The art of crafting something with your hands has all but gone from modern society. Man has been replaced by faster, more efficient machines. Custom craftsmanship is a dying skill reserved for artisan fairs, boutique furniture stores, and expensive Swiss watches.
On a recent trip to Wellington I drove out to Lyall Bay to catch up with Tristan from Wheelworks, a Kiwi company built around that very ethos of craftsmanship, precision, and quality. Gav McCarthy, one of their wheelbuilders, took me through their entire process by building up a set of wheels for me to test drive.
They say the devil is in the detail and that was my first impression at Wheelworks. Gav pulled up my order on the computer and helped me pick and create custom coloured decals for my new rims and hubs. This level of personalisation is a great feature, letting the discerning customer match wheels to frame. If they prefer something more subtle, the classic Kiwi staple of all black is always available.
Gav then swaps software to his wheelbuilding programme where he adds in the hubs and rims we’re using—but not before checking all the vital measurements with his trusty callipers, adjusting any that fall outside his tolerance. The rims get the same once over as the ERDs (Effective Rim Diameters) are checked. Once all this is factored, spoke length is calculated and spokes trimmed precisely to that spec.
For the next stage of the process Gav jumps over to a custom Wheelworks-designed lacing table. Tristan, who studied mechanical engineering and worked in innovative product design, is the man behind all the specialised custom tools and machines at Wheelworks. The goal of these is to make the craft of building wheels simpler and easier, and to produce a better end product.
After the spokes are laced and wound on Gav takes the wheel over to Grimlock, another of Tristan’s creations. Grimlock is a pneumatic press that side-stresses the wheel and spokes to simulate extreme riding forces. The theory here is that once the wheel is trued after the Grimlock treatment the spokes stay at even tension for much longer. This process is done to both sides of the wheel before it goes on the truing stand for its final tensioning.
Again, Wheelworks only use the highest precision truing stands—the Centrimaster is accurate to around a quarter of a millimetre. This is where the real skill comes in; Gav’s goal with every wheel is to touch the spoke nipples only three or four times each to true the wheel and get the spokes to the perfect tension, an impressive feat. Et Voila…One perfectly true, pre-stressed set of hand built wheels, ready for decals, boxing, and shipping to the customer.
Until recently Wheelworks had been using third-party hubs and rims for most of their builds but, always looking for areas to improve, Tristan decided to design his own rim and hub. He set about looking for a manufacturer overseas that could meet his exacting standards, and the end result that came to fruition last year is now the go-to option in their lineup. I chose to run with the Flite Carbon Trail rim on the front and the Flite Carbon Enduro (a stronger carbon lay-up version) on the back. Both have a 32mm internal width.
The art of lacing and truing a bicycle wheel is not as complex as it sounds and there are many great wheelbuilders around the country. What sets Wheelworks apart is the craft involved and the attention to detail that borders on obsessive. Wheelworks is so confident in their products and craftsmanship that all their wheels come with a lifetime warranty, so any damage that occurs while riding will be fixed free of charge. For me this is the ultimate testament of the faith in your own craft.