A wobbly wheel can vastly reduce the efficiency of your bike, as well as being pretty annoying (especially if the pads are rubbing on the rim!). In order to make a wheel straight and round again, you will need to ‘true’ the wheel.
In a professional workshop there are many tools available to assist in wheel truing, such as a truing stand, assorted spoke keys, tension meters and dishing tools. However, the cost of buying all of these tools adds up quickly!
Pete, one of the original pioneers of Cytech training and a trainer/assessor at pjcsonline.co.uk (PJCS), is here to help with wheel truing for the home mechanic.
Home repair is only suitable for small adjustments—for example, if spokes have come loose or for minor damage—if your wheel is more than a little bent or buckled, e.g. it’s been involved in a crash or twisted in a tramline, then repair is unlikely and replacement is recommended. If you’re unsure you should seek advice from your nearest Cytech certified mechanic.
You don’t need to break the bank in order to be able to true your wheel at home—you can achieve a reasonably true wheel using the correct sized spoke key and a couple of cable ties. A four sided ‘grip’ style spoke key is best for used wheels as they’re less likely to damage spoke nipples.
A wheel can be out of true in two ways: laterally (side to side) and radially (up and down). Truing a wheel laterally requires just a spoke key, although cable ties can be used. Truing a wheel radially will require both. Before truing a wheel it is normally best to remove the tyre and tube, before placing the wheel in a front fork or rear triangle (depending if it’s a front or rear wheel respectively).
Truing the wheel laterally
1. Spin the wheel whilst holding the spoke key as close as possible to the rim on one side, using the frame/fork to steady your hand. While the wheel is still spinning move it closer until it clips any part of the rim—this will be where the wheel is ‘damaged’.
2. Rotate this part of the wheel towards yourself, and tighten (quarter turn clockwise from your view point) the nearest spoke nipple on the opposite side to where your key clipped the rim.
Note: The ‘side’ that a spoke nipple is for can be worked out by following the spoke down to the hub, and are alternate in the majority of cases. From your view point if the spoke is connected to the left of the hub, then tightening it brings the wheel to the left, and tightening a spoke from the right of the hub brings the wheel to the right.
If this nipple won’t shift, you could try loosening (quarter turn anti-clockwise) the two nipples either side of the one that you wanted to tighten.
3. Spin the wheel again, moving the spoke key closer until it touches again. Repeat the above process two or three times on the first side, and then do it again on the opposite side. This process will slowly bring the wheel towards the centre of the fork/rear triangle.
Truing the wheel radially
Now the wheel’s reasonably straight, we can start on making sure it’s round.
1. Fit the cable ties on the fork/rear seat stays and swing them in above the rim surface. Move them down while spinning the wheel until they just clip any part of the circumference of the rim—this is where there’s a ‘bump’.
If spoke tension is low overall then we can ‘pull in’ the rim where it touches the ties. This is the easier option.
2. Starting with the spoke nearest the centre of the found ‘bump’;
ii. tighten this spoke ¾ turn clockwise from your perspective;
ii. tighten the two spokes either side of the first spoke ½ turn clockwise;
iii. tighten the next spokes outwards ¼ turn clockwise.
Spin the wheel and move the cable ties down to just clip the rim again, and repeat the previous process as many times as necessary to get the wheel radially true.
If spoke tension is high overall, concentrate on the spokes where the gap(s) appear between the rim and the cable ties, again working from the centre outwards as per step 2, but this time loosening the spokes (turning anti-clockwise).
3. Next, re-check the lateral trueness as per first process and fine tune.
Before re-fitting the tyre and tube you need to pre-stress the wheel on both sides.
4. Place the wheel (axle) on a block of wood or similar object on a low table (or the floor if safe to do so). Hold the wheel on both sides of the rim, one close to the valve position and one near the join (normally opposite the valve), and just lean forward putting your weight on the rim. Move round about 1/8th of a turn at a time and repeat, until you’ve completed at least one revolution, then repeat on the other side. During this process, you will normally hear creaking or cracking noises from the wheel—this is just the spokes settling in. The wheel may require a further truing process to fine tune the finished product once you’ve pre-stressed it.
Pete’s top tip: If you’re not sure which way to turn the spoke key, then I use my left hand to tighten clockwise, and right hand to slacken spokes, pushing my thumb over the spoke nipple being adjusted with the spoke being closest to me.
Wheel truing isn’t something that can be rushed; patience and minor adjustments are key. Some people even find this process therapeutic, and a good end result is satisfying in anyone’s books. If you want to learn more about the art (and science!) of wheel building make sure to check out the wheel building courses offered by Cytech!
Article by Pete (Cytech master technician)