Jim’s Tech Talk
Bicycle wheels are amazing things. They have fascinated me since I first started working in bike shops. With just a handful of spokes, a hint of a hub and even the most humble hoop, the vast majority will easily take anything even the strongest pro can dish out and often outlast the components on the bike.
Once after a race, the team piled into my VW van and I drove smack over a wheel Rick had forgotten to put in the back with his Olmo. It lifted the van’s right rear wheel off the ground.
When we realized what had happened – and stopped laughing, we retrieved the wheel expecting to find a pretzel. We were all stunned (well, Rick was delighted), to see that the only damage was a bent quick release. The rim, spokes, hub and axle were unscathed and there wasn’t even the smallest wobble in the wheel.
And, bike wheels aren’t just strong, they’re resilient, too. Had Rick’s wheel been actually “pretzeled” – bike jargon meaning bent sort of in the shape of a potato chip (sometimes riders say “potato chipped” or “taco’d”) – I could probably have made it at least rideable again by simply standing on the wheel to push the largest wobbles back in place. Or with other forceful techniques (all hugely entertaining to execute and observe).
In the case of modern carbon rims, which don’t bend, I’ve had riders hit things so hard they cracked the carbon. But, the wheel didn’t even go out of true so they had no idea there was an issue and just kept riding. Only when they brought it in to me did we discover the hole in the carbon – sometimes thousands of miles later.
A Yearn to Learn
My interest in wheels at that first bike shop I mentioned, led me to start begging the more senior mechanics to teach me how to build wheels before I even knew how to fix flats properly. It doesn’t work that way, they told me. I had to master the basic stuff first.
I only worked at that shop the summer before I left for college. So, when I went to work in another shop near campus, I again immediately asked the head tech when he could teach me how to build wheels. And, again, I got the you’re-not-ready lecture.
I worked at that shop for several years and still couldn’t get anyone to teach me wheel building. So, fed up, I pulled a beat-up wheel out of the trash one Saturday at closing and took it home to figure it out myself on my day off.
That was 47 years ago. Ever since that home study I have been learning all I can about wheelsmithing, building wheels for customers and myself, and have remained passionate about it. I never kept track of all the wheels I built going back to the beginning. But, I can tell you that in the last four years, I have built 468 wheels in the wheel department at Praxis Works here in Santa Cruz. Talk about a dream job.
Others Want to Learn, Too
Interestingly, it turns out that wanting to learn wheel building is not unique to me or green pro bike mechanics. I got asked so many times by customers in the shop to show them that I started teaching it with night classes in the store. It was great for rim, hub and spoke sales at the shop. And, I made a good chunk of change working after hours.
It’s super satisfying lacing up a set of wheels, getting them true and round and tight. Then the big fun is when they’re carrying you down the road at mach speed and you look down and admire your handiwork.
Plus you know that should they come out of true, you can fix them. And, anytime you want to build another pair or upgrade to a different rim or hubset, you can. Your new skills will make you the hero on group rides when you fix wheels for your buddies, too.
Paying It Forward
While I don’t work retail anymore, I still get requests to teach people how to build wheels. Since 1999, I’ve had a couple of fairly long how-to’s on my personal bicycle website that show all the steps. I typically have pointed folks to these stories as a way to learn. They’re popular pages and I know they’ve helped lots of people build wheels.
But, wheel building is a detailed process and it’s easy to get lost in long mostly text documents. So, I decided some time ago to try to capture it on video – essentially everything I taught to my beginner students at the shop back when. I believe the way I teach it is a relatively easy method to learn to build wheels. Plus, because I actually show you with my hands and you can watch over my shoulder you will get it once you try it.
Today I’m happy to share with you the final video. It’s the result of over 60 hours of work and includes every tip and trick I know to make the job doable for anyone. It’s about an hour long so a lot to watch. But, as a YouTube video it’s watchable however and wherever you want (on a cellphone in your home bike shop, for example). And you can pause and rewind as needed.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to build bike wheels, I hope my video lets you do that. And, as I say on camera, I’m happy to help if you need it. Enjoy the show and please let me know how your wheels come out if you build a set!
Ride total: 9,674
Jim Langley says
You’re welcome, Bruce. Glad you like the video!
Dave Minden says
Jim, I look forward to watching your video, thank you. I think a lot of ardent riders and pretty experienced home mechanics have been discouraged by a lot of people from trying wheel building. But isn’t there some complexity to choosing the components? Which hub? Straight bladed spokes or j? Sturdier rims or lighter? Apologize if you cover this in the video. I’m personally interested in building a generator hub tubeless wheel!
Jim Langley says
Great question, Dave, thanks. You can get as complicated as you wish in choosing components to build wheels. It all depends on the individual. Since you want to build a generator hub tubeless wheel, you have a great start, though. First you would choose your hub since it’s so important. Then, based on the hub design, you would probably use standard J-bend spokes (most of the gen hubs I’ve seen use these). Now to select a rim, you would go with either rim brake or disc brake and choose the material, carbon or aluminum. For spokes, I prefer DT Swiss double butted spokes and DT Swiss nipples.
You want to consider how much you weigh, how much weight you’ll carry on the bike and how/where you’ll ride. The more demanding your setup and rides, the more rugged you build the wheels. More rugged means more spokes and a stouter rim.
It’s a fun process choosing the components and these are some basics on how to go about it. I’m happy to help more if you have questions.
I always enjoy your columns Jim but now I have a question. I recently purchased a Kuat bike rack that RBR relieved very favorably and I agree it is a great bike carrier for the back of my pickup. But now I have very dirty bikes caused by the road dirt that my bikes have picked up.. Do you have any suggestions that will fix that?
Jim Langley says
Boy, that’s an interesting question. I used the Kuat rack that I reviewed on the back of a Sprinter van RV. You’re using yours on a pickup truck. On my RV, the bikes stayed nice and clean as long as I avoided driving on dirt roads. Maybe there’s something for pickup trucks that would keep the bikes clean? A bike cover is an obvious possibility, but maybe some kind of air deflector that keeps dirt from being blown onto the bikes. Maybe googling might turn up some products or ideas. Or maybe there are pickup truck forums where people have answered this question.
Cleaning the bikes is easy enough with a bucket of warm soapy water, a hose and a brush. I imagine you already know all about that are are mainly trying to keep them clean when driving.
Maybe some other RBR readers with pickups will see this and chime in,
Velo socks work great to protect your bike while it’s on a bike carrier. A pricey but a very will made product. https://velosock.us
David Kamp says
My first attempts at building wheels (4) resulted in fine wheels, under the watchful eye of experienced mechanics (One was Jobst Brandt), but they took hours and hours. Hoping for faster turnaround with experience. Thanks for the guidance, Jim! I encourage all to give it a shot. It is the most rewarding aspect of bicycle mechanics.
Jim Langley says
That’s so cool that you learned from Jobst, David. He’s a legend and of course, his The Bicycle Wheel is the best reference on wheel building. I was going to mention that book, but the prices on Amazon are crazy high because it’s out of print. Ebay.com is probably a safer bet to find a reasonable price. Regarding taking hours and hours, the lacing shouldn’t take very long once you get the hang of it. But, the truing, rounding, centering and dishing can take almost as long as you want. Also, if you happen to get a rim with a bad seam or some imperfection, it can slow you down a lot. I’m glad you liked the video and agree that wheel building is greatly rewarding.
This was really great. Thank you for sharing.
Great video – it convinced me to take the plunge…
I’ve got my rims and hubs ordered and am now trying to figure out spoke length… I’ve used the UBI and QBP calculators and come up with the same numbers from both::259, 260.3, 260.6 and 258.6….but getting anyone online to agree about ROUNDING those numbers is almost impossible! I understand that “too short” and not having enough engagement are bad, but so is bottoming out before you get to full tension. Can I go with 260 all the way? 260 for all but the 258’s?