Condensed answer: If the spokes are in good condition, they can be reused in specific circumstances.
Spoke nipples, on the other hand, are often categorized as disposable parts because they are cheaper and have a tendency to round off.
In consequence, many mechanics rely on new nipples when re-building a wheel.
What Are The Requirements To Reuse Spokes?
1. Identical Rim Diameter
The diameter of the new rim has to match that of the old one. Otherwise, the spokes will be either too short or too long.
2. Low Fatigue
The two main sources of spoke failure are:
If the wheel faces extreme external force, it will buckle, and the spokes will bend and pop out.
The spokes are subjected to constant tension and bending. Over time the metal fatigues and can eventually fail.
This is a major reason why bike shops refuse to reuse spokes from old wheels. The mechanics don’t know the history of the spokes and don’t want to take unnecessary risks.
If the spokes have been in service for a long time, putting them on a new wheel is counter-productive because they may already be at the end of their lifespan.
Therefore, reusing spokes makes the most sense when they’re at the beginning of their fatigue cycle.
3. No Structural Damage
If you plan to reuse a set of spokes, their mechanical integrity has to be inspected.
- Irregularities. If the derailleur isn’t adjusted properly, the chain may be rubbing against the spokes on the drive side when riding in the lowest gear. If the problem isn’t addressed, over time the chain will “eat” the spokes and hurt their integrity.
However, some spoke damage is expected even with perfect derailleur adjustment when the bicycle is used for aggressive riding without a clutch derailleur and/or a chain guide limiting the movement of the chain during landings.
If the spokes are “eaten” by the chain, replace them.
- Straightness. If the spokes aren’t straight and require bending to fit on the new wheel, it’s best to disregard them and acquire a new set.
4. The Position Of The Spokes Should Be Kept The Same
Some spokes attach to the inside of the hub’s flange while others end up on the outside.
Once the wheel is built, the inside and outside spokes acquire a different bend at the elbow.
In consequence, it’s not recommended to change their place. A spoke that goes on the outside of the hub shouldn’t be used on the inside because the curve would be too big and may make the spoke unstable.
This leaves us with two options when reusing spokes:
a. Don’t remove the spokes from the hub. If you’re replacing the rim, you can leave the spokes on the hub. This will ensure that the place and order of each spoke remain intact.
b. Organize the spokes. Keeping the spokes on the old hub is not an option if the hub has to be replaced due to malfunction or as an upgrade.
In that case, you will have to sort the spokes to replicate their position on the new hub.
You can sort them into the following groups:
|Rear wheel, drive side, inside spokes
|Rear wheel, drive side outside spokes
|Rear wheel, non-drive side, inside spokes
|Rear wheel, non-drive side, outside spokes
|Front-wheel, left side, inside spokes
|Front-wheel, left side, outside spokes
|Front-wheel, right side, inside spokes
|Front-wheel, right side, outside spokes
As you can see, you will end up with 8 groups of spokes that later have to be placed on the new hub in the same order.
Note: The new hub may have ever so slightly wider holes. This may cause some instability.
Since the above procedure takes a fair amount of time without ensuring perfect results, many people reuse the spokes only when replacing just the rim. If the hub has to go too, a new set of spokes is purchased.
What’s The Best Situation For Re-using Spokes?
Re-using spokes makes the most sense when they’re in good condition, and you’re re-rimming a wheel (replacing the rim but keeping the hub).
As mentioned above, it’s possible to re-use spokes in other circumstances too, but the investment of time and effort is often not worth it.
What’s The Fastest Way To Re-rim A Wheel?
One of the most common ways to do a “rim transplant” (re-rim a wheel) is as follows:
Step 1: Remove the tire from the old wheel.
Step 2: If the old rim is rusty on the inside, apply some WD-40 or an equivalent product and clean the surface with a wire brush. The goal is to uncover the spoke nipples.
If the rim isn’t rusty, skip this step.
Step 3: Unscrew the nipples.
Step 4: Tape the new rim to the old one (side by side) while matching the valve holes of both rims.
Step 5: Transfer the spokes that are the closest to the new rim.
Step 6: Transfer the remaining spokes.
Step 7: Cut the tape and tighten the nipples while trying to keep the tension as even as possible across all spokes.
Step 8: Put the wheel on a truing stand and fully tighten the wheel while ensuring that it’s perfectly round and smooth.
The procedure above is fairly complex, but if you do it numerous times, you will get better faster than you think.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing all the work yourself due to the lack of experience and tools, take the wheel to a bike shop.
FAQ: In what situations is it necessary to re-rim a wheel?
The most common scenarios requiring replacement of the rim are:
1. An accident during which the rim is bent.
2. Wear of the rim caused by rim brakes.
Do Spokes Lose Strength When Re-using Them?
Moving spokes from one wheel to another hurts their longevity for the following reasons:
1. When the first wheel is built, the spokes are tensioned a certain way.
When you put the spokes on another wheel, the tension points change. In consequence, the spokes suffer extra stress.
2. If the wheel has been in use for a while, then the spokes have already accumulated some fatigue.
Spokes last longer if they remain on the same wheel. Putting them on another shortens the exploitation cycle. How much? No one can tell with great precision.
Is It Ok To Re-Use Spoke Nipples?
It’s not advisable to re-use spoke nipples because they’re made of soft material (aluminum or brass) and can therefore be damaged when dissembling an old wheel and building a new one with the same set.
Also, spoke nipples are fairly cheap. Thus, the incentive to reuse them is lower.
Having said that, if you have the right tools for the job, and the nipples are in good condition, you can try re-using them.
Why Are Spoke Nipples Made Of Aluminum or Brass?
Bike spokes are made of steel because the material is both strong and flexible.
However, the same material cannot be used for the nipples because steel on steel results in galling that would make it impossible to true the wheel after a certain amount of time.
Galling represents material degradation triggered by excessive friction between two elements. In extreme cases, the parts may seize (cold welding) and prevent disassembly without structural damage.
By relying on a different material for the nipple, galling is eliminated as a problem.
The other reasons to choose brass and aluminum for the nipples over steel are:
1. In the case of cross-threading, an aluminum or brass nipple is more likely to be damaged than the spoke because it’s softer. This is beneficial because nipples are cheaper than spokes and less annoying to replace.
2. Brass and aluminum are easier to machine than hard steel.
Are Aluminum Nipples Stronger Than Brass Nipples?
Aluminum nipples are weaker than brass nipples. They are softer and can easily split or become too round to catch them with a spoke wrench.
Brass nipples are stronger and don’t corrode as much – qualities that make them the preferred choice of many wheel builders.
Another upside of brass are its friction qualities making it possible to adjust the nipple without lubrication.