The dying art of wheelbuilding

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Wheel building

A fine racing bicycle was once a blend of art and craft but most of today’s bikes are the product of assembly lines and supply chains. Look at a team issue bike and perhaps the only remaining parts requiring a human touch are the wheels. But even this is dying out. Here’s a look at why factory wheels are increasingly dominating the market.

Once upon a time a frame builder would join tubing with lugs, brazing and welding. This process relied on principles of engineering and chemistry but was sold on the basis of skill, expertise and art. There was mystery involved and it was said the same tubing would ride differently according to the frame builder. If the craft still lives on, today’s frame artisans are a small group serving a niche market. The mass market production of frames has taken over with carbon frames rolling out of automated plants in Taiwan and China.

But the artisan tradition lives on today with the wheels on your bike. The job of assembling the hub, spokes and rim is often done by a wheel builder in a workshop and if the process boils down to engineering, there is still much lore and mystery with the process. But this is going the way of frame-building with custom builds and artisan skills being increasingly reserved for the top end of the market.

Car salesman: “Would you like to look under the hood at the engine?
Customer: “Not for the next five years, no

The automation and mass production makes sense from the perspective of a business case study. The same is true for the bicycle mass market, even in the performance sector. Most consumers want a pair of wheels that are ready to ride and the increasing popularity of factory-built wheels testifies to this. Look at the likes of Mavic which once sold rims but now can sell the whole wheel. The beauty of this model is that consumers will pay a premium for a whole wheel because it is ready to ride, branded and easy to understand. But economies of scale via mass-production mean it is cheaper to produce.

I salute the artisan tradition of wheelbuilding. It allows customisation and design and makes repairs easy.

Note that many factory-built wheels still rely on human hands and eyes for various assembly processes. Here’s one example.

But even this work is dying out and becoming automated. As the clip below shows, a wheel can be built in an automated process. The only process involving human hands is the lacing of the wheel but this is a low-skilled process.

Summary
Every step of building a bicycle is being automated and controlled by companies as “little” artisans face being squeezed out of every process. But the art of wheelbuilding lives on, if only at the premium end of the market. If you want the best carbon rims chances are they are still reliant on hand-trued spokes. But factory-built wheels are on the rise and the process is becoming increasingly automated and wheels are becoming commodities instead of crafts.

  • Footnote: perhaps I should mention that earlier this year The Inner Ring was sponsored by Strada Wheels for reasons of transparency but if not, then it’s another moment to say thanks again to Jonathan and the team who were the first to advertise here.
Matt Harrop December 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

The local in Wellington, New Zealand: http://wheelworks.co.nz/. I’m yet to get something handbuilt by Tristan but it is definitely on the wishlist for sometime in the future.

Bussinit December 6, 2011 at 10:06 am

To me wheels are the personal side of bikes (although some might say its the saddle…) but wheels are really the only part I feel I can interact with, build, replace parts and maintain beyond general bike cleaning and the odd turn of barrel adjusters every now and then.

There’s so much more satisfaction in lacing a wheel and going out on it for the first time and discussing the pros and cons of the changes with mates than say ‘look I finally put new bar tape on…’

cthulhu December 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

“The beauty of this model is that consumers will pay a premium for a whole wheel because it is ready to ride, branded and easy to understand.”
That really is the question, isn’t it?
In my opinion, one already pays a premium when one picks up road racing as one’s sport or hobby. Somehow the prices have established themselves higher than in e. g. mountain biking. But do the saved costs in production not reach the customers? Is there really that little competition that the manufacturers can add a premium additionally to introducing more cost efficient production and not the other way around, to underbid their opponents by keeping the same win margin and trying to gain a bigger market share? Because if that would be the case it should be no problem for little artisans to compete against those big players with selling similar packages even if their win margin would be smaller (Which it is anyway, alone because of the quantity) and not being forced into the luxury niche but doing both.
Any objections, counter-arguments?

David Lewis December 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I had the priviledge of working, when I was in my twenties, with a former CDN National Team mechanic. This guy was rough around the edges, took his lunch at the strip club, cursed like a sailor, but was an excellent guy with a great sense of humour.

I had the joy of watching him build wheels. I was like a kid at christmas. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Rim on lap, hub in one hand, handful of spokes in the other. He’d drop them in the hub so effortlessly, and then start lacing/crossing. Then, a handful of spoke nipples in the other, he’d start connecting. All smooth and silky. With tobacco stained fingers. One side done, flip it over. Twist of the hub, lace up the rest. Quick tighten with a spoke nipple driver. Quick wheel spin. Dead true. On to the truing stand to tighten things up. Off the stand to “stretch” the spokes. Back on the stand one more time. Boom. Done. Dead true. Beautiful.

And watching him fix bent and broken bikes. It looked like torture. Standing on a rear triangle and bouncing a bit (steel frames). One big long pry bar to straighten a bent frame. Mean, but gentle.

Thanks for bringing back those good memories. Rest in peace Al. You were good people.

TomH December 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Nice story INRNG and David!

Igam Ogam December 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm

As TomH says – good stories INRNG and David.

Years ago I also had the good fortune to learn a lot from a friend who was a bike builder. I spent many happy hours watching him work and explain his craft in a damp, draughty workshop (a converted farm shed).

The best part though was to retire to the kitchen and watch him build wheels, I never really understood how difficult a job it was until I screwed up friends and a couple of my own hoops trying to correct buckles. Finally I figured it out but the quality of todays wheels means that I never have to fix anything any more, which I suppose speaks volumes about how good machine built wheels really are (although my 20+ year old wheels still run true too)!

I suspect future cyclists will never know these simple pleasures…

Davido December 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I’ll raise the ante – good stories INRNG, David AND Igam. When I was a boy we had a neighbor who was elderly even at that time. He ran a “bike shop” out of his basement – a dank, draery place, but full of wonder. He fixed my bikes and later built me a single-speed bike with a rear brake only. It was dangerous to ride on the street, but I rode it all over Boston when I was in college and am still alive to tell about it. Wish I still had it.

Touriste-Routier December 6, 2011 at 3:09 pm

“Look at the likes of Mavic which once sold rims but now can sell the whole wheel.” I wonder how many rims they sell versus how many complete wheels, both in total as well as through the distribution channel that ends up at bike shops.

Total integration at the factory sounds nice to the consumer, and a complete product is very easy to understand, but the compelling reason for manufacturers to offer such products is the increased revenue and profit potential, since the sum of the total exceeds that of the components. This is after all why companies are in business, to make a profit.

Lest we yearn for the romantic past, not all independent or shop based wheel builders are/were experts or artisans. While all were skilled in marrying the components into a round and true unit, many of them would simply build wheels to certain standards, from customer specified components, with little consideration of the varying requirements of the individual consumers.

The true value add of a wheel builder isn’t necessarily the physical act of lacing, tensioning and truing the wheel, but the knowledge of how the various components interact and perform under a wide variety of circumstances including rider weight, rider skill, terrain, and road surface, so they can protect the consumer from himself. “Lighter, stronger, cheaper; pick 2 out of 3″, Keith Bontrager

Angelo senza la o December 6, 2011 at 4:57 pm
Roadie1 December 6, 2011 at 5:38 pm

This may incense the wistful but I always found wheel building a massive nightmare. I am in awe of the artisans and their craft but the direction of progress is inexorably (or seems) towards easier to use consumer products.

To clarify a point made earlier and in the post itself, a premade (“factory built”) wheelset will surely be cheaper to the customer than a hand crafted/assembled wheelset put together by a skilled wheel builder.

The manufacturer of the wheelset locks in more of the value of the product they sell by integrating all the components and process steps into their final consumer product, therefore creating a higher value (cost) product. In other words the manufacturer captures more of the share of the consumers purchase than they would if the wheel (or bicycle) were purchased in component parts and assembly.

Integrating constituent components is the way to go these days for manufaturers as it allows them to sell higher value goods on which they can put on a higher value margin -as INRNG says.

This happened a while ago in the automotive industries but is perhaps catching on later in bicycles as manufacturing technology (and consolidation of manufacturing centres) has developed and can better control quality with variation (sizes etc), not least the backroom design for manufacture of components -i.e. optimising not just performance but ease/cost of production/assembly etc.

Bicycles have traditionaly required a large amount of manual assembly given the difficulty and complexity of the processes involved. The best assembly tool is the human hand, machines and automatic processes have a hard time getting near its performance at anything except at high volume.

jkeltgv December 6, 2011 at 5:40 pm

there are certain things that, despite all the modern means of efficient production, continue to survive – vinyl records, cork in wine bottles, non pasturised beer and so on. It is where the act itself of laying down a record or spinning the cork screw into the bottle and pulling it up to hear that “ploop” as the cork extracts are as important as the quality of the sound/wine. I think wheel building fits in here and will maintain at least a fairly large niche market for as long as people ride bikes – in the same way many insist on riding only “steel”.

For me cycling is all about simplicity and self sufficiency and wheel building comes in top of that pile…..most of the modern machine built wheels need to be sent away to have spokes replaced (or more likely just chucked).

Instead, get yourself a 105 hub, some double butted DT spokes and an open pro rim and no matter where you are in the world with a couple of spare spokes, some simple tools and common sense you’d be able to repair your wheels roadside and get back to riding within an hour.

Shiva December 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Props to my man and wheelbuilder extraordinaire Justin Spinelli of Luxe Wheelworks ( http://www.luxewheelworks.com/ ), who I believe is depicted in the first photo.

thelivo December 6, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I built my first pair of wheels recently, with the help of a great mentor (see http://www.oli.co.nz) and sheldon brown’s website. So satisfying, and I can’t have done too bad a job because a few months later they are still true! I ride factory-made and handmade wheels and believe there is a place for both. The sheer volumes mean that machine wheels are the norm now, but its nice to be able to go to a top quality builder and get something bespoke when you have a special bike to put it on.

WV Cycling December 7, 2011 at 1:50 am

Chapeau.

Post was beautiful. I can think of a handful of things that make a company’s fully integrated wheels beneficial to some:

1.) Engineering – The company knows all of the parts down to a T, so they can make them either more durable, lighter, more aero, etc. Fatigue testing is also a hell of a lot easier if you only have to test one hub or spoke type while designing it.

2.) What some would call “Style” – Mavic Kysrium Elites with the one red spoke. It’s pretty flashy, I gotta admit. Sadly, only when they are still.

I’m sure there are others, but I don’t want to stretch my luck.

Steve Wilson December 7, 2011 at 3:49 am

I love my handbuilt wheels. And I love my old bike enough to have built them with my own hands. Long live my Hershey Racing Naked front hub.

http://hillsandheadwinds.blogspot.com/2011/10/naked-stem.html

Larry T. December 7, 2011 at 10:37 am

http://wheelfanatyk.blogspot.com/ is my favorite wheel-related site. I build wheels for personal use and for our rental fleet as well as select customers. I used to hate doing it until Ric Hjertberg’s presentation at a USA Cycling mechanics camp I attended years ago. His enthusiasm was infectious and I’ve enjoyed building wheels ever since. Anyone still lacing and truing wheels these days (just like anyone brazing frames from lugs and tubes) is a hero in my book.

Peter December 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Chapeau indeed! Nice work here.

But as an expert wheel builder, now retired, I am compelled to suggest that this trend to factory wheels is a good thing for us.

Wheel building is a craft, like frame building or like . It is expensive, slow, and very much a fun thing to do. And it makes good wheels INaccessible to the majority of riders. To be clear, most of the riders who read Inrng are not in that category. We are elite and probably all well dressed and erudite as well as willing to invest thousands into a single bike. (Yes, said with a grin.)

I am thinking of the millions of riders who want to feel good and fast and safe on a bike and spend only one or two thousand euros or dollars at the most to own that bike and a nice kit.

Why focus on the 80% of riders? They pay our bills! That is the market that feeds the economic engine that can become a higher paid pro team or a successful bike shop that has the parts we need in a hurry. It is a feeder league for customers of Competitive Cyclist and other sources that can offer great deals because of volume. The mass market is important to us being able to read this blog, ride our great wheels, and get technical innovations that make the credit cards dance out of our wallets.

We get to have fine custom frames (I like Carl Strong for that) and superb wheels because of the volumes. I think this is a reasonable trade.

P

owen December 7, 2011 at 8:23 pm

The World has changed. I ride a BMW motorbike for many reasons, but one is shaft drive, I don’t want to adjust the chain, and don’t trust myself to do it properly. The same can be said for by push bike. I, and many like me, are mechanically inept. Every time I try to adjust a mis-aligned derailleur I cock it up and I can only successfully fix a puncture because I get lots of practice. And as for bar tape? The thought of it unravelling 45 miles from home is a recurring nightmare!

My point (at last) is that people like me didn’t exist in the past: all bikers adjusted their chains, many did oil changes, fitted new brake pads and checked valve clearances. All cyclists would remove clean and re-install gears and cables and grease BB bearings. Decreasing practical skills in Western society are reflected in the mass produced products we buy. That’s what I reckon, anyway.

Peter December 7, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Owen,

Well said. And let me add that having riders who feel this way in our community is a bonus for all of us. Not just for economic reasons, but for development as well.

In computers, if we were all IT mavens then we would be using Windows 2000 or working in Linux and using Command Lines. Apple would not exist if it were not for people who want a simpler answer. And it seems clear to me that Apple’s computer and phone user interface have made all of computing easier, even for the experts.

And the same will continue to be true, I think, in bicycles. We will find improvements that were designed for the average user that will be wonderful for the high mileage experts. The Halo effect gives us all some wondrous improvements, but so does the effort to build a better user experience in a bike that sells for the cost of one of our wheels.

Owen, thank you. People like you, as you describe yourself, make our community stronger and our rides better.

P

Igam Ogam December 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm

@ Owen
From personal experience anyone can learn to repair a bike or write some code, they just have to be motivated and make the time to learn (by their mistakes). People are only mechanically or computationally cack-handed if they persuade themselves they are or choose not to learn.

@ Peter
I’m pretty sure Apple were in the OS business a few years before Microsoft (even if Redmond came first as a company. As a long term Mac user I’ve always felt that Microsoft is the easy option because,like factory built wheels their OS are not as well made. ;-)

Owen December 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Igam, you’re right of course, and time is an issue, especially when mistakes made learning seem to take so much of it.

By the way, I use a Mac and have never really learnt how to use that either!

Simon December 8, 2011 at 7:57 am

I build my wheels, I have ridden factory-built’s in the past, hopefully with an open mind. I have found that a pair of wheels that I make – and I don’t make many – require considerably less maintenance than the factory equivalents and spares are more likely to be generic (and cheaper). My opinion on why things are the way they are has very little to do with function, but more to do with the desirability to a manufacturer of being able to lock a consumer into their system – if I replace a spoke on my handbuilt, it’s $1.50, if I replace one on a top-line Mavic, nearer $30…and so on. It’s no wonder Mavic haven’t made a new rim, per se, in twenty years plus. It doesn’t make business sense. The article in the current edition of Bicycling on Campagnolo tells us something else, too – just how much valuable advertising space is available on the walls of deep-section rims. The pros don’t always ride stuff just because it’s “better.”

Igam Ogam December 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm

@ Owen
Your honesty is refreshing. :-)

Touriste-Routier December 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm

The value of factory pre-built wheels (and please don’t confuse factory vs handmade vs machine built vs custom) is really at the lower end, while the sex is at the higher end of the market.

My set of factory/pre-built wheels cost me $225. I chose this option over having wheels built by my local expert because he couldn’t build anything for less than $350; I couldn’t even get the equivalent components for $225. I was only looking for box section training wheels, so it seemed a good option. I haven’t had to touch the wheels in 6 years (not even a break in true), even though the spoke count was lower than what I would have spec’d, thus for me it was a good call.

However, if I wanted something that cost more than my frame, there were plenty of viable options including factory/pre-built and local shop built custom.

Larry T. December 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I’ll second what Simon wrote. He did a better job with what I was thinking than I could have written.

Tom December 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm
Johnny S. December 12, 2011 at 6:32 pm

The art of building wheels by hand is alive and thriving at Wheelbuilder.com. I own two sets of their wheels, a brand new set of Zipp 303 Firecrest clinchers (the best wheels I have ever owned!) and some HED Belgium C2’s with a PowerTap. Great service and all precision hand built. Huge fan.

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