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Why Are Hand-Built Wheels Are Better Than Machine-Built Wheels?

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

John Neugent

It’s fairly common for a business to claim that hand-built products are better than machine-made. But often it’s not true. Machines typically are much better at holding tight tolerances and are especially good at repeating the same procedure over and over, almost exactly the same way so one would think wheel-building should be one of their strengths, but it’s not.

Wheels, especially lower spoke count wheels, have fairly high tolerances. Those high tolerances make the wheel more durable. In particular, they increase the distance you can ride before the wheel needs truing, and they increase the durability through a more even spoke tension.

The best an artisan can do is create a nuance. Photographic copies of a great work of art, printed on canvas with texture in the ink are very good but they are not like the originals. Wheels are similar only the differences are greater and if you are buying wheels with lots of spokes (32 or more), the overkill in the number of spokes means machine building is a good bargain. But you pay for it in not only weight (and weight is not a trivial matter. If you are using normal double-butted spokes with alloy nipples each spoke and nipple weighs in at 7 grams. Thirty-six spoke wheels will weigh about 196 grams more than a 20X24 set). Just as important is the aerodynamic difference between the sets because spokes act as egg beaters in the wind.

So what are the nuanced differences? Much have to do with tolerances, and not only tolerances in the building but in the construction of the parts. Hubs, spokes, nipples, and rims all have tolerances. Tolerances play a large part in determining cost, and in the case of a “system”, which wheels are, you have stack tolerances. The total of all of the tolerances in each component. This is where the nuance comes in and becomes critical for one main reason. In building a wheel, the fewer times you turn a spoke nipple, under tension while getting to a target spec, the stronger the wheel will be.

Consider this. The primary way a low spoke-count wheel wears out is by drive-side spoke-hole cracks on the rear wheel. The spoke has a radius and the rim is drilled with a square shoulder. The radius in the nipple wears the shoulder down with every turn and weakens it.

Machine-built wheels have a lot of hand labor in them. Filling the hub and lacing the wheel is done by hand. It’s the most cost effective way. Then they tension the wheel and true it. The first part about hand-building is the same, but we don’t tension the wheel first, we stabilize the wheel under the lowest possible tension so that it comes close to final spec (in our case, .005” radial and .002” lateral – with allowances for the joint and the valve area). Only then do we bring it to a targeted tension using the fewest number of spoke turns. The results are not a nuance, but rather and sizeable increase in durability.

Wheel Lacing

No matter how the wheel is built, it starts with filling the hub and lacing the wheel by hand.

Finally, I always read about the amount of time it takes to hand-build a wheel and have to wonder if the writers know what they are talking about. A front wheel (once laced) take about 15 minutes to tension and a rear wheel about 20 minutes. The better the builder, the shorter amount of time and the better the quality of the finished wheel.

Many of the top brands use machine-built wheels to reduce cost. If the wheel doesn’t say hand-built is most likely isn’t. But often the cost is higher for a comparable hand-built wheel. As a product manager I learned that pennies when multiplied by thousands or hundreds of thousands add up because a penny at cost often means a dime at sales (that’s for another article). Machines also don’t take vacations or want wage increases every year, or need sick time. They also don’t check their e-mail when the boss is not looking.

All of the wheel builders I know live in a “gig” economy (the terms refers to musicians who play gigs) in that they get paid for the number of wheels they assemble. This is true even in Asia. I set up the first high-end wheel building in Taiwan about 20 years ago. The builders would work seven days a week for twelve hours a day when they had work, and had no work when there weren’t orders. They are craftsmen and artisans who get paid for what they make.

There is nothing wrong with a machine-built wheel, only that it’s often not what it appears to be. The component parts can be the same, but it’s the quality builder that can give it the extra lifetime to make the difference in price worth the money.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.