My Velo Orange – H Plus Son Wheel Building Experiment

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I’ve been wanting to dive into wheel building for a long time, but never wanted to invest in the time and effort until this winter when I started working on my Ibis rebuild project. I was also under the misconception that wheel building would require a big investment in tools and equipment. My folks actually got me copy of Jobst Brandt’s book, The Bicycle Wheel along with a Park TM-1 spoke tensiometer for Christmas. I’ve already owned a Park Professional truing stand for a long time, and for new wheels I was surprised to learn that a dishing tool is not really an absolute necessity. So credit card in hand, I was off…

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I love the idea of what I call “retro-tech” bikes – that is, bikes designed around very classic themes, but using modern componentry. But I take this theme pretty rigidly – on these bikes, you won’t find a single black-finished part or black plastic cable housing. Material like carbon fiber are avoided at all costs (which is difficult with modern shifters and derailleurs – thank God for Campagnolo!).

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For my Ibis rebuild project, I was already using an old set of Campy Athena polished hubs laced to silver Mavic rims, so the new wheels were my last priority. My only goal was to finish them before the Cleveland Tweed Ride in April. The 9-speed Campy hubs are very nicely done, with a clean design and polished finish – but nothing really too retro. The Mavic rims, though, have a satin silver anodized finish that has started to reveal signs of their age – having been on regular usage on three or four different bikes since 1998!

Hubs & Rims

Elsewhere in this blog, I describe Velo Orange’s high flange Grand Cru hubs, with their super-retro design, great polished finish and optional Campy-compatible freehub body.

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These beautiful hubs were screaming for some equally-lovely polished rims, which I found in H Plus Son’s TB14 classic-looking box-section rims. I’d considered rims from Sun and Velocity, but once I saw the TB14’s with their elegant valve-stem hole badge (ala Ambrosio) and high-polish finish, it was a done deal.

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Spokes, Nipples & Lacing Pattern

I ended up going with Wheelsmith straight 14g spokes and silver-colored brass nipples. DT stuff is just a bit more expensive, maybe $10 more for all the spokes, so those would work fine, too. Aluminum nipples get a bad rap from a lot of old-school wheel guys (threads stripping, oxidation, etc.), so I decided to take their word for it and stick with brass as long as I could finish them with a silver finish, which is actually pretty standard nowadays. Double-butted spokes, on the other hand, are quite a bit more expensive – and given that the Grand Cru hubs are “not light”, the extra expense seems pretty pointless for these wheels. Universal Cycles is a good source for buying individual spokes and nipples without have to by them in packs of 72.

Originally, I wanted to go with the highest spoke count possible, typically 36 nowadays, but the TB14 rims were not available in 36h – at least not easily. They are said to come in 28, 32 or 36 hole – but 32h is alI I could find at a competitive price (I went with eBikeStop). The VO hubs come in either 32 or 36 – so I went with 32h. Of course, I went with a classic 3X spoke lacing pattern, although n theory I could have over done it with 4X crossing pattern. Both VO and H Plus Son provide detailed measurements, so I tried a couple different on-line calculators, learned that you round up or down to the nearest mm just as you normally would, and ended up with 295mm spokes on the front wheel and 294mm and 296mm spokes on the left and right, respectively, of the rear wheel. I was quite surprised by the later result, since the flanges on the rear hub are much different – 61mm on the left and 17.5mm on the right. But then remember that the dish is asymmetric on the rear wheel, making the right side (drive side) spokes much shorter (relatively) since they have very little dish (that is, much less offset from the centerline of the rim).

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Spoke Prep

Spoke compound (“spoke prep”) is a mild weight Lotite-like compound that keeps the spokes/nipples from loosening during the building process, since you have to tighten the spokes gradually as you build the wheel. So you definitely don’t want to use a strong thread compound for this. SpokePrep is Wheelsmith’s pricey version of this compound. Others have used a light version of Loctite, or one of the many others available. Old school builders just use an oil of some sort. I went with Rock-n-Roll Nipple Cream, because I like the name.

The Build

Despite having bookmarked a half-dozen nice web pages that describe wheel building, including videos and photos, I ended up using my hardcopy of The Bicycle Wheel – of which only about 25% seems devoted to actual building instruction! I also referred to Sheldon Brown’s Wheelbuilding page several times. Jobst’s descriptions are more concise and more clear than many other sources in my opinion. But just don’t think you have to read the dozen or chapters leading up to the building instruction! Following the simple instructions for a 3X spoke lacing pattern, I had my first (front) wheel laced correctly without any confusion in about 40 minutes. During lacing, the only tricky area is to make sure the rear wheel is laced appropriately with respect to leading and trailing spokes, since it handles the torsional loads from pedaling. Jobst’s instructions in this area are clear but they are not emphasized. Also, with the rear wheel you have to keep track of your two different spoke lengths as you repeatedly flip the wheel over during the lacing process. Interestingly, Jobst doesn’t mention this in the building section of the book!

Tensioning the wheels was a different matter entirely. None of the sources I found gave me a clear understanding of how to proceed. I took a lot of breaks and thought about it a lot over the course of a few days. Despite having a tensiometer, there is no way to find out what approximate range of spoke tension you should be aiming for, since it depends on so many factors. Still, it seems like there should be some ballpark values. In the end, my front wheel had very uniform spoke (2 mm steel) tensions of about 63 kgf (140 lbf), while rear wheel was 86 kgf (190 lbf) on the drive side and about 50 kgf (110 lbf) on the non-drive side. Only the rear drive spokes were really starting to become difficult to turn – that same feeling you get while trying to true an old wheel that makes you think the rim must be bent because you’re nearing the maximum spoke tightness.

I’ll have to add a long term ride report later, but so far the wheels are holding true on my short winter cafe runs!

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