The Lost Art of Wheel Build­ing

Bal­anc­ing ten­sion to av­er­age er­rors

Motorcyclist - - Front Page - —Ari Henning

to many rid­ers, wheel build­ing is a black art, an abil­ity as mys­te­ri­ous as suspension tun­ing. But for the Buchan­nan fam­ily—broth­ers Robert and Ken­nie, their fa­ther Jim, and Ken­nie’s sons Pa­trick and Liam—wheel build­ing is an oc­cu­pa­tion and a fam­ily tra­di­tion.

Jim founded Buchan­nan’s Spoke and Rim in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1958, and the com­pany has been in business ever since. The ad­vent of one-piece al­loy wheels in the mid-’70s and the in­flux of cheap Chi­nese wheel parts that be­gan in the 2000s chal­lenged the com­pany, “but we still stay plenty busy with vin­tage stuff and cus­toms,” Ken­nie says.

“Busy” means build­ing and tru­ing more than 1,500 wheels a year, plus man­u­fac­tur­ing spokes, nip­ples, and rims. And while business is good, Ken­nie knows that his fam­ily prac­tices a wan­ing craft.

“It’s get­ting harder to find any­one that can true,” he re­marks. “It used to be that every shop had to deal with dam­aged wheels. It seems there’s a lot less in­ter­est in me­chan­ics now and in the trades in gen­eral. When dad started the shop he prob­a­bly only re­placed a few rims. Most of the time he’d straighten and re­pair them. Th­ese days, not many peo­ple know how to fix things.”

Build­ing a wheel isn’t com­pli­cated, but the two ma­jor steps—lac­ing and tru­ing—can be in­tim­i­dat­ing. “When lac­ing up a wheel, a lot of peo­ple over­think the process, or they don’t know what the cross pat­tern for the spokes is, or they think the spokes are too short be­cause the rim is turned too far,” Ken­nie says. “Then they panic.”

Assem­bly may be tricky, but “tru­ing is the hard­est part,” Ken­nie warns. “It takes the most skill and the most pa­tience, and that only comes with ex­pe­ri­ence. Dad, even at 90, can true a wheel so fast. He’s got a knack for work­ing in two di­men­sions, con­stantly ad­just­ing lat­eral and ra­dial runout.”

While wheels must run true to within a few thou­sandths of an inch, Buchan­nan’s doesn’t em­ploy pre­ci­sion mea­sur­ing tools. “We use a sur­face gauge, and the mo­tion of the wheel tells you ev­ery­thing you need to know,” Ken­nie says. “Us­ing a dial indi­ca­tor is in­san­ity any­way, es­pe­cially with a rolled-steel rim since they’re not ac­tu­ally flat. What we’re do­ing here is tak­ing an in­ex­act part and tru­ing it to av­er­age the er­rors. If the tire thinks the rim is true, the tire will run true.” Build­ing wheels may not be a black art for the Buchan­nans, but it cer­tainly is an art form.

“I lit­er­ally grew up in the shop,” says Ken­nie Buchan­nan, seen here fine-tun­ing the spoke ten­sion on a Triumph T140 front wheel. “Mom worked the counter when she was preg­nant with me, and she said I’d kick when dad struck his rawhide ham­mer against a rim.”

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