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School me on machine built vs hand built wheels

Old 03-14-16, 11:48 AM
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School me on machine built vs hand built wheels

So I speced out these budget wheelsets for heavy commuting/credit card touring. I'm 230lbs:

1. 32h HS Archetype machine-b from Velomine - DT Champ spokes - Shimano 105 hub - $220 ($263 w shipping and tax)
2. Same as #1 from ProWheelBuilder - $365 ($400 w shipping and tax)
3. 32h F/36h R HS Arch hand-b from ProWheelBuilder - DT Comp spokes - Shimano 105 - $407 ($445 total w shipping and tax)
4. Same as #2 from LBS - $480

Ordered #1 machines from Velomine. Wheels showed up with slight wobble in rear and after one 10mi ride - the wobble is more substantial.

So before I bought the Velomines I should have immediately factored in truing at my LBS correct? My fav LBS charges 30 - so the Velomines are actually 323 no? I'm content for now in investing in this - but wondering what other folks would order. If I would have ordered from PWB - would I have to get them trued right away?
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Old 03-14-16, 12:02 PM
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While there's a certain cachet to handbuilt wheels, there's really no clear definition of how handbuilt they have to be. The reality is that wheel quality is determined by the final tensioning and alignment, and machines are fully capable of doing as good a job as a journeyman handbuilder, though probably not as good as a highly skilled one.

The issue is that tighter specs for final alignment and even tension by machine call for more cycle time, and many (most?) production companies won't program for that long a cycle. But many so-called machine built wheels are finished or at least touched up by hand, which can make them as good as so-called hand built wheels.

Note my use of "so-called". That's because there are various steps to the building process in two main categories - lacing & tightening/truing. Many hand built wheels are laced using machines, and some even have some of the pre-tensioning done by machine. There's no argument against this because this is rote work, and there's absolutely no difference between the results up to this point.

So, it's not whether wheels are built entirely by hand, partly by hand or entirely by machine, but how finicky the seller/producer is.

FWIW, and this is ONLY my preference, I wouldn't buy wheels with the intent to have them worked on later. If I felt that was needed, I'd have whoever was going to correct them do the whole job, or find mid priced wheels which I could trust to be OK as delivered.
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Old 03-14-16, 12:48 PM
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I just priced out the components in your wheels at Universal Cycles (generally pretty competitive prices) and just the raw pieces come to $267 without tax or shipping. So that Velomine price is just ridiculous. Their margins have to be pretty tight to make money at that price, even considering that they are getting the components at wholesale. It's not surprising that their process would be designed to churn out wheels as quickly as possible.

Besides skilled and careful finishing (which I agree is far and away the most important factor in a set of wheels), the other thing you get with a hand built wheel is the ability to select the pieces you want. For instance, you'll notice that Velomine doesn't give you the option of double butted spokes. I suspect part of the reason for this is that double butted spokes require more time/care in building to avoid wind-up and that would slow down the Velomine machines, but another reason is that their build and pricing model depends on volume so they need to pump out a lot of identical wheelsets.

I don't know how ProWheelBuilder builds their wheels. I would guess that it is some combination of machine lacing and hand tensioning, along the lines FBinNY suggests. They get some financial benefits from volume sales, but their model allows more customization than does Velomine. Your LBS, on the other hand, is not a volume dealer so they are essentially charging you full retail price for the components and their time for what is very likely a complete hand build. This accounts for the price differences you are seeing.

I agree with FBinNY that there is really no benefit to hand laced vs. machine laced wheels, except maybe some purely cosmetic detail like having the label line up with the valve hole and even that could be done by a machine. Really the entire process is fairly mechanical and there is no theoretical reason that a machine couldn't be created to build wheels that would match those of the best craftsman builder. It's just a matter of how much the machine would cost to set up, operate and maintain. Though Watson may be able to beat the world chess champion, that doesn't mean any chess program I install on my desktop PC is that good.

The other thing about customization that I didn't address directly above is that selecting the right components is a really important part of getting a great wheel. Buying the Velomine wheel and having it trued by a skilled mechanic would be a financially sound plan if the components in the wheel were what you want/need. The thing is, a professional wheel builder you talked to would almost certainly try to talk you out of the straight gauge spokes for your application if your budget allowed it. I'm a bit ambivalent about this point. I think that if you're on a tight budget straight gauge spokes can be a reasonable choice. The wheel will be objectively better with double butted spokes, but it can still be really good with straight gauge spokes and possibly as good as you need it to be. My point is, this is the kind of conversation you'd have with a wheelbuilder that you won't have ordering from Velomine and having the wheels trued later.
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Old 03-14-16, 12:51 PM
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jason7878, Welcome to the forum.

I have bought budget wheels in the past and, since you mentioned them, I've bought from Velomine and plan to buy from them again. I also plan to re-tension and re-true upon their arrival, just something to expect when buying budget wheels, IMHO.

My first set of budget machine made wheels (Not the set from Velomine.) was for my first touring bike and my desire to ride the bike exceeded my own advice to fine tune the wheels beforehand. Same outcome as you. Not a big deal, really. If you don't know how to, some bicycle shops or co-op shops often have clinics you can attend to learn all sorts of bicycle maintenance items.

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Old 03-14-16, 12:59 PM
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I've been volunteering at a shop where a bunch of us true and refurbish wheels, both used and new machine built. Every once in a while a machine built wheels gets inspected, gets grease and gets no other attention. That's not often. Most need truing. Some just minor wobbles, some almost from scratch.

It is a good bet that most machine built wheels have never seen human eyes unless a shop has opened the box and pulled off the wrapping.

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Old 03-14-16, 12:59 PM
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Originally Posted by jason7878
So before I bought the Velomines I should have immediately factored in truing at my LBS correct? My fav LBS charges 30 - so the Velomines are actually 323 no?
You also want to stress relieve the spokes and achieve uniform tension in the wheel.

I'm content for now in investing in this - but wondering what other folks would order.
I build my own wheels and suggest other people do the same or find a reputable one-person operation where the hands which earned that reputation build their wheel.

If I would have ordered from PWB - would I have to get them trued right away?
Properly made wheels leave the truing stand straight and stay that way until you bend a rim, wear out a brake track, or do something more creative (a battery pack fell off my stem, remained tethered to the attached light, and went into my front wheel where it stretched a spoke on its way to the back side of my fork).

Their spokes last for at least a few hundred thousand miles.

Machine built wheels may be great (Holland Mechanics makes a stress-relieving robot), may fail to stay true, or may start breaking spokes after a few thousand miles beneath a heavy rider.

You can get close to hand-built with additional labor, although without completely removing tension you're not going to form the elbows to the hub flanges.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:12 PM
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Several years back, I bought a set of wheels for a bike for my wife from velomine. Came true and evenly tensioned (I did check though). She hasn't ridden it enough for that to change.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:13 PM
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I have to assume that all wheels that come on bicycles are machine built, so I have no problem buying a machine built wheel. When I do, I'll do the same as I would from a hand built wheel and spin it in the bike, looking at the brake pads, to make sure it is true, and pluck the spokes to make sure one or two isn't really loose. I have spoke wrenches, and so should you, and will fix any minor issue before it gets worse.

Building wheels can be tricky, but keeping them true is pretty basic. Watch a couple of youtube videos and you should be able to get it no problem.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:19 PM
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Originally Posted by Drew Eckhardt
Their spokes last for at least a few hundred thousand miles.
This is what I was trying to get at with straight versus butted spokes. I've read the scientific theories and I do believe that double butted spokes are in some very real sense better than straight gauge spokes, but how many people actually need their spokes to last for a few hundred thousand miles? I ride about 3000 miles a year, and I spread those miles across multiple bikes. Assuming wheels that were equally well built, how many years would I be using a set of wheels before the straight gauge spokes started experiencing fatigue failure that would have been years away for the butted spokes?
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Old 03-14-16, 01:21 PM
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I have two sets of Velomine wheels, Archetypes laced to 105 hubs (10 speed) and Deep-Vs laced to Ultegra hubs (11 speed).

After riding about 2500 miles on the Deep-Vs they went very slightly out of true (which I only really could see when putting on my truing stand) which I fixed with half a turn of one spoke (which I did myself). 1500 miles later they are still true.

The Archetypes have had about 1000 miles put on them and they are totally true.

I am a Clyde (250lbs average) so I'm not exactly easy on wheels.

Although it's obviously possible to get a bad wheel, I would suggest that it is not guaranteed that machine built Velomine wheels *require* truing out of the box.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:27 PM
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IMO - the best thing that a decent hand builder can bring to the task is his expertise in selecting the various components, and his judgement about optimal tension. There's only so much that can be done mechanically, and once you hit the level of a properly tensioned/true wheel the only place to improve is to have the wheel blessed by a Voodoo priestess.

That expertise, and the ability to choose individual components to best suit your needs are the reasons to buy a handbuilt wheel from a good builder. Also, if you ride good hubs, then a hand builder can save you enough to offset his charge by reusing your hubs.

As for pricing, there are many reasons that a production wheel may be cheaper than or equal to the sum of the parts.

1- production labor cost for wheels is pretty low at something under 5 man minutes, and as low as 2-3 man minutes, at something like $10-15/hr.
2- a production builder may be favored with "builder" or OEM pricing for the parts, which brings them far below the cost through the afermarket channel
3- many production wheels are built overseas by people who supply bike companies, bike companies themselves, or a company that produces one or more of the wheel components
4- there's often little or no freight for imported wheels. Back when I was involved in importing bikes, the stacked bike boxes didn't reach the top of the container. We instructed our supplier to fill the 8-10" gap with as many wheels as could fit (which were many) so they were gravy as far as shipping cost went.

So yes, you can and should save money with production wheels, and in this way it's like a suit. If of the rack fits and looks right, why not? But if you're not a 42 regular, are a bit taller or shorter or fatter or thinner, then you'll get better clothes from a tailor.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:32 PM
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Originally Posted by Andy_K
I just priced out the components in your wheels at Universal Cycles (generally pretty competitive prices) and just the raw pieces come to $267 without tax or shipping. So that Velomine price is just ridiculous. Their margins have to be pretty tight to make money at that price, even considering that they are getting the components at wholesale. It's not surprising that their process would be designed to churn out wheels as quickly as possible.
Velomine isn't building these wheels. They come from a company called "Wheelmaster". Wheelmaster supply many shops with non-branded wheels, I've bought some at my LBS. I have no idea who Wheelmaster are, as they have no obvious web presence, but I can tell you that the last set I bought came with a hand written inspection sticker on them with the name "Jose".

For instance, you'll notice that Velomine doesn't give you the option of double butted spokes. I suspect part of the reason for this is that double butted spokes require more time/care in building to avoid wind-up and that would slow down the Velomine machines, but another reason is that their build and pricing model depends on volume so they need to pump out a lot of identical wheelsets.
Velomine actually does sell machine built wheels with double butted spokes. For example:

H Plus Son Archetype Wheelset Shimano Ultegra 6800 hubs 32h [74762] - $289.00 Velomine.com : Worldwide Bicycle Shop, fixed gear track bike wheelsets campagnolo super record vintage bike

These are still sub-$300 wheels.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:44 PM
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Originally Posted by dr_lha
Velomine isn't building these wheels. They come from a company called "Wheelmaster". Wheelmaster supply many shops with non-branded wheels, I've bought some at my LBS. I have no idea who Wheelmaster are, as they have no obvious web presence, but I can tell you that the last set I bought came with a hand written inspection sticker on them with the name "Jose".
Wheelmaster is the brand that J&B uses when marketing their wheels, which may be built overseas, or in Miami where they have a sizable building operation.
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Old 03-14-16, 01:45 PM
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I bought one of the $35 front wheels online, since it was cheaper than buying the parts.

Wheel "looked" true.
Spokes were noticeably below the screw driver slot of the nipple. Some probably 2mm. BAD!
Exactly 1/2 the spokes were tensioned to about 90kgh. Good!
Every alternating spoke was about 50kgf. Consistent???
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Old 03-14-16, 01:51 PM
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When at Burly I saw they had a machine to tighten all the spokes at once .

somebody had to put all the spokes in the hub though ..

discount wheels and those for factories have to lower labor cost .

A wheel Bought thru a Bike Shop can be [hand] tension and true checked , before delivery.

never seen anything but dry assembled mass produced wheels

... so a drop of chain lube on each before service truing is beneficial

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Old 03-14-16, 02:00 PM
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The hand built wheels I got did not have proper tension out of the box. I had the LBS go over them a few times and the rear finally stayed true but the front would wobble in less than 30 miles. I trued it again myself and basically started over from scratch and it has been solid for 2 years now.

The cheap machine wheels I bought needed two rounds of truing and about 100 miles before they stayed true and they have not budged in the last 1500 miles or so.

Whenever I bought Mavics or Fulcrums, I never ever had to touch the spokes but the front axle was a few mm's off center in the last set of Fulcrums. Once I figured that out, the wheel was great. Seems they they had high tension right out of the box while the other wheels were just assembled and not tensioned or finished very well.

I guess it boils down to luck of the draw unless you get them from a real craftsman.
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Old 03-14-16, 02:01 PM
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Originally Posted by dr_lha
Velomine actually does sell machine built wheels with double butted spokes.
I hadn't seen that. So that torpedos my theory about them avoiding wind-up problems to keep cost low and quality reasonable. I guess it's just because their business is driven by low prices that so many of their wheels use straight gauge spokes.
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Old 03-14-16, 02:17 PM
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Originally Posted by FBinNY
Wheelmaster is the brand that J&B uses when marketing their wheels, which may be built overseas, or in Miami where they have a sizable building operation.
Ah there you go, I knew someone on here would know who they are, thanks.

Whatever, I've had good luck with these wheels. They're made with quality name brand components (DT Swiss spokes and nipples, Shimano hubs), and they seem to be well built and hold up well under my girth. The price is great of course. They obviously lack the feel good factor of handbuilt wheels.
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Old 03-14-16, 02:45 PM
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Originally Posted by Andy_K
I hadn't seen that. So that torpedos my theory about them avoiding wind-up problems to keep cost low and quality reasonable. I guess it's just because their business is driven by low prices that so many of their wheels use straight gauge spokes.
I have a set of velomine wheels with doublebutted spokes. They were pretty good out of the box but required adjustment for lateral true after a few rides. When I trued them, I checked tne tension and found it to be within spec -- 20 percent -- but just. Just the other day, after riding them for 8 months without encountering any issues, I went ahead and retensioned them just to see if I could do better than the machine. I did.

I have purchased handbuilt wheels a few times. A set of supposedly handbuilt wheels from Universal cycles arrived a mess and needed to be completely redone upon arrival. A set from Excel cycles were good. I also just took possession just in last two weeks of a set of handbuilt wheels from Sugar Wheel Works, which I am pretty certain are completely handbuilt. The Sugar people are craftsman and worked directly with me on every choice. I expect the wheels to remain true to razor's edge of tolerance for a very long time (unless I wreck em).
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Old 03-15-16, 12:57 PM
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Good advice all around. Key takeaways for future:
1. Double Butted Spokes are better - but not a deal breaker
2. Rely on a decent wheel builder who has a good rep. A lot of the LBSs around here claim wheel knowledge but I am suspect - I'll have to do some digging - I guess taking this rear wheel in will be a good test.
3. Learn to do it yourself if you can

So this is my rear wheel after one 15mi ride:
https://vimeo.com/159097465

Par for the course?

Another takeaway is when ordering online it's a shot in the dark. For every opinion about a vendor that's good there's another that's bad. In the case of Velomine - for these wheels they just get them from a wholesaler and ship them out with out opening the box. One customer could get a great set - one customer could get a sucky set. Experiences vary tremendously.

For this rear wheel - I'm wondering if I should invest in a spoke tension meter - I've had wheels trued in the past and I can almost guarantee that no LBS actually measures spoke tension. I'd like to measure tension before taking it in. I'll pay for an initial true and then after that I'll try and do it myself at the local co-op.
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Old 03-15-16, 01:47 PM
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Originally Posted by jason7878
So this is my rear wheel after one 15mi ride:
https://vimeo.com/159097465

Par for the course?
No, that's a totally unacceptable wobble. I would be strongly tempted to return them.
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Old 03-15-16, 01:47 PM
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Originally Posted by jason7878
For this rear wheel - I'm wondering if I should invest in a spoke tension meter
Sure, although a smart phone app which calculates tension based on tone, spoke gauge, and span will cost 1/10th as much.

- I've had wheels trued in the past and I can almost guarantee that no LBS actually measures spoke tension. I'd like to measure tension before taking it in. I'll pay for an initial true and then after that I'll try and do it myself at the local co-op.
Start at the local co-op and put the money you save towards your tension meter.
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Old 03-15-16, 01:55 PM
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Originally Posted by Andy_K
This is what I was trying to get at with straight versus butted spokes. I've read the scientific theories and I do believe that double butted spokes are in some very real sense better than straight gauge spokes, but how many people actually need their spokes to last for a few hundred thousand miles?
I usually ride 800 miles a month on one bike and don't replace bike parts without good reason like them wearing out. Jobst Brandt followed that philosophy and had 300,000 - 400,000 miles on a set although rims, bearings, and axles were replaced over that interval. That's OK - it's much less work to replace a rim and ruse the spokes than to relace with new ones.

ride about 3000 miles a year, and I spread those miles across multiple bikes. Assuming wheels that were equally well built, how many years would I be using a set of wheels before the straight gauge spokes started experiencing fatigue failure that would have been years away for the butted spokes?
The more important issue is the size of an impact your wheel can survive without collapsing.

Wheels collapse when they hit a bump causing the spokes to go slack, the rim shifts off-center, and tension returns once the bump passes. Thinner spokes allow a bigger rim deflection before they go slack and allow a collapse.
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Old 03-15-16, 02:07 PM
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Originally Posted by jason7878
3. Learn to do it yourself if you can
And you can. It's really not that difficult to learn and a very useful skill to have.

A tension meter is very helpful if you're going to build your own wheels in the future. You can obviously true wheels without one, but doing so without regard to relative spoke tension can make things worse in the long run. I like the idea of the app to check it by tone but I've never personally tried that. I can't see any reason that it wouldn't be reliable, especially for judging relative tension.
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Old 03-15-16, 02:21 PM
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Originally Posted by jason7878
So I speced out these budget wheelsets for heavy commuting/credit card touring. I'm 230lbs... but wondering what other folks would order.
Depending on how "budget" you needed to go, the Vuelta Corsa HD wheels from Nashbar might not have been a bad option for your purposes. If you catch 'em on sale, you can score them for just north of $100.

The Vuelta Corsa HD components are admittedly lower spec than the options you mentioned above, but I've been impressed by the quality at the price point. They're advertised as fully hand-built. My set arrived true and well-tensioned, and they've stayed that way. They're a bit on the heavy side, but that's not a shock given the 300 pound weight rating.
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