There is a number of different reasons why it's a good idea to build your own wheels. The reason we started building our own wheels was solely from a cost saving perspective, but later we found out that it is actually a lot fun.
Nothing's Ever Perfect
The labour in most developing countries to build a wheel ranges from 30-50 USD per wheel. For us that money could be spent on food, and food equals energy and energy equals adventure. If you do decide to head to a decent bike shop and get them to build a set of wheels for you, it's most likely going to be better than a wheel you will be able to build. However, if perfection is not what you are after and just looking to achieve something that works, then building your own wheels might be something worth considering.
Learning A New Skill
So we wanted to save a little bit of cash, let's say we would pay someone 40$ to build one wheel, if we do it by ourselves, we'd earn maybe 10$ an hour if everything goes well. So there's a monetary benefit, but what else do we get? Knowledge is definitely a huge plus, learning a new skill is so rewarding, and because it's rewarding it's fun to do. Plus once you learn how to build wheels, it's very easy to know how to true a wheel or replace a spoke, this kind of knowledge can be invaluable on the road. Of course there is a risk involved, let's say you make an awful wheel, and you decide that wheel building is not your cup of tea, just take it apart and get the local bike shop to build it. Even better, tell them you have attempted it yourself, and they might let you sit in on a build to better understand where you went wrong.
Back in England I built the wheels for Mayu's bike and my old bike that I sold to a friend, they have stood the test of time and more importantly the abuse that goes hand in hand with long distance cycle touring. Not owning a truing stand I built one out of wood in my Dad's workshop, it wasn't pretty but it worked and more importantly meant I could sit comfortably at the kitchen table learning how to make a wheel.
Living in Japan, I no longer have access to workshop, so I had to use the bike as the truing stand, which actually works very well with a little stool. Using a bicycle and a few very simple tools, I want to show you how you can build a decent bike wheel anywhere in the world.
Nice And Easy
Lucky for loaded cycle tourers, heavy duty wheels are the easiest to build. Typically involving 36 spokes and strong rigid rims means it is much easier to adjust the wheel when building. The most import tool for wheel building is a spoke wrench, I use one from parktool, it's tight fitting which avoids rounding any of the nipple heads, because once that happens you're stuffed basically. My preference is to use two long bolts and four nuts, remove the brakes and install these bolts that act as the markers to check the lateral true. I've seen other people use zip ties, but personally that is no substitute for a solid bolt, as the truing process involves lightly scraping the rim against something, using your ears as much as your eyes to understand where the rim is out of true by as little as 0.2mm. Therefore cable ties are not good as they offer no resistance and move as soon as anything is rubbed against them. The only other items needed are a flat head screwdriver, some grease, a couple of zip ties and a bit of patience.
There's a lot of information on the internet about calculating spoke length, this can take a bit of time, so I have gone into this on a separate post because it's a fair bit to cover as the numbers vary depending on the hub manufacturer. However it's not rocket science, but you do have to put some faith into a spoke calculator, I have come to trust DT's spoke calculator. But if you are in doubt on any of the measurements, recalculate using three or four different online calculators and take the most common outcome as correct.
When it comes to buying spokes, we went with a rock bottom price and found a place selling 36, 14g straight gauge spokes with brass nipples for 10$, the spokes are made by CN Spoke. It was a bit of an experiment to see how bad they were for the price, and so far no complaints. Depending on the spokes this can dramatically change the price of the wheel, most branded spokes are three or four times the price of CN spoke. However the biggest downfall of buying cheap spokes is the availability of sizes, using these cheap spokes the wheels I have made are not perfect, with the spokes being slightly too short on one wheel and slightly too long on another. But we are talking half a mm, and as long as is doesn't result in spoke or nipple failure I'll be happy. If you are willing to pay more, then spokes can be cut to length resulting in a perfect wheel.
To start building a wheel, the first thing that needs to be done is to lace the wheel, this is where the grease is important. Don't forget this step as it will help when it comes to tensioning the wheel and truing it in the future. Ideally it's best to use anti seize grease, I didn't have any at the time, so normal grease had to do. Dip each spoke into the grease before threading into the nipple, that way when you are tightening the wheel it will be easier to turn, and less likely that you round off a nipple head. Watching a video really helps to lace a wheel, I still use youtube every time I lace one because I can never remember the order, for some reason I like this video, it's slow and visually easy to understand. When we go on a long tour we download videos like these to our phone, in case there is no access to the internet. This came in very useful when I had to rebuild a friends wheel in Tajikistan.
Once the wheel is laced, you will need to go round the wheel with a flat head screwdriver and wind every spoke to show a mm of thread showing around the wheel, don't go any further than this as the wheel still wants to be very loose at this stage. Once the thread disappears into the nipple it's nearly impossible to tell how much tension each spoke has until the end of the build. Truing a wheel is a methodical process, it takes time and concentration. It is much better to do this a calm setting with little distractions, and do the whole process from start to finish in one sitting. Before you mount the wheel onto the bike, it's important to remove the brakes and wrap tape around the brake posts. This will mean that when you mount the brakes again you can tighten them down onto the tape, you want the brakes to be stiff, so they hold their position on their own and not to move easily when you rub the rim against the bolt.
Dishing The Wheel
Building a rim brake front wheel is a little easier than a rear wheel or a wheel with disc brakes. I will focus on building a rear wheel, because if you manage this, building a front wheel will be no hassle at all. The rear wheel non-drive side spokes are roughly 2mm longer than the drive side as the hub is not in the center of the axle. Because the spokes are shorter on one side, go around the wheel and evenly tighten all the nipples by a full 360 degree turn leaving one or two threads showing below the nipple, and this is a good chance to visually see that all the spokes are evenly tightened. If things are already feeling quite tight at this stage and the nipples are stiff to turn, then the spokes are most likely too short.
Now that the spokes are almost into the nipples it's time to check the dish of the wheel. To do this find a level surface, like a table or the floor and place two even objects like cups or cans with coins placed in the center. Put the wheel on the cups and stack the coins to meet the center of the axle, then flip the wheel over to see how close the axle is to the coins. To give you an idea, 1mm in difference is between one quarter and one half a turn on all the nipples on one side of the rim. If you are more than 10mm off at this stage, it's possible that the spokes on one side of the rim are too long or short, but not always, however a good idea is instead of tightening one side of the rim to even it out, it might be better to loosen one side to even it out. If tightening, you want to tighten the side of the wheel that the axle is furthest away from the coins, if loosening, loosen the side that is closest to the coins.
Truing The Wheel
If the dish of the wheel is looking good from the outset you can go about truing the wheel from both sides. Using the bolt on the drive side or non drive side to lightly scrape the rim to select a group of spokes you want to tighten. Once you have found the area of scraping, tighten the spokes on the opposite side of the wheel that is scraping, do this two or three times, and then use the bolt on the non drive side and repeat the process. This will ensure you don't go too far away from the dish that was already close to being centered. If the dish is 4 - 5mm off to one side, just concentrate on truing the wheel on that side to bring the dish back into the center. After 5 or 6 rounds of truing, it's a good idea to stress the wheel by flexing it on the floor to remove the creeks, this imitates the riding of the bike and means it should stay true for the life of the wheel. Keep repeating the truing process, whilst keeping an eye on the dish and adjust accordingly.
On a rear wheel it's more important to tension up the drive side correctly first. It's much easier to test this using another correctly built wheel, if that's not available, try to remember what the wheel feels like before you take it apart by squeezing the spokes together. The drive side is going to be tighter than the non drive side. At this stage the wheel should be pretty true, and pretty centered with just a final quarter to half turn of the nipples to be fully tensioned. To tension the drive side, go around the wheel and find the tightest spoke by plucking them and listening to the sound they make. Once you find the highest pitch, tighten the rest of the spokes so they make the same sound. If this takes your wheel more than a mm out of lateral trueness, go around again on the drive side of the wheel and try to get the true within a mm. Flex the wheel once more and check for trueness, if the wheel is still within a mm just go around the drive side once more to check the pitch of each spoke, hopefully all the spokes on the drive side are pretty close, and this means the drive side is now done.
The last thing to do is bring up the tension on the non drive side, check for roundness, correct the lateral trueness and make sure the dish is bang in the center, this is all done on the non drive side of the wheel where the spokes are looser than the drive side. If you are very methodical with the build the roundness of the wheel should already be very good, however if you find a spot is bulging half a mm or so, tighten the spokes in the area where it protrudes, and ignore the area where the rim has been pinned together, as this always gives a discrepancy. Once you are happy after truing on the non drive side, flex the wheel once more, check for dish and trueness and hopefully the wheel will be finished. You should be aiming for everything to be within 0.5 of a mm. Hopefully this article will give someone more confidence to make their own wheels, if I can do it, everyone else can.