Blog: Buyers guide
Rear hex drive nipples were designed to handle increased torque but they also prevent builder’s marks on external nipple wrench flats. Some people like rear drive because the turning direction is intuitive — clockwise is tighter. Since the external interface exists just the same, you can forget the rear hex drive if you prefer (or treat it as a backup to save the day if a nipple cracks or rounds off).
The Sapim hex drive is 5.5mm. It’s a balance between making the interface as large as possible while leaving room for tool clearance at the rim holes. Even so a thinwall tool is often necessary. I have three in my toolbox. My main tool is the Park SW-15, a 3-way that fits nicely in the hand and provides good leverage. Blue tape marks the 5.5mm end. The Park Tool SW-18 is a screwdriver design, which reaches into deeper rims and may fit better in race toolboxes. The Sapim factory tool is excellent quality and handles even deeper rims but may be too deep for everyday use.
The typical spoke decision is between straight gauge and some double-butted model. For conditions outside the bell curve, there are two specialty models.
Sapim Force is a triple-butted spoke with a 2.18/1.8/2.0mm profile. They are similar to Sapim Race with a little more meat on the vulnerable elbow section. There is a cost penalty but weight and stiffness are about the same. Fatigue life is better — if you’ve been burned by broken elbows, Force might be the ticket. I often use Force on touring and bikepacking wheels to work with 32 spoke wheels when 36 might be more conventional (opening up more choices for hubs and rims).
Sapim Strong is a single-butted spoke with a 2.3/2.0mm profile. These are the biggest bicycle spokes I use and I stop at this gauge because it’s the biggest spoke that works with regular 2.0mm nipples. Strong shares the massive stiffness of Sapim Leader but has a serious amount of extra material on the elbow. People use Strong for e-bikes, cargo bikes and the heaviest touring applications. For regular day-to-day use they’re overkill though I’ve used them for riders >400 pounds.
There’s a new nipple washer available from Sapim — the Sapim MS washer has a generic V-shape profile compatible with all nipples (compare to Polyax washers with a Polyax-shaped cup). It has a thick, flat bottom for superior weight distribution however needs a flat resting spot 7.75mm in diameter. Where applicable, these stainless washers will impart a lot of strength.
Not much information is searchable for Sapim MS washers so I’m posting the product sheet to give you information from the source. Note carefully: my measurements put the diameter at 7.7mm compared to the nominal 7.4mm listed in the datasheet.
The choice of nipple material inspires zealotry — some prefer brass, some prefer aluminum, others a mix of materials. Brass nipples are more popular because they’re cheaper, stronger and more corrosion resistant. Aluminum nipples feature superior finishes at one third the weight. How to choose? If you’re hard on gear, clean infrequently or ride in adverse conditions, then brass is a sensible choice. For scenarios where weight and performance matter, aluminum is the way to go.
Working with aluminum nipples shouldn’t inspire fear — in fact many find aluminum nipples turn more smoothly. How do pros work with aluminum? First, use liberal lubrication. When building in the first place, make sure threads are fully covered with oil or other spoke preparation compound. When making adjustments down the road, dribble a thin oil into the nipple and into the rim at the base of the nipple. Second, avoid stressing aluminum nipples by using a 4-sided spoke wrench (e.g. Park Tool SW-40). Compared to a regular 3-sided wrench, a better tool distributes forces more evenly. If your nipple has a secondary hex interface on the rear, that’s a safe way of applying torque too. Last buy quality aluminum nipples. For example Sapim nipples are made of 7075 aluminum, a stronger alloy that is not the industry norm. Sapim anodizes silver nipples for corrosion resistance whereas other makers ship these raw. From a quality perspective aluminum nipples are less interchangeable across brands.