Fix a wobbly wheel for under $10

Biking Skills

August 10th 2019

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




27 responses to “Fix a wobbly wheel for under $10”

  1. Denis says:

    First timer and got my wheels to acceptable levels from following your advice.
    Thank you.

  2. Matt Holmes says:

    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.

  3. E-z E says:

    Worked like a charm thanks for saving me two trips to the bike shop!

  4. Danny Reyes says:

    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!

    • Bob Forgrave says:

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

  5. Mike says:

    So I have a bike with coaster brakes. What can I use to true that wheel? Hmm…

    • Bob Forgrave says:

      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.

  6. Destin says:

    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.

    • Bob Forgrave says:

      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.

  7. CountrySide Bicycling, LLC says:

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

    • Bob Forgrave says:

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

  8. Fred says:

    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!

  9. Diego says:

    Out of all the possible bike maintenance I could do on my bike, truing a wheel is the worst, most painful to do. I have watched so many videos on YT, read all I could online and have somehow managed to make my rims look as if they passed over a road side bomb. I rather pay double or even triple the price if it means I don’t have to do it.

    • Bob Forgrave says:

      I agree! Back when I had almost no dollars for bike maintenance, this was the only task I ever paid others to do. But if you’ve got to do it yourself, this is the easiest way with no equipment.

  10. Paul says:

    I was thinking about a truing stand, but also thought if you ride for exercise and hobby, aren’t your wheels going to take hits frequently, and become a tad wobbly? So if you use this method, keep them in relatively decent true- not microscopic true- like maybe a professional would require, wouldn’t that fit the bill?
    But since I have tool fever, maybe I’ll use some truing stand savings and buy one of those pricey-but not wheel truing stand pricey, Park 4th hand tools since I’ll be able to get my brake pads a little closer together after taking the bumps out of the rim!

    • Bob Forgrave says:

      Paul, it’s important to distinguish between usage stresses and impacts. Usage stresses are the combined forces of vibrations, pushing, and pulling on your spokes over typical (or hard) riding, with about a few dozen threaded spokes spinning around the whole time. Eventually something’s going to give, and trying a slight wheel wobble is a way to get that balance back.

      An impact is a different story. Hit a pothole edge or curb hard enough and the spoke threading gets partly pulled apart. Or a spoke breaks. Or the rim dents. Or all of the above. Then it’s enough of a fix job that you’re weighing the improvement you can make vs. the cost of a new rim and possibly wheel.

      You’ll know first in the brakes that a stand is a good investment. You may not see it without looking, but one brake pad will grab and your wheel slows prematurely. Happens once? Jury-rig it like this. Happens a lot? Maybe a stand is on order. Or some better spokes. Or a better rim…

  11. BRETT C KLEIN says:

    What’s the fix when the wheel is not out of round but the tire tread is?

    • Bob Forgrave says:

      The tire may not be properly seated all the way around. Deflate, go around each side of the tire, pushing in with your thumbs, then reinflate.

      If that doesn’t fix it, then your tire may be out of round from sitting underinflated. A week or two at full pressure should help.

  12. Skip says:

    Great video and info. What do you suggest for disc brakes?

    • Bob Forgrave says:

      Thanks, Skip. It’s harder with disc brakes, as you’ve got no central rim reference point. And it’s not like you can mount something there temporarily, because it might skew to one side or another.

      Instead, I’d use a ruler and a light-colored crayon. Mark the center point of your frame where a rim brake would be, then the center point of your tire tread at various points around the road surface. Then spin your tire and look endwise. If not trued, your tire will hop all around vs the frame mark. When your tire goes right, hit the brakes and then loosen right and tighten left at the top of the wheel. Reverse it for the other side. Repeat until trued.

  13. Ellis McCarty says:

    that was cool simple easy to the point thank you so much and god bless you

  14. Dalton says:

    The Steps to Removing the Rear Bike Wheel Without Quick Release: It’s wise to lay your bicycle down on its side with the chain facing up. This next step is done by shifting your gear to the smallest cog and having your chain on it. The third step is to disengage the brakes. This depends on what type of brake your bike is using. The fourth step is to loosen the wheel nuts to detach the derailleur. Simply stand behind the bike. Stabilize the frame with your left hand. Place your right thumb on the wheel nut. Then, use your right fingers to pivot the derailleur all the way back.  The rear wheel was completely removed from your bike.

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