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.
One challenge a wheelbuilder faces is managing spoke windup. Windup happens when friction between spoke and nipple causes the spoke to twist instead of tighten. This is bad because a twisted spoke is not in equilibrium and will eventually unwind. When twisted spokes unwind, wheels lose alignment. Windup worsens as spoke diameter decreases, which makes thin spokes like DT Revolutions more difficult (thicker spokes build more easily). The problem worsens as tension increases, which is a bigger issue in the 11-speed era because higher tensions are typically required.
There are a few strategies for dealing with spoke windup. The first and most fundamental is to make sure nipples receive ample lubrication. Sometimes adding more lubrication during a build helps. The second strategy is to detect spoke windup and compensate. Windup can be detected by feeling the spoke rotate in tandem with turns of the nipple (a flag can be fixed to the spoke to provide a visual cue). When you start experiencing spoke windup, it’s helpful to overturn the nipple and then back off. For example to achieve a quarter turn of the nipple, tighten the nipple a half turn then loosen by a quarter turn. Windup is released during the loosening step.
Before a wheel is declared complete it should be free of windup. Windup can be freed by flexing spokes in different ways. One way is to grab roughly parallel pairs of same-side spokes and pull them together. A more drastic method is to put the wheel on the ground, touch the ground with the hub and press down around the rim. You can often hear pinging noises as spokes unwind. A wheel is complete when these procedures do not change the wheel and other tolerances are met.
Now you know and knowing is 90% of success. Happy wheelbuilding!
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. I stock Sapim nipples 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.
Find the right nipples for your wheels in the shop.
There’s straight pull spokes, which are to be avoided, and there’s straight gauge. Not the same.
In my day I’ve criticized straight gauge spokes once or twice. The main problem is they have less fatigue life than butted spokes. Does that really matter? If your rims last forever or you regularly break spokes or tour into the unknown, it might be a concern.
That said there’s a lot to like. Straight gauge spokes, like Sapim Leader, are an economical option and availability is usually better than specialty spokes. They’re the easiest round spoke to build bar none. Straight gauge spokes are stiffer than butted spokes, which can help if your rims are little soft or if you’re building with fewer spokes than might be ideal. A corollary is you can use straight gauge spokes to reduce your spoke count for fashion or aerodynamic reasons.
About once a month I get a call asking for straight pull spokes. Sapim CX-Ray straight pulls are available for special order but otherwise I don’t offer them. Demand is low so I prefer to use available space and money for more popular selections.
You may be tempted by great deals on straight pull hubs but I recommend against them. Straight pull spokes make wheelbuilding more difficult because they lack elbows, which resist twist. And if you need a replacement spoke in a pinch, straight pull can make the search frustrating. Choose J-bend.
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