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June 18, 2007 1 Comment
The history of technology is sprinkled with seminal inventions. Some are actually useful devices, ends in themselves. Others are more so catalysts, enablers for developments to follow. The bicycle owes its existence to a number of clever 19th century ideas: the tensioned wheel, pneumatic tires, the roller chain, tubular steel, etc.
The last half of the 20th century witnessed a number of important improvements and additions to the bicycle. Advanced materials, suspension systems, aerodynamic improvements, and biomechanical refinements have added to the bicycle's efficiency and usefulness. Yet, one important device has single handedly made possible most of the trends we associate with modern cycling. And, astonishingly, it remains virtually unknown. I'm speaking of the Phil Wood Spoke Machine.
When Phil began making his cartridge bearing hubs in Campbell, CA in the early 1970's, he struggled with one important issue: spokes. He, and a number of West Coast bicycle thinkers, were strangling on a scarcity of spoke lengths. Thankfully, Spence Wolf in Cupertino was a direct importer of French Robergel spokes, and he stocked them in a fifty lengths. Without a domestic spoke manufacturer, U.S. builders were entirely dependent on thin supply lines such as Spence.
Why was this so important? Steel spokes are a mechanical marvel, supporting enormous tensions while weighing mere grams a piece. There's one big catch: the length must be precise. You can't make a wheel properly with spokes that are 2mm too long or too short. In order to build something original, you need access to the exact length spoke. Good luck if the closest spoke manufacturer is 10,000 miles away. The only way to make a particular length, unless you happened to have it in stock, was to use the English Cyclo hand threader. This compact but crude little tool is perfect for making a spoke or two in a pinch for repairs. But it's useless for entire sets of spokes. The process is too slow and the output too uneven to support wheelbuilding creativity.
Well, what creativity am I referring to? The early '70's was a stage for many restless bicycle thinkers. Framebuilders experimented with new materials and geometries. Parts makers wrestled with wider gear ratio's and stronger brakes. Wheelbuilders were exploring new options as well. Tandem wheels were weak, so why not try larger spoke numbers in each wheel, like 48? Racing wheels needed aerodynamic improvement, so why not lower spoke numbers and bladed shapes? Off road riding beckoned, so why not new wheel diameters in lightweight materials? For each of these wheel directions, spoke availability was critical. Phil Wood, as a creative hub maker, saw this more clearly than anyone. His solution was a brilliant device that allowed spokes to be cut and threaded at rates and with precision that could support serious wheel development.
The Phil Wood Spoke Machine (1975) ignited an explosion of wheel development that hasn't subsided yet. It's doubtful we would be enjoying the diversity of today's bicycle scene without this critical tool. As the founder of Wheelsmith, I participated in the reinvention of the bicycle that gave us mountain, triathlon, tandem, portable, and women's bicycle revolutions. It's no exaggeration to say that these scenes were driven by their wheels. What is a mountain bike, after all, except a fat tire bike? Wheel options make possible bicycle innovation across the board. And wheel development depends on convenient access to precise spoke lengths.
Oddly enough, Europe and Asia still supported spoke manufacturers. So they had little incentive to create their version of the Phil tool. Yet, Phil's machine, owned by a thousand American shops and builders, enables a general level of wheel creativity that leads the rest of the World. Of course, companies like Mavic, Shimano, and Campagnolo all own Phil Machines. Their ambitious lines would be impossible without it.
The point of this article is not simply to applaud Phil for his prescience. I want also to bring attention to the usefulness of precision spoke cutting. As one of the biggest fans of the Phil tool, Asahi and I gave much thought to the process. We've made millions of spokes with automated tooling (under the Asahi and Wheelsmith brands). We've tried to automate a Phil type of machine, but it doesn't work. Why? In production, all the butting, blading, trimming, and threading operations take place before the elbow is made. Once spokes have heads and elbows, they become much more difficult to transport. Handling is hell, they become tangled with each other. A hand made, one at a time process, like Phil's, is the only practical way.
So where did 20 years of studying the Phil cutter bring us? We designed our own, making small improvements in every function. The resulting cutter and threader is the SCT (Spoke Cutting and Threading) Machine, built by Morizumi in Osaka. I'm proud to represent it to North America. It's part of a very special tradition begun by Phil in the '70's. Now we have two excellent spoke cutting tools, and the renaissance of wheel design and innovation has no excuse but to flourish.
Of course, I'm badly biased and ready to tell you that the Morizumi SCT tool is superior in several significant details and made to the highest standards.
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