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Spoke Wrenches:
Which Ones to Use & Why They Matter

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

Spoke Wrenches:

I would normally not write about this topic except for two things. I have never seen a good article on the topic and I believe readers of BikeRaceInfo are more sophisticated than the normal reader of a cycling web site.

While doing a quick true of a wheel would seem to indicate that the quality of a spoke wrench is not important, it is sometimes vital. In particular, if the nipples are alloy and they are very tight, a poor fitting spoke wrench will round it out making it impossible to turn the nipple. The only solution is often to cut out the spoke. So a good, tight fitting wrench can be an important part of a tool kit.

Most quality wheels, with stainless steel spokes, like the DT’s and Sapim, use a .127” (3.23 mm) nipple. They are 14 gauge and the spoke wrench size is also commonly referred to as a Park Tool Black wrench. I am not going to address the unusual nipples that are either internal or the ones used on alloy spokes, like the Mavic.

When I was setting up production for high end hand built wheels in Taiwan, the factory would order the Park Tool SW-0 by the hundreds. Twenty years ago, that was considered state of the art and it’s possible to only use that wrench. But as nipples were required to be tighter as the spokes became fewer, at very high tension, it takes a knowledgeable builder to use them correctly, especially on an alloy nipple at high tension. It’s easy not to get the wrench properly set so that it’s possible to round out the nipple.

Park spoke wrench

Thankfully, there are solutions now that work extremely well. The first one I used was the DT Swiss wrench which creates a 4th side, making it impossible for the wrench to improperly seat. Also, it has a massive body with large finger holds making it much easier on your hands if you are building lots of wheels.

DT red spoke wrench

Soon after Park introduced the SW 4.0 which has the same 4th wall feature but doesn’t have the same type of finger holds as the DT Swiss. Park then later introduced their 20.2 which is comparable to the DT Swiss.

Park Spke wrench

When I build I typically have two wrenches handy. The Park SW-0, which I use when the spokes are loose. I prefer one that is slightly worn so it’s easy to engage and disengage a nipple, As soon as the spokes start to get tight, I use with a DT Swiss or a Park 20.2.

Park spoke wrench

I came up with this system through years of wheel building and by trial and error. I know builders who only use the Park SW-0, but I always prefer the easiest method. And if you use the SW-0 a lot you will find, over time, they wear out and need to be replaced especially if you build to very high tensions as I do.

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.