Blog Post About Building Wheels

I wrote this post and published it today. It is mainly about building a first wheel, but has a bit about unicycling in it too.

I hope it inspires someone to try their hand at building and understanding their unicycle (or bike) wheel(s).

Great write up. :slight_smile:

One of my favorite parts about unicycling/unicycles is the minimalistic aspect of it: you don’t have a ton of parts to work with. I’d like eventually try my hand at building a wheel as well.

As a unicyclist wheel building is a really valuable skill. Even in a city of bike riders, it is very hard to find a shop that will even true a unicycle wheel as they can’t use a truing stand to do so. Due to that, and liking odd unicycles (700c, G29), I have now built or rebuilt wheels 7 times (including building the 700c 3 times). From this (limited) experience, here are my hints.

A nice undished wheel build is the best place to start. Building with disc hubs is a pain in comparison although not impossible. Likewise, a uni with a big fat tyre requires less precision than a 700c or racing uni which will break spokes if only slightly improperly tensioned.

The easiest bit of the build is the lacing, be methodical and it will all come together perfectly. Don’t worry about bending spokes around other spokes, they are designed to do so. Sheldon Browns guide is great for this stage.

Be prepared to slack off the wheel to the end of the lacing stage if you feel like lots is going wrong. The temptation to just keep tightening and loosening spokes at random is not good for a strong build. If in doubt, start over.

Think of each spoke as part of a group. A deviance in the wheel alignment may be sorted by tightening one spoke, but you have loosened several others. A tool such as a park tool TM1 or just plucking the spokes should help identify what actually needs to be done. Usually a deviance will take evenly loosening and tightening several spokes to correct. This is why dished wheels are hard, as each side is a different length.

Dont forget that there are both vertical and horizontal deviances. You may have a perfectly straight rim but the wheel is not true. Alternate between getting the horizontal true near perfect, then sorting out the vertical true until both are right.

Every so often, turn the wheel on its sides and push down hard working around the wheel. This helps even up the tension and will show you where you are going wrong. Clicking spokes at this stage is good, likewise when you first ride it again. If the spokes keep clicking, re true it.

After the first couple of weeks riding re-true the wheel, even if it looks perfect, it will probably need it.

I agree with all your points.

I built a couple wheels the other day and invited a buddy to watch, it really is fairly simple process once you understand how it works. I can spoke a wheel in thirty minutes, but trueing takes a bit longer.

Pro Tip: After lacing the wheel, get all your spokes even (showing the same number of threads beyond the nipple) then tension everything on one side to the recommended tension (ex: 23# on a 29"), then tension the other side for true and hop. This makes it much faster to tension a new wheel.

Adding to that, if you’re building an asymmetrically dished wheel you want to set the tension on the side with the higher tension, and make adjustments from the other side.

Nice right up. Judging from your tool list i think you had it a bit better than i did when my first wheel went together. A nipple driver sure does make the whole thing easier.

I’ve built two wheels so far, and enjoyed the experience. I recommend it! (Both get ridden regularly.)

Nice write up, kahuna!

Great stuff! Thanks for the good read. Haven’t built a wheel myself yet but is something I’d like to do at some point… :slight_smile:

It’s a lot of fun. My preparations were far less elaborate than Kahunacohen’s. He undoubtedly learned a lot more than I did and makes better wheels. Practice makes perfect, and he read Jeb Brandt’s book and has all the right tools and even got some oversight from a master wheel builder, but as far as I can tell, my 20" has been great ever since I removed its creaky KH hub and installed a Nimbus.

There was a week about 6 months after my rebuild that a few spokes snapped in quick succession when my sidehops suddenly got longer, but loosening the opposing spokes seems to have solved that problem. The wobbles in my wheel never exceed 1 or 2mm, and I only true it rarely, even though I do some drops every time I ride. Long sidehops no longer cause any spoke problem, even if I do them as part of a drop, though I recently discovered what an incredible amount of impact you can absorb by landing on a roll instead of sideways.

For my rebuild, I just used this forum and the late Sheldon Brown’s website. A few You Tube videos about lacing a BMX wheel were helpful, but in retrospect, I think Sheldon Brown’s website alone would have saved me some confusion. Jeb Brandt’s book is probably excellent, and a truing stand would certainly have been helpful, too, but I just used my uni frame, a spoke wrench and a fingertip.

I get everything true and dished with low tension, then equally tension it all up. That gives me more leeway to tension if I need to.

I got the metric feelers from watching the master. He uses them to gauge how out of true something is radially or laterally. It’s good for keeping those of us who are neurotic in check.

Very good write up. I like that you put the photo with the Schwinn unicycles. I learned on the 24 inch. I’ve never built a wheel yet, but I trued two wheels over the winter for the first time.

Nice post, I always like reading about wheelbuilding. If you’re a fan of Sheldon’s stuff there’s a good page which complements it here:

I just finished Jobst Brandt’s (RIP) book about wheel building. Excellent read for those who actually want to learn why a wheel works the way it does. His method for tensioning a wheel was very intriguing as well.

He’s a structural engineer so be prepared to put your thinking cap on and read a few sections a dozen times.

Will Jobst Brandt’s book get my wheel more true? I busted another spoke on my 20" today while riding peacefully down the street. I weigh 200 pounds and have been doing a lot of hops and drops lately of up to 12," so perhaps it’s normal to break a spoke every now and then. I wouldn’t know because I seldom get a chance to talk in person to people who do any sort of unicycling, let alone trials riding…

The book probably won’t but a spoke wrench will. :smiley:

Spokes will eventually fatigue and break, but 200 lbs on a 12" drop isn’t that excessive. I’d check that the wheel is properly tensioned.

Does spoke tension have to be checked with some sort of electronic gadget? All I have is a guitar tuner, and it seems not to respond to my 182mm spokes, which don’t really twang that much. To the touch, my spokes all feel pretty much equally tensioned. I true my wheel to within 1 or 2mm, but have not removed the tire to really do it properly in the last few months. I just do the occasional spin-and-tweak whenever I replace a spoke.

No. If you have a good enough ear you can use tone, or the way I did it was to download a guitar tuner app on my tablet.

Then use this link: to get the tone you’re looking for. I built a few wheels this way and they were spot on when I finally bought a tensionmeter.

I always preferred to flick my spokes or tap on them with something metallic to get a tone rather than plucking.

Oh yeah, I glanced at that link when planning my first wheel build. I’ll have to see if I can follow its instructions this time. What put me off it before is the relatively non-resonant quality of my (short) spokes, but tapping on them with a metal thing as you suggest does produce an easier tone to work with. Another problem with these short spokes is that they are not bendy enough to be separated from each other. If I pull on one, as that website suggests, both of them are prevented from ringing, so the only pitch I can get is some sort of composite tone from two spokes ringing at once.

In order to true a wheel, you’ve got to simultaneously adjust for lateral wobble, roundness AND spoke tension? Maybe I should take my wheel apart one of these days and start over from scratch, as Kahunacohen would. My rim is double-walled (KH20FL), I’m not that fat, and my trials riding is not yet too hardcore, so you are probably right that I shouldn’t be breaking so many spokes.

I use my ear and a well build equally sized wheel as a reference. Not perfect, but I don’t think most tensionometers work with 20" wheels do they? I’ve been told that the Park one won’t fit.

You can’t tell by feel, really. It’s tone.