How to build a bicycle wheel

Where I learned to build wheels

This is a simple protocol of how to build wheels, not a comprehensive description of the bicycle wheel. There are many people that know more about wheels than me. A few people in particular that have helped me out are Max Poletto, under whose guidance I built my first wheel. Bikes not Bombs offers an excellent wheel building class, which was taught by Charlie Schubert when I took it in the winter of 2009. The Bicycle Wheel, by Jobst Brandt offers a thorough, technical, description of wheelbuilding.

Selection of materials

Recommended wheelbuilding equipment

In addition to the components to make the wheel (rim, spokes, hub, nipples, and rim tape), this is the equipment I use to build wheels.

Choosing spokes of the correct length

The proper length of spokes is dictated by the diameter of the rim and hub as well as the desired spoke lacing pattern.

Lacing the wheel

Key things to keep in mind:

  1. This lacing procedure results in the valve stem hole being between two nearly parallel spokes. This is important to allow easy access of a pump for tire inflation.
  2. On the rear wheel, it is better to have the pulling spokes on the drive side as inbound spokes. Inbound spokes are those that that their spoke heads between the hub flanges.
  3. When lacing a rear wheel, the spokes on the right side will generally be shorter than those on the left. Keep the two sets of spokes separate.

Adding spoke prep

Spoke prep functions like teflon tape to fill the gaps between the threads on the spokes and the nipples. The Wheelsmith spoke prep comes in two colors so that you can add a different color to each set of spokes for a rear wheel. Apply by dipping the threaded end of the spokes in the spoke prep and twirling the spokes to thin out the spoke prep. Allow the spoke prep to dry before lacing the wheel. The ideal amount of spoke prep fills the threads but leaves the top of the threads visible.

The first set of spokes

The second set of spokes

The third set of of spokes

The fourth set of spokes

Confirming that the lacing is correct

  1. Check 1: Is the valve hole between two parallel spokes?
  2. Check 2: Are all spokes from a given side of the hub entering holes in the rim that are offset to the same side?
  3. Check 3: Are all the outer spoke crossings the same distance from the hub?

Tensioning and truing the wheel

Wheel truing: 4 basic concepts

  1. Wheel dish: The 'dish' of a wheel describes how well the hub is laterally centered on the rim. Before truing the wheel, I like to get a basic idea of how well it is dished. If the dish is too far off there is no point in spending too much time truing. Dish can be most easily be checked using a dishing tool. Alternatively, dish can be checked by putting the wheel in the stand, aligning the calipers, and then flipping the wheel around. If it is well dished, the calipers will still align with the rim properly.
  2. Wheel trueness: Wheel truing improves the lateral and vertical roundness of the wheel. Lateral trueness refers to the left-right wobble in the wheel. Vertical truing is the 'roundness' of the wheel and is improved by removing high and low spots in the rim.
  3. Spoke tension. It is important that all the spokes be at the proper tension (plus or minus 20%) in order for the wheel to remain round and true. Expert wheelbuilders can apparently measure spoke tension by plucking the spoke and listening to the tone; a tigher spoke produces a higher pitch tone. However, this is way beyond my expertise so I use a tension meter, which measures the tension of a spoke as a function of how much it bends under a fixed load. The final, desired spoke tension is determined by the strength of the rim. Higher spoke tension makes for a stronger wheel, but the maximum tension supported by the rim should not be exceeded. From what I have seen, 100 kilograms-force (KgF) works fine for most rims. This table shows correlated spoke tension (KgF) with tension meter readings. The spoke diameter must be known to do the conversion. If the spoke diameter is not known, it can be measured with digital calipers. The diameter of butted spokes is measured at the middle where the spokes are thinnest.
  4. FIG Measurement of spoke tension with a tension meter. (Image from the Park Tool website).

  5. Stress Relieving: When tensioning the spokes, spoke stress should periodically be reduced by grabbing pairs of parallel spokes and squeezing them as hard as you can. I put a rag on the spokes so they don't cut into my palms.

Wheel truing protocol