Tying and soldering spokes at the last cross was once a common procedure, the mark of a well made wheel. Why has it disappeared? The conditions that made it so useful are gone:
(1) Rims of variable quality, often wood, that flexed and made noise, especially at spoke crossing contacts.
(2) Unpaved roads in every direction.
(3) Spokes that often broke and tried to become tangled in the drivetrain.
(4) A time when the cost of labor was low and craftsmanship was more highly valued.
OK, so it’s gone. No need to mourn. Let’s celebrate this old tradition by doing it in style. Make sure your ties are fit for the most immaculate restoration. Each of your ties should look like jewelry, not like crude electrical soldering. Here’s your guide:
- 28 gauge TINNED copper wire
- Sta-brite silver solder and its bottled acid flux in water solution
- side cutter to trim wire
- 80 watt Weller soldering iron or equivalent
- clean shop rag
Try sitting on a low stool with thighs parallel to the ground and the wheel on its side in your lap, like a pizza.
Clean the spoke crosses if they’re not brand spanking new. If you use lacquer thinner, make sure your rag is very clean. Alcohol can do a good job, too. Beware of burning the shop down. Move swiftly from cross to cross.
Work on the spoke cross that is nearest to you and on top of the wheel. Both your hands should be free to manipulate the wire. Pull off 20cm of wire from your spool. Maybe the spool should be spinning on some fixed spindle so things go faster. I often use one of the indicator arms of my truing stand. Clip the length free. Slip one end up about 1cm up from below, into the acute angle formed by the cross and nearer the hub. If you pull the remaining strand towards you its 1cm end with catch in the intersection. Now wrap the wire around the cross using both hands and moving from hub to rim. Make 8 wraps, trying to keep each loop edge to edge and not overlapping. With practice, this becomes automatic. After the eighth loop, wrap the cross three times parallel to the plane of the rim, cinching the 8 small loops tighter. This should look like the way straight branches are lashed together with rope in the Boy Scouts. After completing the three tightening loops, snap the remaining wire end away from the tie. If you pick the correct angle to snap, the wire will break flush with the tie and no trimming is required. Drop the short scrap of wire and admire your work. Rotate the wheel so another tie is front and center. Repeat the tie. Flip the wheel over to tie the bottom side.
Once all crosses are tied, flux must be applied. Set the wheel on a workbench surface and place a drop or two of acid flux on each tie. If correctly placed, the flux will wick into the tie with a bit of it remaining in a small meniscus next to the wire. Once all ties are coated, heat up the iron. I found that the soldering goes best when the iron is not too hot. Let it reach temperature, wipe the tip clean with flux and coat it with a nice, uniform layer of solder. Holding the iron in one hand and the solder in another, place the tip against the side of a pre-fluxed tie. You’ll hear a hissing sound as the flux evaporates. The solder will wick into the tie in an instant. Any extra must be removed by briefly touching the bottom of the tie with the iron. The excess solder will return to the iron’s tip.
Once you have the hang of it, each tie takes about 2 seconds. Flip the wheel over to solder the other side. When the iron is too hot the solder will acquire a crusty, yellowish surface and not flow into each tie nicely. Just unplug the iron, do a few more ties until it seems too cool. Plug it back in. You might unplug it once or twice per wheel, at worst. Done correctly, each tie looks perfectly sculpted in shiny, brilliant silver.
When you’ve finished, unplug the iron and go back and quickly rub each tie with Simichrome or equivalent. This shines each tie and, more importantly, neutralizes the acid flux which will otherwise travel down to the hub and rim with rain or sweat to create ugly scars.
Practice makes perfect. As with all soldering and brazing, cleanliness of the area is key to good results. Anyone can do a perfect job. It takes no luck and goes very quickly. Don’t tie a wheel unless you can guarantee perfect results. Wheels are so beautiful in their untied state that we feel it is unacceptable to tie them if the tie is not a complement to that beauty. So don’t allow a crummy appearing job on some premise like, “Well, at least it’s tied.”