Tuesday 28 June 2011

What an utter tool... wheel jigs

The art of building wheels at home is almost lost today. There's a good reason for that: wheel building is actually a right pain in the arse for the majority of us. There are some people out there who are not as we humans are, people who have presumably done a soul/wheel building ability exchange with Lucifer, for whom it's easy. I was instructed in the dark arts by an older gentleman named John, and he learned the Dark Craft from none other than Pat Hanlon - probably the best wheel builder that ever lived and whom, he claimed, would assemble perfect and strong wheels by hand as she sat in front of the television much as other women of her generation would knit. Professional cyclists would travel from all around the world for a set of Pat's wheels. There has, quite simply, never been another so skilled as she.

I have but a tenth of the skill that John had (and not even a millionth the skill that Pat had), but hand me a hub, a rim, the correct number of spokes and nipples and a spoke key and in an hour or two I'll be able to hand you back a reasonably true wheel. Give me a wheel jig too and I'll hand you back a perfectly true wheel - and it'll stay true too, unlike the handbuilt one which will have started to look a bit ovoid after ten miles or so. Yes, I find it a lot easier with some extra tools and you probably will, too. You can't ride like Lance Armstrong can, you can't do maths like Stephen Hawking can, you can't fly like a bird can and you can't build wheels like Pat Hanlon could. There's nothing embarrassing about that, so you may as well get a wheel jig to make things easier.

Of course, you could buy ready-built wheels instead. There's nothing wrong with that, either, but if your wallet isn't looking too full you're going to be limited to cheapo machine-built wheels, and machine-built wheels don't even begin to compare to hand-built wheels. A quality hub, a rim and spokes will always be cheaper than a pre-built wheel - so why not learn to build your own and spend the money you saved on a better hub?

So anyway, let's have a look at some wheel jigs.

Park TS8

The Park Tool company has been going since 1963 when a pair of bike shop owners noticed that it wasn't possible to buy tools specifically for bikes which, by that time, had progressed sufficiently that specialist tools were required in order to repair them. With nearly half a century of experience under their belts, you'd expect them to produce the best tools available and a great many cyclists would say that they do.

You'll notice we're not saying we agree. Well, we do in part - some tools in Park's 300+ strong range are the best on the market. Some others are - hmm - not so good. A total of three Park CCP22C cotterless crank pullers have set up home in our toolboxes over the years and none of them lasted more than six months, leaving much to be desired. On the other hand, the CWP7C crank puller is the best we've ever used. The TS8 looks to be one of their more successful products - it's a basic jig with only the useful bells and whistles.

Like any worthwhile jig, it's a good, solid piece of kit. However, the most solid jig in the world would be useless if it couldn't be firmly anchored to the workbench, but this won't be an issue in this case: the TS8 uprights are riveted to a thick slab of steel which can easily be bolted down fast in the workshop - it should stay in place well enough in fastened down with a couple of C-clamps if you've not got the room to have it as a permanent fixture, too. It's also tall enough to accept wheels of any size, including a 29er with the tyre still on, which is not something you can say about all jigs. The adjustable drop out, which Park say allows it to accept any axle up to 173mm - in other words, any axle with the possible exception of a few custom and antique bikes - and allows dish by flipping the wheel over. The gauge follows the simple but effective ethic of the rest of the unit and has a decent clamp to prevent it shifting position
6.5/10: This is a very good addition to the workshop, but for the money you don't get much. You don't need much, to be truthful, but we reckon it could be £30 cheaper. As it is, expect to pay around £110 online - though we saw one at £95, so it's worth having a look at a few different sites.
Park TS2 and TS2.2

Yes, it's another Park. However, no review of wheel jigs could be considered complete without the TS2 - it's the benchmark by which all other jigs are rated and the one you'll find out the back in all the best bike shops. It does, however, have three drawbacks which will make it unsuited to some - it can only accept axles up to 150mm, it won't take wheels bigger than 27" (700c) and it costs a fortune. More on the latter later.

The TS2's caliper gauge is fully adjustable and, as a precision instrument, will almost certainly require calibration when new if it's to work as well as it can and should - luckily, the unit comes supplied with full instructions allowing you to do this. It's a fairly long and involved process but needs to be done (and to be honest, if you're the sort of person who can't be bothered then you're not the sort of person who will be buying a tool of this calibre). It's a very valuable addition to the jig, too, allowing an experienced mechanic to build wheels that must be within a few thousandths of an inch of a perfect, flat circle.

To be as effective as it can be, this is a jig that really does need to be firmly fastened down - whereas Park say the TS8 can be used free-standing, this cannot. It can, meanwhile, be vice-mounted so that it doesn't use up room when not in use; but most owners will either have a large workshop or be building a sufficient number of wheels to keep the tool out all the time. The TS2 has been superceded by a new model, imaginatively named the TS2.2, which addresses some of the (few) issues surrounding the TS2 - it accepts 29er wheels and has plastic caliper arms to avoid scratching painted rims as could occur with the older model as demonstrated by this mechanic on YouTube (the dial that he doesn't like is an optional extra and of little use). This means that there's a possibility of more TS2s appearing on eBay - or, if you're friendly with your local bike shop and happen to hear they're getting a TS2.2, make them an offer on their old TS2. Park can supply component parts should any need to be replaced.
9/10 for the TS2, 10/10 for the TS2.2: The TS2 only gets 9 because of the metal calipers. The TS2.2 gets 10 because it is, quite simply, excellent. That said, the TS2 is excellent too - both will outlast their owners. Just be careful not to scratch your lovely painted rims with the older model. You're going to have to part with £240+ for a new one and that's a lot of money - but since they are so good, that's not going to affect the scores.
Tacx Exact T3175

Right, we've had a couple of money-no-object jigs, it's time for a cheap-and-cheerful version - and what better example than the Tacx Exact which can be had for about fifty quid online. Now, for that sort of money you're obviously not going to get anything even nearly comparable to the TS2 and whereas there are TS2s that have seen more than a decade of service in bike shops, the Exact wouldn't last six months in the hands of a commercial wheel builder. However, if all you want to do is build your own wheels and maybe a few for your mates from time to time or just want to have a go learning the craft, it might not be such a bad option. It will accept any wheel from 16" to 28" diameter, which will include a 29er if you take the tyre off.

The uprights look sturdy enough. Tacx seem to make a big deal about their ability to tilt either forwards or back - we're not quiet sure what's so great about that, having never found the necessity for such a feature when building wheels, but we're sure there's some point to it. On the other hand, the join between the uprights and the base doesn't look very tough to us and whatever the reason for the tilting capability, we think the unit would have been better off without it if that meant a tougher join. Rather than a caliper as fitted to the TS2, the Exact has a gauge similar to that of the TS8 - but unlike the TS8, it has two of them which is definitely preferable. They're basic, but that can be a good thing since it means less to go wrong and they have plastic tips to prevent damage to the rim. It also has a gauge to ensure the wheel is perfectly road, which the TS8 lacks - this isn't an essential because there are various ways to perform the same task, but it's a nice touch (albeit one that looks as though it'd probably snap off without too much force).

The clamp doesn't look very effective, but the jig is designed to be compatible with a Tacx workstand which should hold it firmly in place. Most owners who do not use a workstand will probably modify it, but this will of course void the warranty should the uprights become detached from the base.
7/10: There are a few issues here, but for the money you can't really complain - especially if you get a bargain, like the one we've seen online for £31.95. Should be good enough for the occasional wheel builder, but if you want to do it professionally you're going to have to pay more. Oh - and it comes with a spoke key. That's a nice touch, especially if it fits your spokes.

Minoura True Pro

This one looks a good option at first glance - it appears well-made and, for £100, plenty of shops are supplying it as a kit complete with a spoke key and a dish tool. That's not a bad deal at all, as a dish tool would usually add considerably to the expense of a home wheel-building workshop.

It does not look sturdy though - user reviews suggest this to be the case, though it's apparently less of a problem when there's a wheel in the unit. This will be a result of the unit's ability to be folded flat for easy storage, which might seem a nice feature but a wobbly wheel jig is useless. We's probably just use some heavy duty staples (U-shaped nails) to fix it to a workbench. We're not at all sure about the so-called self-centreing caliper though and suspect it probably wouldn't work very well after a while, if at all, and that's going to negatively affect the final score.

We also don't like the drop outs because they're plastic and look a bit rubbish. They're foldable for some reason, which means that sooner or later one or both will probably fall off - metal ones, either as an integral part of the uprights or permanently bonded to them, would have been a much better option. In fact, the entire unit doesn't look particularly rugged at all: even the tubular uprights would bend quite easily. They won't have to tolerate that sort of stress in normal use, but if it's foldable many will spend the time when they're not in use in cupboards and sooner or later someone will put something on top, potentially wrecking it. Pity. We thought we'd like this one a lot more.
4/10: The foldable, lightweight design will appeal to some, but it's apparently not possible to build a foldable, lightweight jig which is also sturdy and robust for this price. The supplied dish tool gets it an extra point, but it's not enough to make the kit recommended.

DT Swiss Proline

DT Swiss are, of course, the manufacturers of the only spokes many cyclists - myself included - will use, so a lot of people will be thinking, "Ah now, that's the jig for me."

If you're not so fortunate as to have enormous piles of cash at your disposal, you might want to think again. The Proline costs more than three and a third times as much as the Park TS2, coming in at a cool £799. But just look at what you get for your money: anodised aluminium construction with hardened steel for the functional bits, full compatibility with all wheels tyre on or off, full compatibility with all axles including bolt-through models, gauges that look like they belong on a space probe and which are guaranteed not to develop any play whatsoever, free-standing/bench/vice capability, moving parts mounted on rounded washers and ball bearings and optional digital or analogue dials.

In other words, everything you need is there in very high quality and anything you don't need has been off (unless you decide to pay more and have all those dials - come on, why do you think you have eyes?). We haven't had the honour of using one so we're not going to give it a mark out of ten, but it's obviously going to get about 12/10.

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