How To Build Mountain Bike Wheels

Last Updated on June 22, 2021

How to build mountain bike wheels

Building your own mountain bike wheel

So, you’ve reached that point.

When you’re an advanced cyclist and you’ve got to the stage where you’ve tried every basic maintenance trick in the book, the simple DIY stuff just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time for a challenge.

Learning to build your very own mountain bike wheel is a pretty significant milestone for a cyclist. Not everyone is a bike mechanic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a go.

I’ve got you covered. In this article, I will discuss everything I wish I had known when building my first set of mountain bicycle wheels. From the tools needed, spoke threads to guiding you through every step of the process and decoding the language so even the more adventurous beginners can have a go.

Accidents happen. Which is why sooner or later you may find yourself in need of replacing or truing your wheel. It’s pretty much no stress but you need to ensure you follow every step and have all the tools.

So, grab your spoke wrench and a large cup of coffee, and let’s go straight in.

Why build wheels?

Even if you’ve not been a cyclist for long, I strongly recommend that everyone at some point tries wheel building. In an increasingly digital world, there are a host of things you can learn on the internet, so why not give it a go?

Cheap

For your first set, I wouldn’t recommend investing lots of money into a carbon fiber rim for instance. It can be as easy as grabbing an old bike, a good rim brake aluminum rim, and quick release from and rear Shimano hubs.

For those who want to save some extra money, go for straight gauge spokes rather than double butted which will work just fine. Also, opt for brass spoke nipples rather than aluminum, it’s also more durable.

Did I mention that if you manage to build your own set of wheels, they’ll last pretty much forever?

Easy

Despite everything you’ve heard, it’s actually not that difficult to build your own pair of wheels. Just like baking, it’s a list of ingredients that you need to put together a specific way.

You won’t need a lot of tools or components, most of them you can find for free or you may already own. Plus, if you do have to buy a tool, it won’t be expensive and you can be sure its something else that is likely to come in handy in the future.

Learn

I love cycling because it’s one of those hobbies where you’ll never stop learning. That being said, you may not get it right the first time, or the second or third even, but eventually, you will.

Tires and wheels may seem to look like a complicated intricate mess that would be best left to the bike mechanics. But where’s the fun in that? Once you know, you know. Trying to build them from scratch will help you understand how they work and have you so much more in tune with your bike, and it could come in handy if you smash a wheel further down the line.

Fun

Ok, maybe I’m partially biased because I’m a bike pro, but take it from me, you will love building your first wheel.

If you’ve already tried and succeeded with previous smaller DIY projects on your bicycle, then you’ll know how rewarding it feels. Just like cracking a difficult puzzle, there’s nothing quite like making progress when it comes to your bicycle.

Taking separate, random parts and putting them together so that they function is an experience in itself. Let me warn you though, it’s addictive. Once you’ve learned one job, you will be finding another, more complicated bicycle fix to do yourself.

Tools you’ll need

First you need some equipment on hand and a quite site. Here are some basic things you’ll need to set about your task.

A Spoke wrench

This one is obvious, it’s a small tool that you use to twist the spokes and nipple so you can adjust the tension. A spoke wrench is very useful, and you will need it to adjust the tension in each spoke or every time you need to turn a spoke. Plus, the spoke wrench is something that will come handy in the future for anything to do with spoke related issues, every time you need to adjust the tension in your spoke.

A tension meter

This little tool is perfect for determining the tension in your wheel spoke, which is what will make it true. If you have too little tension then the wheel won’t be true, but too much and you’re putting high pressure on the parts risking them breaking.

All in all, you can just guess and adjust, but I’d recommend buying yourself a tension meter as this is going to be useful in other wheel issues you might have

A truing stand

Now you have a laced wheel, and you’ll need to place the laced wheel on a truing stand to check it is laterally and radially true (truing your wheel is another useful thing to learn for maintenance). There are cheaper options, including simply using your bicycle frame to hold the wheel in place, as long as the wheel can spin freely. You may have to use a proper set of true wheels as a reference when putting the pad in place. It will also make it easier when you need to tighten all the nipples or loosen the nipples.

Extras

Some additional things you may need include:

  • Truing keys for the spokes
  • Spoke nipples and lube
  • Calculator (to measure spoke length)
  • Proper length spokes (disc wheels need two different lengths)
  • Rim tape and hub if you don’t have one.

All of these things are extras you may need along the way that can help solve or prevent a few problems so you have a smooth journey that won’t take years. None of them are particularly expensive but will come in useful.

What kind of wheel are you building?

How many holes?

Before you start, you will need to determine whether you want to build a 24, 28, 35 or 36 holes wheel. This will affect how many spokes per stage you do, for example 6 spokes for a 24 hole. Just add an extra spoke for the sizes up from that.

Length of spokes

When building the wheel, it is important to determine the lengths of the spokes on both ends of the wheel. Since most mountain bikes today normally use disc brakes, a wheel normally has 4 different lengths of spokes. To determine the number of spokes on each flange, you will need to consider the number of spokes then divide by four.

Here’s a tip: Whether you’re building a front or rear wheel, it is the same process. Both the hub and rim positioning will be the same too on the rear wheel.

The Process

Step 1- Position the Rim and the Hub

For the first step place the hub in such a way that the disk mount side is facing up. Drop the first set of spokes depending on the number of the holes that will be on the wheel, for example, 8 spokes for a 35 hole rim or 7 spokes for a 28 hole rim. To find the spoke hole, find the valve hole and the left spoke hole will be up, with the right spoke hole down.

For a rear-wheel attach the rim in such a way that its sticker is facing up so that the hub and cassette are facing you. That way it will be easier to work on the spokes and the wheel. This may be easier if you are right-handed.

 

Step 2 – Laying the spokes

Take the spokes and try to fit them in the holes on the rim towards the left of the valve hole. Thread each spoke nipple and continue with the process on every spoke hole. Rotate the rim and you can put in the remaining spokes. When adding the next spokes, you should skip three holes.

 

Step 3 – Setting the second layer of spokes

Flip the wheel and place the rim in a position that the valve hole is facing your opposite direction. You will have the spokes on the right hand of the valve hole. Drop the remaining set of 8 spokes (35 hole rim) in every hole. Make sure you choose the hole that is on the right-hand side of the key spoke so you can drop in the spokes in every other hole.

Once you have placed on the spokes on the holes, now it is time to lace them to the wheel. Ensure that there is only one spoke on the right of the valve hole. Now you should install the spokes loosely going in the right direction.

 

Step 4 – Attaching the third layer of spokes

First rotate the hub clockwise while holding the rim so that the spoke is tangent to the hub or hubs. With the rim in this position, the rim is not going to get in the way. All you need to ensure at this point is that each set of spokes should move to the opposite direction where the other two sets were going. Lacing is not that difficult.

This is the part where you can start lacing the spokes around the flange. To begin lacing, lace under the first two but go over the last, this makes a 3-cross lacing pattern. Pushing the spokes through to thread or lace them like this perfectly.

This means that you will attach the spokes on the other side of the valve hole on the rims such as the right hand. After you are done, you will see a familiar pattern forming.  Once you have attached the third set of spokes, place the remaining ones on the opposite flange. You will attach the fourth set on the opposite side of the flange.

 

Step 5 – Onto the Fourth set of spokes

Now you can attach the last set of spokes onto the wheel following the same cross pattern as before. Once you are done, first place the wheel on the truing stand. Start tightening the spokes on the wheel. until all the threads disappear under the spoke nipple. Note, without getting the correct spoke length, this might not be possible. This is where your spoke key or wrench is useful. At this point, you can adjust spoke tension. Remember to pre-bend the spokes to ensure that they are very true. Using spoke-prep or lubricant will make your work easier when assembling.

 

Step 6 – True the Wheel

Now that you have cross-laced your wheel, you need to check it. I have a whole other article on this. It’s a good skill to know even if you are not building a wheel from scratch. First you should start from the valve hole when trueing. Measure the spoke tension and keep adding the spoke tension until the wheel becomes firm. It shouldn’t take you hours to get there.

Keep turning the spoke by half turn on the nipple and checking the tension. You will start to feel some resistance and this is where you stop turning the nipple as the tire comes into shape. With your right hand go clockwise by turning the nipple only by half turns for minor adjustments. Loosening the nipple will loosen the tension a bit if they are under stress.

To make the wheel true, check these four factors:

Laterally true- which is when the tire goes from side to side.

Vertically true- which is up and down movement.

Dishing- This is about keeping the wheel centered. Dishing will contribute to stability, without dishing you could have problems with your wheel. Using your hand you can try pushing your wheel to see if the wheel you have built is right or if there is a problem site.

Tensioning- this has to do with your preference, if you want a stiffer wheel then go for more tension. If you’re into endurance then a softer riding wheel might be best. You don’t want the spokes to be too tight, just practice to get it perfect.

This is the most crucial step, so ensure you do it properly or the whole wheel that you built could simply fail to function properly if under the wrong tension.

Check your work

To check your wheel, compress sets of 4 spokes and check whether they are the right tension. Once you’ve reached the right state of tension, put some rim tape on the spoke ends and you’re all set to mount your tires.

You will also need to install your discs onto your wheel and check the wheel tension again after a ride to ensure they’re perfectly fixed in place for years to come. That way if your wheel starts to feel a bit too soft you can tighten the spokes again. Of course, keep making adjustments if necesary.

You’re all set!

Frequently Asked Questions

How hard is it to build an MTB wheel?

It’s definitely for the more adventurous out there, but if you follow each step carefully then it can be an enjoyable, stress-free experience. I think you will find it is much easier than it looks.

How much does it cost to true a bicycle wheel?

In general, a bicycle shop will charge $20 to $30 but you can do this yourself, especially if you own a truing stand and spoke wrench. However, even without these things, it is not very difficult.

Can you fix a bent rim on a bicycle?

Yes, sometimes you can hit a pothole or crash into something and the wheel can get bent. You can do this yourself with a spoke wrench if it is only a bit bent.

Why is my back tire wobbling?

There are two reasons why it could be wobbling. First, your cup and cone bearings might be loosened or your wheel is not true. It might be best to check the tension of the spokes as your wheel might be slightly buckled.

How true should a bicycle wheel be?

It’s a myth that the bicycle wheel needs to be perfectly even. You can have a few millimeters gap but the truth is as long as your spokes aren’t loose and that it is roughly ok and not rubbing on the brake pads, then you should be good to go.

Can you ride with loose spokes?

You should never ride if you have loose spokes. This can cause friction which can be dangerous. This is especially true for a low-spoke wheel. If you notice that your wheel is true but it has a loose spoke, then this could be a sign of more important underlying issues with your wheel. I would recommend going to a bicycle mechanic.

Conclusion

Well, that’s basically all there is to building your own wheel for your bicycle. I told you there wasn’t much to it.

I would urge all bicycle enthusiasts to give it a go for themselves, remember to leave plenty of time as this could be a long-term project depending on how much time you can spare, but it’s definitely a useful trick to learn. You don’t need the best components or a carbon rim either.

At the end of the day, you don’t need a wheel builder to create your perfect set. Whether it’s your first wheel or not, I have covered in this article all about spokes and nipples, about what is a hub, rim, flange, and the cross pattern to have it all laced up.

Your first time doesn’t have to be full of stress, in fact, if you’re still a bit worried then I would encourage you to first start with wheel truing before wheel building. Or even watching a friend from the side and take note so when it gets round to you you are more comfortable.

Wheel building is one of the most innovative things you can do to get to know your bicycle, with a bit of practice you will love it.

Will you give it a go?

Go on.

Sources:

1. How to Replace a Bicycle Spoke – Post by How Stuff Works

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