A look at the tools pro wheel builders use
There has always been a certain amount of mystique surrounding the art and craft of wheel building. This probably has a lot to do with the apparent complexity of a spoked wheel (the unfamiliar weave of the spokes defies the eye while the multitude of adjustable elements defeats the will) and a generous regard, bordering on awe, for the skills required to master the process of building a robust and reliable wheel.
While much of this mystique is justified, at least for the uninitiated, wheel building can easily be reduced to a series of relatively menial, and highly repetitive, tasks. For example, there is no challenge in threading a spoke through a hub; similarly, winding a nipple onto a spoke is a simple chore. Indeed, machines have been constructed that can take care of the entire task, but like any handicraft, the human touch often makes a tangible difference.
When factory-built wheelsets started to take hold of the market at the turn of the century, there was a risk that the art of wheel building was going to die. And in some ways it did, because what was once considered a cornerstone skill for any professional bike mechanic is no longer a strict pre-requisite in many workshops.
Rather than die out, though, the craft has has lived on, and wheel builders now occupy the same kind of niche as custom frame builders. In pragmatic terms, there is no strict need for either, however both have thrived because the level of personalisation they offer cannot be matched by mass-produced products.
There are multiple facets to wheel building, ranging from the simple tasks mentioned above to the geometry of hub bracing angles and the trigonometry of spoke length. Sometimes, a light touch is required, and sometimes there is a need for brute force. All of this is reflected in the range of tools that wheel builders use, which is probably larger and more diverse than many would expect.
I recently spoke to five professional wheel builders — Tommy Barse at Cutlass, Jonathan Bell at Noble Wheels, Gavin Buxton at August Bicycles, Adrian Emilsen at Melody Wheels, and Ryan Morse at Diablo Wheel Works — about the tools they use and what they have to offer.
The list of essential wheel building tools starts with a truing stand. Park Tools TS-2.2 professional wheel truing stand is a common sight, not just in the studios of wheel builders, but in bike shops in general. It is easy to use, reasonably affordable, and quite versatile with a time-proven design that will provide many years of service.
There are more sophisticated truing jigs on offer, though, such as the one offered by P&K Lie. This jig is as intricate as it is accurate, but it comes at six times the cost of a TS-2.2. The biggest advantage of this stand is that it is designed to simultaneously measure radial and lateral deviation so that the wheel builder can attend to both issues when adjusting the spokes.
There are other truing stands on the market to choose from, such as Var’s CR-07600 and Park Tools new TS-4. In addition, it is possible to add dials for measuring the radial and lateral deviation to at least some of these stands, if desired, though not all wheel builders find them necessary.
Every wheel builder requires a spoke wrench, but with a wide range of nipple sizes and shapes on offer (eg. external, internal, hex-head, spline-drive etc), wheel builders end up owning a multitude of spoke wrenches. Aside from matching the nipple in question, what is most important is the quality of the fit and the number of contact surfaces that the wrench offers. “Don’t buy a ring style or three-way spoke wrenches,” said Adrian. “They are a recipe for mistakes with rounded off nipples.”
Three- and four-sided wrenches provide a much surer hold, which is why the DT Swiss Proline spoke wrench, Park Tools master spoke wrenches, and P&K Lie spoke wrenches are all popular choices amongst wheel builders. However, they are only designed to fit standard external nipples.
A second collection of wrenches is required for internal nipples. Once again, there are variations in size and shape to contend with, but the tool must also be compatible with a wide range of rim depths. These tools make use of a socket-head to engage the nipple, so there are plenty of contact surfaces, however the quality of the fit remains important.
This last point is another reason why wheel builders end up with a collection of spoke wrenches. They will always encounter small variations fit between different brands of nipples, so it is important to have a range of tools to choose from.
Another consideration for a spoke wrench, and any hand tool for that matter, is how well it fits the hand. “Hand feel is big for me,” said Tommy. “I want tools to be comfortable and ergonomic.” This no doubt accounts for at least some of the difference in the brands of spoke wrenches favoured by wheel builders.
“I tried a number of different types before locking onto the DT Swiss spoke wrench,” said Adrian. “I actually didn’t like it that much at first because it can be slippery in the hand, but I got used to it. It’s light, has a great fit, and works perfectly with the DT Swiss bladed spoke holding tool.”
Next on the list of essentials is a spoke tension meter. The importance of even spoke tension to a wheel cannot be overestimated however there is no way to judge it without a reliable tension meter. As such, this tool is as indispensable as a truing jig. Wheel Fanatyk’s analogue and digital meters are a common choice for the pros however there are alternative designs from other brands such as P&K Lie and DT Swiss.
Finally, spoke holders, a simple accessory that is easy to overlook that is virtually indispensable. When a spoke achieves a certain amount of tension, the nipple will start to bind, even when a lubricant is present, as which point a spoke holder becomes necessary. For bladed spokes, a slotted tool takes care of this task with ease, however there is a variety of widths on the market so at least few different sizes are required.
Round spokes are more difficult to secure, requiring some kind of a clamp, and this is where Roval’s spoke holder shines. It is far more elegant and effective than modified pliers, expensive too, but it is not a general consumer product.
Dealing with spokes
Every wheel requires a set spokes that are perfectly matched to the dimensions of the hub and rim. Since there are enormous variations in both, most pro wheel builders choose to cut spokes as required from blanks. This not only cuts down on the size of their spoke inventory and reduces waste, it allows them to cut spokes well within 1mm of the ideal length. By contrast, commercial spokes are typically supplied in 2mm increments.
“There was a time,” said Adrian, “when I had hundreds of boxes of spokes and inevitably I’d be short of a few spokes in a specific length. Or, I would need spokes that were in between the manufacturer’s spoke lengths. I now cut and thread all my spokes to exactly the right length. I don’t think I could imagine ever doing this job without a spoke cutting and threading machine.”
Phil Wood’s spoke cutter and threading machine is one time-proven design, however all of the wheel builders I spoke to favour Morizumi’s version. It differs from Phil Wood’s design in that cutting from threading takes place in two distinct steps, so the machine has two operating levers rather than one. Both are equally expensive, though, and easily out-price every other tool that a wheel builder will ever use.
Arriving at the point where a wheel builder is ready to cut (or order) spokes is not a simple matter, though. The length of the spokes required for each side of a wheel must be calculated on the basis of a few key measurements for the rims and hubs.
While many hub and rim manufacturers publish these measurements, professional wheel builders prefer to make their own. After all, published values don’t always translate well from one batch of rims to the next, plus, going through this process is useful for identifying manufacturing defects.
For measuring hub dimensions, a Vernier calliper will normally suffice, while a pair of rim rods is used for measuring the effective rim diameter (ERD) (ie the internal diameter of the rim where the spoke nipples will sit). Wheelsmith has long offered commercial rim rods however it’s not unusual for the pros to fashion their own from a pair of spokes and the nipples they prefer to use. Importantly, they will always make multiple measurements around the rim to determine how much it varies from round, where a deviation of more than 1mm is often enough to reject the rim.
“Wheelsmith’s Rim Rods is an incredibly useful tool for measuring the ERD,” said Adrian. “The most common mistake I see with novice wheel builders is incorrect spoke lengths on the basis of published ERD measurements.”
Calculating the final length of the spokes is a matter of some trigonometry, which is left in the hands of spoke length calculator. A variety of calculators can be accessed online however it’s important to note that the exact formula can vary from one to the next, and in some instances, a wheel builder may modify it to serve their needs (eg. to account for the stretch of a lightweight spoke). Be that as it may, Damon Rinard’s Spocalc is widely trusted and easy to start using.
Lacing up a wheel is always labour-intensive, so it’s not really surprising that wheel builders have embraced a variety of tools to assist with this process. Strictly speaking, these tools aren’t a necessity, but they become invaluable when a wheel builder is striving to complete several pairs in one day.
This includes a lacing jig, which holds the hub and rim in place so that the hands are free for handling the spokes and nipples. There are a variety of nipple threading tools, including Wheel Fanatyk’s pin vice and EVT’s Mulfinger, which make it easier to pick up and guide each nipple into the rim and onto a spoke. And finally, there are nipple drivers, such as Problem Solvers Holy Driver, which will speed up the early steps of spoke tensioning.
Preparation and finishing touches
I’ve already mentioned that wheel builders take the time to carefully measure each part that will be used for a build, but it’s worth stressing that even small variations away from round will have a big impact on the final outcome. Yes, it’s possible to build a wheel that has very little lateral and radial run out with all sorts of rims and hubs, but to do this while maintaining even spoke tension really depends upon high precision hubs and rims.
There are other considerations that will influence the build, such as the geometry of the hubs, spoke count, and the type of spokes to be used. This is how a wheel builder is able to tailor a set of wheels to suit each customer, and by carefully considering all the options, strives to feel confident about the outcome before they actually start assembling the wheels. This is where a wheel builder’s experience counts for a lot because there aren’t any tools that make it easier to find a combination that will ideally suit any given rider’s needs.
Once the components have been decided and the spokes have been cut, each part is prepared for assembly. Some kind of lubricant is normally required between the nipples and the rim, and the nipples and the spokes, so that they can be adjusted with ease. Anti-seize becomes important when alloy nipples are used, while thread-locking compounds will stop the nipples from unwinding once the wheel is put to use.
Every wheel builder has their preferred combination of lubrication, anti-seize, and thread-locking compounds, however few will ever share the details on what they use. That’s because they typically arrive at these formulations through a lot of trial-and-error, so can be considered hard-won intellectual property.
A de-burring tool is used to clean up the inner surface of alloy rims where the spoke holes have been drilled. This tool is essentially a modified drill bit that is used by hand to skim away any excess material. Without it, there is a risk the nipples will not rotate smoothly against the rim or adjust to meet the angle of the spoke.
The rise of thru-axles has meant wheel builders now need a variety of adapters in order to fit these hubs to a truing stand. Park Tools, Var, Abbey Tools, and Problem Solvers have all created suitable adapters that generally work well, however they tend to add extra width to the hub to the point where they can become too wide for some truing stands.
Perhaps the most unusual tools that can be found in any wheel builder’s tool chest is a set of rigging gloves and/or drumsticks. The former make it easier to stress-relieve the spokes of the wheel, which need to squeezed with a lot of force, while the latter is used for shaping the path of j-bend spokes over the flanges of the hub. Once again, neither are strictly necessary, however they will make a difference to how the hands are feeling after completing a series of builds in one day.
A dishing tool is typically used during the final phase of wheel construction as the spokes are brought up to maximum tension. Looking a lot like an archery bow, this is one tool where there is a lot of diversity in brand choice amongst wheel builders. All use the same strategy to measure the distance from the end of the hub axle to the rim; when both sides of the wheel show the same measurement, the rim is perfectly aligned with the hub. While it is possible to make the same measurements by flipping the wheel over in the truing and comparing the distance to the lateral indicator, a dishing tool is arguably easier to use and provides an independent measure for quality control.
This last point is an important one for wheel builders, because each one is solely responsible for their quality control. All of the wheel builders I spoke to are highly organised and methodical individuals that keep detailed notes on every wheel they build. That includes measurements for the final spoke tension, which is perhaps the most robust measure for the quality of any build. In this regard, Spoke Service’s online spoke tension utility has become invaluable to many wheel builders, providing a quick and easy way to record, present and archive spoke tension measurements.
The lifespan of wheelbuilding tools
All of the wheel builders I spoke to reported lengthy lifespans for their tools. Even tools like spoke wrenches that are used every day will serve a wheel builder at least a year or two before they need to be replaced. In contrast, tools like cone spanners and axle vices are relatively short lived.
“Most, if not all, of the wheelbuilding tools I have, have lasted a long time because I take care of them, I guess,” said Ryan Morse. “I clean and lube them when needed and check them to make sure things are good.”
For Jonathan Bell at Noble Wheels, buying well in the first place makes a big difference. “My Grandfather taught me to buy quality tools because cheap ones break and ruin your hard work at the same time. So I’ve always bought better tools than I can afford.”
While price is generally a good reflection of the quality of the materials employed, it does not always guarantee the utility of tool. “Some tools are worth every penny and some are not,” said Ryan Morse. “Unfortunately the only way to find out is to purchase and try them out.”
Finally, it’s worth noting that any tool, no matter its expense or quality, can always be used poorly. In addition, there is no tool on the market that can guarantee a robust and precise wheel build, and there are some tools, like patience, diligence, and experience, that can’t be bought at any price.
Some advice for those curious to learn more about wheelbuilding
Getting started in wheel building is relatively simple, all that is needed is a few essential tools and some instruction. “A basic start kit should include a truing stand, a tension meter, spoke key and a trusted website for calculating spoke lengths,” suggested Gavin. “From there, anybody should be good to go. You don’t need to go in at the deep end, buying all the fanciest tools, especially if you are hobby-building. Remember that you can upgrade later.”
“My genuine belief if that wheel building is best learnt in a face-to-face teaching context,” said Adrian. “If you can’t find a course, read as many books as you can and then engage a trusted shop or bike mechanic to help you get started. At the very least, have someone help you prepare your spoke lengths and then review your wheel when you’re finished.”
Progressing beyond the point of mere familiarisation with the process is where the real challenge lies, and that probably accounts for why many professional wheel builders are so devoted and passionate about the craft. “Be patient, methodical and detail-orientated,” Gavin advises. “It’s not going to be something everyone naturally takes to, but practice makes perfect, or at least a round wheel that can be ridden.”
“You need to be patient and build a lot of wheels,” says Ryan. “I purchased the set of wheels I built during my training course. This allowed me to break them down and re-lace/re-build many, many times so that I could practice.”
“Start slow and with something easy,” advises Tommy. “For some people the lacing aspect is the most mind-boggling. For others, the difficulty is getting the tension up evenly. Starting slow and staying patient is paramount. Front wheels with 3-cross lacing will give a good foundation for how lacing should be executed.”
“Read everything you can,” says Jonathan. “Ask for help and advice from people who do it regularly and practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, but make sure you understand what went wrong.”
Ultimately, wheel building is no different from any handicraft. Any practitioner can expect to become more confident and proficient over time, so it really becomes a matter of devotion to the craft. “There are things that you learn from building one wheel, things that you learn from building 100 wheels, and things that you learn from building 1000 wheels,” says Adrian. “At some point you have to do the work. A lot of learning comes from a desire to know more, dealing with challenges, problem solving, keeping records, and in sharing your knowledge with others.”