We know, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But there are definitely some questions too embarrassing to ask your local shop or riding buddies. Ask A Stupid Question is our weekly series where we get to the bottom of your questions – serious or otherwise. Hit the link at the bottom of the post to submit your own question!

Following in the footsteps of last week’s post, we thought it would be appropriate to tackle custom wheels after custom frames. Back in the day, custom wheels were extremely common with talented wheel builders figuring out how to push the limits of current technology. Slowly, pre-built wheel ‘systems’ crept in and it looked like the custom wheel might be going the way of the Dodo. However, with the explosion of hub ‘standards’, rim and tire sizes, and uses, custom wheels are more relevant than ever.

To get the how and why when it comes to custom wheels, we had a chat with Chris Murray of the Elevation Wheel Company. Based in Colorado Springs, Chris has been building custom hoops for years including wheels that have traveled to the South Pole and through the Arctic Circle.

Why go custom over pre-built?

Elevation Wheel Company: I have people come to me for a number of different reasons.  For many they just want wheels they can trust, but there are a lot of different advantages to custom. With custom you can tweak performance, aesthetics, cost, aerodynamics and even acoustics thanks to hubs like Project 321 to suit your preferences (loud or quiet freehubs).

Performance – you can change how a wheel rides quite a bit by varying spoke type and count beyond just changing things for weight savings. If you like wheels that feel a bit “softer” you can run fewer or lighter gauge spokes along with selecting rims that do not have as deep of a profile, or the opposite is true if you want super stiff wheels – you can look at something with a little deeper profile and slightly heavier gauge spokes. If you know you will be riding in super harsh environments you can stick with super light spokes and rims but throw in brass nipples for a little extra corrosion protection at only about a 20g per wheel weight penalty.

Serviceability – This is another big plus to custom builds.  Most custom builds still use pretty standard j-bend spokes and rims that are easy to find anywhere which can be especially nice if you end up crashing a few years down the road and destroying a rim. You will be able to find a replacement that is compatible unlike with some pre-built options that take special rims/spokes/hubs that only work in their wheel system and only are manufactured for a couple years. As a shop guy, one of my biggest gripes with most pre-built wheels is they do not prep spoke threads with a lube that actually lasts so touch up truing can be a nightmare with pre-builts. If you have a good builder, they will make sure to prep the spokes with something that will allow you to true the wheels a few years down the road. There are lots of opinions on the “best” spoke prep among builders but as long as you are using something that lubricates you are probably good.

Aesthetics – the sky is the limit.  Want spoke nipples to match team colors, your country’s flag or just want to try and bring back the Rasta trend? These requests are almost no extra work for us. Obviously you can pick different hub colors and rim colors but not many realize how easy it is for us to arrange custom graphics on carbon rims. So if you want your wheels to promote your team, your business, a cause you are passionate about we can probably make your dreams a reality fairly easy. After all, this is riding bikes, it is supposed to be fun so no reason to be too serious about it!

Another reason people commonly reach out is because what they need/want just isn’t available in the pre-built world. Need something obscure like a boost spaced, fixed, disc hub (cough… Fixie Dave… cough), do you want a dynamo be be able to run your lights and charge your gadgets? Need to upgrade your wheels on a bike with obscure spacing and you can’t find pre-built options for it? Carbon unicycle wheels? Drift trike wheel? After doing this for a while, you end up with some pretty fun one-off builds…

There are countless reasons people have reached out over the years for custom wheels and that is part of what makes this something I love. It is always fun hearing the stories of why someone wants something special. Probably the coolest was when Daniel Burton needing wheels to ride to the South Pole, or maybe Iohan’s (aka: Bike Wanderer) multi year bike tour, or Chris Plesko crushing the Divide single speed record, or Kurt Searvogel setting the record for highest annual mileage, Tina and Joe Stiller and their endless adventures with Trans South Dakota, Iditarod, and loads of tandem adventures and so on…  You meet some amazing people when filling special requests for wheels.  Every story about why people seek out custom wheels seems to be different but no matter your reason, a good custom builder will do their part to make sure you do not need to worry if your wheels are up to the task.

How can I find the best wheel builder for my needs?

EWC:  Like any big purchase you should do your homework. Ask around to friends who ride hard, search social media pages and websites along with checking at your local shop.  Lots of us who build full time now got our start in retail shops and if the shop is not confident in their wheel building they may be able to point you towards someone locally who can build well.

Ideally you will be able to find a builder who is local so they can both help you install your wheels and be easily accessible if you ever need touch up work. This is an area where if they are confident enough in their work to offer a great warranty they are probably good. If you ask someone about building you wheels and they don’t sound super confident it is probably best to look elsewhere. Most likely if they are a good builder they will have a solid reputation in your community or online. If you still are not sure who to have build your wheels (not so shameless plug coming) look me up!

Custom means expensive, right?

EWC:  This is probably the biggest assumption with custom builds. While custom wheels can be very expensive depending on components used, they do not have to be. I have builds starting at the mid $300 range for aluminum, and carbon under a grand. When you factor in things like a lifetime warranty against spoke breakage that most good builders offer, a custom set of wheels ends up being a great long term deal.

What type of warranty should you expect?

EWC: This to me is the biggest advantage to custom wheels. Many builders will offer a lifetime warranty against spoke breakage along with free touch up truing for life. I can’t think of any pre-built wheels that stand behind their wheels like this. Custom builders offer this not just because it sounds good in marketing text but also because when we do our job right, you shouldn’t have to do much or any touch up truing and should never break a spoke, again not counting crashes or damage from things like over shifted chains or sticks getting lodged in your spokes at speed…  If wheels are built right and with quality parts, spokes just don’t break.  I think I am well over 5,000 wheels built now and have only heard of maybe 4-5 broken spokes on wheels I built and all but one were from a crash. The one wheel that broke a spoke without a crash has been solid since replacing it so I am chalking that one up to a flaw in the spoke itself. This is actually pretty common with other builders I talk with as well, we just do not see spokes broken so we throw a lifetime warranty on our wheels to show people how a good wheel should hold up.

Do custom wheels need to be retensioned after the first few rides?

EWC:  This is a pretty common assumption but if we do our job right you should be able to throw your new custom wheels on your bike and ride for many years with minimal to no touch up work… assuming no nasty crashes or backing over those shiny new wheels with your car, of course. One key part of any good build is thorough stress relieving which lets things settle in during building rather than during your first few rides. When stress relieving wheels while building them you can watch the tensions settle each round. The first round they will usually drop a pretty significant amount of tension, the second time a little less, and so on. You know you are there when you stress relieve the wheel and the tensions hold steady. If you ever had a set of wheels come loose on you, I can almost guarantee it was due to ineffective or improper stress relieving during building.

How do I know what to order? There are so many options…

EWC: With the thousands of combinations available for custom wheels between different spoke and nipple types, rims, hubs, lacing patterns it can be pretty daunting trying to pick out what will work best for your riding style and budget. This is where reaching out to someone you trust makes your life easier. Most of us custom builders now have (or should have) a website and active social media pages. Find someone you like and just shoot them an email or message through social media and tell them what you are looking to get out of your wheels, along with your weight, riding style and bike type. Then your builder should be able to help you pick out a great mix of parts to suit your riding.

 
Got a question of your own?  Click here to use the AASQ form, or find the link under the Contact menu header up top anytime a question pops into your mind!

22 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve had Chris build me quite a few wheelsets over the years as well as for clients and he’s one of the best. Great guy and he truly does amazing work.

  2. Sugar Wheel Works in PDX is amazing! Jude and her staff do stellar work, and they are some of the nicest people you will ever meet! (I know….shameless plug for my local builder) If you are in the area hit them up for your next wheelset.

    • Can’t speak to arthritis yet, but a couple summers ago I spent six months building a set or four a day and by October, my leg and back muscles were so out of whack that it took 2 full months of chiro and streching and Aleve to get back in order.

    • No arthritis is an ageing condition not specific to using your hands for a living. Are they more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome ,maybe if they use poor tools and dont have a good workstation.

    • Personally no issues yet and the same is true with a few wheel builder friends but repetitive stuff like building wheels definitely can make you prone to things like carpal tunnel. Like BMX mentioned, good tools and a proper work station are huge. When I switched to DT spoke wrenches with more leverage and got the bench height dialed in for my preference it was the difference between 4-5 wheels in a day leaving me trashed and still feeling good after building 12+ in a day.

  3. I’d rather have a robot build my custom wheels, with human quality control as a final step after automated QC. I am being serious.

    Which custom wheel builders are the most automated?

    • The QBP wheel department has been using Holland machines since the late 90’s. But the robots still can’t build a better wheel than a human start to finish. The very reason for the “human” QC. Most factories that do ‘higher end’ wheels in the robots will usually stop at 70% then finish by hand.

      VeloKitty, bicycle wheel building automation is great for volume, not for precision work. Your robot love is a bit, well… misguided.

  4. I liked the article, but c’mon, if you want some custom built performance wheels you’re more than likely going to be paying well over $500, especially with all the carbon rims out there.want really good spokes? $3/each

    • Box of 36 DT competition spokes $25-30, so $60 for a pair of wheels. Sure if you want to spring for CX-Rays you can do, but if your measure of ‘really good’ for spokes is light and strong DT Comps fulfil those criteria for about 25g more per wheel.
      .
      There are plenty of builders who can make you light strong wheels for $500 or less, certainly at that price I would go to a builder over any of the complete offerings from Mavic, DT Swiss and so on.

    • It is definitely true most custom wheels end up $500+ but they can be had much lower. Usually the people who come to me for less expensive wheels are looking for extremely reliable although not at all flashy wheels for loaded touring or lots of commuter miles and they just want to know their equipment is solid.

  5. My shop will lace any hub/hoop combo for $75.

    Bring us your powertap and your hoop, $75 plus $1.00/spoke.

    Personally, I build all my wheels anymore, I can get a hoop for $50-100 and a hub for $30-70 for a Shimano, and I have exactly what I want.

    Case in point, my close friend has a commuter that had a rear wheel that wouldn’t true out anymore, so the cost to replace was ~$300 for an equivalent prebuilt wheel, i reused his SRAM hub, laced in a new DT hoop with spokes and he was out about $100 and a six-pack.

    • So… if I go to your shop & get a cheap $50 rim & $30 hub & $28 in spokes & add $75 to build… I get a wheel for $183 (x2= $366.00)

      Case in point, I can find a cheap albeit ‘good’ stock wheelset for well under $366

  6. Jake @P321 is an awesome person, and puts the quality of his products above all. And he stands behind his product and has built an awesome team that has recently relocated to Bend, OR. I have Jakes hubs on all 4 of my mountain bikes ranging from my 29er SS to my M3+ bike. I recommend P321 to all my friends and anyone else that will listen. The in house driver is fantastic and I’m going to convert my whole fleet to them. I’m half way to that already. Keep up the fantastic work Jake! Thank you for your dedication to your products!

    • Jake and crew at 321 are great people and make one of my favorite mtb hubs on the market. It is what I just built up for my personal bike even.

  7. Machines build wheels just fine but this guys hit all the right point for wanting custom… As long as you have a good builder like him. Ive had lot of bad ones and now just build em myself

  8. Chris is not only a superb wheel smith he is a awesome person! He has built three wheel sets for me and none of them have required any servicing of the last 3 to 4 years. All of my wheels from this point forward will be built by elevation.

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