Spokes & Nipples
While they aren't very glamorous, spokes and nipples are what really makes a wheel. choose the wrong setup and you may end up with a wheel that doesn't suit your riding style or that won't last as long as you would like.
I primarily build with 2 brands of spokes DT Swiss and Wheelsmith. At their most basic, spokes are just wire made from special steel alloys, that has been formed into straight, butted or bladed lengths, using a variety of forging and stamping process'. There are enough subtle differences between the two brands that there are reason for using one vs the other given an unlimited choice.
In any given configuration, it has been my experience that the DT spoke is a "stiffer" spoke. What this means, is that for any kind of a race or performance wheel, it is usually my go to spoke to help promote that "snappy" feel. When it comes to absolute strength, I feel that the stiffness, also translates into a slightly increased tendency for breaking. It is not a common occurrence, or I (and the rest of the bike industry) would not use them nearly as much. One of the reasons I don't like to build with Sapim spokes, I have just seen far too many come in broken on all kinds of wheelsets, for no apparent reason other than fatigue. Whether that is mostly due to the manufacturer or builder of the wheels in unclear, but not a chance I'm willing to take when I have excellent, proven performers in DT and Wheelsmith.
Conversely to the DT, the Wheelsmith spokes have a little bit more give to them, and this has translated into a super strong and long lived spoke. This is my go to spoke for high stress applications or ones where ultimate longevity is the high on the priority list.
Bladed - they are light, offer excellent power transfer and are a bit more aero; the downside? cost of course, but the DT aerolight or aerocomp are the ones to have. If you imagine a round spoke can flex evenly in all directions, but a bladed spoke resists flexing against the blade, allowing nice ride quality and excellent drive characteristics. By providing nice flat surfaces to hold on to, they also allow much higher tension before "wind up" than a similar weight round spoke.
Butted - Usually double, some spokes have triple butting. This is when the elbow and threads are a thicker diameter and the middle section is forged down to a thinner gauge. These are the standard spokes I like to build with, good strength and good elasticity, which helps maintain long term tension and prevent breakage over straight gauge.
Often overlooked is the spoke nipple, but here too, there are lots of choices which will give you varying results.
Brass nipples (pictured far right) are the cheap, heavy, basic choice, they resist rounding when using the wrong size spoke wrench (unfortunately common in the workshops around the world), they hold up to extreme salt air and a certain sealant brand. However they are heavy and, well, boring.
There is a large quantity of low quality, poorly anodized aluminum nipples out there, mostly found on OEM built wheels, unfortunately these have created a general misconception that aluminum nipples are weaker than their brass counterparts. In the last 25 years of building wheels, I just haven't seen that to be the case. It is easy for many people to tend towards building wheels that are far heavier than they need to be, with heavy rims and brass nipples in an attempt to have the end product last a long time. The unfortunate part of that scenario is that heavy wheels are just not as nice to ride, a few hundred grams may not seem like a lot on paper, but remember you are accelerating them with EVERY SINGLE pedal stroke. The real benefit of a handbuilt wheel is that it can be built to a purpose, for a specific rider, which means optimizing for a long lasting wheel that is as light as it can be for that application. This equates to a better, faster, smoother ride and in most cases involves high quality aluminum nipples.
Far Left - Pace Line 7000 series aluminum, much higher grade alloy and dual stage anodizing means excellent corrosion resistance. Lots of color choices, this is the nipple of choice if you want traditional square wrench flats.
DT Squorx - This is the only DT nipple I try to use, it is shouldered to work with their rim washers to allow for better alignment when coming out of the rim and has a nice star wrench on the outside for building and truing without having to worry about the flats.
Spline Drive - Just recently re-released, these are my first choice when it comes to alloy nipples. With 6 splines the turning force is distributed more evenly, allowing for smoother movement, low marring and they are IMPOSSIBLE to strip out...high tension here we come! If you compare the shoulder to the red nipple you can see the trasnition is longer and has less angle, this aids in rim exit and interface. They do require a special spoke wrench, which I include at no charge with all wheels built using them.