By: Rob Curtis (aka “PSIMET”)
Custom wheel is one of many terms given to wheels that are considered to be set apart from “Other Wheels”. The “others” in this case are mass produced wheels that are born in a factory either on a wheel building machine in most instances or even by hand of workers employed to build hundreds to thousands of wheels. Most of the wheels that you have come into contact during your time around cycling have in fact been mass produced wheels.
The old idea of mass produced wheels centered around all of them being built by machine. Now mass production of wheels is constantly changing but there’s a few things that seem to always be true. Wheels produced completely by a machine are overly prone to issues. The machines made just don’t duplicate the human building process enough to even be viable in my opinion and yet plenty of factories still rely on it as their only means of producing wheels.The result is wheels that can’t “stand”. This means a wheel that can’t endure what the wheel is supposed to endure.
An ideal wheel is one that has completely even tension across all of the spokes on the same side of the hub flange. It has equal tension on the spokes on both sides if it’s a symmetrical front wheel like most rim brake front wheels. On a rear wheel the flanges aren’t symmetrical. The cassette/gears push the drive side flange over so the non drive side tension is much lower. The further over it’s pushed then lower the non drive side tension will be. An ideal wheel has the highest ratio that it can attain between these two sides in this case.The ideal wheel then is also round (vertically true) as well as true (laterally true) while these tensions stay the same.
Nothing made by man is ever 100% round. All sorts of variances in materials and wall thicknesses of rims can cause variation or residual stresses in a rim. In other words you can take a brand new high quality rim and have perfectly tensioned spokes and the resulting wheel could be all over the map in terms of roundness/trueness. So in order to make the wheel round and true you need to change the tensions on the spokes to move the rim and compensate for the rim’s flaws. This trade-off of compromises is the dance that makes wheel building a craft that is near impossible to automate fully.
Once you come to a great compromise then you need to “stress relieve” or load the wheel to within an inch of it’s life. This process over loads the spokes against the nipple threads – rim seats – hub flanges, etc. You correct the spoke lines of the spokes as much as possible – a process that can’t be automated – and then you look at the net result. That “wheel” that was just a great compromise of round and true and tensions is now different. In some cases – depending on the changes made it could be a downright hot mess.
That right there is what happens to “most” wheels. The machines hand lace and tension the wheels. They try and stress them. They hand them off to humans who are in a factory making a paycheck usually in a nation that has no real appreciation in the culture for high level bicycles let alone the cheap ones. That person usually tweaks them and now they were “hand checked” or even “hand built”. They go on to a bike. Mr. Clubby goes on a ride with them. On that ride he stresses the wheel in a way it has yet to see. The nipples seat in the rim. The spokes into the flanges. The spoke lines straighten and take a life of their own.
The end result is a wheel at the end of a ride…or two or three that is now no longer tension balanced, or round or true. For eons the local shop rats were told old wives tales that somehow all new wheels needed to be ridden a couple of times and then re-trued or even re-tensioned. This is merely a way of admitting they can’t build a wheel the right way to begin with. You don’t see premium wheels come with a shipping label to have customers return them after a few rides to be re-tensioned and trued.
This story is the same all over the industry. I have been inside of factories that mean well and have riders running the machines and incredibly gifted engineers designing stress rigs, etc. to help deal with these issues but at the end of the day there is still a litany of their wheels that end up across my stand where the variances in tension are so out of line the only explanation has to be a system breakdown of some sort. Almost like the person building that wheel at that moment cared more about their next break than the wheel that came off their hands.
Some of us builders take the time and have become really adept at finding that balance of variables. At PSIMET we have a reputation of having wheels that tend to last through just about anything that can be thrown at them. “I haven’t touched this thing since the day I bought it and it’s as true as it ever was.” It simply speaks to our ability to find that best compromise of the variables involved. That’s what separates “Custom” or “Handbuilt” in our instance from any other wheelset out there. We build wheels that “Stand”. If after loading through use a wheel is still a round wheel that is true with great tension balance then we say that the wheel “stands”.
In our case we make wheels that “stand” regardless of whether it is a fully custom application or something that we are building for our “handbuilt catalog”. The process is always 100% identical. The only change is whether or not the components, spoke counts, and materials were selected for a specific customer and application in mind or if they are simply being built to mimic what our customers have told us works best time and time again – making the lead time on what is a hand built custom wheel nearly negligible.
I do this for a lot of reasons. Primarily because it’s the right way to make wheels. Another big reason is quite simply I am “in the field” every weekend throughout the entire year providing direct support at races locally and regionally. I interact directly with my customers at these events. Last thing I ever want to happen is to be the reason a customer has to miss an event. Almost no one else in this entire industry is doing that. I end up being the one that fixes all those premium wheels when they crap out the day of the race.
This direct immersion means I know what works and what doesn’t just about the first instant possible. I have the flexibility to change out any component in the process the second I decide it just isn’t going to work for us.
Many of the components we use can be sourced by a lot of people at all levels of this industry. Many of those people have also read the internet and know the buzzwords that customers shopping for good wheels have learned. While the components used are a large factor in the overall net result when building a wheel the process itself plays an even larger role. Give the same components to 6 different “builders” and you will get 6 completely different wheels. Quite simply many others may know of the right process and may truly feel they are doing it correctly but really just don’t have either the experience, gift, or touch to truly make a wheel that “stands”.
These are just some of the factors that I believe help make PSIMET wheels “different” than other wheels available. Even when you buy “off the shelf” (by ordering a model off this website in the store) with us it’s still a custom hand built wheel that stands. It’s been built using the years of direct experience we have gained from not just building wheels but fixing the wheels of others and supporting enthusiasts and racers every single weekend throughout the year everywhere from the local crit to national championships. We’re not an “internet company” – we are your local shop, your local promoter, your local team, your local wheelbuilder. Our business is the sport of cycling.