Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

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Brucey
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Joined: 4 Jan 2012, 6:25pm

Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Brucey » 25 Mar 2020, 11:30pm

This is my take on choosing spokes; other folk will have different priorities to me so may make different choices, and will have had different experiences too.

First a couple of things that hold true (IME):

a) spokes need to be defective in fit, material and/or manufacture before it becomes impossible to build an acceptably reliable wheel with them.
b) it doesn't matter how good the spokes are if the build is bad; bad fit in the hub, and/or poor tensioning, and/or inadequate stress-relief can make for a bad wheel.

Second, my criteria for choosing spokes are as follows;

1) I have to be able to buy them. That means that they have to be distributed in the UK, available from more than one source and ideally available in 1mm length increments.
2) they have to have a good reputation for reliability (both generally and in my personal experience).
3) they have to be available in PG-14G and sensible DB types at least. SB and 13G types are a bonus.
4) my preference (both technically and aesthetically) is for polished stainless steel spokes
5) I don't mind if the J bend length is slightly long; I often build with spoke washers anyway.
6) price is a factor provided I am making a choice between spokes that are otherwise likely to be satisfactory

bearing in mind the above, I reckon it boils down to a choice between DT-Swiss, Sapim and ACI. [I might have included other brands such as Mach-1 spokes, but I don't know if anyone actually distributes them in the UK or not. They look nice in the catalogue and the few I have seen in the flesh look OK too.]

My experiences of the brands are as follows:

DT. I've used many thousands of DT spokes over nearly forty years. [IIRC I paid 10p each for DB stainless, retail, when I first started using them. I officially feel 'old' as a result.] They have always come to me in (Swiss) factory sealed boxes. As far as I can tell none of the wheels that I have built with these spokes has ever had a breakage (I have always asked other people to be sure to tell me if this ever happens, and I know some of my wheels are approaching six-figure mileages). I think this is partly the spokes but bearing in mind a) and b) above, and that I have seen plenty of these spokes break in other people's wheels, it has quite a lot to do with all the other factors too. IME DT spokes are exactly consistent lengths and quantities in a box are correct (or one over). The only things where I can find fault with quality are;
- the butt lengths (which are not consistent in 'competition' DB spokes, from batch to batch, varying from about 25mm to over 40mm)
- signs of 'rippling' in the centre gauge of some DB spokes, presumably due to some facet of the swaging process
- for some years the J-bends were a bit longer than I would have chosen.
- I once found one unthreaded spoke in a box of DT spokes
- I have seen two DT spokes that broke in service in the tapered transition to the butt for no good reason. One was a black-finished spoke in a wheel with 'too few spokes' in, and the other wasn't.

So in terms of quality I find little to reproach DT over, not on past performance. However I note that they now have multiple factories, world wide. My experience is based on Swiss-made DT spokes; it is possible that not all the DT factories make the same quality product.

Sapim. I've used far fewer Sapim spokes than DT but they usually seem to be good quality. A builder local to me has used nothing else for the last fifteen years and doesn't have a bad word to say about them. They have more consistent butt lengths (than DT) in DB spokes, and the butts are short; around 20mm is normal, making Sapim DB spokes slightly lighter than DT ones. However I have heard of one or two mysterious incidents where Sapim spokes have 'gone brittle'. I didn't know what to make of this until quite recently when I found some Sapim spokes (in a little-used wheel) that were like this; in essence you could take a length of the spoke and when bending it (with a force that wouldn't normally cause the spoke to take much of a 'set' the spoke would just snap like a carrot. I find this pretty mysterious because AFAICT Sapim use the same exact wire (from Sandvik I think) as DT. If so they must not apply the same QA to it or something; the bad spokes I saw broke they way they did because the material was already cracked; a good part of each fracture was blackened already. I sent a few of the rogue spokes back to Sapim and I received no acknowledgement and no reply of any kind.

So in terms of quality it is a mixed bag; mostly they are great but given that there have been occasional incidents in which the spokes are completely useless and they don't seem to want to engage with folk who have a problem, this counts against them. Bottom line; I will happily use Sapim spokes provided I am able to (probably destructively) examine a sample spoke from each box I use.

ACI. I've used ACI (Alpina) spokes in limited quantities for many years. They are made in 18-8 stainless steel; exact grade unknown, but likely to be comparable to DT/Sapim. For some years they made nice aero spokes when other spoke manufacturers didn't. They come in boxes of 144 spokes (where DT and Sapim come in boxes of 100) and this means you can build four 36 spoke wheels per box instead of two and a half. In the most recent experience they are playing it safe with quantities; the last three boxes I opened each contained 146 spokes (which is 4x 32 +18, another exact fit, quantity wise). The spokes look nicely finished and have consistent butt lengths in DB which are between DT and Sapim in length. All good so far.... However in the past I have seen some ACI spokes which seemed a bit softer than I'd expect, some black finished spokes which went rusty (maybe they make cheap ones for OEM wheels?) and I have seen a batch where the elbow bends were formed on a tool that hadn't been cleaned or something; there was a wrinkle and a funny mark on the inside of the elbow bend and these spokes (which were in one side of wheel not built by me) were merrily breaking as a result.

So another mixed bag quality report from ACI. The bottom line is that the bad spokes I have seen would have never been built into a wheel by me ( e.g. the ones with bad bends would have failed a simple thumbnail test on the bend) so I'm prepared to give ACI spokes another go especially if the price is right.

Butt lengths are important (to me) because if you are buying spokes by the boxful, unless you are prepared to keep several thousand pound's worth of spokes in stock, it is very like that you will be cutting and threading spokes for particular builds. SB and PG spokes can be shortened to almost any length but DB spokes can only be shortened a certain amount. If you take the expected range of DB spoke lengths to be ~255mm to 300mm then provided you can shorten spokes by ~15mm then you need only three lengths to cover the expected range. In ACI three lengths is OK. In DT spokes two lengths is pushing it (bearing in mind the erratic nature of the butt lengths) so it is again three lengths required. However in Sapim the butts are so short you would need at least four lengths to cover the range.

So there is no such thing as a perfect spoke; from my experience DT come pretty close but there are minor niggles even there. I'm probably going to give ACI spokes more of a go in the future, simply because they are quite a bit less expensive than Sapim or DT right now.

cheers
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Brucey~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Debs
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Location: Powys

Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Debs » 26 Mar 2020, 12:13am

Brucey wrote:4) my preference (both technically and aesthetically) is for polished stainless steel spokes


Hung on the wall of my garage, is a retired pair of Mavic Cosmos 700c.
The hubs are completely knackered, the rims especially the front is worn as deep as you'd care to dare. They haven't done really high miles but must have done a dozen or so winters, and been done in by them.
However all the polished stainless steel spokes look so wonderful they beggar belief because they still look new, and none are seized and all can adjust perfectly, and not to mention pointlessly... :D
Last edited by Debs on 26 Mar 2020, 1:56pm, edited 1 time in total.

Des49
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Joined: 2 Dec 2014, 11:45am

Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Des49 » 26 Mar 2020, 7:03am

My only poor spoke problems have been to some Sapim spokes that kept failing in the centres. Put me off them for a while but I do use them again, I assume a bad batch and hopefully a rare occurence.

They also stamp their name on the section after the bend, seems a bad idea but I have never had a failure in that area.

But mostly I try to stick to DT spokes. Intend to keep these as my favoured option unless they do start to get even more expensive.

I did post about my issues with Sapim but cannot find the original post now, pictures were from March 2015.
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Brucey
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Brucey » 26 Mar 2020, 8:40am

that looks very similar to the 'problem' Sapim spokes that I have seen; the dark areas on the fracture face I think are pre-existing cracks. In the spokes I have they will snap when bent, like bread sticks, and the fracture faces show similar dark marks. The manufacturing date of these spokes would have to be around 2010.

cheers
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Brucey~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Des49
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Des49 » 26 Mar 2020, 9:03am

I would have built wheels with my batch of spokes sometime around 2012 onwards, so quite possibly a batch from around the date you suggest.
Mine were breaking in service after a few hundred miles use in a front wheel, but when I rebuilt the wheel a couple did snap as you describe. I kept replacing spokes in the wheel until I got fed up with it and rebuilt.

I do have Sapim spokes purchased around the same time kept for a couple of project restorations (still not done!), they are different lengths, hope they prove probem free when I eventually use them. Or may just get some DT.

mig
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Joined: 19 Oct 2011, 9:39pm

Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby mig » 26 Mar 2020, 10:15am

very interesting information on spokes here thanks. i'm finally going to get around to building a front wheel soon if i can remember where i put all the parts :D
quite surprised to see upthread a mavic cosmic wheel being used in the winter. they were 16 spoke deep rim jobs weren't they?

Debs
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Location: Powys

Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Debs » 26 Mar 2020, 1:50pm

mig wrote:quite surprised to see upthread a mavic cosmic wheel being used in the winter. they were 16 spoke deep rim jobs weren't they?


Sorry my mistake! They be Cosmos! :D

I have a couple of Mavic wheel cardbourd packaging boxes with dispatch date Sept 96, and which also spec Cosmic 700c - but they must be from a different set.

Been raking my memory for when i purchased this Cosmos set, and which 8/9 speed bike i intended them for...
They did get used on my 2005 Trek SL1000
But think i may of purchased them earlier for my old Cannondale CAAD 4 frame from 2001?

When did Mavic Cosmos first come onto the market?

Just checked them over - front 24 spoke radial / rear 28 spoke 3X All spokes SS and feel like single butt on hub ends.

A tuff old pair of wheels tho'. The rear hub is still spinning smooth, but front hub is shot, and both rims seen better days.
The spokes are still gorgeous, never broke one on these wheels. No manufacturer mark (?)

Image

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interestedcp
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby interestedcp » 28 Mar 2020, 1:16pm

Brucey wrote: I find this pretty mysterious because AFAICT Sapim use the same exact wire (from Sandvik I think) as DT. If so they must not apply the same QA to it or something


I am pretty sure that DT Swiss and Sapim doesn't use the exact same spoke wire. Can't find a really authoritative source anymore, but apparently DT Swiss use a custom alloy (X5 CrNi 18/10 stainless steel) made especially for them by Sandvik SMT*.

Sapim used other Sandvik Spoke Wire alloys for standard spokes and for their Super Spoke. Whether Sapim still uses Sandvik spoke wire for all or just some of their spokes I don't know. Sapim (Famo NV) bought Ryde Int. in 2011 and therefore acquired spoke production facilities besides starting new ones in Taiwan.
Perhaps the batches of brittle Sapim spokes were made on the new or acquired factories. Good spoke wire isn't enough to make durable spokes, the manufacturing process is crucial too.

*Sandvik sold off their Sandvik SMT wire division to German Zapp Group some time ago, so I guess Sandvik doesn't make spoke wire any more.
--
Regards

Brucey
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Brucey » 28 Mar 2020, 7:12pm

thanks for that, very interesting.

It is not unknown for 'special alloys' to just be a subset of a standard grade (e.g. batch selected by mill sheet analysis) or with some apparently fairly superficial (but possibly important) difference in heat treatment, cold work, or finishing. It is in the spoke manufacturer's interests to claim 'specialness' of course; several spoke manufacturers appear to subject the same material as their lesser spokes are made of to additional cold work and then make extravagant claims about it, as if it were somehow fundamentally different stuff.

No manufacturing process is 'perfect' so QA of such things as the incoming materials, the processing used in the spoke factory, and sampling of the output are all required to ensure that a consistent and high quality product are produced. Beauty is as beauty does; I don't expect any given manufacturer to get it right every time, but by sharing information and experiences we might all learn something.

cheers
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Brucey~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

MikeDee
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby MikeDee » 29 Mar 2020, 9:04pm

I guess you can't get Wheelsmith spokes in the UK, but I've built wheels with DT and Wheelsmith, and have had less spoke breakage and other problems with Wheelsmith. Plus, they have a better surface finish and really shine.

Brucey
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Brucey » 29 Mar 2020, 10:17pm

I think the polish on DT spokes is not as high as some other brands. If I want DT spokes to really shine, I sometimes hand polish them eg using a little solvol autosol, before I build the wheel. Once thus polished they are as shiny as anyone could want them to be and they stay that way. A whole set for a wheel can be polished in about ten minutes and gives your hands something to do if you are (say) sat watching TV.

Wheelsmith spokes are not widely available in the UK; Hayes (who own wheelsmith) list upgrade bikes as the UK distributor, but upgrade bikes does not list wheelsmith amongst their brands....? In the past when I have been able to buy wheelsmith spokes in the UK there doesn't seem to have been a good stockholding anywhere which means unless you are prepared to carry your own stock you are liable to end up in the poop on a regular basis. Wheelsmith spokes themselves seem OK to me (but then again I've neither used enough nor seen enough wheels built with them to speak of consistency) , but they are made differently to other brands, especially DT. They were originally made by Asahi in Japan and have been made in the USA for the last thirty-odd years, using the same (presumably Japanese) stainless steel wire. Wheelsmith use a shallow J-bend which needs to be reset if the flange is thicker than the bend allows for, which is not uncommon. I don't think that wheelsmith spokes are a very good fit in hubs with thick flanges, but they are fine in most shimano/campag road hubs. The need for a bend reset is obvious when it occurs and the operation is simple too, so it is no big deal if you want to build a nice wheel, and in fact you can hardly avoid resetting the spokes.

This contrasts to other spoke brands which mostly have a longer, squarer J bend. This also commonly needs to be reset and reformed, and/or spoke washers are needed, but the need for these things is not always so obvious, thus these other spokes may not suit an occasional wheelbuilder so well. If the wheel needs these corrective actions and they are not forthcoming, you will break spokes. Spoke makers like DT and Sapim will make whatever their customers ask for, which is OK until they ask for something stupid. For many years DT were imported into the USA by one company, who cut and threaded longer spokes to create the sizes bike shops needed. This was good for them (they needed to hold less stock) but bad in other ways; the spokes supplied were often not perfectly uniform in length, amongst other things (whereas those in sealed boxes from the Swiss factory are, IME). The US importer also -for some reason I have never been able to find out- asked for 'something stupid' from the parent company, in the form of excessively long J-bends. Spokes made to this J-bend spec ended up in the UK too, so for quite a few years it was necessary to build nearly every DT-spoked wheel with spoke washers. If you didn't fit spoke washers then the amount of resetting/stress-relief required was considerable.

The idiotic J-bend length alone was enough to put a lot of US builders off using DT spokes and I can't blame them. IIRC Peter White has written on this subject on his website . However DT spokes themselves were otherwise made to a high standard and if you can build a reliable wheel with a J-bend that doesn't match the hub then that is a testimonial to your skill (if not your choice of spoke I suppose). However if you don't take suitable steps when building the wheel to correct a bad fit between the spoke and the hub, spoke breakage (with any spoke) is almost inevitable.

FWIW of the 'big three' it may very slightly with spoke model, but in the most common DB types DT still seem to have a slightly longer J-bend length than Sapim, and ACI seem to be somewhere inbetween. The primary purpose of a spoke washer is to get the J-bend to match the hub properly, but there are secondary benefits to using them too, so I will often use spoke washers even though the J-bends fit the hub OK (eg with sapim spokes) and some setting is required to bring the spokes round to 90 degrees.

Had wheelsmith spokes been more widely available in the UK they would have gone on my shortlist; as it is it doesn't matter if they are good or bad spokes, I can't buy them like I need to so they don't get a look-in.

cheers
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Brucey~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Brucey
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Brucey » 4 Apr 2020, 11:09am

I've just offered a magnet up to some spokes and I've been surprised. I've not done this for a while and maybe this time I used a much stronger magnet or something. Anyway I found that

DT competition spokes were noticeably magnetic (i.e. a strong magnet would stick quite well to them) This seemed to be more the case in the heavily worked centre section of the spokes.

ACI/Alpina DB spokes were also at least as strongly attracted to a magnet.

Sapim spokes (both PG and standard DB) were either not noticeably attracted to the magnet or only weakly attracted. In one wheelset spokes of the same length (which were all bought at the same time) varied.

The ACI spokes are (according to the packaging) made from 18-8 stainless, which is a nominally austenitic composition. So either the composition is not quite like many other 18-8 stainless steels, or the thermomechanical history of the material favours less austenite than normal. Much the same considerations apply to DT spokes I suppose.

The Sapim result is a bit weird. All the spokes in the 'mixed result' wheel came out of the same box (at the LBS) and are otherwise indistinguishable but it is possible that this box contained spokes which came from two boxes originally; it is common practice for the residue from one box of 100 spokes to be decanted into the next box. In any event it speaks of variations in the manufacturing of these spokes.

cheers
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Brucey~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cyckelgalen
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Cyckelgalen » 4 Apr 2020, 11:50am

Speaking of spoke washers, are there any benefits to using washers at the other end? Between nipple and rim that is. Sapim make oval washers to fit snugly into the rim. Why would they be needed at all?

Brucey
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Brucey » 4 Apr 2020, 2:02pm

some rims have a nasty habit of cracking unless washers are used at the rim end. Oval washers were a 'standard feature' on some westwood rims for many years. In some models you can't sensibly build a wheel with 13G spokes unless washers are used; the rim splits (usually with assistance from corrosion) if the spokes have enough tension to make them proof against loosening. If washers are used you can have the spokes as tight as they need to be without the rim being so likely to split.

Much the same applies to many modern rims too; if the nipple seat is 2mm thickness or less then the rim is liable to split on the driveside in a heavily dished wheel, especially once winter road salt is added into the equation. Some rims are supplied with washers to fit on the inside, and they do help, but they can be a royal PITA to work with in a deep rim, making assembly of the parts a fiddly business.

cheers
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Cyckelgalen
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Re: Spokes; choosing between the 'Big Three'

Postby Cyckelgalen » 4 Apr 2020, 4:53pm

Eyeletted rims should be the ideal solution prevent rim fracture at the spoke holes, but they seem to be less common. Ryde Sputnik are a good example. I had no idea that rim washers were more prevalent years ago, but it makes sense, they were easy to use with single wall rim at the time, now you would struggke to fit those oval washers into double wall rims.