hand lacing a custom bike wheel

Hand Built Bike Wheels. Why Bother?

Have you walked into a bike shop and seen the charge of wheel building on their workshop price list? Or googled bike wheels and seen custom cycling wheels come up? Have you heard of hand built wheels before?

In any of these cases where you confused? Hand built wheels? Aren’t all bike wheels hand built? What is the point of having someone build your wheels?

To answer this, we are going to talk you through the stages of building a cycling wheel first so that it makes more sense.

There are 4 main steps to building a bike wheel. The 1st step is lacing. This is the process of putting the spokes (essentially wires) that hold the hub to the rim. Spokes are threaded at one end then a threaded nipple is used to secure it to the rim or hub. When all the spokes have been put into the correct place the lacing is complete.

The 2nd stage is truing. This is the process of adding tension to the spokes to get the rim to run straight and round. As you add tension to the spokes this moves the rim around depending on which side you put the tension on. This isn’t intended as a tutorial, so we are glossing over a lot of the minutiae of this step.

The 3rd step is destressing. This is the process where you stretch the spokes. This has multiple effects. It seats all the contact points of the spokes. Also, it lowers the tension in the spokes.

Lastly is tensioning. This is the last stage. When the wheel is finally assembled the spokes should have the same tension. This tension should be sufficient for the rim to be fully supported by the spokes. Basically, the rim should be held in constant tension all the way around.

Steps 2,3 and 4 will need to be repeated multiple times in order to get a strong wheel that won’t deform over time.

Now that you have an understanding of the process in building a wheel it’s time to start answering some of the questions at the start. Yes, all wheels used to be hand built. When you wanted bike wheels, you had to source the parts yourself and hand build it. This was either done in bike shops by expert wheel builders or at home.

Now no. Most wheels are built in a machine. These machines speed up the process of building wheels and cut the cost to you the consumer. Most of the time these days machine-built wheels are really good, and you can be hard pressed to notice if a wheel is built by hand or machine built.

Okay so what is the difference then? Well similar to a lot of industries the craftsmanship that goes into building the wheel. We are going to use tables as an example. You can go into Ikea and get a perfectly good table, or you can find a carpenter to make one for you. The carpenter will cost more and take more time but, in the end, you have a lovingly built table that is exactly what you asked for. A table that you know will last a lifetime. Hand building wheels is like this.

A machine can do a wheel every 20-30 minutes. By hand that can be an hour and for a great build it takes longer. We have had build that have taken a day or more. It is all in the level of detail that goes into the wheel. A machine will repeat steps 2-4 two maybe three times. When hand building, we are these steps ten times or more.

Machine built wheels are similar to the Ikea table. They work great for a time, but they are not built to last. If you brake parts its normally a new table or in this case wheel. Ever broken a Mavic spoke? Then you probably have found this.

The main reason that hand built wheels last longer is probably not something that you would expect. It’s the attention that we pay to the spoke tension. A machine works on a difference of about 15% difference in the spoke tension in a bike wheel whereas we work to 5% minimum and aim for less.

Let’s use a DT Swiss rr511 rim to demonstrate the difference. The max spoke force (tension) that you can put on this rim is 1200N (120kg). When building a bike wheel, you aim for 10% of this max value to give you a tolerance but makes sure that the rim is fully supported by the spokes. So that give you a max tension of 1080N. Now for a machine that Is using a 15% tolerance you might see the issue. In theory it can put 1242N on a spoke and 1080N on another. This over time this will lead to rim failure. Or if we go the other way, we have a spoke at 1080N and one at 918N. in this case you have a spoke that isn’t pulling enough tension and you risk getting a flat spot in your wheel.

Now let use 5% tolerance. At most we pull 1,134N max or 1,026N minimum. This is a very extreme example for us as we work from, and we would not ship a wheel with these tensions as they are too far from our ideal tension. Using this you can see that with a smaller tolerance you don’t have a spoke that is under significantly more tension than the others or under less. The result of this is that your hand built wheel is less likely to come out of true or break a spoke.

So is having a hand built wheel worth it for you? Truly yes. They do cost more up front. You have to pay for the experience of the wheel builder and the tool that we need to get the tolerances to as low as we go but in the long term, they pay for themselves. Also, when you ride a hand built wheel you can feel the difference. They are tailored to you and you’re ridding. If you want a more comfortable ride, we can make that happen or if its racing we can make your custom cycling wheels more responsive. You can find out more about custom cycling wheels here

For our wheel build service click here or to find out more about our wheel builder click here

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