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Building your own set of wheels is not as difficult as you might think

Wheelbuilding is often treated as a mysterious art, unfathomable to mortals. It’s actually not as difficult as it’s made out to be. Producing a perfectly tensioned set of wheels that will run true for years in half an hour does take a lot of practice, but with a bit of patience, and a free afternoon, you should be able to make your own wheel out of a set of spokes, a rim and a hub.

Building your own wheels is a satisfying achievement, impressing other cyclists more than most other bicyclefixing  tasks. It breaks down to two parts: lacing and tensioning. Lacing – weaving all the spokes so that they join the hub to the rim – looks complicated, but is easy. Tensioning – tightening all the spokes so that they hold the rim round, true and central – looks easy, but is complicated.

Follow the lacing steps carefully – they look confusing, but as long as you don’t panic, you’ll be fine. The key to lacing wheels successfully is remembering that there are four sets of spokes, each of which follows the same pattern. For each set, get the first spoke in the right place, then follow the pattern around the wheel until you come back to where you started. You really only have to think carefully about four spokes – not 32 or 36. On each side of the wheel, alternate spokes face in and out of the flange, and radiate clockwise or anticlockwise from the hub to the rim. At the rim, alternate spokes are connected to opposite sides of the hub.

“The key to lacing wheels successfully is remembering that there are four sets of spokes, each of which follows the same pattern”

Spoke key

Buy a nice spoke key with which to build wheels. The small ones on multitools are great for emergencies, but are awkward to use for more than a few rough nipple twists. Big dedicated spoke keys are more comfortable than little cheap ones that make the nipples hard to turn when putting the final bits of tension on, leaving you with sore fingers. There are two different common nipple sizes, referred to variously as ’Japanese’ and ’American’, ’small’ and ’large’. ’Red’and ’yellow’ refers to the colours used to differentiate between the two sizes of the most popular spoke key, made by Buddy. These are great for wheelbuilding: they hold the nipple on all four sides, so that the flats don’t get damaged. Check your nipples fit neatly into the spoke key before you buy it.

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Wheel jig

Your most essential tool for learning to build good wheels is a wheel jig. A basic £50 model is fine for learning to build wheels on, although average workshop models cost £400. It is possible to build wheels without a wheel jig, using your bicycle frame as a guide, but it’s a difficult way to learn. Splash out on a jig or borrow one if you can.

The wheel jig holds the wheel steady between two clamps. Different makes have slightly different features, but all work in the same way: an indicator arm comes out from the jig and sits beside the rim. The distance between the indicator and the rim can be adjusted, and is set so that the rim just touches the indicator. The roundness of the wheel is checked by spinning the wheel and watching how the gap between the rim and the indicator changes. The tension in the spokes is adjusted where the gap is smallest or greatest to reduce the total amount of wobble in the rim. The indicator is then moved closer, and the process is repeated until the rim is straight. Cheaper, more portable and storable models have an indicator on just one side of the rim, whereas more expensive types have an indicator on both sides.

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Wheels are surprisingly heavy once they’re spinning. If you can clamp or bolt the jig onto a workbench, it will help to stop it from wobbling around, making it easier to see the gap between your rim and the indicator gauge on the jig. Plenty of light also helps, as does a piece of white card or paper under the jig, so that you look through the gap onto the card.

These wheelbuilding guidelines take you through building a front and rear wheel in the most common three-cross style. If you want to know more about wheelbuilding, get a copy of The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt. It’s packed with technical information, explaining how spoked wheels actually work, how to build wheels in other patterns and how to know when you should use other patterns.

See also bike maintenance tips, tricks and techniques “Wheel words: learn the jargon”