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  1. #1
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    Hand-built wheels vs. machine-built wheels

    Over in the "Bike for a South American Tour" thread, several folks have stressed the importance of "hand-built wheels". I don't pay much attention to the current state of bike parts & frames, and I thought to myself that surely ALL bike wheels are still hand-built. I've built wheels myself. In fact, I just built a new 20" rear wheel for my Bike Friday. (I literally wore away the rim metal from braking after an estimated 30,000 miles of wear. BTW, the wheel stayed remarkably true to the end, one of the nice features of small wheels.) But I was curious whether machine-built wheels actually exist. So a quick google search provided the following link, which blew me away:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRYEv2NDdzE

    It's basically a sales video for a very impressive wheel building machine. I had no idea such machinery existed. The lacing isn't entirely automated, but the rest of the process is. I have no idea how reliable and accurate this machine is, but I have to wonder whether a "hand-built" wheel is necessarily better.

  2. #2
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    Some, but not all, machine built wheels may be correctly tensioned and stress relieved. Those that aren't, often break spokes early and often. I don't know what the price point is where manufacturers start using the top of the line machines, but it must be above the price where I've bought wheels.

    Probably the best deal in wheels today is to buy machine wheels (often for less than you can buy the parts), and have a knowledgeable mechanic (perhaps you) check/increase the tension, check the true, and stress relieve the spokes.

  3. #3
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    No rim is a perfect extrusion and bend, which means that if a machine is set to tension the spokes, the out-of-trueness of the original rim may not be accounted. for.

    If the youtube video is the one I am thinking, it is remarkable how the person lacing does it.

    Anyway, I build all our wheels, and haven't had any issues except for the occasional nipple undoing (which for some reason happened on a wheel on each our our new Thorns -- but it hasn't been an issue since I retrued them).

    I have had two machine-built wheels from Velocity, both pulled spokes through the rim. The tension on them was (comparatively) much greater than I would have put on them. In the end, though, it might have been a problem with the alloy used in the extrusion, but the machine build didn't take account of it.

    One of the sources for the notion that machine-built wheels aren't that good may come from the no-name wheels that shops hang from their ceilings to replace crapped-out ones on cheap bikes. Even the better wheels that might be offered need a bit of tweaking -- as I found with several when I needed to replace rims on my hire bike fleet years ago.
    Dream. Dare. Do.

  4. #4
    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rowan View Post
    No rim is a perfect extrusion and bend, which means that if a machine is set to tension the spokes, the out-of-trueness of the original rim may not be accounted. for.
    I think the theory is that the machine clamps the rim into a round and true condition before the spokes are tensioned.

    I think machine built wheels can be range from very bad to very good depending on the manufacturer and the model. You can probably say the same for hand built wheels, but I think the odds are better that you get a decent wheel with hand built.

    I found wheel building to be pretty straightforward and I got good longevity out of the ones that I built. The thing is that buying the individual parts tends to be more expensive than buying a machine built wheel.

  5. #5
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    I've have had good and bad of both types over the years......guess it depends on who the loose nut behind the wheel is.

    I buy my machine built wheels from Universal Cycles online( I know nobody there) over the last few years,they have been real well built.I haven't had to do anything to them.

    They are not on my bicycles but they are on a few good friends of mine....and they remain good friends....
    One of the fellows has 700's/105/butted spokes/a719 rims.....I have NEVER touched that setup in 4-5 years.
    Last edited by Booger1; 09-10-12 at 01:42 PM.
    Everything should be as simple as possible...But not more so.---Albert Einstein

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    This is going to freak people out, but these machine-built Performance Titan wheels have been flawless for me after I wore through the rims on my flat-bar road commuting/touring bike: http://www.performancebike.com/bikes...1#ReviewHeader

    Only 16 spokes in front, and 20 in the rear, and I commute with up to 20 lbs in a rear pannier (maybe about the same on a tour). Never broken a spoke in 2000 miles so far, and only trued the rear a bit shortly after purchase. I do use the Performance 35mm wide tires on them...and they do have deep triangular areo rims, which are probably tougher.

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    Randomhead
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    I bought some wheels second hand that were built by a bike mechanic. All I gotta say is that is not a good recommendation. First broken spoke, ever. They were true, but the tension was too low. Couldn't adjust them either since the aluminum nipples were stuck. I have seen decent machine-built (I think) wheels. I have also seen really horrible ones.

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    Senior Member clasher's Avatar
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    There is a grade of loctite that wicks into fasteners that are already fastened, I think it's green... 242 perhaps? Anyway, it's not particularly strong like the blue or red loctite, but since it wicks into threads it'll protect the threads from seizing together. I put it on machine built wheels that come my way and are fairly new.

  9. #9
    Senior Member wahoonc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by unterhausen View Post
    I bought some wheels second hand that were built by a bike mechanic. All I gotta say is that is not a good recommendation. First broken spoke, ever. They were true, but the tension was too low. Couldn't adjust them either since the aluminum nipples were stuck. I have seen decent machine-built (I think) wheels. I have also seen really horrible ones.
    So you bought second hand wheels, that may or may not have been properly maintained.

    I hand build most of my own wheels. I have had some machine built wheels that were crap right out of the box. But I am anal about my wheels, if I buy new ones from an unknown source I will detension them, and bring them back up by hand and destress them as I go.

    I have a feeling that the lower to middle end machines will bring a wheel up to an even stress, but metal being what it is, no two spokes will necessarily be exactly the same, hence the reason for stress relieving and the necessary hand finishing.

    Aaron
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  10. #10
    <riding now> BigAura's Avatar
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    There aren't that many variables, of course a computerized machine could do it. The question for a wheel manufacturer is: does it make economic sense. The question for a wheel consumer is: does it make economic AND emotional sense.
    Last edited by BigAura; 09-10-12 at 05:02 PM.

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    One concern at one time was that machines could not handle butted spokes because they would twist them during tightening. Whether this is true today I don't know. In any case I like straight spokes and have not had any trouble with them.

    Another issue is whether the people with the machines are making wheels for the kind of riding we do. A good wheel is a good wheel, but then not everyone needs all that good a wheel. Or back in the days when wheel making was kinda mysterious, whether they knew how to make strong wheels at all.

    Another issue is whether compromises in spoke type are made to make them easier to handle. A while back there was one brand of spokes that fell rapidly out of favour when they stopped having the fit builders expected. The whispers at the time were that they had been adapted to better serve the machine built wheel biz.

    In the past, back in the good old days of MA2s, thin light rims, double eyelets, and high spoke tension and spoke counts. The theory was that each wheel needed to be build to it's failure point then backed off and trued up, then stress relieved, then trued up and, so on. Today we have heavy stiff rims, low spoke counts, and factory specs that are the same regardless of front or back wheel, and other individualized specs. This has been done to allow one to make good wheels on machines. So like a lot of things with bikes it was true at one point and the tech has changed a bit also.

    Wheels that have all the components you want, and are machine built at a good price, can be tweaked by a good tech to give excellent service.

    Worth keeping in mind that some of us are running our wheels at twice the weight they were designed for.

  12. #12
    Randomhead
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    Quote Originally Posted by wahoonc View Post
    So you bought second hand wheels, that may or may not have been properly maintained.
    I figured someone wouldn't get what I meant. They were perfectly true, so they probably hadn't been ridden that much. All I'm saying is know your wheelbuilder. This guy obviously didn't know what he was doing. Now I know people I trust.

  13. #13
    Senior Member wahoonc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by unterhausen View Post
    I figured someone wouldn't get what I meant. They were perfectly true, so they probably hadn't been ridden that much. All I'm saying is know your wheelbuilder. This guy obviously didn't know what he was doing. Now I know people I trust.
    Low tension and stuck nipples either indicates a poorly built wheel, or a wheel that has not been maintained. I have a set of wheels that were given to me for a old Raleigh Gran Prix that I am setting up for my daughter. The front wheel spokes were seized, rim was fine. New spokes set me back all of $18, she now has a properly built wheel that should last until the rim wears out from braking.

    Aaron
    Webshots is bailing out, if you find any of my posts with corrupt picture files and want to see them corrected please let me know. :(

    ISO: A late 1980's Giant Iguana MTB frameset (or complete bike) 23" Red with yellow graphics.

    "Cycling should be a way of life, not a hobby.
    RIDE, YOU FOOL, RIDE!"
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    "Steel: nearly a thousand years of metallurgical development
    Aluminum: barely a hundred
    Which one would you rather have under your butt at 30mph?"
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  14. #14
    Senior Member tarwheel's Avatar
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    I have bought machine-built wheels as well as hand-built that were flawless after thousands of miles. I also have bought machine-built and handmade wheels that were nothing but trouble from the start. Depends on the builder.

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    Certified Bike Brat Burton's Avatar
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    Its not quite as black and white as that. There are also different grades of spokes, rims and hubs - all of which will contribute to the overall result. High spoke count rims with eyelets are a good idea, but not absolutely essentia. Hand checking and maintaining spoke tension regularly and riding conservatively works too. Axles break as well as spokes.

  16. #16
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    I've broken one spoke in 14 years after switching to hand built rear wheels. They also required almost zero mucking with over the life of the rim.

    Machine for the front, hand built for the back is the way I roll. Quick and dirty on tour replacement for rear wheels would be painful. However, after spitting a sidewall seam on the front, it was an easy 15min replace at a random Rhode Island shop.

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    Quote Originally Posted by unterhausen View Post
    All I'm saying is know your wheelbuilder.
    True dat. Which is why I build all my own wheels. Pick up a copy of Brandt, do a little reading, and it is not that hard to master. My longest-lasting wheel (so far) has gone a decade without needing truing.
    My speculation was that it applies to some degree in cycling, and I used the previous proof as my reasoning, but I can't prove how exactly it applies to it and to what degree. That, I have admitted, is speculation based on reasoning, but not at this point provable.

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    Not that difficult to make, and it is one of those things where all the parts are available and the big names pretty much have identical access as the rest of us. There is a fair bit of contradictory information on how to build wheels out there. So it can get confusing, but one is not any worse off than the average high end bike shop, there may be a few people out there with a better understanding, but the majority of us can make good wheels from the info in books and on the net.

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by MassiveD View Post
    but the majority of us can make good wheels from the info in books and on the net.
    And practice. That is, the more you build, the faster and more "in tune" you will be at doing it.
    Dream. Dare. Do.

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    Practice will certainly help one get to be a better builder, and probably to learn some better methods. I think a reasonably technical person can build a first rate set of wheels first time out, and with not a lot more than a spoke wrench. Otherwise, in the touring world who wants to serve a long apprenticeship with a trail of busted wheels behind one.

    Basics are

    1) find a compatible parts formula, you can copy stuff on websites that do custom wheels, there are often recipes. Some of the better stores will also have reliable info, but you have to be careful that they really and truly know, and deal with high mileage users like tourists, or messengers.

    For instance on the last 4 wheels I built, I got components from Spicer. I had just finished reading Scharaner, and was all gung ho to use washers, but he said that I was using white hubs and wheelsmith spokes, and that there was no way I was going to have a problem, and he was so convincing I gave up on the idea. Though, Scharaner uses DT hubs and spokes which are made for each other, and absolutely top drawer...

    2) brass nipples, stainless spokes probably wheelsmith. Spokes and rims can be recycled indefinetly, but you will have to do it yourself, and you must preserve the pattern of the previous build.

    3) research the tension your wheel needs to be built to, the makers will have this info up to a point. Consider buying a tension device like the park. Some rims require working up to the full tension, Brandt has that method, however a lot of newer rims will not work with that.

    4) find some instructions, Sheldons are fine, but do not rely on the stress relieving. Nothing crazy cross three, or whatever works if you are using say a Rohloff.

    5) figure out how to true your wheel, and how you will determine if that has happened, will you use or make a jig, or use the frame, etc...

    6) Come up with a stress relieving method. The Jobst Brant method of grasping parallel pairs should be part of it. I do 4 separate processes.

    7) Have a method for dealing with the uneven rigging angle in the rear of the wheel. I use several methods, they all work, so you can find your own.

    8) build and enjoy.
    Last edited by MassiveD; 09-12-12 at 09:11 PM.

  21. #21
    coprolite fietsbob's Avatar
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    20" wheel, 406? what hub?

    Bi-Fri are not mainstream enough to be in wholesale distributor's catalogs..

    26 and 700c are..

    And Contract bike manufacturers certainly own wheel building machines.

    bike shops hand check wheels they buy , or at least they should..
    Last edited by fietsbob; 09-12-12 at 09:24 PM.

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