Ever wonder what makes handbuilt bicycle wheels so special? Or what the alternative is? Are they worth the premium that some marketing implies? We visited Full Speed Ahead’s factory in Taiwan to ask that and other burning questions about wheels and hubs. For this video, the first of three, we show how they build their wheels both by hand and by machine, and explain why one costs a lot more than the other…

Are handbuilt bicycle wheels better than machine built wheels?

Both are good. Handbuilt wheels cost more because they take a lot longer to build, but you end up with a more refined product. Machine built wheels are found on a lot of production bikes because they can be produced faster and more economically, but they still get tested for trueness, roundness and stiffness.

Some of the things shown in the video include the Holland Mechanics wheel building machines, which are one of the industry standards and used by a lot of wheel brands. The machine that’s pressing down on the hub is de-stressing the spokes, after which the wheels will need to be rechecked and often fine tuned again. Some builders do this multiple times, but it should be done at least once. If not, as soon as you ride the wheel and you hear all those pings and pops, your new wheel would basically be out of true immediately.

The key takeaways are this:

  • Handbuilt wheels are 100% hand built from start to finish.
  • Machine built wheels still have a lot of human hands on them, from starting the build to a final check.
  • The difference is the level of precision, with handbuilt wheels receiving more time and attention to getting more perfectly true and round. And getting the spoke tension within a smaller range.
  • Machine built wheels can also be very good, the differences being very small. All wheels need to pass a certain level of performance before they’re sold, and machine built wheels perform just fine for many riders.
  • Machine built wheels are found on many production bikes, especially lower cost bikes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
  • Custom wheels and special cases, such as a particularly light or heavy rider, warrant the higher cost of building the wheels by hand.
  • A professionally built wheel should stay truer, longer, and perform better over its lifespan.

Huge thanks to FSA for sponsoring this video series. Stay tuned for parts two and three where we discuss bearing preload, spoke tension and more!

FullSpeedAhead.com

30 COMMENTS

  1. I like the topics but this is one of those claims that really should have statistical evidence to make the claims. The guys building those wheels are crazy fast and undoubtedly build near-perfect wheels all day but it seems hard to believe they’re measurably better than a calibrated machine.

  2. As far as I know, machine-built wheels can be corrected and re-corrected infinitely, giving a more precisely made wheel after each iteration. That means that they can easily be made to be absolutely perfectly round – all that is needed is more time than when you make a medium-quality, mid-range wheel.

    No wonder you may not get the same result if you don’t give the machine enough time to complete its task!

    • Hand built wheels can be corrected and re-corrected infinitely. It is on the wheel builder to correct for inconsistencies in the components to end up with a round/ true wheel. The experience of the builder can be stored, but the machines must be told what to do by an experienced operator or else the end result will be lacking.

      • Maybe for now, but it won’t be long before complex optimization routines guided by machine learning make machine built wheels undifferentiable from hand built wheels. The only thing holding the development bak is the relatively small market for machines that build wheels.

        • I’d argue we are there now. Machines are calibrated to whatever the acceptable tolerance is. If they had tight tolerances they would take too long for mass produced wheels.

      • What do you mean by perfect is within 3 or 4 thousands of an inch perfect? The wheels I built 40 years ago are still round and true. The ones coming on the new bikes I bought I’ve had to fix

  3. The main benefit of handbuilt wheels is not mentioned here because this article pertains specifically to FSA wheels.

    Building wheels by hand allows the end user to get a set of wheels specifically spec’d for their application using components in styles or colors that they want. At the end of the day the process, whether it be by hand or machine is very similar, but machine built wheels are designed for higher quantities as they require specific setups for different components which makes it difficult for one off wheels.

    Being a professional bicycle mechanic and wheelbuilder for over 10 years I have seen absolutely great wheels built by machines and crap wheels built by humans (and of course vice versa)… but at the end of the day it all comes down to attention to detail.

    • Just dont get that wheel built first thing Monday AM before the skim, mocha, skinny, half caf, double whip, latta-chino wipes away the hang over.

    • Ethan says: “Building wheels by hand allows the end user to get a set of wheels specifically spec’d for their application using components in styles or colors that they want.” I think he’s exactly right. This is the difference between hand-built and machine-built. This difference can cause other differences like price, but since I don’t charge myself for labor, my hand-built wheels are cheaper than store-bought – assuming any store offered the mix of components that I want.

  4. IME, the quality of any wheel build is most dependent on the rim. A soft or cheap rim is not going to build as well as a stiffer higher-end rim. That said, because you can hand build more slowly, evenly, and with more finesse than a machine (this might be up for some debate), that soft rim’d wheel is going to be better than the same built up by a machine.

    • We can. Look up Holland mechanics TCS. Better than hand built every time

      You don’t buy stuff filed out of solid aluminium because CNC is worse than handmade…

  5. The pings and pops are because spokes twist, and they spin back when there’s pressure put on the wheel. That’s why they go out of true. Humans can feel and compensate for that.

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