Wheel Build

Today was a long day at school.  But it was a good day.

We built a set of bicycle wheels from scratch.

I know it doesn’t sound exciting, but it really is, especially when you consider the forces that a wheel that weighs somewhere between 1-2lbs (.5-1kg) has to deal with.  Especially when it’s carrying my wide load, bombing down a twisting mountain road.

We jumped right into it, so I didn’t get a chance to get a picture of all of the pieces that go into making a wheel, but it isn’t much.  A hub, a rim, spokes and spoke nipples that thread on to the spokes and hold the rim to wheel.  That’s where the magic happens.

Our first step was to thread the spokes into the flanges of the hubs.  At times it was like wrestling with an octopus (yes, I know what that really feels like), but there was a method to the madness.

Here are the threaded hubs, with spoke nipples and the all-important cotton swabs for precisely applying grease in the right spots.

Wheel build beginning
Wheel build beginning

Once this step was done, it was time to start connecting the hub to the rim via the spokes, which is quite a process.  It’s called lacing for a reason.  It’s like weaving the spokes in a very specific pattern, in a very specific way so that the forces applied by the rider to the chain are translated into forward motion through contact with the ground.

We do ask a lot of those little 2mm wide pieces of wire.

Once the right (drive) side was laced, here’s what it looks like when the other side of the front wheel needed to be laced.  Still wrestling with an octopus.

Wheel build #2
Wheel build #2

But once the octopus is tamed, we have a very loose wheel.  Luckily it didn’t leave me.

How loose?  I could move the rim side to side several inches.  Although it looked like a wheel, it didn’t act like one.

So it was time to tighten.  And tighten.  And tighten.  All to get perfect balance, not only of weight but of tension.  Because the weight really doesn’t matter.  It’s all about tension.

Get the tension wrong and you’re walking (if you’re lucky).

Wheel Build 3
Wheel Build 3

It took me the better part of the day to get the pair right.  Not bad considering it’s my first set I’ve ever built from scratch.  And while we had looser tolerances today (±1mm) than we will for our certification test in two weeks (±0.1mm), I was able to dial these sloppy old components to the point that I would have passed the test.

That feels pretty good.

So here is the final set, rear wheel leaning against the backstop, front wheel on the truing stand, with various tools that we used today scattered on the bench.  And to give you an idea of how small the relaxed tolerances we had to work with today, the vernier calipers in the lower right are set at 1mm.  If that doesn’t help, stack about 5 sheets of notebook paper together.  There you go.

Wheel Build Final
Wheel Build Final

While that’s all pretty cool, I like the fact that we had until Thursday evening to get them done.  Mine are already disassembled, which gives me plenty of time to focus on the next few days of wrenching.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m having fun!

Hopefully you are too.


4 thoughts on “Wheel Build”

  1. Sounds like a fascinating exercise. What an experience. And I know you will always appreciate your wheels just a bit more, having experienced this work with your own two hands. Wonderful.

    1. Very true, Shimon. The wheel set that I get to build in two weeks for certification will be my own wheels to ride. That will become a long-term experiment in how the process works. Hopefully I can stay upright!

    1. Noeline – I wish I could take credit for the immaculate workshop, but that’s the one that we were using at the school. We had to keep it that way. My personal workshop, on the other hand…

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