Fix a wobbly wheel for under $10

Over enough years, every rider has had it happen sometime. First, you start hearing the “thwip, thwip” sound of your rim hitting the brake on each wheel revolution. Even carefully re-adjusting the wheel alignment doesn’t help because…the wheel is bent. Riding it like that will wear down one brake pad more than the other.

Now what?

Well, now you have a choice. You can pay for a new wheel, pay a local bike shop to fix your wheel, or “true” the wheel yourself.

severely bent wheel
Buy a new wheel??? Well, yes, sometimes.

If you’re buying a new wheel, expect to spend at least $80. Sometimes much, much more.

super-expensive wheel
$4,150 for a Meilenstein Obermayer Schwarz wheel, anybody?

If the wheel is fixable–it generally looks good but has a wobble–you can expect your local bike shop to charge $20 – $30 to true it using professional equipment like a truing stand for the perfect line and roundness.

a professional truing stand
You can also buy a professional truing stand for about $50 to $80, or the gold-standard Park Tools stand like this for $300. If you really like truing wheels.

Or… the $10 solution to warped wheels.

But the fastest, cheapest way to fix it is to do it yourself with just a leg strap and a spoke tool. This is something you can do even on the trails, when no other options are available.

spoke wrench and leg strap
These (and some knowledge) can fix a warped wheel anywhere.

Spoke wrenches don’t have to look like ours above. They come in many shapes and sizes, are universally inexpensive…

spoke wrench collection

…and can even be discreetly part of something else, like this D-ring.

spoke wrench in a d-ring

Yet even the best tool is no good unless you know how to use it. Your leg strap will be used on the appropriate brake grip for the problem wheel on an inverted bike, pulling your brake pads in just enough to rub at the worst point on the wheel. You now know where the problem is, and which side of a pull (left or right) needs to be fixed.

On your rim, your spokes alternate between those that attach to the left side of your axle and those that attach to the right side. We call those left and right spokes. You will straighten your wheel by loosening and tightening spokes, as long as you remember these 3 rules:

  1. Remember clockwise or counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise in the UK and Australia). To pull to one side, tighten that side’s spoke–clockwise turn, as seen from the rim/tire side. Half or quarter turns are all you need.
  2. Loosen as you tighten. Every time you tighten a spoke, loosen a nearby opposing spoke by the same amount. This keeps the rim from getting overtightened and “out of round.”
  3. Cinch the brake tighter every time you get the rim to stop rubbing on one side.

That’s a lot of words. Here it is in action, with an out-of-true wheel we caught during our Flatbike 14-point quality check for incoming CHANGE bikes. (It can’t go to a customer, so we used it as a demo opportunity.)

In a quick 15-minute effort, we got a massively out-of-true wheel to be safe on the brakes. Observant wheel-truing experts will notice that, even with this massive improvement, the wheel still is still what we call “out of round.” To fix that without a truing stand, use a piece of masking tape like this.

masking tape to catch out-of-round during wheel truing
Adjust the masking tape like you did the brake calipers, bringing it in slightly tighter every time your wheel no longer touches. We’re talking millimeters.

To fix out-of round, you’ll be tweaking both side spokes at a time, 1/4 turn or less. It takes more time and more patience than side-to-side, so put some tunes on.

But the end result is a perfectly trued wheel, and a lot more life out of your current wheel and brake pads.

See you–but won’t hear you coming–out on the roads!

Bob Forgrave's Signature

Bob Forgrave




15 thoughts on “Fix a wobbly wheel for under $10

  1. Truing wheels is hands down my least favorite bit of maintenance. But, just like any other maintenance, it is necessary to get the most out of your bike. And, if you are an absolute cheapskate like me, it is a great way to breath new life into the same wheels for as long as they hold a circle.

  2. Wow, you made it to where it easy to understand. Im a new biker and don’t know the names of a lot of the parts. But you simplified it in a way thats easy to understand. Amazing! Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for the vote of support, Danny. Simplifying biking challenges and solutions is our goal throughout the Convenient Cyclist blog.

    1. That’s a fascinating question, Mike. The same principle of tweaking 2 spokes one way and 1 spoke the other still applies. What you’re missing with no caliper brakes is the ability to measure accurately which way to go.

      You may need to eyeball it from a defined reference point. Does the place in the frame where a caliper brake would go have a hole, for a brake or fender mount? If so, it’s centrally located and is a good reference point. Now you just need to know if there’s more tire or wheel on one side of the point or the other.

      If you’re doing this tireless, then you can compare the rim strip to that point or the spoke heads under it, seeing if they go left or right. If your tire is on, try looking for a center mark or zone on the tire.

  3. Nice trick on the out-of-round portion though I’d like to see it explained in a little more detail. While thinking about that, is it possible to correct a slight simple across the wheel? I was thinking of a body shop trick to use a hammer and weight to hammer it back smooth. Had a crash on my pandemic survival vehicle a few weeks ago where I came too close to a telephone pole, brushed with right arm and pulled me into it literally pulling the front of the bike sideways towards the pole and throwing me off onto the sidewalk onto my left shoulder. Shook me up but worst damage was to bike. Got home, trued wheel but it’s also slightly out-of-round (planning to use your trick next) but also discovered a slight crease or dimple. That’s become annoying as I have rim v-brakes on the bike and so every time now when that spot goes past I get the jerking thump-thump-thump shaking the front of the bike as I brake to a stop. Annoying. It’s possible the out-of-round condition could be contributing to that, or the out-of-round may be from that dimple. We’ll see the next time I work on it. But for now, open to any suggestions including just getting a new or used better wheel and be done with it, lol. It’s an old bike and just wanna keep it as stock as possible like when I bought it. Nostalgia.

    1. Hi, Destin. There are two ideas behind and out-of-round fix. (1) It is secondary to the side-to-side issue. Fix that first, so at least your brakes work. (2) It uses the same principle of tightening and loosening spokes, but your measurement needs to change to a different location. Hence, the tape strung across the fork.

      When you turn an out-of-round wheel with the tape as a measure, sometimes the rim will come close to the tape (maximum point) and sometimes it will be furthest away (minimum point). At the maximum, you want the rim pulled in; tighten a spoke on each side. A the minimum, you want the wheel to relax; loosen a spoke on each side. Repeat as necessary, adjusting the tape as needed.

      At this point, another suggestion is warranted. A wheel with an actual dent in it is a wheel with a weak point. This “feature” may rub your inner tube, causing flats, may rub away your brake pads over time and make braking annoying, and may even crack. Anything is better than this, even an old, semi-loved wheel heavily discounted on Craigslist. Be on the lookout for a replacement set, while keeping the rest of your bike stock.

  4. the Park Truing Stand you picture for $50.00-$80.00 is really $300.00. Wish I could get it for that price.

    1. Good observation! We’ve fixed the photo caption accordingly. And no, we can’t get a Park tools stand for significantly under $300 either.

  5. Thank you for this. I like tinkering with my toys but never trued a wheel… until tonight. Your instructions were spot on and easy to follow. Thank you for this!

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