As owner of Moonglu I am responsible for all the hand built wheels. In a career of 10 years I have taught myself to build wheels from scratch, first practicing on my own mountain bike wheels and progressing to build a reputation for high quality wheel builds that have been sold all over the world. It has been a progression with ups and downs but as is my way I have gone back to the drawing board, researched and practiced until I have reached a level that I am happy with. I intend this blog post to be informative and maybe offer some insight into the world of wheel building and maybe pass on some hints and experience to would be wheel builders both amateur and professional.
Where it all began
It started with a pair of Hope XC disc hubs on a set of Mavic 717 Disc rims for my own bike, back in 2004 these were the default mountain bike XC wheels. My starting point was the DT Swiss Wheel Build Calculator. This was before I had any appreciation of how to measure hub dimensions and rim ERD. At the time the DT web based calculator stored information for various hubs and rims in addition to the information for DTs own products.
With the spoke lengths provided all I had to do now was lace up the wheels and true them, easier said than done! I didn't have any idea where to start, so I thought the easiest thing to do would be to copy a wheel from the shop. At first this served me well, I managed to lace up the first 8 spokes on the 32 hole wheel. I had no idea at the time whether I had started in the correct place or side and how the valve hole was going to sit.
Next I encountered my first problem, the 9th hole, probably something that trips a lot of beginners up. I thought that I was copying the stock wheel and proceeded to lace the opposing hub flange without any thoughts that my 9th spoke positioning was wrong. In fact, I continued to lace the wheel up and start truing it up. I had watched my then business partner Jody true up wheels and his hands were often a blur of twisting. I added some tension but by spinning the wheel in our Park Tools truing stand I quickly realised that that something was drastically wrong, the wheel was badly over to one side and very up and down, time to speak to Jody.
One look and Jody confirmed that I had laced it up wrong and it all came back to the 9th spoke, back to the drawing board. I stripped it down, started again and promptly did the same thing again, despite really focusing on that 9th spoke position. I can't remember whether I actually got there with those wheels, I suspect Jody laced them up, I attempted to true them and he finished them off.
After my first failed attempt I didn't get involved much with wheels beyond an odd spoke repair on a customers bike. Jody was the main wheel builder and to be fair as a business we didn't build many wheels. When Jody left in 2007 we took on an apprentice in our workshop with the promise that we would put him through his Cytech training, this included a full DT Swiss wheel building course. Sam proved to be a revelation and with a passion for all things bike he flew threw his Cytech level 1 & 2 and his wheel building course, I still had no need to build wheels.
Sam left for pastures new in 2010 and this left a big hole in our workshop. As a busy bike service and repair centre Moonglu has a fantastic reputation for their knowledge and work on bikes. Good staff are hard to find and despite looking we didn't find the right person to take control in the workshop. After a couple of years mainly taking care of the shop front I decided that I had to step back into the workshop and get my hands dirty again.
I cannot explain it easily but my brain just works for bikes, I have an interest in all types of bikes, the components, how they work, how I can fix them and how I can make them work better. It doesn't work for all things, I am baffled by cars, electrics and building things but it does work for bikes. This is where it all stems from and why I've ended up owning a bike shop.
The time coincided with a changing cycle market and a rapidly growing internet. We had set up our first ecommerce website and wasted lots of time populating the website with products that everyone else out there was also selling. It's a difficult and often cut throat place to do business and unless you stand out from the crowd you're just another faceless website. I thought long and hard about how to draw in customers who wouldn't usually give us the time of day.
Hope Technology had recently bought a very expensive wheel building machine and started supplying pre built wheels with their legendary Pro 2 mountain bike hubs. Their wheel business grew rapidly to a point now where I believe it's their biggest area of growth.
This also coincided with the time that mountain bike wheels evolved. Stans NoTubes introduced their small range of tubeless compatible rims and tubeless sealant. Although slow to take off they gradually established their wheels as the benchmark upgrade wheel on the market. As they were only available in rim format these were ripe for wheel building and paired with Hope Pro 2 hubs created the perfect website niche for unique products. Hope initially offered their wheels with either Mavic or DT Swiss rims and only offered them with black hubs, so we decided to start with the Stans Crest, Arch and Flow rims with the option for any hub colour.
Dawn of a true wheel builder.
I am quite methodical and this was the start of true wheel building. My starting point was a bible of wheel building, The Art of Wheel Building by Gerd Schraner. I digested this cover to cover then decided to have a go using the techniques outlined. This book had been used when Sam had attended the DT Swiss wheel building assessment at Cytech and when he came back he adopted their methodology. I had watched him in action and compared to the way I had started years ago, their method involving lacing the whole of one flange first, caused me totally confusion, I couldn't get my head round it (I still can't!).
Time to revisit my nemesis, the 9th spoke and really get to the bottom of it. If I was to build wheels and build wheels to sell I had to come up with a standard method that worked for me and refine to the point where I am happy with the method, the quality and the time per wheel.
To become a true wheel builder I also had to become comfortable with all types of wheel and learn the fundamentals, starting with measuring the hub and rim dimensions. There are 3 main dimensions to understand how to measure as they are the main measurements used to calculate spoke length.
- Hub Flange Dimension - The distance (mm) between the opposing spoke hole centre on each flange.
- Hub Flange Distance - The distance (mm) from the axle centre to the flange centre of each flange.
- Rim Effective Rim Diameter ERD - The distance (mm) between opposing spoke holes, measured to the point where the nipple sits in the rim under tension. There's a useful video here to measure rim ERD.
There is an old fashioned way to work out the spoke lengths from this point but with internet access to hand in the shop I decided to use a quicker method, back to the DT Swiss spoke calculator. Armed with this information, the calculator will work out the most suitable left and right spoke lengths for your chosen hub and rims combination.
I had the hubs, I had the rim and now I had the correct spoke lengths. I could at least take this method forward for all my wheels regardless of component brand. If I could master the build, nothing should be beyond me.
I knew the key to building wheels to sell would be a robust method and a final product that adhered to the rules of wheel building. I needed to pay particular attention to where the valve hole was positioned and how the spokes were laced in each type of wheel. This differs from front and rear wheel and is also affected by disc equipped hubs. I also wanted a signature finish, the hub logo had to be lined up with the valve hole. If i was going to do this, I wanted to do this right and this was and still is a hobby horse of mine. I almost always look at the Hope factory wheels to check if they are lined up, they almost never are!
For one reason or another, probably force of habit I usually build the rear wheel of a pair first.
To be continued.
I intend to cover the following topics:
Factory wheels have been around in the mainstream since Mavic releases the Ksyrium road wheels and Crossmax mountain bike wheels in the late '90s. Before then high end wheels had usually been hand built in a traditional configuration. Mavic changed everything with their proprietary hubs, spokes and rims, designed together to work as a wheel system. Fast forward 20 years and most big brand wheel manufacturers produce wheels in a similar way, using custom hubs, spokes and rims. They are now everywhere, whether it's Mavic, Shimano, Fulcrum or Campagnolo, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
I'm certainly not against factory wheels, they're impossible to overlook as the manufacturers push down the weight and create fantastic 'looking' wheels.
Tools of the Trade
Neil Dunkley is the owner of Moonglu and responsible for all the wheel building. Neil is self taught and has been building wheels for 10 years. Over this time, he has honed his technique and consumed many hours of reading material. The views and methods expressed in this blog are his own.