Hubs: These days all bicycle
hubs from major manufactures provide a stress-free spoke foundation.
The main decision concerns drilling, or how many holes there are in
each hub. The current norm for road and mountain wheels is 32, which
is fine unless you weigh more than 185 pounds. Heavier riders or those
planning to subject the wheels to hard use, such as loaded touring or
stunt riding, should consider 36-hole hubs.
It’s OK to reuse old hubs (but not rims or spokes). Disassemble
them and check the bearing races for pits or scoring, which mean the
hub should not be used. Replace pitted cones and bent axles.
Another consideration with old hubs is how many times they’ve
been rebuilt. V-shaped spoke impressions on both sides of the spoke
holes indicate a hub has been used at least twice with different lacing
patterns, and the flanges could be weakened.
Rims: This is the main
structural component of the wheel, and selection is critical. Choose
according to your weight and riding habits. For clincher road wheels,
375- to 500-gram rims are sufficient for riders weighing up to 170 pounds.
Heavier cyclists should consider stouter models. Tubular (sew-up) rims
are somewhat stronger and allow use of slightly lighter weights.
Other choices include triangular (aero) or box cross sections, whether
the rim comes with or without nipple ferrules, and if it has offset
or centered nipple drilling. While the last 2 factors are not that important,
keep in mind that aero rims ride harsher than box-section models (today
mis-named“double-wall” rims for some unknown reason). However,
aero rims add strength and are a good choice for heavy use.
Spokes: To simplify truing
and tensioning, beginning wheelbuilders should use 14-gauge straight
(non-butted) quality stainless-steel spokes and matching nipples. Butted
spokes and aluminum nipples are lighter but require extra skill during
truing and tensioning. I prefer the brand DT Swiss.
Proper spoke sizing is a prerequisite for durable wheels. I recommend
after selecting your components to have shop personnel calculate the
correct length for your setup. They should be happy to do this if you’re
buying a set of spokes from them, and there’s a benefit to buying
the spokes from them. If they get the length wrong, they’ll make
it right, whereas if you calculate the wrong spoke
length, you might not be able to return the spokes (depending on where
you bought them).
There are formulas and online tools for calculating spoke length, too
(go here and
click on Spoke Length Calculator under Tools), but it’s easy to
make mistakes. If you’re planning to build lots of wheels, consider
purchasing a spoke-length chart, or computer software or keep a record
of what lengths worked for the rim/hub combinations you’ve used.
These, as well as truing stands, books and other wheelbuilding tools,
are available from bicycle shops, though some things will need to be
Front and rear wheels require different-length spokes. This is because
the rear needs slightly longer spokes on the left to compensate for
the offset of the cassette/freewheel. Buy 2 different-size bunches of
16 or 18 spokes for the rear, but 32 or 36 of the same size for the
front. Mark the bunches accordingly to avoid confusion.
The crossing pattern also affects spoke length. I recommend 3 cross,
which means each spoke passes over or under 3 others on its way from
hub to rim. This makes for a strong wheel.
To ease truing and tensioning, apply grease or thread compound to the
spokes and grease to each rim nipple hole. For the spoke threads, I
Spoke Prep. You must apply it carefully because too much will make
it harder, not easier, to turn the nipples. After applying it must dry,
too. When applied properly it will keep spokes from loosening and nipples
from freezing for years. An alternative is linseed oil, which becomes
tacky as it dries. Or, you can just lube the spoke threads with grease
or oil, which will at least ensure that you can get the wheel nice and
Use an upside-down nipple threaded onto the end of a spoke to grease
rim holes. Just dab it in the grease and apply. This is especially important
on rims without ferrules because nipples bind against the aluminum.
Because rear wheels are more complicated to build, my directions focus
on them with occasional comments for front ones. If you’re using
old hubs, inspect the spoke holes. On some models every other hole is
countersunk. If so, install the spokes so that the bend (not the head)
is against the countersink.
the rim flat on a workbench with the valve hole opposite you.
Insert one of the shorter rear spokes into any hole in the rear hub’s
cassette-side flange. It can be put in from the inside (head in) or
outside (head out).
Looking at the 2 rim holes straddling the valve hole, determine which
is offset toward the top, push the spoke end in (photo
1), and thread a nipple 4 turns. On rims with centered
rim holes the spoke can be placed in either one next to the valve.
the same direction you installed the first spoke, place 7 more
into the hub (8 for 36-hole wheels) using every other hole. One at a
time, place these spokes into every fifth rim hole (counting from spoke
to spoke; photo 2) and add nipples. You should have
a hub and rim joined by 8 spokes (or 9 for 36-hole wheels).
must have parallel spokes at the valve stem to provide clearance
for pump heads. To achieve this, twist the hub to wind
the spokes in the proper direction before adding the second set. Determine
which way to twist from the location of the spoke nearest the valve
hole. If it’s on the left twist the hub to the left (counterclockwise;
photo 3). If it’s on the right, twist to the right. To
hold the hub in place, insert a spoke through the cassette-side flange
in the opposite direction of the first set of spokes. (If they were
installed head out it should be placed head in.)
you bring the spoke toward the rim, it must be laced through
its neighbors If you are installing head-out spokes, each one must go
under the first 2 it crosses and over the third. Head-in spokes go over
the first 2 and under the third (photo 4). Then place
it in the rim, centered between the spokes already in place, and add
a nipple. Be careful not to kink the spoke or scratch the rim.
At this point it saves time to turn the nipples from outside the rim
with a Bicycle Research nipple driver or small screwdriver. But don’t
tighten them more than 4 turns because you don’t want to add any
spoke tension yet. Finish lacing the cassette side by placing the remaining
7 (or 8) spokes through the hub, interlacing them, and adding nipples.
5. To make lacing the
other side easier, seat the spokes in the hub by pressing the head-in
ones with the palm of your hand or tapping them near the hub with a
plastic mallet (photo 5).
Lay the wheel on the workbench with the empty flange
facing up. The next spoke’s position is trickiest to locate and
it's very important to get it right.
It should be parallel to the first one you installed and next to the
valve hole in the rim. To find it, stand the wheel with the valve hole
at 12 o’clock (photo 6). Insert the threaded
end of a spoke into the rim hole next to the valve and thread a nipple
on the spoke 4 turns.
Let the spoke hang by the nipple in the rim. It will point to the correct
hub hole if you align the hanging spoke parallel to the one on the other
side of the valve (the first spoke you installed).
Pick up another spoke and put it into the hub to mark the hole, pushing
it in from either side. (If your hubs are countersunk, insert the spoke
accordingly.) Remove the hanging spoke, but leave the nipple in the
rim and finish installing the first spoke on that side of the hub that
you just pushed into the hub by bringing it up to the rim and threading
the nipple that's in the rim onto it.
If you push the spoke through the laced spokes on the other side of
the wheel, it might be necessary to flex those spokes to get the new
one through them and up into position, but as long as you don’t
actually bend any spokes this won’t affect their strength.
the next 7 (or 8) spokes, filling every other hub hole (photo
7). Lace them into every fifth rim hole counting from left-side
spoke to spoke, and add nipples. Finish lacing the wheel by installing
the last 8 (or 9) spokes. Put them through the hub in the opposite direction
of the set you just installed, and lace them to the remaining rim holes.
Seat the head-in spokes as before (photo 5). Also, seat the head-out
spokes by pulling each one outward with your fingers or by prying them
with a screwdriver handle placed below the cross. Seat the nipples in
the rim by grasping parallel spokes and squeezing gently.
Truing and tensioning tips
You should now have a laced wheel with parallel spokes at the valve
hole, interlaced spokes, seated heads, bends and nipples, and very little
tension. Check the crossing pattern one last time. Also, ensure that
alternate spokes lead to different hub flanges.
Remember that when viewed from outside the rim, clockwise turns tighten
and counter-clockwise turns loosen spokes. Always use this perspective
or it can get confusing and you might tighten when you mean to loosen
and vice versa. Also, turn nipples in small increments. Half a rotation
To simulate riding stresses and relieve spoke wind-up that can occur
while truing and tensioning, it’s important to stress-relieve
the spokes after each step by squeezing parallel pairs around the rim
with your hands.
When the wheel is done the rim should be centered between the axle locknuts.
It’s easy to move the rim off center if you don’t check
it regularly while building. Several manufacturers make dishing tools
that allow you to measure this. The Park TS-2 truing stand, which I
mentioned earlier, automatically centers the rim.
It’s also possible to center rims by simply reversing the wheel
in the truing stand or bicycle frame as you work. If you do this and
adjust the spokes to keep both sides of the rim the same distance from
one of the truing indicators or brake pad, it will be centered.
Place the wheel in a truing stand or bicycle frame. Starting at the
valve hole, spin each nipple onto the spoke with the nipple driver or
a flathead screwdriver
until only 4 threads are still exposed. This should supply just enough
tension to straighten all the spokes.
Spin the wheel. Adjust the truing indicators (or brake pad) so they
barely brush the rim. Study the rim as it spins and decide which section
needs to be moved. Use the spoke wrench to adjust the nipples in this
area. It’s crucial during the early stages to gently bring the
rim into true and round by loosening instead of tightening. For instance,
to move the rim left, loosen spokes in the area leading to the right
hub flange instead of tightening ones leading to the left. As the wheel
straightens, bring the indicators closer to the rim and continue.
To correct vertical movement, adjust the truing indicator under the
rim (if you’re using your bike frame for truing, rest your thumb
on the brake in such a way that you can view the gap between it and
the underside or top edge of the rim as the wheel spins). Work on flat
spots first, loosening an even number of spokes in the area to allow
the rim to move outward. Gently tighten an even number of spokes to
bring down high spots.
If you let the truing indicator brush the underside of the rim, you’ll
know when it’s perfectly round because it will stop scraping.
If you prefer to sight the space between the indicator and rim, a light
background will help. Place a piece of white paper on the workbench
in your line of vision.
When the wheel is round move the indicators beside the rim and perfect
lateral trueness again. Alternate correcting lateral and vertical movement,
and flip the wheel occasionally to check rim centering. Eventually you
should get a round, straight rim with low spoke tension.
Increase tension by starting at the valve hole and working
around the rim, turning each nipple. For the rear wheel, which has less
tension on the left, turn the right-side spokes a half turn and the
left ones a quarter turn. This helps center the rim. For front wheels,
turn both sides a half turn at a time.
If a centering adjustment is required, first loosen all the spokes leading
to one side of the hub a quarter or half turn (every other spoke) and
then tighten those leading to the other side by the same amount.
After each tensioning sequence, adjust the rim’s trueness, roundness,
and centering. In general, remember to turn the nipples a little at
a time, and move the rim by loosening one side and tightening the other
instead of doing just one. Also, stress-relieve the spokes after each
With each successive tensioning step the rim should need less truing.
After adding 4 or 5 rounds of tension it should be strong and the spokes
tight enough not to loosen, which is the mark of the good build.
It takes experience to recognize proper tension by feel. It helps to
squeeze spokes on hand-built wheels at a shop or check those of another
bike. On rear wheels you’ll notice that left-side spokes always
feel looser than right ones.
Other options are to buy a spoke
tensionometer (available at shops) or take your new wheels to a
shop and ask them to critique your work.
The last step is clean-up. This is important because wheelbuilding lubricants
can contaminate brake pads and some may deteriorate tires. Thoroughly
clean the rim, hub, and spokes with a rag dampened with acetone or other
solvent. Good job!
This article is
based on one I wrote for Bicycling Magazine.
The photos are by Mel