Sunday, October 10, 2010

Q&A: Making a Bolt-On Front Wheel Into a Quick-Release

With so many people converting classic old 10-speeds into city bikes, and it being an excellent fall bicycle project, I thought this question was a great one for an extra-long answer.

Q: Hi Jim,
I saw your website and like it. I was trying to learn how to install a quick-release skewer on the front wheel of my bicycle so I can take the wheel on and off without needing tools. I bought just the quick-release skewer at the bike shop because I thought that’s what I needed.

When I got home, I unscrewed the nuts on my wheel and removed it from the bike frame, but I couldn’t figure out how to attach the quick release. I thought it took the place of the big bolt running through the wheel that the nuts were screwed onto. But, I can’t see any way to attach the skewer to it. And, I can’t get the bolt out of the wheel. Can you please explain what I need to do?


Click to enlarge!
A: That’s an excellent question, Carol. It's a bit complicated to explain, but I'm sure it'll help a lot of cyclists, for example someone upgrading an old ten-speed to a fixie.  Because, changing a bolt-on front wheel into a quick-release wheel lets you remove the wheel without tools and that makes flat-tire repairs easier, lets you remove the wheel so you can place it next to the rear wheel for locking your bicycle with a U-lock, and it makes it easier to remove the wheel for putting it in a car for travel too. Removing the front wheel is required for putting a bike in some car racks too.

To explain how to switch to a quick-release axle, let’s start with some bicycle part definitions. You have a bolt-on wheel. A wheel that is held onto your bicycle with nuts. That threaded part that the nuts you removed were screwed onto is called the axle. The part of the wheel the axle passes through is called the hub. Your axle type is called a bolt-on or solid axle because it’s basically a threaded steel rod.

What you want to do is turn your wheel into a quick-release wheel. In order to do this, you need to remove that solid, bolt-on axle and the parts on it, and replace them with a quick-release compatible axle and parts (called a quick-release axle set).

This new quick-release axle set will have a hollow axle (it will have a hole right down the middle). It will also have a shorter axle that does not protrude past the frame on either side. The quick-release axle set gets installed in the wheel. When that’s done, the quick-release skewer gets installed into the hollow QR axle and then your wheel will be a quick-release wheel. Here’s an animated explanation of how to operate a quick release skewer in case they’re new to you.

What's Needed
In order to change the axles in your front wheel, you need to get the right quick-release axle set for the hub on your wheel. Since hubs vary a lot, the best way to do this is to visit a bicycle shop with your wheel and tell them what you want to do. They can look at your wheel and the axle set it has and check their selection of quick-release compatible axle sets to find the one that will fit your wheel. You should probably call first to make sure they have axle sets in stock and don’t need to order one for you.

To switch the axle sets, you need cone wrenches to remove the parts on your current axle so that you can take it out of the hub. Then you can install the new quick release-compatible axle set. Cone wrenches aren’t expensive, but it may be cheaper/easier to have the shop change the axle versus the cost of the tools, parts and labor. Once the QR axle set is in there, your wheel will be a QR wheel.

The photo shows the differences between the axles sets. Note that the quick release includes the lever (on the left), the skewer (the rod that passes through the hollow axle), 2 springs (that keep the quick release ends away from the axle so they’re not in the way when you put your wheel on), and the quick-release cap, the part on the far right that closes on the right side of the fork to lock the wheel on when you close the quick-release lever.

You can also see an example of cone wrenches. Shown are my vintage Campagnolo cone wrenches, among my favorite tools. The ones you get will look different but have the same thin jaws. They’re thin enough to fit in between the outside nut on the axle and the cone. You hold the cone with the cone wrench that fits, and turn the outside nut counterclockwise to loosen it. Then you can take both off the axle and pull the axle out of the hub.

The cone wrench has to fit the cone and they come in different sizes, so if you want to buy the wrench, you need to either buy several sizes and hope you get the right one, or measure the flats on your cone on your axle and order the wrench that’s the right size. You'll probably need a 13, 14 or 15mm cone wrench. Some shops sell cone wrenches too and they could tell you which one to buy if you brought your wheel in for them to look at.

Check The Hub Bearings Too
When you remove the bolt-on axle, look inside the hub at the bearings. There should be nice, shiny steel ball bearings inside with a film of grease on them that’s clear or white. If instead you see black grime or red rust, you’ll want to purchase new bearings and replace your old ones with them. Be sure to clean the inside of the hub thoroughly and put new, clean bicycle grease in before installing the new ball bearings and axle set.

Adjusting The Hub Bearings
Use your cone wrench(es) to fine-tune the bearing adjustment. The new axle set should feel super smooth when you turn it with your fingers, and there should only be the tiniest trace of play when you pull up and down on the axle. Also, be sure to lock the adjustment by tightening the locknut against the cone. Check both sides, too. When you adjustment is right, the slight play in the axle will go away when you clamp the wheel in your bicycle.

Troubleshooting Tips
Here are few issues you may run into when switching axles, and workarounds for dealing with them.

The new cones are larger in diameter than the old ones and they don’t fit through the dustcaps on the hubs.

If you have a grinder or a drill press, it’s easy to machine the cones to a smaller diameter to fit through the dust caps. To do it on the grinder, leave the cone loose on the axle. Then hold the axle and rest a finger on the cone as you touch the cone to the grinder. This lets the cone move along the axle while you apply just enough pressure to remove enough material off the cone, letting the cone turn beneath your finger, which acts as a brake to control how long each part of the cones gets ground by the grinder.

On the drill press, you can put the axle in the drill-press chuck and turn on the drill press and simply hold sandpaper or a file against the cone to machine it to a smaller diameter.

The quick-release axle set went into the wheel fine, but now the wheel doesn’t fit into the bicycle because the fork is too narrow.

You need to spread the fork blades to be wide enough apart to accept the new, wider axle spacing. This is a little scary, but the forks that you’ll experience this with are usually made of relatively soft steel. If you stand in front of the bicycle and grip one fork leg in each hand and pull outward evenly and simultaneously with both hands, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be able to add the 2 or 3mm you need on each side for the new axle to fit. If you get it right, the wheel will slip right in and be centered when you tighten the quick release. If you get it wrong, you’ll need to move one side of the fork a little until the wheel fits and is centered.

The quick-release axle set went into the wheel fine, and the wheel fits in the bicycle fine, but when you close the quick release it doesn’t clamp down on the frame - the wheel remains loose - it won’t tighten.

This issue is caused by basic stamped-steel dropouts (the parts at the end of the fork that the quick release clamps against), that are thinner than the higher-quality dropouts quick releases were designed around. The problem is that the quick-release axle is too long for these narrow dropouts. So, when you try to close it and tighten the wheel, the QR bumps into the end of the axle instead of clamping on the fork dropouts. The fix is filing material off the ends of the axle until they no longer interfere with the quick release.

There you go! Now, enjoy the convenience and fun of having a quick-release front wheel!


Anonymous said...

Helped me a lot :) Andrew NYC

Charlie said...

I took my bolt on front wheel to the local bike shop, and the person there took the wheel in the back room and came back with a quick release axle for me N/C there is a lock nut and cone on the one end of the axle he gave me, can I use it? or can I use the lock nuts and cones from my bolt on axle?
And how much longer will the quick release axle be than the bolt on axle the OEM axle is 100mm, this is a new Schwinn Cruiser bike from Walmart

Jim Langley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie said...

I am working ion the front wheel

Jim Langley said...

Thanks, Charlie. It's much easier to replace the front axle set than the rear. What you need to do, is remove all the old axle parts from the wheel. As you're taking it all apart, the bearings might fall out so watch for that. You'll use those same bearings again. Don't lose any. Once you have all the old axle parts out of the hub, put them aside. You're not going to use any of them again. Now, put the new Quick Release axle set in the hub. When you get done tightening the parts on the axle so that you have a nice, smooth bearing adjustment, you want to have an equal amount of axle threads showing on both end of the axle AND neither end should protrude past the frame/fork tip. That's important or the quick release may not work correctly. Your overall axle length will be much shorter than your overall old bolt-on axle length because there should be nothing sticking out past the frame with a QR axle. The last step is putting your quick-release skewer into the new QR axle (hollow) and putting your wheel on your bike and closing the skewer to tighten the wheel on your bike. Hope this helps!

Jim Langley said...

Hi Charlie, The instructions I provided in my first comment usually work fine. But re-reading your comment, I don't understand your question: "how much longer will the quick release axle be than the bolt on axle, the OEM axle is 100mm."

The distance between the tips of the fork is 100mm. But the bolt-on axle has to stick out past the fork on both sides or the nuts won't be able to fit on to tighten the wheel. On the quick-release axle, the axle ends should not come out past the fork or they interfere with the closing of the quick release skewer.

So, the bolt-on axle is significantly longer than 100mm and the QR axle is only slightly longer than 100mm, and much shorter than the bolt-on axle.

You also asked about using the lock nut and cone on the QR axle or using the ones from your bolt-on axle. In most cases you use the lock nut and cone(s) that are on the QR axle set. This is because the lock nuts and cones on the bolt-on axle usually don't fit on the quick release axle since it's usually larger diameter and a different thread.

There can be issues installing a quick release axle set in some bikes, though. So you sometimes have to come up with solutions. For example, sometimes the new cones are larger diameter than the old bolt-on axle cones, and the new cones won't fit through the dustcaps on the hub. When that happens, you will need to either 1) grind down the cones to smaller diameter on a grinder or drill press (see my comments in my blog post above) or 2) get different cones that fit or 3) in some cases (it's not usually the case), the old bolt-on axle cone might actually fit on the QR axle, and if so you could use it since it fits through the dustcaps.

Hope these additional tips help you install it,

Charlie said...

This is the way to go, all you have to do is take the nut off the axle lke your talike the front wheel off and put these on (2) this is the site
They work great, front and rear what a great product

Jim Langley said...

Hey, thanks, Charlie. That's a cool new product!

Chris said...

I have a different kind of bicycle quick release I'm trying to install - do you know if the installation will be similar to the style you are talking about?

Jim Langley said...

Hi Chris, the Clix wheel quick release is basically a lot like a regular quick release so it will take the place of a regular quick release. Or, if you have a bolt-on wheel, you will need to remove the bolt-on axle set and replace it with a quick-release axle set per my instructions in my blog post here. What the Clix offers that's different is that it opens and closes more so you don't have to screw and unscrew the QR when you remove and install a front wheel on a fork with wheel-retention tabs (those ridges that keep the wheel from falling out in the rare event of the QR loosening). Of course this adds a little complication to the quick release mechanism but for some forks it makes it easier to remove/install the wheel. Hope this helps!

Chris said...

Hi Jim,
Yes - very helpful. Thank you!

TheLadyDragonfly said...

I read the above. I have to put a QR on my back wheel in order to use my new trainer. I'm my own bike mechanic, living out in the middle of nowhere. Since I need to take off the back wheel to put in new liners and a TR tube, I'd like to do this at the same time. I have some tools, but not a cone wrench. I'd prefer to buy one as I am getting into fixing local bikes because I'm the only one who knows anything! My ride is a 700c Genesis hybrid, 21 gear, bought and put together (myself) in April 2012. Trainer is a RAD and came with a quick release bolt that fits the unit.

I am reasonably mechanically inclined. Given that the bike is new out of the box, I'm thinking the parts should all fit...hopefully. What do I need to know that the above didn't cover for a back wheel? Thanks in advance.

Jim Langley said...

Well, the first thing to know Lady Dragonfly is that you don't need to change your rear wheel to quick release in order to use it on an indoor trainer. Almost all trainers are designed to work with regular bolt-on rear wheels or/and quick release ones, too. The reason they gave you a different QR is so that if you have a nice aluminum one that came on your bike, you could replace it with the el-cheapo steel one they gave you with the trainer so that your nice one wouldn't get scratched or damaged in the trainer's "jaws" when you lock the bike in the trainer. So, the easy thing to do is to just use the bike the way it is with the trainer. But, if you really want to convert the rear wheel to QR, you will follow the steps I gave but just work on the left side of the axle. That's because the right side of the axle is hidden by the cassette (the cluster of gears on the right side of the rear wheel). If you're lucky, you'll be able to remove your axle and replace it by only working on the left side parts and sliding the axle out to the right. You'll want to match the new axle spacing exactly with the old axle spacing following my instructions above (you need to buy the exact right QR axle set to replace your stock bolt-on axle set). Now, if you can't get the axle out you will have to remove the cassette. For this you will need a chainwhip, a cassette lockring remover and a large (about 12-inch) adjustable wrench. You have to buy the correct tool to get the cluster of gears off and if you have a freewheel instead of a cassette it's slightly different. So you might need to bring it to a shop to ask or take a photo and email it to me at jim @ and explain that it's for your project so I remember you. If you're removing a cassette, the chainwhip holds the cassette so it doesn't turn. The lockring remover goes into the cassette lockring and is turned counterclockwise with the adj. wrench as you keep the cassette from turning by holding the chainwhip. You then can remove the lockring and cassette, but pay careful attention to how it comes off so you can put it back on exactly the same way. It sounds complicated but it's pretty simple once you start working on it. Hope this helps!! Jim Langley



My Quick Fix:

Rear Wheel Wing Nut Set !!! Looks Great, Elegant Simplicity


Jim Langley said...

Since this Q&A is about front wheels, Richard, I think you meant Front Wheel Wingnut set ;-) That is one way to make the wheel easy to remove/install without tools, too.


Barry B said...

Wow! Just stumbled on your kind and detailed comments, four years after anybody said anything!

Hope things are going well. I might try to do the skewer-switch thing on the rear wheel of my 1970s Norco, but in the meantime I'm going to try to find the unfindable wingnuts that midrange bikes used to feature as subs for real QR fittings.

I respect and admire your posts and advice. I note that Mountain Equipment Co-op has bizarre but apparently effective spin-on nuts with flip clamps similar to the QR lever that permit sort-of QR without replacing the axle. That might be Plan B.

Jim Langley said...

Thanks for the kind words, Barry. Glad my tips helped. The place you can find bicycle wheel/axle wingnuts is on the auction site Just search on the phrase "bicycle wheel wingnut" and you should find a selection - mostly vintage ones, some used, some new-old-stock (wingnuts that didn't sell back in the day and are still brand new).

Be sure to check the diameter and thread on your axle so that you purchase wingnuts that fit your axle, as the threading varies. I believe a Norco from the 1970s would have a 3/8-inch diameter axle with 26 threads per inch. But, check yours to make sure before bidding on eBay. And, if you end up going with the Mountain Equipment QRs, please post a comment letting us know how they work.


Stephen Hopkins said...

Hi Jim - just stumbled across your article. I've bought a 27 inch wheel with a quick release for a frame I am fixing up. It appears the axle is too big by about 1mm for the front forks. Any ideas on what I can do?


Jim Langley said...

Yes, Stephen. What I would do is carefully file off .5mm on each side of the axle exactly where the two edges of the left and right dropouts meet the axle. This will result in 4 flats that let you slide the front wheel into the dropouts. This only takes a little careful filing of the threads with the edge of a nice, sharp file. Work carefully and keep trying the wheel so that you know you are filing in the right 4 areas and are only taking off the minimum amount to get the axle to slip in.

That will make the wheel fit. You just need to remember that you have to line up the flats with the dropouts when installing the wheel. Oh, and don't worry about the threads you're filing. When you eventually remove the locknuts and cones to work on the hub, they will chase the threads and come off just fine - and go back on, too.

Hope this gets you going,

Stephen Hopkins said...

Thanks Jim - started before I received your response - need to work on my patience. In the end filed the forks instead - as they are old style forks from a 1980s bike, plenty of metal left. I think your approach however is safer - thanks for your response. Much appreciated.