Something else I forgot to write about! I've now built two wheels by hand: a front and a dished rear. And neither used all new components; The front came the closest because that had new spokes - the rear I was re-using everything just moving to a different (old) rim. My sum total of wheel-building tools involved a spoke key and an upside down bicycle as my wheel-building jig.
I figure if I can do it - with old rims and spokes and nipples of different lengths and gauges - and still come out with a better wheel than I started with it can't actually be all that hard to do. Hugely time consuming, yes, but it's something anyone can do.
There is plenty enough written elsewhere about how to build wheels, so I won't repeat that in detail here. I'll just point out that it is an iterative process, you just keep repeating the following three steps until you get close enough or fed up:
- Lateral truing - the easy bit, using brake blocks as guides so that everything is not wobbling side to side
- Circumferential out of round - REALLY frustrating and much harder than the lateral truing. Again using the brake blocks to get things into round. I found thinking of the rim as an egg shape helped, i.e. don't just try to tension the high point, also loosen the opposite and perpendicular sides. Also, I suspect (and hope!) this is much easier with a new rim, rather than an old battered one.
- Tension - just "pinging"/"twanging" the spokes works fine for this.
Remember, you're not aiming for perfection: The bar for surpassing a factory built wheel is surprisingly low. Much lower than you'd think. A mm or so out of round/true isn't going to be a big deal as long as your spoke tension is fairly even - definitely go for equality in spoke tension over trueness.
This all links in to winter tyres because I'd spent all year borrowing (rusty, wrong length and wrong gauge spokes) from the front wheel of my winter bike to keep the rear of my summer bike running. I wish now I'd been able to rebuild the rear wheel with new spokes rather than just replace the odd spoke or at least taken the time to ensure I had equal spoke tension and not just a true wheel when replacing individual spokes, but I just didn't have the time until the rim cracked in about six places and took the decision out of my hand. So that was my crash course in wheel-building and then when winter came around my winter bike had no front wheel and so that was my second lesson in wheel building.
On the cheap (as ever) I had decided to replace just the rear winter tyre as the front still looked in ok condition (studs had not collapsed too much sideways and elongated the hole). Schwalbe had come out with a new size in the range this year (30-622) that had the dual benefit of being slightly cheaper and narrower than what I usually get (35-622) which was always a bit of a squeeze in the frame. I figure I'm fine without the extra studs on the rear because it's the front I need to be able to get out of ruts and I've got the weight of my arse on the rear helping with the grip.