How to true a bicycle wheel

If you have a wheel that isn’t running true, then it is sometimes possible to adjust the spoke nipples to improve it. It is a job that has to be done carefully and methodically, and we are here to show you how to true a bicycle wheel.  

Spotting the buckled wheel right away is not easy, if it’s only slightly out of shape it will give no symptoms. The indications of a buckled wheel are:

  • The bike handles weirdly and might feel like it is rolling over a bump.
  • The rim starts rubbing on the pads. This is not a problem for bikes with disc brakes, but with closely set calliper brakes it will slow the bike, wear the pads and wear the rim.
  • The wheel makes a creaking noise. This noise might come from loose or broken spokes that rub on each other.

You can straighten the wheel on the bike or in a wheel jig, the principals are the same.

How to true a bicycle wheel tools

  • Truing stand- Also called a jig. It holds the wheel in place. The main parts of the jig are:
    • Truing arm- This holds the callipers and moves them up and down.
  • Callipers/indicators- They are attached to the truing arm. They can be adjusted sideways closer or further from the rim so that the operator can adjust the spokes to make the wheel run true. 
  • Spoke key- This is a wrench that fits around the spoke nipple making it possible to turn it. There are different sizes and shapes of spoke nipples so make sure you have a spoke wrench that fits.
  • Cable ties- These are used to true a wheel on a bike. When attached to the fork or frame, they mimic truing stand indicators.

How to true a bicycle wheelpreparation

  • Check the wheel for any broken spokes as these will need to be replaced before you start truing.  Because the spokes work together, the wheel needs all of them and trying to true without all the spokes will result in a wheel that isn’t strong enough to ride.
  • If you are truing the wheel on a bike, take off or turn all the accessories on the handlebars (such as bell, light, suspension lockout lever etc.) so that when the bike is placed on a flat surface upside down it doesn’t sway.
  • If you have rim brakes, release the callipers.
  • Remove the wheel. 
  • Remove the tyre and inner tube. If the tyre is not seated correctly it might give a false indication of a buckled wheel. 
  • Put the wheel on the bike. Make sure that it is nice and tight at the hub.

If using the bike:               

  • Attach the cable ties to both of the fork blades or each chain stay so that they are in line and just touching the rim.
  • Tighten them so that they don’t move unless you want them to so as not to confuse the truing process.
  • Trim the cable tie to the right length.
  • Move the end of the cable ties away from the rim.

For truing on a jig:

  • Open the callipers on the stand
  • Put the wheel in a jig
  • Set up the truing arm so that the indicators are parallel with the rim.

How to true a bicycle wheel laterally

  • Start with the biggest buckle.
  • Spin the wheel and begin to move the truing indicators or zip ties towards the rim until one of them just hits it. 
  • Taking the area that touches the indicator/zip tie, identify the spokes in that arc. 
  • If you are truing on the bike, hold the arc of spokes and move the wheel to where you can easily adjust the spokes. 
  • Start to tighten the spokes that fan out away from the buckle. That will bring the rim away from the indicator/zip tie and start to bring the rim back to the centre. It is better to do a small amount at a time, even if it means that you return to that spot a number of times. 
  • Tighten the identified spokes about a quarter of a turn. If the nipple is seized add a drop of oil and leave it for a moment. Hopefully this will release the nipple. If not, the seized spokes will need to be replaced. 
  • Spin the wheel and see if it still touches the indicator/zip tie.
  • If it does, tighten the spokes and continue until the rim stops hitting the indicator/zip tie.
  • Spin the wheel.
  • If there is another buckle, repeat the truing process, moving the indicators or zip ties closer together until you are satisfied that the rim is as central as possible.  If you can aim for about a 2mm gap between the rim and the indicators.

Destressing

Truing the wheel means that some of the spokes may have twisted in the process, so you will need to destress it. Starting at the valve, use the parallel spokes and squeeze them together.

Work your way around the wheel until you arrive back at the valve hole. Now spin the wheel again.  If the wheel is the same trueness as before, then you have finished.  If it has gone out of true again then retrue it, destress it and spin again until you can destress it without it going out of true. 

What if it doesn’t work?

When you are destressing the wheel, notice if all of the spokes feel roughly the same tension.  Try slowly tightening any that are very loose. The rim may pull over before you’ve tightened it adequately. No matter how much truing you do, if you have radically loose spokes the wheel won’t be strong enough to ride.  

If you have a wheel that is out of true and you want to tighten a spoke to pull the rim across, but it is already super tight, then this means that the rim has bent and the wheel cannot be trued. In both of these cases you will either need a new wheel or a rebuild.

Another problem could be that the nipples won’t turn because they have rusted in place. You can drip oil down the spoke into the nipple and loosen it first.  If you find some of the spokes are snapping before you can loosen them, then it is best to replace the wheel as this is a sign that the spokes are worn.

How to true a bicycle wheel radially

If you are using your bike to true the wheel, it is very difficult to adjust the radial position.  If you are using a jig then follow these instructions:  

  • Lower the truing arm so that the callipers are just below the rim.
  • Spin the wheel and move the truing arm towards the rim until the indicators just hit the area that touches the callipers.
  • Tighten all the spokes in that arc a quarter of a turn. This will pull up the rim in that area.
  • Repeat the process until the faults are minimised. 
  • Once you’ve eliminated all the low spots, move the arm so the indicators are just touching the rim. Gently spin the wheel and look for any areas that are not rubbing.
  • Define the areas that don’t touch the callipers and then loosen all the spokes in that arc quarter of a turn. This will drop the rim in that area. 
  • Repeat the process until the faults are minimised.

It is quite difficult to get a perfectly radial rim, and you may need to return to lateral truing after you have done it, as adjusting the spokes for radial perfection may have thrown out the wheel laterally.

When to stop

There are no hard and fast rules about this. If the wheel is old and has had a lot of use then you probably won’t get it perfectly true.  You may have to compromise between radial and lateral truing. Try and achieve a maximum of about a millimetre of gap laterally and 2 millimetres radially.

The secret to wheel truing is patience, practice and knowing when to stop!

Sometimes the wheel might be beyond repair and even with your best effort it might be time to get a new one. If you have any other cycle maintenance and repair related queries, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Check out our YouTube channel first though as there is a good chance we have already got it covered!

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