[Note: this is #15 of a series of 20]
The best way is, of course, to be pedaling at a brisk pace. Scenery, a fresh breeze, the rhythmic whirring of your bike. Ah, yes. But I’m seated at a keyboard! Back to topic.
Every wheel build contains an important phase in which loose nipples need to be threaded down their spokes in an efficient and organized way. First, of course, you set aside the parts needed to build a wheel. Lengths calculated and spokes counted. Nipples at the ready. The lacing process is a puzzle at first but your speed will double with each subsequent assembly.
The point at which your wheel is laced but entirely loose is a satisfying moment. Bystanders think you’ve accomplished 90% of the “trick” of wheel building. After all, they’d be struggling with the lacing pattern. You figured that out. Laced, the wheel bears a strong resemblance to the finished product. It smiles back at you. Give yourself a pat on the back. Now is time to move decisively forward.
Before any serious tightening and truing can begin, a lot of spoke slack must be addressed. Threading all the nipples down an equal distance can be done several ways. A classical method employs a nipple driver.
That’s Don Milberger’s famous tool, made in the East Bay by Bicycle Research. Those of us learning the trade in the 1970’s were weaned on this trusty tool. It’s a screwdriver that engages the nipple slot. A projection in the center of the driver blade keeps the tool from slipping off the nipple. Eventually, as the nipple becomes fully threaded down the spoke, this projection touches the approaching spoke and unseats the driver. You know you’ve reached the end. Before Don’s production, we made such tools from broken Campagnolo Superlight pedals. Their aluminum cages wore out leaving the spindle, bearings and basic housing intact. We welded an extension to make a nipple driver. But Don’s worked better.
Var (France) and Eldi (Germany) also sold versions of the simple screwdriver with center probe. Eldi’s “yankee” screwdriver was a staple for many builders. Before cordless drills, this style of driver was king. Pushing on the handle forces the bit to rotate. With a proper nipple driving tip, you were in business. It was called “Yankee” by its maker, Stanley Tools of New Britain, CT. The Yankee driver is long discontinued. The Stanley brand lives on, after a complicated series of mergers and acquisitions. An interesting, if convoluted, story.
With today’s amazing selection of cordless drivers, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the grid using a mechanical tool. In a cordless drill or driver, a bit like these fits well.
The key for each of these, the advantage over the classical nipple driver, is an adjustable probe. Depending on the style of wheel and spoke length, it’s desirable to adjust the amount of tightening. The danger is over tightening each nipple so that you can’t finish the series. If they become too tight in this phase, time will be wasted tracking back to where you were. The goal is a wheel with each nipple tightened identically but the spoke structure still loose.
Millions of mass produced wheels are built with simple drills and drill presses. The bits are hand made. Many wheels are rapidly assembled and speed tightened with hand shaped bits. Hold a bit up to a grinding wheel and blow out each leading corner. You’ll be left with a crude but effective shape that can drive nipples and unseat as the spoke comes through. I’ve seen these made from cheap flat blades in Taiwan. Works great. But I prefer the Problem Solver adjustable driver myself.
To build with a 20mm super long nipple (wood rims require these), you need a MUCH longer probe than with standard nipples (12mm). I recommend a probe that stands off the driver a full 7mm. Thank goodness for drivers like the Problem Solver, where probes can be any length you choose. I’ve really fallen for the Problem Solver and we’ve added it to our store. You make your own center probe, which means you can set any extension length, choose any diameter, and replace any broken ones. At $28, a real deal.
To tighten nipples down, use fingers or an electric driver. I’ve been very happy with lower voltage (read: light weight) drills. A good one is the 9.6V Dewalt unit. Who needs 18V? That’s enough to drive your bike home. For wheel building, you’ll be holding up the massive battery and motor all the while. Go handle a lighter weight tool and see what I mean.
The message of this tip is simple: tightening down loose nipples to the same point is often overlooked because it appears trivial. However, you can be clumsy, inaccurate, and waste time here or do it right and your next steps will be much accelerated. Speed and precision is the point of every stage of wheel building. Speed + precision = economy which translates to quality, value, and peace of mind. Those are the everlasting pillars of rewarding wheel building.