The winter hack Part 2: a few lessons learned about vintage parts

My previous post looked at the transformation of a cheap 1978 Falcon Westminster into a reasonably attractive bike that performed faultlessly over the Tuscan hills during L’Eroica 2013 and is proving to be a joy to ride through the winter here in Wiltshire.

I upgraded some components, using vintage parts, but kept the originals that were in good working order. Here are a few things I learned while rebuilding this bike, and a couple of similar ones before it.

Chainsets and freewheels
Today’s compact double is typically a 50/34 teeth set up. In the past I’ve duplicated this in vintage style using TA Spécialités (Pro 5 Vis) chainrings, inner versions of which can go as small as 28 teeth. (Sheldon Brown made good use of this in an unusual combination for his Hetchins.) You can still buy them new today. My original plan was to make up a compact double for the Falcon but after cleaning up the original Stronglight chainset (which I think was the Model 101) I decided to keep it. The chainrings had 48 and 36 teeth.

The Stronglight 101 chainset with a 48/36 combination is eminently usable
The Stronglight 101 chainset with a 48/36 combination is eminently usable

Using this combination with a wide range Suntour 5-speed freewheel (15-32 teeth), I found that most of the time I ride on the 48, rarely having to move beyond the middle of the freewheel to climb most hills. In the highest gear, I’m still getting traction at well over 25 mph and for my type of riding that’s fine. If you usually ride a 53/43 or something equally macho, try a 48/36 – you’ll ride with a better chainline most of the time and find yourself shifting less. Similarly, if you’re used to having 9, 10 or 11 gears on the back (which my summer bikes do), try a wheel with a nice old 5 or 6 speed freewheel. You’ll discover that it actually makes cycling easier. With a lot of rear sprockets you’ll rarely shift by one because it doesn’t make much difference, so you end up shifting at least twice for every desired gear change. When you only have 5 or 6 to choose from, once is enough. Incidentally, I find the 12-teeth difference between the chainrings on the front very useful for short, sharp hills. As soon as I start to feel heavy pedal pressure, I drop to the smaller chainring, rather than select a larger sprocket on the freewheel. The 12-tooth difference means that I don’t find myself suddenly spinning and having to shift up at the back. I can stay on the same sprocket there. Once again, it’s easier than riding a typical compact double set up with a 16-tooth difference at the front. Of course, if you want a large sprocket for low gears on the back you’ll need to be careful to select a suitable derailleur – they can’t all handle the range – but most Suntour units will cope very well.

Shifters and derailleurs
The original friction shifters on the Falcon Westminster were Shimano of some sort and in pretty scruffy condition. I’m becoming a creature of habit regarding down tube shifters and nearly always fit Suntour Powershifters. Forget Shimano and Campagnolo of the same period (1980s) – the Suntour shifters, of which there are several models including the ‘Superbe’ versions, have a simple ratchet mechanism that stops the annoying slippage in low gears that plague most friction levers.

Suntour Powershifters eliminate slippage in lower gears (when the cable is under tension). Some were marketed under the Raleigh brand.
Suntour Powershifters eliminate slippage in lower gears (when the cable is under tension). Some were marketed under the Raleigh brand.

You shift, feather the position a little if you need to, then forget it. They just don’t slip. You can pick these up for a few pounds on eBay and some, like those in the photograph, are Raleigh branded.

Brakes
Of all the parts that have given me grief on older bikes, old single-pivot brakes are the biggest offenders. They are often difficult to set up, pull to one side easily and have very little stopping power compared with modern counterparts. Weinmann 650 centre-pull brakes offer some relief from these problems but use a special bridge cable with a flat piece on each end that slots into the brake arms. To my mind, the French Mafac Racers are a better option.

Mafac Racers - vintage brakes that are easy to set up and deliver great stopping power
Mafac Racers – vintage brakes that are easy to set up and deliver great stopping power

 On Mafacs, the bridging cable has a little spigot on one side and a cable clamping mechanism on the other. I find standard gear cables work well, so there’s no need to go searching for dedicated, specialist cables. The brakes, which were made for over 30 years from the 1950s, provide strong braking with either matching Mafac levers or other non-aero types. I picked up a couple of pairs for £5 each from local bicycle charity enterprises. I stripped and cleaned them very easily, replaced the Delrin (plastic) washers, and then treated them to a set of Koolstop brake blocks. I found someone to manufacture replacement washers because they’re no longer available anywhere else. I had to order a minimum economic quantity so I’m selling the surplus ones here.

These Koolstop brake pads for Mafac use a period-correct design (4 dot) and modern materials for better control
These Koolstop brake pads for Mafac use a period-correct design (4 dot) and modern materials for better control

The Koolstops maintain period appearance but deliver excellent stopping power. (They cost more than the brakes themselves, of course). The salmon pink ones are supposed to offer better performance in the wet. Comfortingly, they still squeal like the originals, eliminating the need for a bell on your bike.

For L’Eroica 2014, I’m now building up a Roberts frame from 1980. To conform to the rules, all the components must have been made before 1987. TA Spécialités, Suntour (who first made indexed down tube shifters in 1986) and Mafac will be featuring on this bike too. I’ll post more details later.

L’Eroica on a £35 bike that went on to become a great winter hack – Part 1

Having enjoyed greatly the 2012 L’Eroica on my beautiful 1965 Hetchins, I decided to try a more modest approach in 2013. I needed a period bike – it had to be pre-1987 – but something that would not cause me to worry about the propensity of some baggage handlers to lose or damage my stuff. Along came a 1978 Falcon Westminster offered at £45 for which I finally parted with just £35.  The bike was described as having a 23 inch frame. However, it turned out to be nearer 24 inches – 60cm – centre-to-top of the seat tube, but I took a chance that I’d be able to ride it.

The Falcon Westminster in its original condition
The Falcon Westminster in its original condition

I did a little research. There’s not much about Falcon Westimsters online, except that they were modest machines with mid- to low-end components. However, they’re made from the rightly-revered Reynolds 531 tubing, so they’re not especially heavy. The bike looked a mess but having stripped and cleaned the headset and bottom bracket it was apparent that there was no discernible wear to either. In fact, when they were re-assembled the cranks spun freely, without the slightest wobble, and the chrome polished up well with some very fine wire wool and oil.

Now the confession. What started as £35 bike did end up costing me a bit more. I threw away the badly rusted steel wheels and replaced them with a second hand pair of wheels with Miche hubs laced to Mavic MA3 rims (£60). I replaced the saddle and seat post with parts from my junk box, and the original friction shifters with a used pair of Suntour Powershifters (£20). I then added a wide range 5-speed  freewheel (£25) – 15 to 32 teeth – to complement the original Stronglight double chainset, which has 48 and 36 chainrings. Period Bluemels mudguards (£50) were added after a very successful 75km L’Eroica ride in October to get the bike ready for winter.

The next step was to make it look a little more presentable. The bike was certainly not worth the cost of a professional restoration so I decided to see what could be done with some spray cans of car paint from Halfords – Americans call them “rattle cans” – very descriptive. Sanding, undercoating, painting and lacquering took 20 minutes a day for a week with the frame hanging from a tree in the garden so that I didn’t succumb to the paint fumes. It’s now Ford Monza Blue, and touch up paint is readily available.

The 'New Look' Falcon Westminster -  a faultless L'Eroica ride and joy to ride in winter
The ‘New Look’ Falcon Westminster – a faultless L’Eroica ride and joy to ride in winter

The end result is a very rideable and good looking bike that cost less than £250, including the parts that were replaced. It’s certainly a far better mount than you could buy new for £250 and has the unique character of a vintage bike.

The New Look head badge causes some confusion
The New Look head badge causes some confusion

The finishing touch was a new head badge found on eBay with the logo ‘New Look – all steel bicycle’. I can’t find any reference to New Look bicycles, so it may be that the badges are produced for refurbishments like mine. The puzzled faces of fellow cyclists trying to figure out the brand of bike are well worth the £1.95 it cost me.

Really good bikes need not cost the earth. The few other Falcon Westminsters I’ve seen online typically fetch arond £50, yet they’re make from top class materials and, where needed, replacement components from the 70s and 80s can be found at very modest prices. Another one to look out for is the Diavolo – an Italian road bike sold in the UK in the 1980s. Not a well known brand, so they don’t attract high prices, yet the frames are made from Columbus SL and they were often equipped with good quality parts.

The amazing unimportance of chainline and chain lubrication

There are a lot of myths circulating in various forums about the importance of chainline. Chainline refers to how straight the chain runs between front and rear sprockets. In single speed set-ups and where an internal hub gear is used, it’s often possible to get a near perfect chainline. Sheldon Brown explains chainline in three articles, the lead one of which is here. With derailleur gears, the general guidance is to set up a straight chainline based on the position of the middle sprocket on both back and front, where there are 3 on the front, or in the middle on the back and between the 2 front chainrings in the case of a double, or aligned with a single front chainring. The problems with running the chain at an angle include lower efficiency, greater chain wear and noise. But just how big an issue is it?

Chainline
This 2001 paper shows just how little difference chainline and lubrication make to pedalling efficiency

This paper, written in 1999 by members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) throws up some interesting conclusions. The reason that a ‘poor’ chainline is cited as reducing pedalling efficiency is that there is increased friction causing energy to be wasted as heat. The paper doesn’t argue with this point but the conclusion is that these losses are negligible compared with non-thermal losses. The paper describes how an experiment was set up to measure efficiency relating to 3 characteristics of a chain drive: the ratio of sprockets and their relative alignment (chainline), variations in input power and rotation rate (cadence) and lubrication, or lack of it. The detailed results make very interesting reading. The authors concluded that chainline offset and lubrication have a negligible affect on efficiency, at least under laboratory conditions and no significant efficiency differences could be detected between a lubricated and dry chain. (I wonder if a dry chain might actually last longer because grit and grime would not adhere to it and cause greater wear?) The major factors affecting efficiency are spocket size, larger sprockets providing better power transfer, and chain tension. Most importantly, there is a reciprocal linear relationship between chain tension and efficiency, the higher the tension the higher the efficiency. The latter makes a huge difference. With a chain tension of 305N the experiment revealed a drive efficiency of 98.6%. When the tension was reduced to 76.2N, efficiency fell by nearly 18% to 80.9%. Don’t worry about getting your chainline accurate to within mm, don’t worry about lubrication, but do keep the chain well tensioned. I don’t know how the  figures above relate exactly to chain slack but 305N is pretty taught!

A successful improvement to the Kinetics Brompton 8 speed conversion

I’ve now fitted an FSA Vero crankset to the Brompton, removing the outer ring and adding a 3.2mm of washer spacing (2mm + 1.2mm from SJS Cycles) between the spider and the inner 34-tooth chainring to move the latter a little closer in. I used the original chainring bolts and now have a front chainline of about 43mm.

The original Sturmey Archer crankset with 33-tooth fixed chainring
The original Sturmey Archer crankset with 33-tooth fixed chainring

At first, I tried the FSA crankset, that has a JIS square taper, on the original Brompton bottom bracket, which uses an ISO square taper axle. The chainline was out at 50mm or so. I decided that for the modest cost involved it would be better to change the 119mm Brompton bottom bracket (not sure who makes it) for a 118mm Shimano one with JIS taper. It was easy to change and the Shimano BB allows a much greater choice of  cranksets, including those designed for single speed set-ups.

The FSA chainring clears the rear triangle by about 2 – 3mm when folding the bike, so I could probably move it in another mm or two to improve the chainline marginally. The original 100-link chain for the 6-speed Brompton, which I retained intact to use with the 33-tooth Sturmey crankset supplied by Kinetics, works fine with the new 34-tooth FSA one too. 

The new FSA Vero crankset, using the inner ring only from a compact double and mounted on a new Shimano 118mm BB
The new FSA Vero crankset, using just the inner ring from a compact double and mounted on a new Shimano 118mm BB

Despite around 4mm difference between the front and back chainlines, there is no noticeable chain noise and everything feels very smooth. The crankset looks much smarter, the chainring is replaceable, the chainline is adjustable by adding or removing washers under the chainring bolts (either side), and I have a great choice of chainrings if I want to adjust the gearing in future. You can buy chainrings with anything from 33 to 50 teeth that will work with this 110mm BCD crankset. In fact, I think I discovered a chainring with just 30 teeth while researching what to fit to my Brompton, but I haven’t been able to find it again, so maybe I was imagining it! Onto the handlebars…my next target for customisation.

 

More on the Brompton 8-speed conversion….room for improvement?

I mentioned in my last post about the Kinetics 8-speed conversion kit for the Brompton that the new crankset looks rather cheap and nasty. It is. I’ve discovered that it’s a Sturmey Archer FCS30 model with 33 teeth (why it’s not called the FCS33 is a mystery), which retails for about £16. So we now have a bike that’s cost the best part of £1000, with a somewhat poorly matched crank that’s ugly.

The Sturmey Archer FCS crank - cheap, ugly and no way to change the chainring
The Sturmey Archer FCS crank – cheap, ugly and no way to change the chainring

Worse still, I found that the chainring fouled intermittently on the rear triangle, preventing the bike folding properly. I started looking around for alternatives. The first thing to note is that the Brompton bottom bracket has a 119mm ISO square taper axle. By far the majority of today’s cranksets are JIS taper, so the choice is more limited. The differences are explained most clearly here by Sheldon Brown. According to Sheldon, “if you install a J.I.S. crank on an ISO spindle, it will wind up about 4.5 mm farther in than it would on a J.I.S spindle of the same length.” More about chainline in a moment.

It seems relatively uncommon to find a single-speed chainring with less than 39 teeth, and the most commonly available versions start at 42 teeth or bigger. I need to stay close to 33 teeth to achieve the gear range of the original, which seems ideal for the rather hilly countryside around here. The hub has a 20 tooth sprocket on the back, so according to the online gear calculator, it produces a range from 27.3 to 88.7 gear inches.

Chainline is the next consideration. According to the Sturmey Archer spec, the 8-speed hub with flat 20-tooth sprocket has a chainline of 39.7mm. I measured it and came up with about 38mm, so that checks out. At the FSC30 chainring, I found the chainline to be around 40mm – not perfect but not too bad either. If I’m going to cure the folding problem, the front chainline will need to be bigger at the front, about 41mm. Again, it won’t be perfect, but 3mm difference between front and back doesn’t seem to likely to be much of a problem.

There is no easy way to correct the chainline at the back. You can buy 25-tooth dished sprocket to fit the 8-speed hub. Reversing it would add about 1.5mm. However, the chain tensioner is so close to the sprocket that it’s not possible to use one with more than 20 teeth.

There's not room to fit a sprocket with more than 20 teeth, and you can only get that one in a flat version
There’s not room to fit a sprocket with more than 20 teeth, and you can only get that one in a flat version

The solution at the front may well be to fit a JIS taper compact double crankset and remove the outer chainring – changing the fixing bolts and using washers to adjust the exact position of the inner ring to get the desired 41mm chainline. This will give me a chainring of 34 teeth, rather than 33, so I’ll need one more link in the chain to take it to 101 links. Fitting a new chain at this point seems like a good idea anyway. The gearing will move up very slightly to a range of 28.1 to 91.4 gear inches.

If it's possible to get a reasonable chainline, the inner ring of this compact double would be a much more attractive and flexible  alternative to the Sturmey crank
If it’s possible to get a reasonable chainline, the inner ring of this compact double would be a much more attractive and flexible alternative to the Sturmey crank

It may even make sense to change the bottom bracket for a JIS taper version at some point – Shimano sells them in 118mm and 122.5mm axle widths, so it’s likely I can achieve a fit one way or the other. The FSA Vero compact crankset looks infinitely better than the Sturmey one, so it’s on order and I’ll know if it’s going to work later this week.

Incidentally, the 6-speed parts taken from my Brompton fetched over £100 on eBay, after deducting the costs and PayPal commission, so the final cost of the upgrade will be £200 plus whatever I end up spending on the crankset and/or bottom bracket.

Kinetics Brompton 8-speed conversion kit

I’ve not done many miles on my 6-speed Brompton, despite owning it for several years. It’s not that I don’t like it; I simply don’t do many of the sort of miles for which it’s designed – short commutes around the city. Nevertheless, I had two niggles with the bike from new – the cheap and grotty handlebar grips and the rather ugly and fiddly gear shifters. If you don’t know the Brompton, the 6-speed version has a Sachs 3 speed hub to which a pair of sprockets is attached. The left hand shifter selects the sprocket and the right hand one the  internal gear. To go up and down the gears one by one, you use the shifters alternately.

The 8-speed Brompton chainset and tensioner installed. Note the much smaller front chainring
The 8-speed Brompton chainset and tensioner installed. Note the much smaller front chainring

While on holiday over Christmas, I found out about the possibility of converting the Brompton to an 8-speed bike with just one twist grip shifter. A kit is offered by Edinburgh-based Kinetics and, in a slightly cheaper form, by Tiller Cylces. Both firms offer other hub options, but I decided on the Sturmey Archer X-RF8(W) 8-speed kit. I ordered it from Kinetics over the Christmas period, paid my £300 plus postage, and waited for the 2-week delivery stated on the web site. By the middle of the 3rd week of January I’d had no acknowledgement of my order and nothing had arrived. I called Ben, the owner of Kinetics, and he explained that he was just building up a batch of wheels with the hubs and my kit would be despatched later in the week. It wasn’t. I emailed and got a quick reply and apology, saying that it would be sent the following week. During the last week of January it arrived.

The Sturmey Archer 8-speed hub at the centre of the new wheel
The Sturmey Archer 8-speed hub at the centre of the new wheel

The web site stated that the conversion takes about 30 minutes. The Kinetic instructions were reasonably clear so I set about the conversion. I’m not quick, but not that slow either…you might do your 100th conversion in 30 minutes, but I challenge anyone to do their first one in that time. It took me several hours, but I was not too familiar with the peculiarities of the Brompton, having never worked on it before. You take off the existing wheel and tensioner, plus all cables and other parts associated with the drivetrain. Then you remove the chainset and replace it with the new, smaller one.

I followed the Kinetics directions to the letter but the tensioner jockey wheels were about 5mm out of line with the sprocket on the hub, so the chain wouldn’t stay on. I emailed Ben at 10pm on a Saturday evening and got a reply within minutes. One of the changes during the conversion is to replace the tabbed washers on the wheel axles with thicker ones from the kit. Ben suggested I revert to one of the original thinner ones in order to move the tensioner closer to the frame. It was bad advice because it caused the tensioner to press against the edge of the hub, preventing the gears from changing. I went back to the original washers and packed out the jockey wheel fixing bolts with some washers to move them the required 5mm. All was well and the gears change smoothly.

The new gripshift if much neater than the original Brompton shifters - just need to find some new grips to go with it now.
The new gripshift if much neater than the original Brompton shifters – just need to find some new grips to go with it now.

SUMMARY: This is a nice conversion and, if you don’t mind the extra weight (perhaps a kg or so?) it makes for a more rideable bike with a slightly wider range of gears. The bike looks neater, has cleaner lines and is not quite so quirky, although quirkiness is something that few Brompton riders will worry about. I was disappointed in the service, the hassle of having to modify parts to get the conversion to work, and the rather cheap and nasty looking drive side crank and chainring supplied with the kit. In my view the latter is nowhere near as nice as the one shown on the converted bike on the Kinetics web site. At £300 plus postage, enough to buy a reasonable bike, the kit is expensive, but I’m hoping to raise £100 by selling the original parts, so that eases the pain a little.

I complete my winter bike….just in time for spring

Despite owning a small collection of bikes, I didn’t really have anything ideal as winter trainer/commuter. I wanted something reasonably robust, not so valuable as to worry about adding a few chips and dings, yet good looking, responsive and fun to ride. With only about one month of winter left (I hope), I’ve now built the bike based on a resprayed Freddie Grubb 23-inch frame bought for about £120 on eBay. The forks are, I think, Reynolds 531 but the frame is not, although it doesn’t feel unduly heavy.

The Freddie Grubb winter trainer...born today!
The Freddie Grubb ‘winter bike’…born today! Vintage Brooks Champion saddle, Cinelli 1A stem, Cinelli 42cm bars, Tektro brake callipers, Dia-Compe levers, Suntour power shifters, 50-34 TA chainset, Sachs Huret 6000 Sport front derailleur Suntour 14-30 freewheel and Suntour VGT-X rear derailleur

It’s actually a Holdsworth bike; Holdsworth bought Freddie Grubb’s business in 1951, two years after his death, and used the brand until 1978. The frame was advertised as a 1960s one, although after a little research I suspect it is actually early 1970s. It had been resprayed and I made a few accidental marks in the rather soft blue paint during the build, but these will be easy to touch up. To build the bike, I mainly used up spare parts that were already in the junk box, including a 50-34 ‘compact double’ TA chainset (French manufacturer, Spécialités TA, pioneered aluminium chainrings as far back as 1947, and still makes them today), Suntour 14-30 freewheel, and Suntour V-GTX rear derailleur. I previously used this set up on my Hetchins for the L’Eroica ride in 2012.  The shifters are Suntour power shifters (99p on eBay).  Suntour were, I believe, the first to introduce ratchets into friction shifters. This prevents them slipping so you don’t have to keep tightening the little ring on the side after changing gear a few times.

With a wide-range freewheel like this Suntour 14-30, you need to select a derailleur that can handle the largest cog. The Suntour VGT-X does this admirably.
With a wide-range freewheel like this Suntour 14-30, you need to select a derailleur that can handle the largest cog. The Suntour VGT-X does this admirably.

The rear wheel of the new bike is the one I built last week – the first wheel I’ve ever built. It consists of a Campagnolo Record hub, Weinmann XR18 rim and plain spokes that came with the original wheel from which the rim was taken. The front wheel is a Quando hub with XR18 rim. I have a spare Campag Record front hub and I know the little inconsistency between the hubs will irritate me until I strip the front wheel and replace the cheap Quando hub with the Campag that matches one in the rear wheel.

The chainset/freewheel combination produces a wide gear range. With the 700C x 23 tyres and 172.5mm cranks I can select ratios from 29.8 gear inches to 93.9 gear inches.

Spécialités TA custom compact double chainset with 50 and 34-tooth chainrings
Spécialités TA custom compact double chainset with 50 and 34-tooth chainrings

A typical modern set up with a 52-39-30 up front and 12-25 cassette at the back would produce a range from 31.5 to 113.9 gear inches, so I actually have a lower “granny” gear and only miss out a little at the high end, which doesn’t worry me at all. (Sheldon Brown used a similar front-end set up on his Hetchins with a 50-28 chainset but 9-speed cassette on the back.)

One of the problems I encountered during the build up was that a 27.2mm seat post wouldn’t fit, but it was only slightly too large. In searching for something very slightly smaller, I came across this seller on eBay. He sells a choice of seat posts in fractional mm diameters from 25mm to 31.4mm. A 26.2mm post was a very good tight fit into the Grubb seat tube. (I have no commercial connection with they guy except I bought two seat posts from him – they appear to be good quality and were delivered fast.)

I’ve taken the bike for a very short test ride and it’s great – fits me well, the gears shift smoothly and the brakes work. Now I just need to add mudguards and a means of carrying a modest amount of luggage.

As is often the case when you build a bike from individual components, my Freddie Grubb is almost certainly not worth the money I paid for parts. But I’ve learned a lot while building it, it’s absolutely fit for purpose, I understand how every single part goes together, and it’s totally unique. All of which makes it priceless.

The joy of hubs…my next project

Last year I bought a restored A.S. Gillott frame from a dealer in South London. It has one or two very minor marks from where it was packed for delivery, but it’s pretty near perfect. A 1948 model, it may well have been built by Ron Cooper, who worked for Gillott, and I know that Ron was involved in its restoration, replacing one of the drop-outs.

A.S. Gillott frame
The beautifully restored 1948 A.S. Gillott frame

What I didn’t realise until the frame arrived was that the dropouts were designed for an Oscar Egg “Osgear” set up. It’s not possible to fit a conventional derailleur freewheel or cassette. I decided to make it a single-speed bike and found a nice pair of Charge track wheels, the rear one of which had a flip-flop hub, so I was able to build up the bike to be ridden either as a fixie or with a single-speed freewheel.

Oscar Egg dropouts
Oscar Egg dropouts are only suitable for Osgear, single-speed or hub gear set up

I decided that this was going to be my prettiest bike, so matched the brake and gear cables to the red of the decals and even bought a red and black saddle to complete the work of art. Looks lovely….rides like a shed on wheels!

I think the problem is partly the razor sharp saddle (back to a Brooks B17 any day now) but also the geometry of the bike. I haven’t measured it but the top tube seems particularly long. I feel like I’m stretching over the bike, even to ride on the tops of the Cinelli drop bars. And my feet feel as though they’re too far forward, wherever I position the saddle. It’s time to try a new set up – one that will make the bike as good to ride as it is to look at.

A.S.Gillott bike
The Gillott frame with as a single-speed set up with flip flop hub. Very pretty, note the glossy bar tape, but strange to ride!

Having appreciated the joys of Sturmey Archer hub gears last year, when I road my Thanet Silverlight with a 1949 4-speed hub from Barcelona to Bristol without a hitch, and inspired by the sight of the restored Bob Jackson bike mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve decided to rebuild the Gillott frame.  Even though you have to stop pedalling for a second to change ratios with internal hub gears, each change is precise, silent and perfect – not like the rather crude process of dragging a chain across a bunch of sprockets to end up with yet another imperfect chainline. So the frame will be fitted with a Sturmey Archer S-RF5(W) 5-speed hub in the rear wheel (with a downtube shifter as a nod towards vintage styling), a B17 saddle and either a Mary bar or Mungo bar from On-One.  The bars are on offer at the moment and are so cheap I decided to buy both and try them out. The Sturmey Archer was chosen because Shimano hubs and others aren’t suitable for the relatively narrow dropout spacing of vintage bikes (125mm OLD). This combination should give me a lot more flexibility in setting up the bike for greater comfort, and make it practical for commuting. I’ve bought a couple of 27 x 1 1/4 wheels, which is the size the frame was originally designed to accomodate, and I’ll rebuild the back one with the new hub – that was a cheaper option that buying a pair of rims, a front hub and all new spokes.

The bike in 5-speed form will appear here soon….if all goes well.

My first wheel build…slow but not painful

For a long time I’ve seen wheelbuilding as a bit of black art, and it’s a view shared by quite a few other cyclists I know. I’ve always wanted to acquire the skill, not least because it will enable me to build custom wheels for some of my projects. For example, having recently spotted a great looking Bob Jackson restoration on the Spindles and Sprockets community project website, I decided that a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub on a 27-inch wheel would be ideal for my restored 1948 A.S. Gillott frame.

The "Sprockets and Spindles" community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip.
The “Sprockets and Spindles” community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip. It uses a Sturmey Archer 5-speed hub and has beautifully clean lines.

But you can’t buy one off-the-shelf so I concluded that I would prefer to build the wheel, rather than keep running back and forth to my local bike shop and paying £40 labour, plus parts, to have one made up.

I’ve considered going on courses; they seem to run for anything from one to three days. Surely anything that can be learnt, if not mastered, in such a short time cannot be that hard to teach yourself? So, having looked at several YouTube videos, read Sheldon Brown’s advice and then discovered “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding”, reviewed in yesterday’s post, I set about building my first wheel. Spoke lengths were calculated using this online tool. I made up a nipple driver from a piece of 6mm diameter aluminium rod that was lying around in the garage. (The book suggests bending and filing a screwdriver but mine is simpler and works perfectly well.)

I then started the project with an old, cleaned-up Campag Record hub and a vintage Mavic rim. This was my first mistake – ignoring the advice in the book  that it’s best to start with a new rim because then you know there are no problems with it. I built up the wheel with the correct length spokes, tightened the spokes as instructed, popped the wheel into the truing stand and it wobbled like a very, very wobbly thing. In all directions. I stripped it down again. The rim was far from flat and circular.

I didn’t have a spare rim but I did have a new Weinmann XR18 rim on a wheel with a pretty rough hub, the roughness caused by an earlier unsuccessful experiment in swapping axles. I stripped down the wheel to harvest the rim. Here’s another really valuable piece of advice from the book – don’t believe all the published measurements for wheel components, particularly the effective rim diameter (ERD) of rims, which is a critical measurement for calculating spoke length. I found an online reference to the XR18 having a 615mm ERD, then measured it as 610mm, using a simple homemade tool, described in the book.

Wheel
My first completed wheel build, complete with self-congratulatory glass of Bordeaux!

There is accurate online information on this too, but if I’d believed the first reference I found, I would have started building the wheel with spokes that were too long. Despite being a bit weary after my initial efforts on Saturday evening, I started building the wheel with the Weinmann rim. As I came to insert the last spoke into the rim, I realised there was no hole positioned to receive it. Somewhere along the way I had gone wrong, and I still don’t know where. Another lesson learned: don’t try to build a wheel when you’re tired – you’ll probably rush it and screw up.

The following morning, I took the wheel apart then, after about an hour, I had it re-laced and the spokes tightened evenly. It took another hour to get the wheel into its final shape, proving that building your first wheel is not rocket science, or a mysterious black art, but you do have to be methodical and patient – a bit like basket weaving, I guess. I’m looking forward to starting on the next one.

A brilliantly clear and concise guide to building wheels, and making the tools you need for the job

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had reservations about buying a book written by an author who describes himself as “one of the most respected professional wheelbuilders.” I went ahead anyway, downloading the £9 PDF version of “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding” by Roger Musson. And despite the confident-verging-on-arrogant tone in some places, this is a superb book for the novice wheelbuilder (i.e. me) and probably a very useful one for those more experienced in the craft.

Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding
A superb book for the novice wheel builder

Roger Musson doesn’t just describe how to build wheels but also gives detailed instruction for making most of the tools that you need for the task. I’m not sure I would have built his wheel truing stand. The potential for swearing due to my limited DIY skills probably made purchasing a ready-made one the right decision. But I would have made the dishing tool (saving £40) – that looks very simple, and I did make a rather simpler version of the nipple driver described in the book.

This really is a detailed guide that takes you through the process from start to finish. If you have  computer or iPad, I’d recommend the PDF version over the printed page. The PDF is quite high resolution, which means that you can zoom into the diagrams without losing details – something that very useful in some places. If you prefer paper, you can always print the pages that are most useful. The book is not only supremely practical, it also does into the theory of calculating spoke lengths and the author has a very good, simple tool for this on his web site. Amongst the very useful tips is to measure everything and not take the manufacturer’s data, or any other published information, as being accurate when you start to build a wheel. As I built my first wheel this weekend, that advice was invaluable. Highly recommended.