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I'm in the planning stage of building a new bike. This will be a light road bike for city runs and transport. For racing I have other bikes.

I'd like to build the bike from ground up by assembling everything myself. Not sure wether to go for gears or single speed yet, but that isn't relevant to this question:

What parameters would I need to consider when building a set of wheels? I will probably go for steel rims to get a classic look. I've already found out how to calculate spoke length, and I'll try to find an old fork to mount the wheel on while building it. The wheel consists of four parts:

  • Rim
  • Spokes
  • Spoke nipples
  • Hub

Protips on good parts? I guess specially the hub is important. Are there any real difference to cheap and expensive spokes as long as they are not carbon fibre?

  • What spoke arrangement should I go for; cross-laced or straight. Pros and cons?
  • In what order do I assemble the wheel?
  • What is the best spoke tension (given I can measure the torque)?
  • What tools do I need?

Any general good advice when building a wheel is appreciated as I'm totally unexperienced doing this.

A lot of questions that is. If anything is unclear, just ask and I'll elaborate on it. Thanks in advance.

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The best suggestion I can make is to read "The Art of Wheelbuilding, by Gerd Schraner".

As for materials:

Use aluminum, double walled rims. They are stronger, lighter, and believe it or not easier for a new wheel builder to get true and round than steel rims will be. In addition, steel rims for a road bike will be difficult to come by in new condition.

Spokes:

There are major differences in the strength and pliability in steel spokes. Even if you ignore spokes from other materials, which you should, look at double butted (usually 2/1.8/2mm) steel spokes from DT Swiss, or if you want really high quality, use the ones from Sapim. Read the Art of Wheelbuilding for more detail on why.

Use a high quality hub, something with a forged hub shell, and good quality bearings. Shimano Ultegra or Dura Ace, if you want good, loose ball bearings. Hope, Phil Wood, or any number of others for good quality sealed bearings.

Use brass spokes nipples.

You will need the following tools:

  1. A good quality truing stand
  2. A set of good spoke wrenches
  3. A nipple driver (broken link, see Park nipple driver instead)
  4. A quality tensiometer
  5. Spoke Freeze or similar (broken link, see Pro line Accessories or at wheelbuilder.com).
  6. Method of determining spoke length
  7. The components listed above
  8. Time and practice.

I hope that helps.

  • Thanks. Well structured and generally a useful answer. I ordered the book, so I'll read it before ordering parts. As bike components and tools are very expensive where I live, I'll probably won't go for Dura Ace and Park Tool, but it's a good reference. – Jørgen R Feb 19 '12 at 9:26
  • @dlu I think this edit changes the intent of the post. But it's really up to zenbike. – andy256 Aug 28 '15 at 7:23
  • I agree, and I have removed the link to the app for spoke tension measurement. There is no accurate method of measurement for spoke tension other than a deflection measurement chart and tool, in my opinion. I do appreciate that you've repaired the broken links. – zenbike Aug 29 '15 at 16:11
  • Interesting. Can you explain why the app, which measures the pitch of a plucked spoke, wouldn't give good results? It seems to produce good results, but I don't have a really high quality tensiometer to check with. – dlu Aug 29 '15 at 17:40
  • 1
    I disagree with your list of tools. Ideally you'd have all of those, but they're certainly not needed, and the cost of the tools you've linked to is very discouraging to the new wheelbuilder. I built my first wheel using my bike as a truing stand, a modified screwdriver as a nipple driver, and no tensiometer. That wheel is still true and strong today. I still don't have a proper nipple driver or tensiometer. Also, some will contend that you should in fact use oil rather than threadlock when building a wheel, to make it easier to tension the spokes. This has worked fine for me so far. – Will Vousden May 2 '16 at 15:18
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Another book recommendation: The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt. He covers a lot of engineering detail (forces acting on wheel components, failure modes, etc) but also includes practical step-by-step instructions for wheel assembly.

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I'd suggest you get a book on bicycle maintenance that includes a chapter on wheel building. I refer to The All New Complete Book of Bicycling by Eugene A Sloane (1980) (but there may be something newer ;) ). The procedure is far from simple and straight-forward, especially for a cross-laced wheel (which you probably should do unless you fully understand the short-comings of radial), so having a step-by-step guide is important.

You don't measure spoke tension by torque, but instead (if you think you must) you use a spoke tension gauge. (I've never used one.)

For tools you need a board with a hole in it (to hold the hub upright) and a screwdriver that fits the slot in the tail of the nipples well. A spoke wrench is also sometimes handy, as are a few rubber bands.

You should also get some nipple grease. A small jar of the stuff will last a lifetime.

  • +1 for answering the spoke layout and the nipple grease pro tip :) – Jørgen R Feb 19 '12 at 9:28
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Steel rims are contradictory to your "light road bike" statement. Check out the Sun MK13 or CR18 if you want a classic looking rim that's aluminum double wall. There are a lot of quality hubs that aren't made by Shimano or the other big guys. I personally would get hubs with sealed bearings. DT Swiss spokes are the standard, 2.0 is single gauge and is just fine. I would go with a standard 3x pattern. Get a nipple driver. Dip spoke threads in latex paint to keep wheels true longer, acts as a very low strength loctite. Sheldon Brown provides a very useful tutorial: http://sheldonbrown.com/wheelbuild.html

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While there are many good answers to this question, there are a handful of things I haven't seen mentioned or fully explained, so I'll address those points.

Rim Selection

I see a lot of responses talking about why you should not use steel wheels, I haven't seen the most important one, which is that the braking surface on steel rims is far inferior to that of aluminum, and in the rain it's near totally useless.

Assembly Tricks

There's a couple of things I do which I think really aid in both ease of assembly and longevity. Wheels I have built like this have very little problems down the line, and I've personally never seen a spoke break on one.

  • Use a drop or two of light oil on the outside of the nipple when assembling into the rim. This will help the nipple turn freely against the rim during truing, which will prevent binding that can create "false" tension on the spokes. Others have mentioned "nipple grease", which I've never tried but I imagine that works just as well.
  • Keep a small amount of boiled linseed oil in an old film canister or small, wide-mouth bottle handy. When assembling the wheel, dip the threaded end of the spoke in in just so there is a very light coating on the threads. This has two benefits: Initially, it acts as a lube which helps the threads easily turn in the nipple (which again, can prevent binding of the metal surfaces). Once the wheel is assembled and trued, and the oil dries, it has the opposite affect and acts like a loctite. This seems to work pretty well to keep the nipple from loosening over time.

Checking Spoke Tension

There's no substitute for a good spoke tension/deflection tool to make sure your tension measures correct for your spoke length etc. However, when you need to quickly gauge a spokes tension relative to the others, give it a pluck or a light tap with your spoke wrench and listen to the pitch of the sound it makes. This really helps tell if all the spokes are ballpark correct when initially bringing a wheel up to tension.

Wheel Lacing Patterns

I've experimented with a few patterns and can say this about them:

  • Standard 3-cross method: You will almost undoubtedly want to use this pattern, especially for a first wheel build. It's strong, reliable, and it's more forgiving should you make a mistake (you will) and need to re-lace part of the wheel.

  • Radial: Probably something you want to avoid. Not much advantage besides looking nice and saves a few grams, but it's very important to note a few things, as using this lacing in the wrong application will lead to overly stressing the spokes and premature metal fatigue:

    • Never use radial lacing on the drive side of drive wheels. They can't take the twisting force on the hub relative to the rim edge.
    • Never use radial lacing on a wheel with disc brakes, for the same reason.
    • Never use radial lacing if the wheel will bear weight, such as if a front rack is used.
  • Half-Radial: This is only for drive wheels, and combines a regular 3-cross pattern on the drive side and a radial lacing on the non-drive side. This is less common, but helps mitigate the naturally unbalanced spoke tension on normal-laced dished wheels, so it may actually make a stronger wheel. Very Important here not to mix up which side is which!

  • 3 leading/3 trailing: This has similar strength and rigidity to 3-cross, but creates a subtle yet attractive pattern. This can be used for drive wheels, but be aware it is a more complex lacing.

  • Crows Foot: Sort of a mix between a cross-up lacing and a radial lacing, so you get partial advantages and disadvantages of both. The look is nice, but it is a much, much, more complicated pattern to lace, and has the additional factor that you must buy two different sizes of spokes (or four different sizes if it's a drive wheel). This is also limited to wheels & hubs with a multiple of 6 holes.

And finally, I also am a huge fan of the book "The Bicycle Wheel" by Jobst Brandt. It is a simple, well-written and direct technical book, and it's also relatively short.

  • Possibly because this question is over 6 years old, and things do move on over time. Disk brakes don't work with radial spoking patterns, for example. – Criggie Mar 3 '18 at 3:01
  • Well if it makes you feel better I probably have not built a wheel since before this question was asked. :) – Christopher Hunter Mar 5 '18 at 17:09
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Ok this is probably getting a bit much now, but I also have a Book suggestion: 'The Professional Guide to Wheel Building' by Roger Musson.

I used this book and some plans on his site when building my first 26" single-speed wheel, and again for a bomb-proof 24" with cassette hub.

I realise there are a lot of online resources out there, but I found that having a book that could be wedged open under my vice (make-shift truing stand at the time) was invaluable - especially when trying to get lacing right for the first time!

  • Yep, like I said, you need a book, or some other written description of the procedure. It's just too complicated to "wing it" the first 2-3-30 times. – Daniel R Hicks Feb 23 '12 at 12:56
  • Not sure if I'm of substandard intelligence but I had to repleatedly refer back to the lacing pattern diagram! I think it's cus you work (assuming it's not radial) at a 90deg angle from the final thing at first and it threw me right off. – Mere Development Feb 23 '12 at 23:10
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A good resource for wheel building is wheelspoking.com. It lets you enter all the variables and then outputs spoke lengths and lacing patterns for each side of the wheel.

  • While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. – alex Aug 28 '15 at 7:38
  • @alex The link is to a web app that allows you to specify wheel size, hub size and lacing pattern and then outputs spoke sizes. Not sure how to recreate that here. Would you prefer I delete this answer? – foldinglettuce Sep 10 '15 at 0:29

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