Building a 3-Leading-3-Trailing Bicycle Wheel

Rowland Cook calls this spoking pattern "the best looking wheel I have seen" and I must agree. Three intricately laced "fans" of spokes provide a graceful and elegant symmetry that is immediately recognized as something other than an average bicycle wheel. And because it's just a rearrangement of a standard cross-3 wheel, it won't void your hub's warranty by requiring radial or nearly-radial spokes, nor require more than one spoke length, unlike other "fancy" spoke patterns. If you can build a standard wheel, you can build this instead with the same hardware.

This guide doesn't pretend to offer all the details of wheelbuilding, just a step-by-step for this pattern highlighting the difference from the standard cross-3... if you've never built a wheel before, you can't do better than to read Sheldon Brown's guide first, and well. It may make the difference between a good wheel that stays true for many years and one that goes wobbly and/or breaks spokes in the same season.

If you haven't obtained your spokes yet for your 3-Leading-3-Trailing wheel, err on the side of long when you do. I'd estimate 1-2 mm in extra length to ensure they can all thread properly into the nipples. The slight increase in length is required because of the extra lacing in this pattern. If your spokes are just long enough for a standard cross-3 wheel, you may find it impossible to continue halfway through the job when the lacing starts. I'll be building a 36-spoke wheel in this example.

Here's what you'll need: rim, hub, 36 spokes, 36 nipples, slotted screwdriver and spoke wrench... same as for a regular wheel. What you'll need
First, we place the key spoke. I'll start on the top flange (which we'll call the "freewheel" side though this is a front wheel) and with the spokes with their heads on the inside of the flange as due to the direction I'm going these are going to be "leading" spokes (they point in the direction the wheel will turn.)

The valve has to sit in the gap between one of the "fans" of spokes, so to ensure it ends up in the right place the trick is to work backwards from the valve hole. The spoke holes are slightly offset from the centre of the rim so you have to match that up with the flange of the hub the spoke runs to. In this photo, the spoke hole to the left runs to the freewheel side. If your rim has it on the right of the valve hole, then reverse all the directions in this guide, exactly as if the photos were mirror-image, and have the spoke heads on the opposite side of the hub flanges.
Placing the key spoke
Now we attach two more spokes making a 'group of three'. As with a standard cross-3 pattern, we skip one hole in the rim between each spoke (which makes sense as otherwise we'd be using a rim hole made for a spoke on the other flange of the hub.) However, the difference is that we don't skip holes in the hub. All three spokes run through adjacent holes in the hub. Placing two more spokes in the 'group' of three
The next spoke, the first in the next 'group of three', will be 4 holes over on the hub and 8 on the rim, so when it's placed, make sure there are 7 empty holes on the rim and 3 on the hub between it and the previous spoke. Placing a spoke in the next 'group' of three
Place two more spokes as was done with the first 'group of three', skipping a hole between them on the rim, but not on the hub. The second 'group of three' is completed
Add another 'group' of three exactly like the first two, with the same spacing. If you've done everything correctly so far: there should be 9 spokes, all of them have their heads on the inside of the hub flange, and on the hub flange there are 3 groups of 3 adjacent, with 3 holes between each group. On the rim, each 'group of three' has an empty hole between the spokes in the group, and there are 7 empty holes between the groups. Now we flip the wheel over and work on the other side. All the leading spokes on this side are completed
With the rim flipped over, we have to choose the first spoke hole... choose wrong and it will throw off all the other spokes on this side. The valve hole is to the right. We want to run the first spoke on this side to the rim hole between the key spoke and the second spoke we placed. To choose the correct hub flange hole, you can drop the spoke to the opposite flange as shown to ensure it falls between the key and second spoke. If it doesn't, it's in the wrong hole. These will all be leading spokes as well (seen from the "back" side) so they will all have their heads inside the flange too. Choosing the first spoke hole on the other side of the hub
Once the correct hole is found, the spoke is connected between the key spoke and second spoke. The first spoke on the other side is placed
Add two more spokes like the 'groups of three' on the freewheel side, then do the same twice more with 7 holes between the groups, just like the first side, and the leading spokes are complete. Flip the wheel back over to the "freewheel" side when done. The leading spokes on both sides are completed
Now for our first trailing spoke... and thus our first lacing. The heads of the trailing spokes will be on the outside of the flange. For our first one (the almost-vertical spoke on the right side in the photo) start closest to a 'group of three' leading spokes, pointing the opposite direction, crossing 3 of the spokes from this side of the hub before meeting the rim (thus... cross-3.) Notice that this spoke goes under the first two from this flange of the hub, but is "laced" over the third (furthest) spoke before connecting to the rim. Make sure it connects to the correct hole in the rim. This will be the furthest available freewheel-side hole without crossing any more spokes from this side.

Due to the friction of lacing steel against steel, there will be quite a noticeable curvature away from the hub in the newly laced spoke. This will mostly straighten out as the spokes are brought up to tension, but you can start the process by giving the centre of the spoke a firm pull, parallel to the rim and at right angles to the spoke. This will help the wheel stay true in the long term.
Lacing the first trailing spoke on the freewheel side
The second of this 'group of three', as with all others, connects to a hole on the rim two away from the first. In crossing 3 spokes from this flange of the hub, it goes under the first, over the second, and under the third (oops... that last crossing was cut off from the top of this photo.) Lacing the second trailing spoke on the freewheel side
The third of this 'group of three', in crossing 3 spokes from this flange of the hub, goes over the first, under the second and over the third. The curvature to the right of the newly laced trailing spokes is especially noticeable in this photo.

Try to remember the pattern:

1 - Under, under, over
2 - Under, over, under
3 - Over, under, over

It will make lacing the rest of the wheel easier.
Lacing the third trailing spoke on the freewheel side
Off to the next group of three holes on this side of the hub, and then the same for the next three and this side is completed. Ensure the lacing pattern indicated above is followed and the spoke heads are on the outside of the flange.

Flip the wheel over when complete.
Freewheel side is completed
For the last stage in our wheel, we'll be lacing the non-freewheel side counterclockwise around the hub. For our first spoke in the 'group of three' we lace under, under, over. (Remember the pattern?) First trailing spoke on the non-freewheel side
For our second spoke in the 'group of three': lace under, over, under. Second trailing spoke on the non-freewheel side
And the third in the 'group of three': over, under, over. Third trailing spoke on the non-freewheel side
Repeat this 'group of three' twice more, and the spoking is complete. Now it remains to bring the spokes properly to tension and start the truing process. Lacing completed!
The completed wheel, brought to proper tension, and mostly trued. Much of the lateral curvature of the spokes has disappeared under tension. Notice not only the "fan" arrangement but the moire "trillium" in the centre, a product of the lacing. Truly a thing of beauty, especially considering that this example wheel was built completely with cheap, used parts from an existing wheel. Quality new parts would look correspondingly better.

If you've been following along thus far building your own, congratulations and many happy miles on your new wheel!
The finished wheel

Questions? Comments? Feel free to about this article.

Last updated: 2006-Feb.-01

All done, take me back to the index