A bike shop owner once told me that when he first got into the business he had dreams of building wheels all the time. Sam had learned the art from a master wheel builder and had grown to appreciate the care and skill that went into the practice. A quarter turn here, an eighth of a turn there — tension, dish, true — tension, dish, true. “It’s almost meditative,” he said. “Kind of one of those flow things.” He learned pretty quickly, however, that the fast-paced reality of bike shop ownership didn’t allow for the necessary time and quiet that quality wheel building deserves. “Plus, it’s quite a bit cheaper these days to order a machine-built wheel. And they may be cheaper,” he added, “but not nearly as well built!”
My first foray into the world of wheel building arose out of necessity. I was toying with the idea of racing in the Tour Divide and I had read that dynamo hubs were the way to go. You could charge all of your devices through your own power. Sounded cool. The only problem is that you can’t just attach a new hub to a bike. You have to build a whole wheel around it. And I thought, how hard could it be? There are just a few parts! Plus, doesn’t building wheels earn you some serious biker cred? And so it began.
Hub: Shutter Precision PD-8
Rim: Sun Ringle Inferno 25
Spokes: 2mm Swiss Champion, Black, Alloy Nipples
Rotor: 160mm Avid G2 Clean Sweep
USB Charging Attachment: Sinewave Cycles Revolution
According to my friend at the bike shop, you can’t go wrong with Sheldon Brown as a virtual mentor. Sheldon was one of those bike geeks that could tell you in detail everything from the science behind tire rolling resistance to the mechanical advantage specs of different braking methods to the coolest way to sport a beard. True genius. And his tutorial on how to build a wheel is a fine example of that genius. It’s approachable, concise, and pretty darn complete. He even has a section at the end that explains how to build a wheel without a truing stand, which I didn’t have, so that appealed to me. All you have to do is flip your bike over and use the fork (um … yeah).
A few things I learned the hard way: (1) The spoke holes in the rim are drilled in an offset pattern. Left and right spokes go in particular holes. If you lace up the wheel the wrong way you have to unlace it and do it again. (2) If you’re not careful you can drop a nipple into the rim when trying to screw it on to a spoke. They’re really hard to get out. Lots of shaking and swearing is involved. Especially when you do it over and over again. (3) There are three spoke wrench sizes. Use the right one or you’ll strip the nipples. (4) Use a dish tool, otherwise the wheel won’t be dished properly. (5) Use a tension meter, otherwise the wheel won’t be tensioned properly. And (6) use a truing stand or else you won’t be able to get the wheel true! I think maybe only an expert like Sheldon Brown can get his fork to work as a poor-man’s truing stand.
So, after a few hours of trying to do Sheldon Brown proud, I ended up with a properly (yes, properly) laced wheel that was not dished, tensioned, or true. I rolled on up to the bike shop and let the real artist have at it. In no time he had that thing spinning perfectly. Nothing but silence coming from the truing stand. Humble as always, Sam said I had done a great job and that it just needed some tweaking. Of course, I couldn’t say what he was thinking. I am reminded of a property manager/lawyer friend of mine who was once lectured by a plumber after a failed DIY project. “Do I pretend to be a lawyer when I need a will drawn up? No. So you shouldn’t pretend to be a plumber when your pipes are leaking. Got it!?”
Us DIYers die hard, of course, and this first attempt only whetted my appetite for more. I’ve since built a number of other wheels for my bikes — after having invested in all the proper wheel building equipment. I still occasionally have to re-lace a wheel here or there because I got the offset wrong(!), but where there was once frustration, there is now patience. Even joy. What better way is there to love your bike than to construct and care for the foundation upon which it is built?