Ric Hjertberg, the man behind Wheel Fanatyk, has devoted his life to bicycles with a special interest in wheels. After opening a bike shop with his brother Jon in 1975 (an essentially service-only business that eschewed retail stock), the two went on to establish Wheelsmith Fabrications in 1980.
For those that are unfamiliar with Wheelsmith, the company enjoyed enormous success with its stainless steel spokes during the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Hjertbergs initially imported the mass-produced spokes from Asahi in Japan, but later acquired that company’s equipment to move production of Wheelsmith spokes to the USA.
Given this experience, Ric’s fascination with spoke tension meters is understandable, and indeed, he has been using them since the ‘70s, and building and selling them since the ‘80s. While some traditionalists may argue that a good wheel can be built by feel, there is no substitute for an accurate meter when striving for even spoke tension.
Wheel Fanatyk’s spoke tension meter is based on a design originally conceived by Jobst Brandt in the ‘70s. At the heart of the instrument is a spring-loaded hammer for creating spoke deflection. Small cartridge bearings ensure that friction between the spoke and the meter doesn’t interfere with the deflection measurements, while Mitutoyo indicators (analogue or digital) provide the readout.
Ric hand-builds and calibrates each tension meter and provides a one-year warranty along with a commitment to recalibrate the meter as required. Each meter is supplied in a foam-lined shock-proof case along with a plastic conversion chart (for determining tension) and supporting documentation. For those buyers opting for a digital readout, Wheel Fanatyk also offers a USB cable for sending the measurements directly to a variety of spreadsheet programs or a spoke tension plotting app.
When Jobst Brandt originally designed this tension meter, he made the plans freely available, and while Avocet produced the instrument for a short time, it was much too expensive to gain any traction in the market. At the same time, there was much less appreciation for accurately measuring spoke deflection.
Four decades have passed and wheelbuilders now have a much stronger appreciation for the importance of even spoke tension. However, owning a tension meter is not enough to guarantee a great wheel build when the final result depends upon the diligence of the wheelbuilder. Nevertheless, if the meter is easy to use and very precise, then good results are bound to follow.
Opening the case for Wheel Fanatyk’s tension meter is a little like opening a treasure chest. The meter presents beautifully and it sits easily in the hand. Weighing 303g, there’s just enough heft to inspire confidence in the quality of the instrument without it becoming cumbersome.
Ric is open about the strengths and weaknesses of Brandt’s design, so potential buyers can weigh the options according to their needs. Perhaps the only real weakness is that the meter is not suited for very high spoke tension (>150kgf) or small hands.
This tension meter is cheaper than other professional offerings but probably too expensive for hobby builders. Nevertheless, when compared to a lower-priced meter like Park’s TM-1 there were three things that immediately impressed me about Wheel Fanatyk’s meter: first, the resolution was much finer; second, the meter offered far greater reproducibility for repeated measures; and third, the low-tension spring was essentially silent. As a result, I found I was able to tension wheels with greater precision and I felt more confident in the accuracy of the meter.
For those pondering the choice between digital and analogue indicators, then the former is a little easier to read and shines when it comes to downloading the measurements to a spreadsheet; in contrast, the latter is cheaper and can be zeroed with the same hand that is operating the meter.
Price: Analogue, US$280 (~AUD$370); digital, US$348 (~AUD$460); USB cable, US$120-140 (~AUD$160-185).