The correct spoke length is one that penetrates the nipple just right — not below the screwdriver flats and not past the top of the nipple. You don’t want to go too short because spoke threads reinforce nipples internally. Nipples, particularly aluminum nipples, have higher failure rates when paired with short spokes. You don’t want to go too long either. I define too long as past the end of the nipple. This is strictly true for some nipples however the nipples sold here can tolerate a couple turns past the end without issue. Either way turning past this threshold causes nipple threads to grind into the unthreaded spoke shank. This causes weakness in the spoke and is associated with spoke breakage.
The rounding part
Spoke length calculators output lengths to the tenth of a millimetre, which must be rounded to match available supply. There’s no universal rounding algorithm because it depends on how you calculate spoke lengths in the first place. It depends on ERD measurement technique.
In my process I use measuring tools based on theoretical spoke penetration to the bottom of the nipple screwdriver slot. I don’t want my actual spoke penetration to be short of this mark, so I’m cautious about rounding down. I generally round to the nearest millimetre. Rounding down by half a millimetre is acceptable when building to high tension (e.g. 125kgf / 1200N) because you can expect spokes to stretch a fraction, notably with lightweight spokes. On a rim brake rear wheel, where tension is quite imbalanced between sides, I might round up on the low tension side and down on the high tension side if both lengths are halfway between sizes.
(Hopefully you can see this rounding logic doesn’t make sense if your theoretical spoke length targets the end of the nipple. In that case you would rarely round up.)
Traditionally spokes are stocked in two millimetre increments, which invites compromises depending on your calculated lengths. You can be forced to reckon with the the risks of going too short or too long. Maybe the uncertainty steers you to brass nipples instead of aluminum. Maybe it causes you to pick up nipple washers as an insurance policy. Bottom line: it’s not doing you any favours and to build the best wheels you ought to shop in one millimetre increments.
About this series
This is a series about spoke length. These aren’t introductory articles but rather a collection of practical hints. The focus is correct inputs to spoke length calculations — correct input leads to correct output — and how to use outputs. For more general information, see my books list.
Because spoke lengths depend on ERD, I always measure my rims. People tell me they’ve ordered spokes for use with XYZ rim and sometimes it leads to conversations like this:
Wheelbuilder: These spokes are for my build with XYZ rim.
SpokeService: Did you measure your XYZ rim?
Wheelbuilder: No I used the numbers from the website.
SpokeService: Sorry your spoke lengths are wrong — the site is confusing.
There are two ways ERD goes wrong.
First there are variances in rim manufacturing. Some manufacturers are better than others and to some extent you get what you pay for. But I always measure and frequently find rims out of spec or find differences between pairs of identical rims. If you know what you’re working with, variances are not a big deal. If you input correct dimensions, you’ll get correct spoke lengths.
The second issue is differing definitions of ERD. Typical definitions include penetration of the spoke into the nipple head, which is important for maximum strength. But how far the spoke extends beyond the nipple seat (into the rim) is unclear. It depends on nipple geometry and encodes some preference for how much penetration is ideal. In other words ERD is relative to an undisclosed nipple and opinions regarding its use.
Typically the magnitude of these errors is pretty small, maybe 0.5mm each. Additional error is introduced when you round spoke lengths to match availability (why buying spokes in 2mm increments is rough). Maybe these errors add up to a problem and maybe they cancel each other out.
This sounds like a pain but it’s not at all. You simply make your own tools and take your own measurements. The parts cost next to nothing, assembly takes 10 minutes and you’re left with tools you can use forever. Maybe it seems like a pain because you want your spokes and rims to arrive at the same time. That’s fair but getting it right the first time is always fastest. SpokeService is here to help with spokes in 1mm increments, shipped daily from Canadian soil for five bucks.
Pros measure the effective rim diameter (ERD) of every rim.
My tools are DIY, which is inexpensive. Here’s how I make them: take two black 310mm Sapim Leader spokes and cut off the elbow leaving a 300mm rod. Use bolt cutters or a hacksaw to get close, then creep up on 300mm exactly using a file or a grinder. Screw a silver nipple to each rod using a bit of Loctite so they never move. For my process I make sure the spoke penetrates the nipple until it’s flush with the bottom of the screwdriver flats — spokes stretch a little under tension so they’ll end up in a good place. That’s it. If you’re precision-minded, you can ensure nipple geometry isn’t a factor by making a new set of measuring rods any time you build with a new variety of nipple.
Usage is straightforward. Insert your measuring spokes into opposing spoke holes, counting them to make sure you’re not off by one. Pull the spokes tightly across a ruler. To make the process easier and more accurate, try raising the ruler with a shim so the spokes leave the rim closer to 90°. I suggest using a ruler with 0.5mm resolution (such as this one) but you can eyeball to the same. For most builds the spokes will overlap on the ruler, in which case you deduct the overlap length from 600mm. If the spokes don’t overlap, add the gap length to 600mm. Perform at least two measurements 90° apart and average the results to get ERD.
If you’re building with nipple washers, remember to increase spoke length to compensate. As an alternative, you can install nipple washers on your measuring spokes and build nipple washers right into your ERD. With this direct approach, no after-the-fact compensation is required.
Most spoke calculators will give you lengths to the tenth of a millimetre, which you’ll need to round to the nearest available length. Since measuring as above targets the bottom of the acceptable range, resist rounding down for low tension builds or on the low tension side of a wheel. When shopping here, you get to round to the nearest millimetre compared to traditional vendors that stock spokes in two millimetre increments. In a future blog I’ll expand on the topic of rounding, which matters more when available lengths aren’t as good.
Sometimes newbies ask about cheap rims to try wheelbuilding, which isn’t the right way to think about starting. Rim quality sets the stage so inexpensive rims may serve to frustrate more than anything. If you’re apprehensive about wheelbuilding, and there isn’t any reason to be, stay away from ultralight rims and low spoke count rims. Stay away from ultralight spokes (but don’t go nuts with heavyweight spokes either). Buy a quality rim with the attributes you want to ride and you’ll do fine.
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