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.


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.