Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Building wheels, building wheelbuilding tools: Roger Musson's Professional Guide to Wheel Building

For Gunnar's 650B it was about time to actually build wheels. I had accumulated the components over the past two months from various sources. At this point I have built somewhere between five and ten wheels, and they all held up very well. As I'm an optimizer-at-heart, though, I wanted to try something new this time and therefore bought Roger Musson's “Professional Guide to Wheel Building.”

In discussions about wheelbuilding, I had frequently heard about Musson's book. However, between the canonical “Art of Wheelbuilding” by Gerd Schraner and Jobst Brandt's “The Bicycle Wheel”, Musson is generally the lesser known. I myself have read Brandt and didn't like it much because of its more theoretical-technical approach. For step-by-step instructions I have mostly relied on Sheldon Brown's (and now John Allen's) online instructions. Those I found sufficient yet not ideal: The instructions are obviously clear enough to have allowed me to build up a number of wheels over the years. But it wasn't always a smooth process, for example several times I had to un- and re-lace wheels because the valve stem had ended up in the wrong spot.

Musson's book is clearly written from a practical perspective, drawing from his experience as a professional wheelbuilder. He often quips about how there are ways of doing things different from the ones suggested by him, but that more often than not they in the end all result in wheels that work.

After a quick introduction and outline of the book, the first substantive chapter discusses the different components of a wheel and the key concepts relevant to building a wheel. Supported by a number of helpful illustrations and photographs, I found this chapter to have just the right amount of detail both for first-time and more experienced wheelbuilders. Once again, the pragmatic approach becomes evident in the discussion of where to put pulling and pushing spokes, a topic that has inspired much heated discussion and little consensus over the years:
For your first wheels lace them as Option A ... For your next set of wheels lace them as Option B. If you are a disc brake user, then lace your third rear wheel as Option C ... By doing this you will understand how to lace the different options and have proof that they all work the same. (p. 32)
The following chapter then discusses the different options for building a wheel, for example how many spokes and which lacing pattern should be used for which application. Chapter 6 is probably the most unique among wheelbuilding books. Here, Musson discusses the tools needed for building wheels. But not only does he discuss commercially available tools; he also provides detailed instructions how to build a nipple driver, a wheel dishing gauge, and even a truing stand. So far I have built the former two, and I agree with his assessment that they are equivalent or even superior to their commercial counterparts such as the Park Tool WAG-2–and certainly much cheaper. I have read similarly good things about the design of his truing stand and will probably build one myself at some point.
Almost completed dishing gauge

Determining the correct spoke lengths is discussed in its own chapter. Musson strongly advocates for not relying on manufacturers' numbers or ones found on the internet. Instead he describes in detail how to measure both hubs and rims and consequently calculate the correct spoke lengths (an online calculator is provided on his website). At this point, the reader should have all the ingredients required and be ready to start actually building the wheel, which is discussed in the following two chapters. Chapter 7 discusses lacing the wheel. Musson's instructions here are very easy to follow, and for the first time I was able to effortlessly lace a wheel correctly on the first try, even getting the "read-the-hub-label-through-the-valve-hole" thing right. Tensioning and truing the wheel is the topic of chapter 8. Through my volunteering at a community bike shop, I'm much more experienced with truing and tensioning than with lacing, and therefore a lot of the information presented by Musson wasn't new to me. Still, he offers a lot of little tips and tricks borne out of many years of building experience, for example using little “flags” made out of masking tape to make spoke torsion visible.

The final substantive chapter discusses repairing existing wheels, dealing with broken spokes, worn rims, or shot hubs. Chapters 10 and 11 provide a few additional illustrations and a one-page wheelbuilding checklist.

An additional strength of Musson's book is its publication method: Musson self-publishes the Professional Guide as a PDF file without digital rights management. In contrast to many other e-books, this allows reading the book on many different devices and also easy printing. The typesetting and image resolution is very good for a self-published book. An additional advantage related to this way of publishing is that it allows easy updates to the book. Its first version appeared in 2005, and the book that I bought is already the sixth edition. Compared to Brandt and Schraner, it is apparent that Musson takes into account recent developments such as off-set frames and rims popular with fat bikes. Buying one copy of the book entitles readers to all future updates and also to access to a website with additional materials and a support forum.

All in all, Musson's book is excellent, and I wish I had bought it earlier in my wheelbuilding career. I highly recommend it to both novices and somewhat more experienced hobby wheelbuilders who are primarily interested in building wheels-that-work without necessarily caring about the finer theoretical details of the process. Wheelbuilding as craft, not science or art.

Roger Musson, The Professional Guide to Wheel Building, 6th edition. Self-published e-book. 115 pages, £9 ($14 USD).


  1. Nice review, thanks for sharing. I've built up three sets so far myself but could use some more background. What is his opinion on tensionometers?

    1. In his words: "If you build a wheel and they are working ... then you don't need a tensiometer. If your wheels are not working as intended, then a tensiometer is not a magic cure for obtaining good wheels." He suggest that plucking the spokes and tensioning by tone is faster and works well enough. I'll address this in part II of the review.

    2. Sorry, the quote should be "If you build your wheels without a tensiometer and they are working..."

  2. I rather doubt that any wheel builder who comes to build wheels using a tension gage will say that his/her wheels are not 'better wheels' for use of a tension gage

    Most wheels that have a reasonable quantum of tension and are true will do o.k. generally

    It is the use of the tension gage the achieve adequate tension and balance it our around the wheel that will yield a "better wheel"

    "I worked for years without a tensiometer being under the false impression that instinct and experience were enough. Then I bought one of the first HOZAN tensiometers on the market and started making comparisons. Shamefacedly I had to admit that my super instinct was not so super after all. Even my mood on any particular day gave different results. Since then I work with a tensiometers and it is always at hand next to the truing equipment." (Schraner PP.47-46)

    People seem to miss the real gem in building a wheel the ("Schraner way" - as to the truing protocol)

    (Munson p.55)
    "A special tool does exist for measuring the tension in a wire spoke. Since I have not used one of these tools I cannot comment on its usefulness. If you do obtain one then make sure it is calibrated for your specific spokes by checking with the tool manufacture who will also advise on numeric tensions to use."

    1. Yeah, it all boils down to what we consider a "better wheel." Were the wheels that Schraner built before his HOZAN revelation bad wheels? Probably not. Were the tensiometer-checked wheels "better wheels"? Maybe, maybe not.

    2. Hi Chuck,

      Which edition of the book are you quoting from? I could only find the paragraph you quoted in the 1997 Edition 2 (and it appeared on page 40). From then on I discuss tensiometers in detail. Here's an online article I wrote...


    3. I have the 3rd Ed of Roger's book that my referenced quote is from at the indicated page; I really don't know where the book originally came from, I've had it a while

      I have been building wheels for over 20 years at my shoppe; I have been using a DT tension gage for nearly 15 years and prior to that used a Hozan gage

      I got started building wheels using Robert Wright's book probably in the early 80's and from my perspective it was more than adequate to get me started

      I have reservations that any of the books on the market do much more than expose a reader to some basic theory and general instructions re how to proceed

      I have and have perused Brandt's, Schraner, and Munson's "mini tomes" and by far Wright's portrayal re lacing common spoke patterns is ten fold easier to get a handle on than any I have been exposed to

      I had a couple of wheel building classes a few ago at the shoppe that were seemingly well received and I have taught and facilitated some bicycle mechanic/maintenance classes in the area

      It is my observation that as to wheel building some folks just flat should stay away from the activity and reading all the books out there ain't gonna help, and as to doing your own work on your bicycle (which I encourage) there are a few that really should be kept a min a 100 yds or so from a bicycle anytime they may have something as simple as a 5mm allen in their hand!

      Schraner titled his book "The ***Art*** of Wheelbuilding" and in my view it is not a book about "how to build a wheel"

      By and large how one feels about "building wheels" is tempered to a large degree on the attitude that is brought to the activity after an initial effort suggests that it might be "rather fun and rewarding" in some sense

      I fancy myself as "somewhat competent" and with enough confidence in my wheel building competency to stand 100% behind my wheels when they leave the shoppe

      I was initially made aware of Schraner method of finishing (truing) a wheel by a industry representative and friend who was visiting the shoppe who had been to one of Schraner's clinics

      I have yet to hear of a wheel builder who has tried or started building the "Schraner Way" who has not found it to yield a better wheel in all regards and quicker to finish the wheel

      I had the opportunity to meet Gerd Schraner at InterBike some years ago and found him to be a very quiet unassuming and unpretentious gentleman

  3. Nice review of a well written technical book on the not so simple tension spoked wheel. I haven't read it all the way through yet but approach is 100% true.