When I'm not running around playing top flight bicycle industry executive, I spend my time managing construction projects. Specifically, I've developed a specialty in interiors. Generally this means that once the drywall is up, I take over and get it through final finish. The skill that I've developed during the time I've done this is both a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because my work gets a little bit easier with each project completed. The last two years have been unusual in that I've run several projects singlehandedly. I don't prefer to work like this. My ideal is to be able to focus on a relatively contained part of the picture and really drill into it. It's a curse because I can't walk into a building and just enjoy it. I automatically critique like every little thing, and even though I know better than most that, in building stuff, you are often making deals with the devil in order to get things done, little things that no one should notice just scream at me.
Wheels have become a similar kind of thing to me. I simply can't see a wheel without checking it out to an annoying degree. How true is it? How consistent is the spoke tension? Is the dish right? Is it round? I hear new wheels ping when tires are installed on them for the first time and it drives me nuts. But in order to make sure that we're doing the best job we can in having your wheels built, we have to be this kind of obsessive about it.
At first, we'd considered doing machine built wheels. Machine builds offer convenience, speed and are cheaper than building by hand. There are LOTS and LOTS of wheels out there that are built by machine, and there are some really nice wheels that are built by machine. There are, however, some issues.
I had a set of wheels that were machine built. I liked them, they were good. I knew a lot of people who had wheels from this manufacturer, and most of us had problems with rear spokes breaking. Knowing what I know now, I'm 100% sure that this was because they were machine built with spokes that are very susceptible to windup (which is when a spoke twists when you turn the nipple, rather than the nipple turning on the spoke threads), and there was not an adequate procedure for dealing with this.
Windup is sort of a fatal thing. It often corrects itself when you stress relieve the wheel (which machines do very capably), but often doesn't. What happens is that you get a spoke whose tension comes from it being twisted rather than it being tensioned mechanically by the nipple on the threads. When you ride the wheel, that spoke becomes "unweighted" at the bottom of the rotation, then the friction between nipple and rim bed is relieved, the spoke unwinds, and it becomes loose. Loose spokes are more subject to cyclical loads, and the eventually break at the bend.
The easiest way to counteract windup is to use bladed spokes. I'm convinced that this is why so many machine built wheels use the bladed spokes from Pillar or others. The machine can grab onto the flats of the spoke and hold it in place. No windup. But we didn't want to use those spokes, as we much much much prefer Sapim Lasers for their strength, weight, general quality, and long track record of hig performance. Being a 2.0/1.5/2.0 double butted spoke, Lasers are very susceptible to windup when extreme care isn't taken to prevent it. When you build by hand, it's quite easy to feel when windup is happening, and to prevent it.
We also wanted to have our wheels hand built for the craftsmanship component. There is indeed an art to putting great wheels together. This art is made tremendously easier when you start with really good components. The rims we are using have been an absolute joy to work with, as they are true in the vertical plane and perfectly round when they're delivered. They are also really consistent, with no hard spots in the layup. What all of this does is allow for very even spoke tension throughout the wheel. You aren't cranking down a few spokes to overcome a hard spot in order to keep the wheel round. We're able to get the wheels to comfortably sub-millimeter tolerances in roundness and true, with generally +/- 2% spoke tensions. With that kind of spoke tension consistency, wheels should stay true, spokes should last a long ass time, and your wheels should be a joy to ride for a long, long time.
Like anything else, this whole thing is a process of learning. We'll try hard to never become jaded or complacent about improving how we're doing what we're doing, but man are we psyched about the way our wheels are put together.
And if you've lasted this long, you deserve to know that we just got some great news on delivery. Awww yeah.