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

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Cardon
Cardon
3 years ago

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.

edge
edge
3 years ago
Reply to  Cardon

O work with manufacturing firms every day and I’ll take machine made over hand made every time. except for art!

Ettore
Ettore
3 years ago

Machine built will be better very soon. Cheaper, too.

Emil Borregaard Thomsen
Emil Borregaard Thomsen
3 years ago
Reply to  Ettore

What makes you say that?

Rider
3 years ago

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!

Ethan
Ethan
3 years ago
Reply to  Rider

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.

Robin
Robin
3 years ago
Reply to  Ethan

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.

edge
edge
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin

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.

Robin
Robin
3 years ago
Reply to  Rider

No, no, and no. Wheels can’t be made perfectly round, and no one has time for “infinite corrections”.

Chris Cycles
Chris Cycles
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin

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

hleogr
3 years ago

I still prefer home build 😉

Ethan
Ethan
3 years ago

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.

Record11
Record11
3 years ago
Reply to  Ethan

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.

Charlie
Charlie
3 years ago
Reply to  Ethan

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.

Cheese
Cheese
3 years ago
Reply to  Charlie

Is your LBS somehow unable to order parts from a distributor?

Riley Stumm
Riley Stumm
3 years ago

Every machine built wheel I’ve ever worked on had completely dry threads on the spokes.

Eli
Eli
3 years ago
Reply to  Riley Stumm

That may be true but I don’t see how its inherent that a machine built wheel can’t do it right.

Stan the man
Stan the man
3 years ago

What’s the difference?? About $300-$700 !

actualmechanic
3 years ago
Reply to  Stan the man

That’s nowhere near true. I charge a flat $100 per pair for wheel builds. Nobody gets $300.

Stan the man
Stan the man
3 years ago
Reply to  actualmechanic

Buy a stock wheelset, then buy the same individual parts and have a shop build them up… $100 huh?

BMX
BMX
3 years ago

Seems we are starting to disappear down the rabbit hole of “how to square a circle” on this one.

Gillis
Gillis
3 years ago

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.

RobertW
RobertW
3 years ago

You aren’t going to get a machine built light weight rim with cxray spokes.

Neil
Neil
3 years ago
Reply to  RobertW

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…

Clive rawlinson
Clive rawlinson
3 years ago

The machine will never be able to stress the spokes in properly

Robin
Robin
3 years ago

Citation needed.

Rider
3 years ago

Not true at all (your statement, not wheels).

Erik Voldengen
Erik Voldengen
3 years ago

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.

Robin
Robin
3 years ago
Reply to  Erik Voldengen

So can a machine.

jeroenfl
3 years ago

I like to build my own wheels as part of the cycling experience. Apart from that, I don’t really have a preference as long as the wheels are good.