Rebuilding your wire wheels

My 1947 MG TC was purchased with TA wheels in place. I purchased a set of used old TC wheels only to discover problems with the "new wheels". Spokes were broken and nipples were seized. Some wheels had significant rust.

I looked into paying to have these wheels rebuilt. I also priced new spokes. After consideration and lots of information from folks on the MG-TABC list I decided that although the price for rebuilding was reasonable I could do it myself. I also take pride in maintaining my car myself, so there was little choice.

When all is said and done it will have cost around $90 per wheel to restore them myself or $300 each to have it done.

What follows is my experience in doing a set of wheels for my 1947 MG TC. I have learned much about wire wheels and 19" wire wheels in particular. I wish I could have just read how to do it on the net and then jumped right in. Unfortunately I have found the much of what I read on-line was either meant for wheels with a different lacing pattern or was just plain wrong. I have developed an easy way to do the wheels, it is by no means the only way, it may not even be the best way. It is, however a way which works for me and renders a really nice set of wheels. No guarantees are made, follow these instructions at your own risk. If you have no confidence in your abilities or are not willing to persevere if things don't go right immediately then I recommend you just go and pay for someone to do your wheels. If you enjoy doing it yourself then go ahead and do it yourself.

Here we see the first wheel I have tried to work on. It had several broken spokes. It had many seized nipples (those little adjusting nuts at the rim end of the spokes). I heated the nipples cherry red to get them to release... some did, others just stayed seized. This rim also had a little crack in it.

The fastest and easiest way to break down a wheel seems to be to cut the spokes. You can do this with a pair of diagonal wire cutters... if you are macho!

Or you can do it like I did.

Just push the old spokes out of the hub, I do this over a trash can.

Here is a quick way to get rid of old spokes from the rim.

Inspect the parts, here I found a crack which I welded and then re-drilled.

Here we see the rim and hub all stripped down and ready for welding and paint prep.

Remove the old paint, rust, etc. and primer paint the parts.

Select and order the new spokes and nipples. I had Buchannon Rim and Spoke in Azusa California make up my spokes... good quality, fast work, low price and excellent information. Note you will need to copy the lengths of the original spokes... 32 short spokes and 16 long ones.

I have been seeing spokes break at the head in the hub flange so I ordered spokes with a thicker head portion. These are called tapered. The spoke is the same diameter as the originals except at the hub end.

Note: this step is not needed!

Since the spokes are tapered they no longer fit into the hub holes. I had to drill out each hole a size larger and then re-drill the countersink. I set up my drills in the drill press and backed up with a chunk of hardwood. That took about two minutes. The hub is soft enough to drill easily.

I discovered that the first wheel I did was different than the other five remaining. The rest of the set of wheels were finshed without drilling. Once you have your new spokes just try them into the hub. If you need to drill go ahead and drill, if not then don't do it!

With the wheel on the ground put the hub down with the flange against the ground and the valve stem hole up. Now insert your short spokes into the outer row of holes in the flange. Turn them all the same direction as in one of your other wheels... you will be building all of them the same. This first row of spokes want to go a specific direction look at the bottom of the page and read about "listening" to your wheel. Then thread nipples loosely onto the spokes by inserting them into the rim. A phillips screwdriver helps here.

I call this spoke "layer one".

Next I moved the wheel to the stand I threw together. There is a little aluminum hub on a bearing to make it easy to spin the wheel and insert the nipples. Later I can use this stand for truing the wheels.

You will need to be sure that you insert these spokes into the raised holes in the rim which point towards the spoke... it is obvious. You will be using every third hole.

All of my wheels wanted the first row to turn clockwise as they exited the hub. I have found there is only one way to do a wheel, you need to carefully look at your wheel to determine if it wants to go clockwise.

The job can be done on the garage floor! If you make a stand be sure to set it to a comfortable height so you don't get a sore back and so you can dance to your garage music while building the wheels! This also protects the primer paint from being marred while lacing it up.

Next I flipped the wheel over to get at the flange. The center of the hub makes a nice holder for spokes. I fastened my can of anti-seize to the stand handy for dipping each spoke... I expect to be able to true these wheels again in 10 or 20 years!

Here you see the first spoke of the second row inserted into the raised hole which points towards the spoke.

Here the second row is completed, note the second row uses the inner holes on the hub flange. I call this "layer two".

The second row goes in the opposite direction of the first. Look closely at the holes in the rim... it can go in two ways. One way gives a single cross to the spokes. The wheel will look prettier, but it will not be as strong. Also if you single cross the spokes then they will not run straight into the rim, they will have a little kink at the end. The MG TC wheels want to be double crossed: each spoke in row one and two cross two other spokes.

Now flip the wheel over to go on. Surprisingly there is also a convienent hole on this side in the center for holding your spokes as you build!

Now we switch to the longer spokes. For the third row of spokes you use the lower holes on the small end of the hub. Be sure to run the spokes in the same direction as the first row used. You will need to use every other available hole in the rim. Note that the remaining holes are angled like the holes for the flange spokes, but this angle is very subtle. (See "listening" to your wheel below.)

After writing this I went out and did five more wheels. I have found that there is only one way to do a wheel. Not all wheels are the same... of my six only three had row one and row 3 running the same direction, the other three had the two rows running in opposite direction. If you do it wrong the spokes won't run straight into the hub, they will have a bend to them. This is obvious when you look at the spokes in row three and row four which are supposed to be parallel. If you do it wrong then it will look wrong.

Here is the completed third row... ("Layer three").

The fourth row ("layer four") goes in just like the third. The spokes go in the opposite direction and use the topmost holes in the hub. All holes should now be full and the wheel should look beautiful.

I now ran around the wheel with a spoke wrench and adjusted all the spokes so they rang the same pitch, you may want to turn off the tunes to do this step. The wheel is now ready to be made round and true with the procedure I mentioned lower down on this page.

I just found a convienient place on my stand to mount a dial gauge. If you don't have one you can get a servicable one at Harbor Freight (with magnet base) for about $12. Swap meets (auto jumbles) are also good places to get these. I mounted the post for the gauge into the steel table and did not use the magnet base.

After doing six complete wheels and two partial spoke replacement wheels I am now more experienced. There are a few points I wish to make:

Here are a few more comments from my experience. Check for some of these errors. I have learned from my errors... you can too.

The wheel on the left is the correct double cross pattern for the TC. On the right you have the single cross pattern. If your eyes are sharp you will see a little bend to the spokes in the single pattern. Since the spokes needed for a single cross pattern are shorter eight of the spokes will protrude inside the rim and you will run out of adjustment when you try and true this wheel.

If you end up with a single cross pattern when you are lacing you must remove the second layer and try again.

A British car website has a wheel truing article which states that all you need to do is adjust the inner layers to make the wheel round and the outer layers to make it true. This may be true on whatever the lacing pattern they are making up, but on our wheels it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

Visualize your wheel as being made up of 16 segements, each segment is controlled by one group of three spokes as shown here. You can see that by turning all three nipples (an inner spoke from layer one and outer spoke from layer three or four and another inner spoke from layer two) the same amount and direction you will cause the segement radius to become longer or shorter without affecting the truing of the wheel. So turning the three nipples the same direction in each group of three will allow you to make the wheel round. ... Clear, huh?

When I say turn a nipple I generally turn it one flat (90) leaving the flat surface parallel to the rim. To get 180 I turn two flats.

Same picture... now to adjust the trueness of the wheel you need to pull the rim towards you or push it away from you. To do that you need to turn the center nipple (spoke from either layer three or layer four)the opposite direction from the other two nipples (from the inner layers... layer one and layer two).

Think about it, this is clear and plain. If you don't want to effect the roundness of the wheel... and you don't... you must tighten the rim as much as you loosen it with these spokes. To do that I turn the nipples on the two spokes from the inner layers 1/4 turn (90) and I turn that center nipple from the outer layer spoke 1/2 turn (180) in the opposite direction. Since 1/4 + 1/4 - 1/2 = 0 you do not effect your roundness by doing it this way.

This strategy allows you to quickly and easily true and round the wheel to as much accuracy as you want. No muss or fuss, every time you adjust a segement of three spokes the wheel gets better and closer to true or round. Don't take my word for it, I only figured it out, you try it... then smile!

I discovered that half of my wheels wanted to lace up with the layers one and three going the same direction. I did all 6 wheels that way and this is what happened to three of them.

Notice that the parallel spokes are clearly not parallel. The spokes also are a bit bent at the nipples. The correction for this condition is to remove the nipples from layers three and four and flop each spoke over to the opposite direction. Then layers one and four will run the same way. The whole wheel then laces up nice and pretty... oh, yes, you then have to re-paint the wheel if you want it nice and fresh!

I feel that the secret to building wheels is to "listen to the wheel". What I mean by this is to look carefully at the rim. Those holes will dictate where every spoke goes. The finished wheel will have a spoke in each hole coming out the center of the hole and heading the way that raised mound points.

These holes can be grouped into threes... the same threesomes which make up a unit of three spokes for truing (see above). When you get the feel for the wheel you can look at these holes and know how to lace the wheel. Here I have the valve stem side of the rim up (and the small end of the hub also up). The hole which is lowest on the rim points left. All the layer one spokes go in the 16 matching holes. These layer one spokes go into the outer row of holes on the flange of the hub.

Now look two holes to the left. These holes are in the middle of the rim and they accept the spokes from layer two... the spokes running from the inner row of holes on the hub flange. All these hole point the opposite way from the last set of holes we used.

Now is when your good eye and keen judgement comes in to play. The remaining 16 holes must receive 8 spokes from layer three (the lower holes on the small end of the hub) and 8 spokes from layer four (top of the hub). This photo shows three of these holes, the center one points left and the other two go right. You first lace up layer three into every other remaining hole (all the ones pointing the same direction) and then you do layer 4 in the remaining holes. In order to determine which set of holes go with which layer you will need to insert a spoke in layer three and then try it in each rim hole it will reach. One hole will point at that layer 3 spoke and one will point away from it. Use the hole which points at the spoke.

This process of always placing the spoke into the hole with which it lines up is what I call "listening to a wheel". If you listen to your wheels as you build them it will be fast, easy and enjoyable to do the job. If you don't listen to the wheel then you will have to re-do it over and over or settle for screwed up wheels.

Pretty, huh?

This job is really not hard at all, nor is as daunting as it will seem to everyone who looks at your beautiful wheels.

Since one of my wheels looked really bad I got an extra and practiced on the bad one. It is in this stack of 5, but I now have 6 really gorgeous TC wheels... so I will run with 2 spares.

Terry Horlick

E-mail: Terry Horlick

Created July 26, 2006| Last updated August 12, 2006
Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.