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What are standard spoke tensions and what note pitches do they produce in order to adjust them with a bare minimum of tools.

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Not really answerable as written because there are no "standard tensions"

There is "enough" and "not yet enough"
(okay there's also the rare case of "too much" but that requires significant effort.)

  • a rim is done when it is true and has minimal lateral and vertical runout, and has "sufficient tension" to not fold under side loads.

My rule of thumb for gauging tension is that every spoke should flex no more than two millimetres in the middle when squeezed against its crossing-pair spoke. Ideally it would be half that.
A rear wheel would have higher tension on its drive-side than the NDS.

If you want a musical version of that, lightly bounce a metal thing like a screwdriver on the spokes while the wheel spins should offset in pitch by no more than half an octave, and any clear outliers should have their tension spread across the neighbouring 2 or 4 spokes on that side.
No wheel is perfect tension across all spokes.


The bare minimum tools are:

  • a spoke-nipple key that fits your square drives closely and minimises the risk of rounding off. If you have weird nipples like Mavic, the correct tool is necessary.
    You might think a flathead screwdriver in the end of the nipple is sufficient? No it really isn't so don't bother.
  • a rag or way to clean your nipples and rim. A clean rim is so much nicer to work on.
  • a clean finger to use as a gauge between the fork/stay, and the rim's sidewall/brake track.
  • Something to distract you - a background music track, radio, TV or whatever.
  • PATIENCE !

Nice to have tools:

  • A truing stand is overkill - I use an old fork upside down with the steerer tube in a bench vise, and I have one for 100mm front wheels and another stretched to accommodate rear wheels.
    If you have nothing else, the bike itself can be used to hold the wheel while truing.

  • some cable/zip ties around the fork legs to act as visual indicators when truing.

  • If you have bladed spokes, then some way to support the spoke in the correct orientation while turning the nipple, is wise.

Unnecessary tools:

  • Spoke tension meter - I've never needed one.
  • Dishing tool - probably would make a rear wheel come together faster, but they're not required. If your dish turns out to be off, you loosen all the nipples on the tight side by half or one full turn, and then tighten all the nipples on the other side by the same amount. Then you re-true the rim laterally.

Remember to true wheels with no tyre/tube fitted but rim tape is okay.

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This is not a method that works well unless you have a reference wheel.

The problem is that spokes in all wheels but radial wheels cross. This creates extra complexity: when you pluck a spoke, it creates a quite complex tone caused by parts of the spoke you pluck, and partially by the other spoke that crosses with it.

I have never found this "tone method" to work. Even if you have a mobile phone with a tone generator, allowing to create a tone with certain frequency, you probably won't be able to accurately determine spoke tension from that. Not even if you know the physics and can calculate the theoretical tone based on the spoke diameter, length and tension.

You really can use the "tone method" only one way. If you have a wheel with spokes of certain spoke pattern, spoke count, length, diameter and tension, and if you want to build a similar wheel with spokes of approximately the same length, the very same diameter, spoke pattern and spoke count, and the very same tension, you can compare the tones on those two wheels. As an example, 700c cross-3 36-spoke wheel with 2mm spokes can be used as a reference to build a similar 700c cross-3 36-spoke wheel with 2mm spokes, even though the spoke lengths may vary by few millimeters. Then if you compare the tones, you will be able to have approximately the same spoke tension. This works if you are not tone deaf.

For building your first set of wheels, if you don't have a suitable reference wheel, or if you are going to change spoke type (for example going from 2mm straight gauge spoke to 2.34mm/1.8mm/2.0mm triple butted spoke), or change spoke length massively (for example going from 26" wheel to 700c wheel), or change spoke count massively (for example going from a low spoke count wheel to 36-spoke wheel), you probably need a tensiometer. Fortunately a tensiometer that works isn't terribly expensive.

Oh and of course after reading Criggie's answer, that reminded me to mention that of course you can compare spoke tones on the same wheel, and identify outliers. That's the way tension outliers on a single wheel are identified, and is part of good wheelbuilding practices. However, you can't determine tension in Newtons based on the frequency in Hz, that's just way too difficult for the reasons I mentioned.

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