Hand-Built Wheels

Hand-built wheels can be a wise investment for full-time transportational bicyclists. The craftsmanship and attention to detail that goes into a set of wheels built by a skilled professional wheel builder results in a product that is far superior to its machine-built counterpart.

I purchased a new set of wheels today. These were hand-built for me by Rick Steele. Specs include Shimano XT 770 36h hubs, Velocity Dyad 36h rims, and DT Competition double butted 20/1.8 spokes. Rick has built thousands of wheels and I’m 100% confident that these new wheels will handle anything and everything I can throw at them (up to and including curb hopping and dirt road riding with loads).

If you roll on relatively smooth roads and carry average to light loads, stock machine-made wheels may hold up perfectly well for you. But if you ride on rough roads and carry heavier than average loads (both of which are hard on wheels), a well-designed set of hand-built wheels may be a good investment in the long run.

46 Responses to “Hand-Built Wheels”

  • Doug R. says:

    Ok, I just bought my Riv, and now you go and have to buy new wheels for yours? Was there anything wrong with the Sam’s wheels? A concerned Dougman!

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    What wheels did you order with your frameset?

    Alan

  • David Iriguchi says:

    At some point you should try building a set of wheels yourself. It’s a very zen undertaking and to roll on wheels you built yourself is a special treat. Wheel building is an art and it takes a while to get good at it but it can be a very enjoyable endeavor. After you’ve built a few sets (to get the hang of it), get some Phil Wood hubs, some Sapim CX ray spokes, a suitable rim and build some lifetime wheels.

  • catfoo says:

    ive built wheels, i own custom built wheels from a very reputable builder, and ive read mass produced. frankly i dont see a big difference except that it feels better to ride your own handi work no matter how wonky it is. i think whats important is to get wheels that are right for the application.

  • Thom says:

    I re-built the wheels on my current ride and I must second the sentiment that riding on your own handiwork is a wonderful experience, once you get over the fear on the first few rides that your wheels might collapse. It’s quite amazing that something that seems so fragile and precarious while you’re working on it will, in fact, haul you and your gear around for hundreds of miles.

  • David says:

    I build my own wheels but about 8 years back I needed a wheel set for my tandem as fast as possible, faster than I could gather everything I needed at that time. I called Peter White and he built me a sweet set. 36 hole 8 speed Phil Wood hubs laced to Mavic Ceramic D 521 rims.
    My commute taking my kid to school on the tandem (when it’s warmer) is 4 miles across the stste forest on a paved trail then crossing a paved road, 1 1/2 miles of rocks, roots and sand on single track, cart paths and Ancient Ways.

    Not once have i had to touch these wheels up.

    As a bicycle mechanic I have yet to take a new bike right from the box and not find that it’s wheel don’t need to be touched up, some worse than others.

    I’m not just talking about lower end bicycles either. High end bikes with high end machine built wheels that need work.

  • Bob Baxter says:

    I agree that building your own wheels can be a therapeutic experience. If you’ve never done it not to worry, Sheldon Brown (RIP) will get you through it http://www.sheldonbrown.com/wheelbuild.html I have a set of Velocity rims waiting for the rest of the parts to build a set for my Betty Foy, which is due sometime in March. I invested in a truing stand and spoke tensiometer but you can get by without them, but a dishing tool is recommended. If you build a set of wheels you will save about $80 which will buy some tools. If the thought of wheelbuilding doesn’t turn you on, by all means let the pros do it. They can build and true a set while I’m getting one wheel laced, but I’m having more fun. The Betty will be the third bike I’ve built wheels for.

  • Bill Lambert says:

    I’ve built several wheels myself using a good book by Jobst Brandt called “The Bicycle Wheel”, 3rd edition, published by Avocet, Inc. and have had good results. I’ve also had Peter White build a rear wheel with the same hub, rim, and similar spokes you had built for you, Alan. I put 3,000 miles on the wheel this year and have not had to true it once! And I ride with fairly heavy loads on rough country roads, plus I weigh over 200 lbs. A good rim and hub put together by someone who knows their stuff is worth every penny.

  • Tamia Nelson says:

    I’m looking forward to trying my hand at building up a set of wheels myself. As a former tyer of classic salmon flies, wheel-building seems to share some of the same artistic and self-sufficiency appeal. Having said that, I’ve been quite surprised by the quality of two sets of wheels I’ve gotten on stock bikes (a Surly LHT and a Schwinn Sierra Al). I’ve used both for transportational and recreational riding, often hauling heavy loads, on rough roads and trails, in all weathers, and the wheels have held up remarkably well. Each set still rolls smoothly and are still true. Only needed to repack the Schwinn’s no-name hubs twice in 12000 miles or so.

  • Helton says:

    I also built a lot of wheels, including some strange lacing patterns like the POWerWheels (by Sheldon Brown ;o). I am not a super-straight-wheel-weenie, but i find most important that the wheel doesn’t get loose spokes or broken spokes over time. The most blessed tricky thing I learned is that Sheldon Brown’s tip to bend the spokes at the point they touch each other so that they arrive at the touching point and leave it in a straight fashion, forming a somewhat sharp angle, avoiding lateral flexion during wheel use, just the elastic tension along the spoke itself. It worked for me like “before and after” I started to do this, in terms of broken spokes, even using generic ones and even used ones (inox 2mm non-profiled).
    I have read the Jobst Brandt book too, and as an engineering student I have to say that the book has its downsides, even being a very meticulous one on the subject. As of wheelbuilding, I strongly advice “The Art of Wheelbuilding”, by Gerd Schraner. Is is a definitive book on the subject, and if one follows one third of the advice he gives, probably he can build a very, very trusty wheel.

  • Doug R. says:

    Alan, my Sam H. has the following wheel components: 1. 650B wheel size,(Schwalbe tires)
    2. Shimano x7 hubs, 3. DT swiss spokes, 4. Ritchey “Synergy” rims. I hope this helps?

    I just received my 650B Honjo Fenders, more fun to come! I have to make leather washers!

    Dougman

  • jnyyz says:

    I’ve built a set of wheels, and it was fun, but I’ll leave wheelbuilding to the experts. I’ve have wheels built over the years by wheelsmith (before they went machine built), Peter White, and Sheldon Brown, and they’ve been very durable. One of the hallmarks of a hand built wheel is that they’ve been properly tensioned, something that I never got the hang of.

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    Yours are excellent wheels, hand-built by Rich Lesnik:

    http://handsonwheels.com/about.html

    The wheels I’m replacing are their budget, machine-made wheels. They’re not bad at all for what they are, but they don’t compare to the hand-built wheels you have.

    Alan

  • Doug R. says:

    Ok, then! Hey, are your Sam’s wheels 700c or 650B’s? Thanks again, Alan.

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    I’m on the 60cm frame with 700C…

    Alan

  • Doug R. says:

    Alan, I have never ridden the 650B size, I hope they are fun? When will this damn rain end?

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    650B (584mm) is an “in-betwwen” size that falls between the standard 700C (622mm) road size and 26″ (559mm) mountain bike size. My wife (and others) calls it the “Goldilocks” wheel size… ;-) It’s mostly used as a way to provide more wheel clearance and give designers more flexibility on smaller frames. 650B wheels are sometimes retrofitted on old racing bikes to increase the amount of clearance for installing fatter tires and fenders. The size, in and of itself, won’t feel significantly different than a 700c wheel, though people will tend to run fatter tires on 650B wheels.

    Here’s Sheldon Brown’s article on 650B:

    http://www.sheldonbrown.com/650b.html

    Here’s another good article on 650B:

    http://www.freewebs.com/650b/

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    PS – Can’t help you on the rain… LOL

  • Doug R. says:

    Alan You are the best as always! Yeah, the universe needs to take a piss I guess! More patience mantras!!!!! see ya, Dougman

  • Doug says:

    I borrowed a car and made the 2-hour drive to the big city back in December to take a Wheel Building class. It was at my favorite “Not-so-Local-Bicycle-Shop” Hiawatha Cyclery. It was my first attempt at wheel building. I didn’t expect to feel the satisfaction of riding a wheel I built myself as much a s I do. I think about it every time I get on my bicycle. Plus, I learned it really wasn’t as mysterious of a process as I imagined.

  • Alan says:

    While I think it’s great that people build their own wheels and gain a sense of satisfaction from the endeavor (I may try it myself at some point), it’s not realistic to think a person who’s built a few wheelsets can build a wheel as strong as someone who’s been building wheels on a daily basis for 15-20 years like a Rick Steele, Rich Lesnik, or Peter White. That’s not to say a layperson can’t build a pretty good wheel (perhaps good enough?) with a minimal amount of experience, but a wheel built by a long-time pro will be even more bombproof. Rick, for example, was telling me about some wheels he built for a Litespeed Tandem in 2000. The tandem is used for randonneurring and has done PBP. The wheels have over 50K + miles on them and they’re still true – pretty amazing.

    Alan

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I’ve been very excited about hand-built wheels since learning about the process this year. The rear wheel on my Pashley is handbuilt, to accommodate the custom 7-speed coaster brake hub that was installed for me instead of the stock hub. The wheels on my Sam Hillborne will be built by the wheel builder at my local bike shop and I am going to assist. That will probably mean watching him do it more than anything else, but I am still looking forward to it!

  • Doug R. says:

    I think I will try to get involved locally to see about Wheel smith classes. In all my years as a Norton mechanic, I was only allowed to lace and true two wheels and they took me 8 hours a piece! They had conical, offset, hubs for the disc brakes they had. (nightmare) My boss John Burdette would check on me often and when I cried victory!, he came in to “Play the spokes” with the spoke wrench to make sure I had the tensions on the spokes correct! I will not go into bicycle wheel building with ignorance after those lessons. Maybe they teach it at the Bicycle kitchen? Dougman

  • Doug R. says:

    To those who have read Alan’s digressions on the mounting and truing of “Honjo “Brand fenders,
    Let me second the frustration echo! While, I don’t believe my 650 B fenders were as difficult to put on as Alan’s 700 c type, getting them to “Align” for the good fender line is annoying! I have to state this because I am not politically beholding to any company: ” Someone bought a lot of left over “JIFFY POP” popcorn pans and let a chimp hammer them into bicycle fenders”!

    Yes, they are pleasing to look at, however, I am wondering about longevity and the sticks and stones sounds up under them as I ride? MR. O. Redenbacher.

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    Honjo’s are anything but practical, but there’s no prettier fender IMO. Those who want a simpler installation and don’t like the sound of pebbles on metal should check out Planet Bike or SKS plastic fenders instead.

    Alan

  • Dwainedibbly says:

    Alan: I have built ~20 wheels. While I’m improving with each one, I still consider myself a novice. I might not be able to build a good wheel as fast as, say, Peter White, but if I take my time I can do a heck of a lot better than a machine AND I can pick my rims, hubs, and spokes to get what I need need for the application at hand. When I wanted a SRAM iMotion-9 laced to a Mavic A719 for my commuter, I ordered the parts & built it myself.

    If anyone out there wants to get started wheel building, read Sheldon Brown. I recommend that you get a copy of Gerd Schraner’s “The Art of Wheelbuilding (ISBN: 0-9649935-3-2). Don’t cheap out & try to get by without a spoke tension gauge. (Park makes a decent one that isn’t too expensive.) Once you’ve been building & truing wheels for years & years you might be able to do it “by ear”, but until then, use a gauge.

    It isn’t that hard. Just get some good references and tools, and do it!

  • Doug R. says:

    @Dwainedibbly, thanks for your “encouragement” and wisdom! I will read much, and get the right tools before new attempts at this art form.

  • Doug R. says:

    @ Alan, I agree on the Aesthetics, and I have been to Planet bike many times, they have nice products! I think a lining on the under side of the Honjos’ will “Deaden” a lot of road noise.

    I hope Harbor freight tools still carries a product named” Tool dip it”. This liquid, rubber coating
    can be poured on etc. and it makes a nice insulating cover on tool handles too! (mcgyver mind working here ) There will be more on that when I am good and fed up with the ” ting”/ “kwack”, and “klack” up under my bike!

    On a side note,the cyber world has Steampunk,
    why can’t we have a moniker? like, Velopunk? Ok, I digress, sorry. Dougman.

  • CTP says:

    (serious question) aren’t all wheels hand-built? what kind of machine could possibly build wheels?

  • Jon Grinder says:

    This kind of machine: http://www.alibaba.com/product-free/104351912/Auto_wheel_truing_machine_robot_.html

  • David says:

    Back in my starving student days I built several front wheels, the latest of which I still have and love riding on. You can use the fork and your caliper brake as a makeshift trueing stand without having to invest in a lot of infrastructure, though it does require some care and creativity to make sure you stay true radially without a stand. I’m certainly no master wheelsmith but with no dish and less load, a front wheel is a lot more forgiving to build than the rear and mine has stayed true through a couple thousand miles of abuse.

  • Mohjho says:

    I bought high end hubs, spokes, and rims for my single speed and had a local bike shop build them. I thought about trying out wheel building, but figured I would have to build more than a few wheels to get the build up to the quality of the components. The builder at the shop is an old hand at wheel building and I do like to support local businesses. It’s also a nice way to get to know your local craftsmen.

  • David says:

    Regarding the Hanjo fenders, I’d recommend you use a spray undercoating (Loctite has one) from JC Whitney. It’s about $6/can and will really quiet them down, with an easier to apply and lighter weight coating.

  • Doug R. says:

    Dooh, why did I not think of spray on? Thanks for the great tip David! (Californian mind, we rarely think of “undercoating”). : )

  • David says:

    Yeah, I’m a left coaster too but I used this stuff for a project once and made a mental note about how many things it’d be great for. I’ve got a couple cans laying around but unless you’re in Seattle, that won’t do you much good. You can probably find it at your local auto store without having to go the JC Whitney route.

  • Doug R. says:

    Great networking with you David! I will run the Honjos stock for a while, then it is spray on time. I just got the damn popcorn plates lined up and good looking, so I wont take them off until I run them in. When the infernal “Katwangs” under there get to me, then off they come!

    Dougman

  • David says:

    I keep hearing horror stories about mounting those babies, but they sure are pretty! If my old Overdrive Comp ever gives up the ghost, I’ll put those Honjos on the next one.

  • Alan says:

    @David

    It depends on the bike. They weren’t bad at all on my Rivendell which has proper mounts and sufficient clearance. On the other hand, my IF had just barely enough clearance (not enough really) and the fender mounts were in awkward locations, both of which made it an excruciatingly difficult and frustrating endeavor.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Doug R

    I actually play a little game with myself and I count how long a particular pebble clangs around before being spit out. My all time record was on the IF with its miniscule amount of clearance between tire and fender; I had one tiny pebble bounce around in there for somewhere around 40-50 seconds… LOL.

    Alan

  • Doug R. says:

    Oh Great ! So what your telling me is: We both now own” Velo Pachinko” games! We get entertainment and get to ride! How Great! (They need flashing lights and wheely things under there for the pebbles to bounce around in.) LOL back at you! Oh, btw, my Sam H. is simply beautiful! ( Rain ,Rain, go Away!) Dougman

  • Alan says:

    @Doug R

    You’re going to have a tough time beating the IF’s record of 40 seconds with its 1/8″ clearance. ;-)

    Alan

  • Doug R. says:

    Alan, I agree on the 40 seconds issue, I have plenty of room on my 650B wheels to fender clearances. I just had the devils getting the “Alignment” of those popcorn pans to have a clean line on the bike. All is well for now, and I haven’t even got it out for a ride! (depressed).
    In addtion, I just got in a nice Carradice saddle bag, but I think I now need a metal support rack. Ok, back to Velo Range, Riv, or Velofred?

  • Alan says:

    This is a nice rack for supporting a large saddlebag:

    Here’s the URL: Nitto Top Rack

  • Doug R. says:

    Alan, I thank you for the link back to Riv! ha, ha! I like the rack, however, I am looking just for a small support rack for the bag and not a full rack! I’ll keep you posted as to what solutions i come up with. The Carradice support does not win with me. btw, we have got to get these fine machines together for pics! Dougman. : ) Pedalpunk! (instead of steampunk)

  • beth h says:

    In 1996 I was invited to visit Burley Design Works for the grand opening of their new manufacturing facility in West Eugene. (This was when everything Burley was still being made here in the United States). I’d been a full-time bike mechanic for about 2 1/2 years at that point, and had just built my fifth or sixth set of wheels.

    During a walking tour of the Burley facility, I was directed to the wheel-building area. It consisted of a long row of individual workbenches where people were busy handcing spokes into the hub, then fannig them out and attaching spoke nipples. Once that was done, the loosely laced wheel was place on a conveyor belt that fed into a large mechine (about the size of a grand piano set on its side and perhaps a little longer). Inside the machine, I could see a wheel being spun slowly on its axle, and stopping periodically. At that moment, two metal “fingers” approached the rim from either side and tightened spokes. The wheel was turned forwards and backwards on the axle until the fingers had adjusted every spoke. Next to each finger I saw something resembling a tiny red laser beam — this was, in fact, what it was, my tour guide told me — designed to check tension and trueness. A third laser, not visible from my perspective, was used to check roundness. When the wheel was done, it was “spat” out onto another conveyor belt. At the end of that conveyor sat a man, reading the New Yorker and sipping on a Big Gulp. Every fifth or seventh wheel or so, he put down his magazine and drink, grab a wheel from the slow-moving conveyor, and give it a spin to see how it looked. If he was satisfied he’d replace it on the conveyor, which fed to an assembly area that divided wheels by size and sent them off to the appropriate trailer assembly area (by wheel size). The entire operation from laced wheel to Big Gulp-man, took about six to eight minutes. I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified. Why was I learning to build wheel;s from scratch when this machine could do it faster?

    I still build my own wheels today and, well, Burley no longer makes much of anything from scratch in Eugene.

  • Doug R. says:

    Great story Beth! Thanks, for sharing!

 
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