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I have not yet built a wheel (or even replaced a broken spoke), so it's not quite clear to me what a nipple driver is. I also didn't find any reference on Sheldon Brown's Wheelbuilding page.

What is a nipple driver and how is it used? Is it a necessity or a convenience? Would I use one when replacing a broken spoke?

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You would not normally use a nipple driver to replace a broken spoke, so long as the nipple from the old spoke could be reused. Usually a spoke breaks at the head (vs the nipple), and one can remove it from the nipple and install the new spoke without the need to remove the tire from the wheel. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 11 '13 at 3:26
The only time I use a nipple driver is when I'm building a wheel from scratch, but even then it's a convenience and not a necessary tool. – Ken Hiatt Jul 12 '13 at 20:29
up vote 2 down vote accepted

While a conventional nipple wrench turns the nipple by the exposed flat surfaces that protrude from the rim, a nipple driver turns the nipple from the inside of the wheel.To replace a single spoke you can use a spoke wrench or a driver. Some people find it easier starting the nipple onto the spoke with a driver than with a wrench. If you were truing a wheel the wrench is easier as the tire and tube need not be removed. If you remove the tire, tube and the rim strip you will see the head of the nipple. If you are building a wheel it is more efficient to use the driver to start each nipple on to the spoke. To replace a single spoke you can use a spoke wrench or a driver.

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That's helpful. Also, how is it different from a screwdriver? – amcnabb Jul 10 '13 at 22:29
The head of the tool slides over the nipple and the recessed screwdriver tip engages the nipple slot. – mikes Jul 10 '13 at 22:38

Wanted to add some photos of nipple drivers to augment @mikes's answer. Some are hex-shaft drill mounted drivers (top), some have straight screwdriver handles, others have offset handles to speed wheel building (bottom). They're handy for building up wheels quickly, but you need a proper spoke wrench for truing.

Nipple Driver Head Nipple Driver

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Note that you can use a standard screwdriver for this duty, but it will be a hair more difficult to keep it centered on the nipple. Or you can grind down the tip of a regular screwdriver to have a little center pin as seen in the second photo above. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 11 '13 at 3:25
There are also drivers where the centre pin is adjustable - and can even be recessed if your spokes are slightly too long, though if you have a single walled rim, that will destroy your inner tube. – armb Jul 11 '13 at 9:19
Even more elaborate with retractable threaded centre pin to hold nipple on while reaching into deep rims: – armb Jul 11 '13 at 9:20

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