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Old 07-18-14, 12:54 PM   #1
David Bierbaum
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Steel rims and idle curiosity.

With the advent of disc brakes, could steel rims make a comeback? Aside from poor braking (with rim brakes), what would be the pros and cons of steel rims on a bicycle with disc brakes?

This is just idle curiosity on my part, wondering if there are factors to favor/disfavor the use of wheels with steel rims, when braking is taken out of the equation.
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Old 07-18-14, 01:04 PM   #2
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You won't see comeback for steel rims for a number of reasons. The first is purely practical. The equipment for making these has been mothballed, and production capacity is now devoted to rims made of extruded aluminum. It would take a serious benefit to overcome this momentum. There's also the issue of plating, which for environmental reasons is out of favor and avoid when possible. Stainless steel is too expensive and hard to work with to make sense.

Then there's the bicycle needs. The ability to easily extrude sound structural shapes, form them into rims, join and/or machine the sides makes aluminum the winner here. Excellent strength to weight ratios and workability will keep the world on aluminum for anything but low end utility bikes for years to come.

If anything, more disc brakes opens up opportunities for rims made of engineering plastics, which could offer all the benefits of aluminum at a lower weight with the added benefit of resilience and shape memory that aluminum lacks.
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Old 07-18-14, 01:42 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by David Bierbaum View Post
With the advent of disc brakes, could steel rims make a comeback? Aside from poor braking (with rim brakes), what would be the pros and cons of steel rims on a bicycle with disc brakes?

This is just idle curiosity on my part, wondering if there are factors to favor/disfavor the use of wheels with steel rims, when braking is taken out of the equation.
Steel rims are still heavy, compare to alu and especially carbon. This is compounded by the interest in aero wheels.
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Old 07-18-14, 07:59 PM   #4
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This is just idle curiosity on my part, wondering if there are factors to favor/disfavor the use of wheels with steel rims, when braking is taken out of the equation.
Weight. Steel is heavy.
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Old 07-18-14, 08:09 PM   #5
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Weight. Steel is heavy.
Yes. I remember quite a few of my friends (and myself) who rebuilt wheels in the early '70s with aluminum rims replacing the original steel. Weight was the primary reason for the upgrade, not having to worry about rust was secondary (one of the wheels I rebuilt was due to spokes pulling through a rusted rim), and improved braking was almost incidental.
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Old 07-18-14, 08:40 PM   #6
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Most beach cruisers and bmx bikez still come with steel wheels, it's falling out if favor faster in bmx, though as more low end models/dept store models have aluminum wheels. Mid and high end cruisers, some high end dept store cruisers are getting aluminum wheels. Trying to thin the line I guess.
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Old 07-18-14, 10:23 PM   #7
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How about magnesium.
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Old 07-18-14, 10:28 PM   #8
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I'm sure you could use a stronger grade of steel, but my remembrance of steel wheels in the 1970's is that the metal was soft enough to deform. Hit a pothole and you'd get a big flat spot in the rim, or even the sides of the rims would be bent outward on each side.
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Old 07-19-14, 05:20 AM   #9
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Most beach cruisers and bmx bikez still come with steel wheels, it's falling out if favor faster in bmx, though as more low end models/dept store models have aluminum wheels. Mid and high end cruisers, some high end dept store cruisers are getting aluminum wheels. Trying to thin the line I guess.
Next to no BMX bike comes with steel wheels, some might be chrome plated so look steel but 99.99999% are aluminium.
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Old 07-19-14, 07:31 AM   #10
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Got it. The main reason for alloy aside from stopping power with rim brakes, is weight, with the contributing factor of sheer manufacturing momentum lowering the price of aluminum vs. steel.

I was thinking that steel rims were still cheaper to make, so they showed up on wally-world bicycles. For those who aren't weight conscious, if the rims are cheaper and bullet-proof, it could be an alternative for commuters or touring bikes for the cash-strapped. I can see how the sheer manufacturing base of alumimum wheels with it's momentum, volume, and expertise, could drive the costs down, while the older steel rim tech fades into price-powered obscurity.
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Old 07-19-14, 10:27 AM   #11
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And aluminum is capable of extrusion into the many cross sections you see ..

a steel rim is rolled sheet metal ..
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Old 07-19-14, 11:40 AM   #12
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How about magnesium.
Magnesium doesn't have great strength or resilience. Thin, like a bike wheel, would be too brittle. It's good for thick chunky things like, for instance, an old VW engine block. I'm kind of surprised they ever used them for car wheels...they tended to break catastrophically if hit too hard.
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Old 07-19-14, 01:24 PM   #13
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Stainless steel is too expensive and hard to work with to make sense.
Maybe for aero rims but steel rims were often rolled out of tubing. They would not have to use the hardest, most rust resistant form.

I always thought they could roughen the insides of the flanges if they didn't want to roll a hook bead onto the rim. Maybe put a knurl in there, just not a sharp one.
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Old 07-19-14, 04:08 PM   #14
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Magnesium doesn't have great strength or resilience. Thin, like a bike wheel, would be too brittle. It's good for thick chunky things like, for instance, an old VW engine block. I'm kind of surprised they ever used them for car wheels...they tended to break catastrophically if hit too hard.
Magnesium is still the flavor of choice in the premier class of motorcycle racing. And those puppies take some hammering.


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Old 07-19-14, 04:13 PM   #15
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Maybe for aero rims but steel rims were often rolled out of tubing. They would not have to use the hardest, most rust resistant form.

I always thought they could roughen the insides of the flanges if they didn't want to roll a hook bead onto the rim. Maybe put a knurl in there, just not a sharp one.
To my knowledge (and I have some expertise here, though not infinite knowledge) steel rims were never rolled or formed from tubing. Tubing as raw stock is just too expensive, and poses problems when forming the some of the tight corners needed. Steel rims start as a flat continuous strip that's run through a series of folding and forming rollers building the profile shape in steps, until the final fold back into itself. There's a seam down the inside middle which is usually welded, but sometimes knurled into itself to form a lock joint.

The finished profiled strip then is formed into a hoop, or coil spring, and cut to length to make rims which are welded closed.

At one time both Raleigh and Far East machinery Co (FEMCO) made videos of the process, but I didn't find them to link to.

It is possible to form a hooked edge, and most low end steel rims such as on --X1.75 wheels used single wall rims with rolled circles on the inside outer edges. The tires made for them had a recess or pocket outside the bead, and latched the hook, much as modern hook edge tires do.
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Old 07-20-14, 03:49 AM   #16
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When steel was the material of choice one could get quality steel rims that were designed to take massive amounts of abuse and these were optimal if hub brakes were used since the braking performance with rim brakes tends to be lacking, especially in the rain.

These rims tended to be fitted to more utilitarian bicycles so they were wider and stronger and ran higher volume tyres and the biggest virtue is that a steel rim can be straightened, which is good in places where things like this are not considered disposable.

Skinnier road wheels in steel tended to be fitted to lower end / entry level bicycles and were never that good... Araya may have been an exception in that they produced some pretty high quality steel rims.

I work on so many old Raleigh bicycles with steel wheels and have had wheels that have come in with multiple broken spokes that were still running remarkably true.

The stainless Dunlop wheels on my 1955 Raleigh are a thing of beauty, when this bicycle was built aluminium rims were still in the development stage and even though they were available, people put their faith in steel.

With the abundance of high quality alloy rims you are not going to see disc hubs laced to steel rims, it would add weight where it served no purpose.

I still use steel rims in some restoration work where there are no suitable aluminium replacements but if a Raleigh Sports needs new wheels I will build around CR18 rims with a high polish that mimics the chrome because it is such a worthwhile upgrade that puts the vintage bike on braking par with it's modern counterparts.
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Old 07-20-14, 04:06 AM   #17
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Riding through the winter, in a place where roads are salted, I've entertainers the Notion too of Stainles steel rims. On the winter commuter it'd make a bit of sense. One less thing that the environment can damage.
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Old 07-20-14, 04:31 AM   #18
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Riding through the winter, in a place where roads are salted, I've entertainers the Notion too of Stainles steel rims. On the winter commuter it'd make a bit of sense. One less thing that the environment can damage.
Aluminium rims don't rust and it is easier to spin light wheels in the snow.
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Old 07-20-14, 04:39 AM   #19
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Aluminium rims don't rust and it is easier to spin light wheels in the snow.
You did notice that I wrote "stainless", did you?

While aluminium can't rust, it certainly can corrode. Something that salted roads will quite happily help them with.
And really, when I'm running the full set of studs, tires weighing 800+ grams, rim weight isn't much of an issue.
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Old 07-20-14, 04:51 AM   #20
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You did notice that I wrote "stainless", did you?

While aluminium can't rust, it certainly can corrode. Something that salted roads will quite happily help them with.
And really, when I'm running the full set of studs, tires weighing 800+ grams, rim weight isn't much of an issue.
My stainless rims still look new after nearly 60 years so there might be a point to that save for finding someone who would be willing to produce them... they perform a little better than chromed steel rims with rim brakes so a hub brake would still be the way to go for winter riding.

Through Portland's wet, rim killing winters we were getting 10,000 - 12,000 km on a set of good quality aluminium rims with rim brakes, up here where winter is dry, cold and less gritty, the rim life for our winter bikes is much better.
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Old 07-22-14, 01:47 PM   #21
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Next to no BMX bike comes with steel wheels, some might be chrome plated so look steel but 99.99999% are aluminium.
Pretty much what I said. Even dept store bikes have aluminum wheels. You won't find many chrome plated- not a good braking surface. They are normally anodized if a finish is applied.
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Old 07-22-14, 01:56 PM   #22
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And aluminum is capable of extrusion into the many cross sections you see ..

a steel rim is rolled sheet metal ..
Which means single wall sadness...
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Old 07-22-14, 02:03 PM   #23
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Which means single wall sadness...
Not so at all. Hollow double wall Endrich and Westwood patterns were SOP for decades, though they were double thickness single wall down the center. The shape was duplicated in extruded aluminum rims having a single wall at the spokes and corner boxes that were fastened with pins, like the classic Super Champ and Weinmann rims.
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Old 07-22-14, 11:29 PM   #24
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Aluminium rims don't rust and it is easier to spin light wheels in the snow.
Aluminum definitely corrodes.
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Old 07-22-14, 11:34 PM   #25
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To my knowledge (and I have some expertise here, though not infinite knowledge) steel rims were never rolled or formed from tubing. Tubing as raw stock is just too expensive, and poses problems when forming the some of the tight corners needed. Steel rims start as a flat continuous strip that's run through a series of folding and forming rollers building the profile shape in steps, until the final fold back into itself. There's a seam down the inside middle which is usually welded, but sometimes knurled into itself to form a lock joint.

The finished profiled strip then is formed into a hoop, or coil spring, and cut to length to make rims which are welded closed.

At one time both Raleigh and Far East machinery Co (FEMCO) made videos of the process, but I didn't find them to link to.

It is possible to form a hooked edge, and most low end steel rims such as on --X1.75 wheels used single wall rims with rolled circles on the inside outer edges. The tires made for them had a recess or pocket outside the bead, and latched the hook, much as modern hook edge tires do.
Tubing would only be a little more expensive than strip because the factory would have to buy cut lengths instead of a continuous roll of material but it would save a few roll forming operations and welding the edges together.

There's no reason they couldn't form good rims out of stainless. The material is more expensive than mild steel but the value is higher. There are grades of stainless which are compatible with cold forming operations.

The double wall steel rims I have seen don't seem to come with a hook bead.

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