I can build a bike wheel if I have to, but I don’t build my own wheels. Why not? The difference between building an okay wheel and a great wheel is significant and only happens with years of experience under your belt and many sets of wheels rolling out the door. If I built my own wheels I’d probably build one or two sets a year – enough to be competent, but not enough to be great at it. Add in the fact wheel building is cheap at $30 – $50 a wheel and it makes a lot of sense to use an expert for your bike wheels.
A well built wheel with parts selected sensibly should never need any major attention unless you have an accident or ram a deadly pot hole at speed so it’s money well spent.
Even though I don’t build my own wheels in general I have built two wheel [front and back] just so I understand what’s involved. That allows me to make good judgement calls on a wheel I’m looking at and should I need to do some on the road tweaking after an incident I have the skills to get my wheel back into rolling shape. If circumstances demanded I could build up a wheel for my bike and keep a tour going. Of course if an expert bike mechanic was close by I’d just drop off the parts with him and go find a pub to kill some time! It’s good to have options.
If you’ve never built a wheel find yourself a cheap used wheel that’s in okay shape. Borrow a truing stand and tear the wheel down to its basic parts and rebuild it. There are lots of tips on how to build a wheel online and Jobst Brandt’s book shown above is a handy reference.
Bike tourists in particular fret a lot about how burly their rims are and how many spokes they have in each wheel. I think this worry is often illogical. If you are concerned about the strength/reliability of your wheel it’s far more important how it was built than the parts used. That’s not to say you shouldn’t care about the parts used, but that should be secondary to proper wheel building practices. I’d much rather ride a well built 32H lighter duty wheel set on tour than a poorly built 40H heavy duty wheel set.
If you are riding machine built wheels. [If you don’t know who built your wheels they are machine built wheels.] Take them to a wheel builder and have him adjust the tension. This will be the best $10 you ever spent and will make those wheels last much longer and head off any problems before they happen.