Tech Tips

Spoke Wheels 101

Written by  October 31, 2006

Many of us have at one time or another looked at our spoke wheels and wondered how to check the spokes, make adjustment and properly test the trueness of our wheels.

Did you know this is a serviceable item that must be addressed on the maintenance table in your service manual? We have covered many things in this column, and as we approach a new year I will be taking these helpful hints a step further. When I was asked to recently approached by a customer to upgrade his stock wheel to one that would be lighter, stronger and more appealing to the eye, I jumped at the opportunity.

We all have been dazzled by parts on eBay and other ads which say, “This rim is as true as it gets.” But don’t be fooled. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. For this tech tip I sought the help of Larry James, a close friend and senior technician at Donnell’s Motorcycles. I have not trued a wheel in years, and Larry has not only mastered the art, but performs this task at least twice a week at the dealership.
Jeff D, one of my customers, brought me two wheels he had recently purchased from an online auction house and asked me to switch out the stocker with a newer pro series wheel and check the trueness of the wheel.

Step 1 was to check the wheel for radial run out. We found that this particular wheel would need all the nipples loosened and we would basically be starting from scratch. This is not only a good check but is necessary to determine the overall condition of the rim.

I’m sure most of you don’t have a truing stand or any means of performing this particular task, but that’s OK! This is a very time consuming process and can discourage even the bravest die-hards. So, if you’re not comfortable with spoke removal and wheel lacing/truing, I suggest taking your wheels to an authorized dealer and ask them to show you the trueness of your wheels after they have completed this process.

Using a spoke/nipple wrench that can be purchased at any motorcycle dealer we loosed the nipples and found that this wheel that was supposed to be true, had a slight defect where the weld joined the rim together to make a circle. Larry explained that if you spend a little more money on a better quality wheel, you will not have to work so hard to get it trued and straight.

We then removed the wheel from the truing stand, shook the wheel to make sure all the spokes were not binding up and then adjusted the nipples appropriately, which was approximately five turns from the end of the threads on the spoke. Then we tightened each nipple until they all had roughly the same threads showing, spun the wheel and checked for vertical and lateral warpage. If the wheel shows any signs of either of these you will need to loosen the nipples at that point and tighten the ones directly across from the affected area. Always spin the wheel and continue to check the trueness. You will find that starting from scratch may save you a lot of stress that can occur when the wheel does not seem to straighten out.

I also want to point out this is not the wheel we have to exchange all of the spokes and hub from the stocker to the newer wheel. This is just a way to true the spokes on the existing rim that was purchased. After a few short adjustments we were able to get the wheel back to a true state and ready for installing a rim strap and new rear tire.

Our next step was to remove the tire and rim strap from the wheel we were going to switch out with newer lighter wheel. I noticed the nipples had some corrosion on them and applied a penetrating lubricant that would ease the removal of the nipples. Each rim is different and I heard that H-D has had some issues with some spokes that are breaking on some of the late model wheels. I am convinced that we must all pay a lot more attention to our spokes and if you find a broken spoke on your wheel, it must be fixed immediately.

While our nipples were basking in the penetrating oil, we decided to tape the outer spokes together where they cross using electrical tape. The reason for this is to not confuse the lacing. This will also save you time when installing the spokes back into the newer rim. We removed the nipples that we could and held the spokes with a vice grip to remove the more stubborn ones.

When all of the spokes had been freed from the stock wheel it was time to place the new rim over the hub and spokes. One thing I want to mention is when you are using the original spokes; you should immerse the threads in engine oil or equivalent. This will thoroughly lubricate the threads and make assembly smooth and easy. Place all of the taped spokes through the appropriate points on the wheel and follow the pattern with the inner and outer spokes until all criss-cross in a star pattern. Taking a digital photo prior to removal provides a reference to the original state.

Tighten the nipples until you have three to five threads showing. Now make as many rounds as it takes, tightening the nipples one half turn or so until they become snug. When most of the spokes are loosely snug, you can easily locate the ones that are still loose. Take your time and the truing will be much easier later on.

After all of the nipples have been seated on the spokes, continue truing in the same manner as before. One thing I want to mention is that your truing stand should have a pointer that is placed in the inside of the rim where the tire bead rests. How you design this is up to you, however, this will aid in the radial and lateral trueness of the wheel.

Once all of the nipples have been adjusted, spin the wheel. You will find that this process can be mastered with a little patience and skill. Spoke wheels take a lot more abuse than mag wheels and must be checked frequently, so don’t think if you have a new bike you are exempt from this tip. If you don’t have a way to remove your wheels from the motorcycle, then simply jack the bike up and spin the wheels at least once a month to check trueness.

On our tough-o-meter scale this ranks a 5 because of the amount of spokes that have to be removed and the length of time you may need to get the wheel back to new.

I want to personally thank Larry James for his steady hand and guidance and to Jeff Dittmer for supplying me with the necessary wheels to provide this tech tip.

B-safe out there!

Dave Miller

Technical support by Larry James