Why Has Wheel Building Become A Lost Art?

For Buchannan's Spoke and Rim, wheel building is an occupation and a family tradition.

wheel building
“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.”Julia LaPalme

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.

"Building a wheel isn't complicated, but the two major steps—lacing and truing—can be intimidating."

“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.