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Wheelbuilding the Easy Way
Morrow hub
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Glossary of terms in this article
Cassette: the cluster of sprockets (also called cogs) on the rear hub.
Dish: the offset on rear wheels (sighted from behind, you’ll see that the right side spokes are near vertical while the lefts are angled) caused by the rim being centered over the axle instead of the hub because of the cassette gears.
Hub: the barrel-shaped part at the center of the wheel that the spokes fit into.
Lacing: fitting the spokes into the hub and rim (don’t worry: knowing how to do this isn’t required here).
Nipple (or spoke nipple): the nut at the rim end of the spoke. It’s turned clockwise to tighten and counter-clockwise to loosen.
Rim: the outer metal hoop that holds the tire and tube and that the spoke nipples fit into.
Rim strip: the piece of cloth or rubber or plastic that’s found inside the rim. It covers the tops of the spoke nipples so that they can’t cut and puncture the tube. You have to remove the rim strip to be able to remove and reinstall the nipples as you build the wheel.
Spoke: the wire-like rods that run from the hub to the rim joining them.
Spoke wrench: the tool used to turn the nipples.
Tire levers: tools used to remove the tire from the rim.
Wheel truing jig: a tool used to hold the wheel that also has indicators showing how round and true the wheel is making it easier to true and tension wheels (here, you’ll use your bicycle frame as the jig).

One of the most satisfying repairs for a home bicycle mechanic is building a wheel. Once you can do this, you no longer worry when a wheel gets knocked out of true, because you have the skills to fix it. And you ride knowing that if the worst happens and you hit a hole or crash and mangle your wheel, you can put together a new one.

In most cases, to build a wheel you don’t have to be a wheelbuilding expert versed in choosing the right length spokes, the proper lacing patterns and lacing techniques (though if you want to become a true wheelsmith, I provide extensive instructions for that too).

Instead you just need to know the easy way to build a wheel, which is called rim replacement, and is the subject of this article. It’s something well within the capabilities of most home bike mechanics.

Don’t forget my wheelbuilding tips!

What You’ll Need

  • a spoke wrench that fits the spoke nipples on the wheel you’re rebuilding
  • electrical tape
  • grease
  • oil
  • rags
  • a replacement rim that is identical to your original rim (same brand, model, size and number of spoke holes)
  • regular screwdriver
  • tire levers (if you can’t remove tires by hand)

Overview of the procedure

I call this easy wheelbuilding because it eliminates the tricky part of wheelbuilding from scratch with a hub, rim and spokes. For that, you need to figure out what length spokes to use, and lace the wheel with the new spokes.

Unless your wheel is really old (three to five years) and has seen lots of use and abuse, you can likely reuse the spokes in your wheel, which is what I recommend for this type of wheelbuilding because it simplifies and speeds the job and results in another great wheel (as long as the spokes are still good).

But the thing that truly makes this technique so easy is using the identical rim brand and model as the damaged one you are replacing. You take this new rim and tape it right next to the damaged rim and then move the spokes from the old rim to the new. Onced you’ve trued and tensioned the wheel you’re done! Step-by-step instructions follow.

The Wheelbuild—Step by Step

1. Remove the damaged wheel and use your tire levers to remove its tire and tube. Take off the rim strip, too. Place a drop or two of oil inside each nipple from the top (tire side) and add a little below where the spoke enters the nipple. Also, put a small dab of grease on each spoke hole in the new rim.

2. Using your spoke wrench and starting at the valve hole in the rim, turn each nipple several turns counterclockwise (drawing) to loosen all the spokes uniformly. If you’re working on a badly bent rim, some nipples may be very tight. Be careful not to round the flats on the nipples trying to turn the nipples. Usually, if you push on the rim one way or the other, you can make it easier to turn the nipple. Or, skip the tight one and come back to it because once the majority of the spokes are loose, one that was tight should loosen more easily.

3. Take the new rim and place it beside the wheel so that the valve holes are aligned and so that the label can be read from the same side. If your old rim is so badly bent that you can’t get the rims close together, bend it where it needs it by placing the wobbles on your knee and pulling with your hands the way you’d break kindling wood. When the rims rest beside each other fairly closely (you’ll never get a tweaked rim perfectly true), tape them together with electrical tape.

4. Now for the fun part: one at a time, and starting at the valve hole, transfer the spokes from the old wheel into the new rim. Use the screwdriver inserted in the flats on the tops of the nipples to turn them if you need to. And only thread the nipple onto the spoke in the new rim about 3 turns. Keep going until all the spokes and nipples are in the new rim and the old rim is ready to become a wall decoration.

Rim edge
• clockwise tightens
• counterclockwise loosens

Truing the bicycle wheel

5. To true and tension the wheel, you’ll use your bicycle as a wheel truing jig (it works great). Install the wheel on the bike (don’t put on the tire/tube yet) and support the bike so you can spin the wheel you’re working on. You might hang it or put it on your car rack or hook the seat over a tree branch.

Just be sure to locate it so that the wheel is held steady and so that you can comfortably work on it. Shine a lamp on the wheel so you can see what you’re doing if you’re working inside.

6. Start finishing the wheel by turning all the spokes clockwise until about 4 mm worth of threads is exposed on every spoke. As my illustration shows, you turn the nipples clockwise to tighten them and the other way to loosen them.

Note though that it’s easy to get confused if the nipple moves to the other side, like if the wheel rotates. So, a good way to work is to always rotate the wheel to bring the nipple you want to turn to the top of the wheel so that you’re looking down on it. In that position clockwise turns will always tighten, and counterclockwise ones will loosen.

Thumb on rim

Put the wheel in the frame or fork to true it and use your thumb as an indicator to find wobbles in the spinning wheel. To move the rim right, loosen spokes on the left and tighten spokes on the right and vice versa.

7. Spin the wheel. Rest your thumb against the frame or brake (see illustration; brake not shown) so that you can see how wobbly the wheel is.

Find the worst wobble and stop the wheel holding the wobble next to your indicator (your thumb or the brake) because that’s the part of the wheel you’re going to work on first.

To move the rim right, loosen spokes in the area of the wobble on the left side, and tighten spokes on the right and vice versa (to move the rim left). But read step 8 and reread the note in step 6 first to avoid the truing mistakes that are so easy to make if you’re not careful.

How to true

Notice that there are spokes on the right and left sides of the wheel. When truing, always pay attention to which side the spoke is on and turn the correct nipple.

8. Note that there are spokes that originate on the right and left side of the hub (drawing). This is important. Never make an adjustment to a nipple until you’re sure which side of the wheel the nipple/spoke is on.

As mentioned in step 7, adjustments are made by loosening and tightening nipples in the area of the wobble. Follow these rules: To move the rim to the right, loosen the nipples (at the wobble) on the left side of the rim and tighten the nipples on the right side of the rim. Vice versa to move the rim to the left. Always turn the nipples in quarter- to half-turn increments, then spin the wheel and see how you did. Then repeat. Follow these rules and remove the wobbles until the wheel spins past your thumb with no significant wobbles.

Think about what you’re doing. Focus. Take your time. Be patient. Enjoy the process of gently truing the wheel to perfection by skillfully fine-tuning the tension of the spokes. It takes a little practice to become a wheel wizard, but you can do it.

9. You should now have a reasonably straight wheel. It’s also important for the wheel to be round. To check this, spin the wheel again and look for hops (high spots) or dips (low spots) sighting from the side.

Remove low spots first by slightly loosening spokes in the area. Then slightly tighten the spokes at the high spots. Gradually, the wheel will get round. You’ll then need to check side-to-side straightness one more time.

Thumbs on spokes

While truing and tensioning it’s important to gently stress-relieve the spokes by going around the wheel and squeezing parallel pairs of spokes. This allows the spokes that have gotten twisted during the truing process to unwind and also seats the nipples in the rim and the spoke heads in the hub.

Tensioning the wheel

10. To finish the wheel, you need to tighten all the spokes to the point where they won’t loosen. It’s called tensioning the wheel. Start at the valve hole and turn every spoke nipple a half turn tighter. As long as you turn an even amount on each nipple, the wheel will remain true and round.

If you’re working on the rear wheel, which has different tension on the right and left sides (due to the rim being centered over the axle instead of the hub—a condition called dish) turn the cassette-side nipples a half turn but only turn the left-side ones a quarter turn. The goal is to end up with the rim exactly centered in the frame.

After each round of tensioning, go around the wheel grabbing parallel pairs of spokes in you hands and squeeze them gently to stress relieve the spokes (illustration), seat them in the hub and rim and unwind any spokes that got twisted. Repeat the rounds of tensioning until when you grab the spokes, they feel as tight as the spokes on your undamaged wheel. Install the tire and tube and you’re ready to roll. Well done, Wheelbuilder!


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