Arguably the most specialized area of bike repair is wheel building. You need to know about spoke types, spoke lengths, hubs, rims, rim sizes, lacing, truing, dishing, and a variety of measurements that would make your head spin. Not to mention the expensive specialty tools like truing stands, nipple drivers, spoke wrenches, and dishing gauges.
It’s no wonder that some bike shops outsource their wheel repair to specialists. Just carrying the parts is a challenge. To me, wheel builders are like heart surgeons. So, I came up with a terrible challenge: Swap a rim with no specialty tools other than a spoke wrench.
We’re not starting with a pile of parts though. I actually do have a bent wheel here which needs a new hoop. First we’ll remove the brake rotor to expose the side of the hub. I said I’d only use a spoke wrench, but I don’t think a torx driver counts as a wheel building tool. In an attempt to make my life slightly easier I’m tying all these spokes together with string. For an experienced mechanic this wouldn’t make things easier at all, but for me it takes the complexity out of lacing the wheel back up.
Now I’m removing all of the spoke nipples, which would be way way easier with a nipple driver. I feel like my hand is going to fall off and I haven’t even started fastening the new rim. You can sorta use a screwdriver for this, but it doesn’t have the little point in the middle that keeps it centered. It’s harder than you would think.
Now to lace the new hoop on. Even with the spokes tied together this is not easy. In fact, I almost wish I left the string off. This part of the process wouldn’t have been too bad, but I got a few of the nipples stuck inside the rim. To get them back out, some wheels are worse than other. A few times I considered just sawing the rim open and quitting mountain biking. I tried tweezers, magnets, you name it. The only thing that works is shaking the wheel for 20 minutes and hoping for a miracle.
Now that I have all my hardware back, the wheel is at least put together. Now it needs to be trued so that all of the spokes have even tension. Since I’m doing this with no tools, I’ll use the front fork and some zip ties. If you’ve never trued a wheel before, it’s basically a matter of finding the biggest bow in the wheel, tightening the spoke on the opposite side of it lightly, and then repeating the process until the wheel is straight. Although it might look straight, we still need to align this rim with the hub laterally. This part is called dishing.
Dishing is normally done with a gauge, or even a properly calibrated truing stand. Since I don’t have either, I’ll be using a trick I saw on a forum. Basically, I’m setting a reference point on one side of the wheel, flipping it over, and making sure the hub face is the same distance from the rim on both sides. It’s not. It’s off tremendously.
Because it’s off by so much, I’m going to tighten every spoke on the right side, and loosen every spoke on the left side one half turn.
30 minutes later and a couple more passes around the wheel, and I’m as close as we’re gonna get with my homemade precision dishing gauge. One more tedious truing and we’re finally done. That took me over 3 hours and I regret it thoroughly. There’s a little jump in the rim too. It won’t be noticeable while riding, but I’ll know it’s there and it’ll bother me. There are scratches all over my brand new Easton Arc rim, and the nipples look like they’ve been through some kind of S&M clamping ritual.
I don’t know what tool I missed the most. Obviously the truing stand would have helped, as a properly calibrated one can pretty much do the whole job. Not only that, but it provides a nice mount at eye level for working on the wheel. The other part that killed me was not having a nipple driver. If you’ve ever smashed your hand in a car door, then you know what it feels like to build a whole friggin wheel with just a spoke wrench. Let’s also consider that I was building a front wheel, which is easier than a rear since it’s pretty much centered over the hub. A rear wheel is offset even more to account for the cassette, so my terrible experience was actually the best case scenario.
I could have used really nice tools, and the help of an experienced mechanic, but I thought this video would be useful those who wanted to save a few bucks. Actually, how many bucks are we saving? $35? Ugh… Even if your local shop charges twice this, I can’t recommend doing it yourself without the proper tools and knowledge. The risk of you screwing it up and costing yourself more money is just too great. I hope that at least, this was worth the entertainment. Thanks for riding with me today, and I’ll see you next time.