Wheel_ sufficient to build wheels which don't break spokes or go out of true until the rims get bent.

    So, question to people who have built a wheel before: Is it really impossible to learn how to build a wheel from instructions and YouTube videos?
    No. Jobst Brandt tested _The Bicycle Wheel_ by having his grade school sons each build a wheelset with no other help.

    Wheel building is more about patience than skill. You'll take much longer than some one who's built hundreds of sets but your wheels can be as durable and maintenance free.

    Or was this guy just a jerk?
    Could just be ignorant.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by lesiz View Post
    'nuther question. Can you save some pretty good money building wheels?
    Yes.

    While the parts may not be less expensive the first time, only buying a rim for $40-$70 after you bend one or wear out its brake tracks costs a lot less than buying a comparable quality complete wheel. I'm on the second front rim and second or third rear on the first set I built 14-16 years ago but first hubs (Campagnolo Record rears are about $200 a pop now, fronts over half that, and they're only available in black which is the current fashion), spokes, and nipples (apart from a few alloy nipples damaged in road side repairs).
    Last edited by Drew Eckhardt; 02-12-12 at 06:46 PM.

  19. #19
    Insane Bicycle Mechanic Jeff Wills's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lesiz View Post
    'nuther question. Can you save some pretty good money building wheels?
    Drew nailed it. Buying a pre-built wheel is cheaper at the beginning, but replacing worn rims can save you money in the long run. Also, if you deal with whackdoodle configurations like my collection of recumbents, many times pre-built is not an option.
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  20. #20
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    There's a lot of "it all depends" answers to this question. If you are only going to build this one set, or one wheel to repair your bike- don't bother. Buy a complete wheel on-line. They need a little help, but that should be fairly easy to come by. If you anticipate future wheel-building experiences learn to do it. Saving money? Yes and no. Most of us build our own because it enables us to get a high end wheel which would otherwise cost a bunch. Low end? You can buy cheaper elsewhere.

    One thing I wouldn't do is to go back into that LBS. It sounds like either he is afraid of wheelbuilding, or thinks the process is so "specialized," and only he knows how to do it, so you pay through the nose. Most wheelbuilders I know are not that arrogant.

  21. #21
    Velocommuter Commando Sirrus Rider's Avatar
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    Not hard but does take practice to do well.
    Riding 19 Years of Specialized Sirrus Tradition.
    Live in Houston? Come to http://bicyclecommutehouston.blogspot.com/
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  22. #22
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    Become a member at Bikes not Bombs, sign up for their free Tool Time, every 2nd Tuesday, bring your materials in(they have the tools) and they will help guide you through the build. I started building a wheel in the fall, but got worried abut bringing the tension up while maintaining round/true. Took it in, they pointed out a problem in the lacing I had missed, guided me through truing and tensioning and I have a wheel that hasn't required any retruing yet, and I don't anticipate it needing any in the ear future.
    A far cry from the first and only other build I did twenty years ago using only a magazine article that required major retruing after the first test ride, and corrective truing after each ride for about month.

  23. #23
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    Thanks for all the advice. Randomgear: I'd go to BnB in a minute if I lived close to it. Instead I'm right near Broadway Bike School, and they charge for using their tools. I'll probably bring it to them when it's finished or if I have problems, though.

    Now I have to pick out parts...

  24. #24
    Senior Member Monster Pete's Avatar
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    I built my first wheel when I bought a Sturmey-Archer hub. As long as you have the right length spokes (which can be determined using an online calculator in many cases) and can work methodically, it's not really that difficult. As always, Sheldon Brown is a good source of information. He produced a wheelbuilding guide which I followed and ended up with a good strong wheel. I've built a couple more since then and trued several. 3 Leading 3 Trailing is a more difficult pattern to lace, in terms of getting the spokes interlaced properly and having the valve end up in the right place. I'd build a conventional 3-cross pattern first.
    I've got a bike, you can ride if you like it's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good- Pink Floyd, 1967

  25. #25
    \/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\ SumoMuffin's Avatar
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    Wheel building is one of those things that has been played out as this really difficult, cryptic skill, probably mostly by people who have never built a wheel. In reality if you can follow directions, and have a good reference wheel to follow the lacing pattern, it's really just a plug and chug process to get a ridable wheel.

    That being said it is an art form that takes considerable skill to master, and building pro quality wheels isn't easy. You will likely run into problems. But if you are patient, have good troubleshooting skills, and can grasp the basic theory behind it you should be fine.

    Lots of bike snobs, especially ones who own or work in a shop, tend to overplay the difficulty of certain mechanical tasks. Maybe because they make generalizations about people's mechanical abilities, or maybe to make themselves feel better, who knows. But bottom line, don't let anyone discourage you from learning through trial and error, IMO the combination of instruction with trial and error is the best way to learn something.

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