Before cast spoke wheels for motorcycles came on the scene in the 1970s, nearly all bikes rolled upon wire spoke wheels. Wire wheels are relatively light, strong and have some “give” to them so that if you hit a pothole, they can flex slightly rather than break. This is why, to this day, off-road bikes tend to roll on wire spokes. And of course, wire spokes look really classic and cool. The disadvantage is that wire spokes can loosen over time, causing the wheel to go out of true and wobble. Adjusting or lacing a wheel takes some time and skill. While cast and other types of solid spoke wheels have come to dominate the street market, many cruiser and classic-style bikes still roll on wire spoke wheels, as do most bikes built 40 or more years ago.
To check the tightness of your bike’s wire spokes, strike each one lightly with a wrench and listen for the resultant tone. Properly adjusted spokes of the same length should produce a similar tone. Should you hear a dull sound, however, that spoke is loose and needs to be adjusted. Spokes of different lengths, like inner and outer spokes or those on a conical hub, will produce a different tone from those of other lengths.
To learn the particulars of adjustment I met with Kennie Buchanan, Vice President of Buchanan’s Spoke and Rim, Inc., in Azusa, California. This company offers Sun and Excel rims, a variety of spokes and many related services. Kennie explained that the optimal method of adjusting spokes is to place the wheel on a truing stand. That allows you to also monitor run-out, as loose spokes will affect how true the wheel runs, or spins. Don’t have a truing stand? Place the bike on its centerstand (if it has one) so you can spin the rear wheel. Conversely, place a block under the oil pan if necessary to raise the front wheel off the ground. Or, use an appropriate bike stand to raise the bike. Finally, you could clamp one end of the axle in a vise and hold the other as you spin the wheel by hand.
As the wheel spins, sight down it for any sign of a wobble or irregularity. This is usually a sign of improperly adjusted spokes, and can often be adjusted out. Tape a spacer to the frame, fork or vise that nearly touches the rim so you can gauge how the wobble changes as you adjust the spokes.
If only a few spokes are loose, the wheel may be left on the bike as you use a spoke wrench to turn the nipples that hold the spokes to the rim. However, if the spokes have not been adjusted in years, you’ve just acquired a used bike or are reviving a barn find, it’s a good idea to pull the wheels to perform the adjustment. This is most convenient when combined with a tire change. If the wheels and spokes are stainless steel, Buchanan’s offers a special lubricant that can be applied to the nipples and threads before adjusting. If the wheels and spokes are carbon steel, however, Kennie says using a drop of motor oil on each will suffice.
To perform a major adjustment place the wheel on its side and, with a spoke wrench, loosen all the nipples. Then begin tightening them, a half turn at a time, working on a minimum of four at a time. Alternate working on opposite sides of the wheel, tightening several, then several others that lie opposite them. Don’t get them too tight, too fast. Keep testing spoke tightness by tapping them. If you’re able to spin the wheel, note how the process is affecting the true running of the wheel. Eventually, with the spokes emitting similar tones and the wheel spinning true, you’re done.
Spokes don’t show signs of wear as other components do, but slowly fatigue. After enough cycles they will break, typically at the bends. Once some begin to break, others will soon follow. Replace them with new spokes, or even replace the entire rim and spokes. Buchanan’s manufactures rims for a variety of motorcycles and automobiles. Kennie Buchanan states that if you supply the hubs, his company can supply the rest. They will true your existing wheel for $92, lace and true it for $112, or loose lace it for $32. And they can send them out for polishing or chroming. See their website for full details.
Buchanan’s Spoke and Rim, Inc.
805 West Eighth Street
Azusa, CA 91702