I’ve been waiting over a year to post this: How to make your own studded winter tires for your bike. Yes, we had winter last year and I did make studded tires in November 2011, however I did not want that post to read: How not to make studded winter tires for your bike. I gave up and never got around to it for the whole winter but managed to still ride all through the winter anyway. This year, I had a new plan. One that wouldn’t fail. One that couldn’t fail. (I suppose it still could, but here’s hoping…)
Tools and Parts
These are the tools and parts I used to create my studded tires and some I didn’t but may be useful to you. If you plan ahead, you may use different tools or parts, depending on how you want your tires to look/work. Also, this was for a mountain bike (MTB) with 26″ tires. The total cost for the project (not including time) was $18.09 (tax included). I already had old used tires. You can get some run-of-the mill MTB tires for $15 ea, bringing the project cost to about $48. New studded tires cost between $45 ea and $120 ea. My friend just bought two tires for a total of $156 (tax included). For the price, $18 is a steal.
- Time. I will mention this now: if you don’t enjoy working with your hands and/or your time is valuable, then only thing you will need is $$. Go buy some studded tires for $45 – $120. This process is time-consuming and probably took me at least 4-6 hours per tire. All-told, with trial-and-error I’m sure I have 20-30 hours invested, but I enjoy this sort of thing and I learned a lot.
- Tires: An old set of 26″ tires from my CCM bike that had large knobs. You want tires with large knobs in the tread to allow support for the loads placed on the studs while riding. Tires with small knobs may allow studs (screws) to rip out or bend, puncturing the tube. Also good spacing between knobs is ideal for snow-shedding. Don’t spend any more than $15 ea: it’s winter, for crying out loud.
- Tubes: one tube per tire for obvious reasons, plus one extra tube as protection against screw heads. The secondary tubes should be old ones with holes in them or tubes that have been patched many times. Or treat yourself to new tubes and use the old ones for secondary protection. I only had one old tube, so the rear tire has extra protection, while the front does not. $0 if you use old one’s with holes anyway, $5-8 ea otherwise.
- Studs: There are many options for studs, and planning ahead will help you purchase what will work for your bike. I ended up with #6 x 3/8″ wood/metal screws with round heads. Other folks have used small machine screws with separate nuts. Pick the smallest head possible and a length that will just go through the tire tread (knobs) with about 1mm (1/16″) protruding. Important: plan ahead and count the treads on your tire. Decide how many rows you want and add up the number of screws. I used 192 (48×4) for the front and 256 (64×4) for the rear (total $16.15). Due to my miscalculation of the extra rear screws, I had to go back to the store for 48 more screws (I counted on using <400). Consequently, I couldn’t ride my bike for my Friday commute and came home grumpy from driving. This can be a factor.
- Screw driver or drill: You can insert your screws by hand, but I chose a cordless drill with the proper bit for the screws.
- Drill bit (optional): Near the end of my project (3/4 through the last tire) I started drilling pilot holes for the screws. Choose a drill size just under the shaft of the screws you’re using (for wood/metal screws), so that the screw thread can still bite rubber (I used 3/32″). For machine screws, choose a drill size close to the OD of the threads so that you can push the screw through the tread. Optionally, you can do the same job with an awl or a punch of some sort.
- Tire levers
- Tire pump
- Tire gauge
- Soap and Water: I like to clean everything before working, especially my old tires from my MTB. You’re using your hands all over the tire and you don’t want mud and dirt everywhere. Mounting a dirty tire doesn’t help either when the dirt works into the tube.
- Gloves: It’s a good idea to wear gloves (unlike me), especially when working with sharp wood screws. This may be going too far, but a thimble on your finger outside the tire could help when inserting screws from the inside of the tire.
- Silicone or contact cement (optional): I did not use these products but may have if I had more time. I can see it being useful to silicone either the heads of all your screws (inside the tire), or so silicone/cement the secondary tube onto the inside of the tire to protect your good tube from screw heads. Time will tell if it was a mistake not to do this. Cold-temperature silicone may be best, since you’re riding out in the cold. $3-5 a tube for silicone.
Here is the quick steps to creating your winter tires. The entire process, once I knew what I was doing, probably took me about 4-6 hrs per tire (It may have been longer, I didn’t time it). Details of some of the steps will be discussed further down.
- Plan ahead. Get the tires you’re going to use and count the treads (knobs). Plan out how many screws you’re going to use and buy some extra.
- Clean the tires you’re going to use and the tires that are coming off the bike.
- If you’re using the same tires that are on your bike, remove them.
- Get ‘yer tools and parts and find a good place to work.
- Drill pilot-holes (optional). From the outside-in, drill a hole in each tread knob where you need a screw.
- Insert screws. From the inside-out screw in your screws through the middle of each tread knob where you need a screw.
- Thread nuts (optional). If you’re using machine screws, thread a nut on the outside so that just a thread or two protrudes from the nut.
- Add protection for the tube. Protect your inner-tube by using silicone on the heads of screws or by adding a second tube around the inside of the tire. Update: I recently used contact cement to glue a second tube right inside the tire over the screw heads.
- Partially-inflate the tube (~10psi) and insert it into the completed tire.
- Place the tire on the rim, being careful not to pinch the tube and not to cut up your hands. This step can be tricky and gloves are recommended.
- Inflate the tire. Lower pressures for winter are good, like 30psi (cold, 40psi warm). Note that if inflated inside, the tire pressure will drop when you go out into -15C weather (plan for 8-10 psi drop in cold weather).
- Test. This is important, don’t go out for your 45-minute commute without testing the tires first. Ride around for a while, get a feel for your new-improved handling, and check the next day for flats.
The tires I used have a tread pattern that repeats in groups of three. The tires have 96 sets of knobs. My first attempt (Nov 2011) had two outside rows and one center row down the middle of the tire. This caused handling problems where the front steering would wobble because my screws weren’t straight out the center. In addition to that, most of my weight was on one set of screws at a time, so they most likely pressed hard into my tubes, causing a flat.
When I re-thought the design, I used two center rows and two outside rows, for a total of four rows going around the tire. The front tire had a row of four screws for every second set of knobs, so 48 rows of 4, or 192 screws. I planned to use 384 screws and bought 400. Because the knobs on my tires are in groups of three and are varying sizes, every second row did not work very well, so I changed the rear tire to 2 rows for every group of 3. That ended up using 64 rows of 4, or 256 screws. Because of this, I was 48 screws short, so about 1/3 of one row was missing. I had to go buy more screws to finish.
The screws I used were #6 x 3/8″ wood/metal screws with rounded heads. The reason for this selection is that the #6 head was the smallest I could find in the length I wanted. This way, the head on the inside of the tire would not protrude too much into the tube. As for length, my first attempt used 1/2″ screws, which stuck out about 1/8″ from the tread. As you can see in the picture above, this is quite a bit and the screws folded over when riding. The shorter 3/8″ long screws were just long enough to stick past the treads. You really don’t need tons of screw to bite into the ice. I had used sheet-metal screws the first time but the 1/2″ was the shortest I could find and ended up being too long. Sheet metal screws are nice because they have kind of a drill-point on them instead of a sharp point like wood screws.
Because we’re working with sharp screws and flipping tires full of screws all over the place, find a workbench that can get scratched up, or lay down a few corrugated cardboard pieces on the work surface. My cardboard was full of holes and torn up by the time I was finished.
Speaking of torn up, it’s probably best to use gloves when working with these tires. Last year, I wasn’t so careful:
This is important: In order to find the knobs on the inside, I had to press on them from the outside and screw through the tread from the inside. Be very careful not to screw directly into your finger (thimble could work here?). Luckily I did not do this.
There are a few ways one can get screws into a tire. You can find the knob you want, punch an awl through it to make a hole, drill a pilot hole, or just screw the screw right in. I tried all three and found that for the most part, screwing the screw right in from the inside out worked fine. Later on I tried drilling pilot holes, which made finding the knobs from the inside much easier and helped with the screws coming out straight.
First find the tread knob you want to screw through. I pressed on it from the outside so I could see the outline of it from the inside, as shown below.
If you’ve previously drilled pilot holes from the outside in, you will have no trouble finding where to put the screw.
Put a screw on your driver bit and screw it in from the inside. With an electric drill, keep spinning it a bit, to make sure it bites all the way in. It will kind of suck the tread down a bit so the screw protrudes. Try to line up the axis of the drill so that the screw goes radially outward through the tread and doesn’t come out at some crazy angle. If this happens once or twice, don’t worry about it; you just don’t want a whole row of screws at crazy angles. Make sure the screw is through the meat of the knob so that it’s fully supported when you ride, otherwise it is likely to be pushed back into your tube, or bent over as you ride and you will get a puncture.
Some folks online have used small machine screws (like #4 screws, or something) for their studs. They drill a pilot hole, insert the screw from the inside, then add a nut on the outside. So the screws are nice and solid, won’t bend and probably won’t push inside on your tube. Nice idea, however I thought it was one, cost prohibitive, and two, heavier than just screws alone.
Protection for the Tube
Because I only had one spare tube with holes in it, I chose to only add extra protection for my rear tube because most of my weight is on the rear tire and there are more screws in it. If/when the front gets a hole, I will use the punctured tube for protection in the front. Here’s how:
Take an old tube and cut out the valve stem. Then take some good scissors and cut along the inner circumference of the tube. Basically start at the valve-stem hole and follow the tube until you get back to the valve-stem hole. You now have a split tube. Leave the talcum powder in the tube to prevent chafing with your good tube.
Now put a bit of air in your new tube, no more than 10psi, and wrap the split tube around it. For maximum anality, line up the valve stem with the old valve-stem hole in the split tube.
Place your doubled-up tube into the fully-studded tire. The secondary tube is essentially the same as the rim strip that protects your tube from your spoke nipples. It’s kind of hard to tell in the picture, but the good tube (dull grey) is inside the split tube (shiny black), which has the writing “26×1.9…”, and the screw heads are visible in the back.
Alternatively, you could silicone the heads of your screws, or silicone/contact cement your split tube directly to the inside of the tire. I figured just putting it in would be simplest. Update 2014: this year, I used contact cement to glue the split protecting tube right to the inside of the tire, over the screw heads.
Mount the Tire
Remove your outgoing tire (if not already removed) and clean the inside of your rims. Place your rim horizontally on your bench. Place the tire with slightly-pressurized tube over the rim and line up the valve-stem with the hole. Flip the backside bead over the rim (towards the bench) all the way around. This is where you have to be careful of your hands with all the screws sticking willy-nilly.
Finish mounting the tire by pressing the outer bead (facing you, not the bench) around the rim, starting at the valve stem. You might need tire levers for the last couple inches of bead.
Finish filling up your tire to whatever pressure you’re comfortable with. Keep in mind, in winter you probably want lower pressures to allow more flexing of your tires for more grip. Most MTB tires want between 40-65psi, but this is for summer and riding on roads and trails. In winter, I would do around 30psi. Trial-and-error probably works best here. You don’t want the tire to come off when cornering, so too low is also a problem. Also, as it gets colder outside, your tire pressure will be lower than inside the house or heated garage. If you’re working inside, add about 8-10psi for contraction when you do ride outside. I put 35psi in the rear and just over 30 in the front. After a test ride I may add a bit to the rear, since it was slow going.
Do not skip this step. Even if you don’t skip this step, there are no guarantees and you may just end up with a flat, but testing before the big day (your first commute) is better than not doing it. Last November, I went out for about 45 minutes all over the place. I looked for the slipperiest roads and even bombed around on the skating rink! It was a blast and the tires behaved beautifully! Come Monday morning, the tires still had air in them, so I thought all was well. However, after 5 minutes of riding to work I ended up with a flat in the front. I had to walk back home and take the car. This gave me the chance to rework my design (a year later, unfortunately). This year, I did another 45 minute ride and will be riding again at least once before trying my commute.
The Finished Result
Oops! I forgot to take a picture of the things on my bike and finished, but the pics at the top of this post show the finished tires with screws in them. Below is last year’s version with the center row that didn’t work out so nicely:
Because of the older, heavier tires with larger knobs and due to the 448 screws, I will be paying a penalty with weight. Here’s how they add up:
The original front wheel and tire weighed 2126g (tire only is 962g). With the studded tire, the front wheel and tire weigh 2500g (so the studded tire is 1336g or 374g heavier). On the rear, the new studded tire and rim together weigh 3220g. So now I’m packing 5720g of weight just in wheels (that’s 12.6lb, people)! I didn’t weigh the rear tire by itself, but it’s safe to assume it’s about 500g heavier than the original. So I added about 874g (1.9lb) by studding my tires.
OK, now the fun part. After all was said and done, I went on my first ride with these tires, about 12km round-trip. It took 45 minutes. The tires were an absolute blast, however, and right away I could tell the difference from no studs to studs. I felt super-confident and didn’t slip one bit. They just bite in to any amount of sheer ice with no hesitation. Straight-line acceleration is pretty much like pavement and braking is the same. I pulled moves that would have me skidding across the road on my side without the studs. Totally worth it! Cornering is just a hair iffy, but 1000% better than with no studs (I can get you an exact number later, when I DL my Garmin data). On the icy street in front of my friend’s house, I was sliding back and forth with my boots. But when I got on the bike I was pulling wheelies while accelerating! That’s right, wheelies on ice folks! I was doing tight turns around and around without slipping and even hard braking.
Anyway, they perform like a dream. The biggest downside could be attributed to my rear brake dragging, but it did take a lot of energy to go those 12k. I think maybe my pressure is a bit low on the rear and I have to fix the rear brake so it doesn’t drag. If I spin the wheel, it slows to a stop in two rotations. I’m sure I’ll be going a bit faster after I adjust the brakes. One thing is for sure: I’m not in the least bit worried about skidding and wiping out. I had a pretty scary incident pre-studs: when turning left at a four-way stop, my rear tire spun out and I had to put my foot down. I didn’t fall, but a car was following right behind me as I slipped. Since then I’ve been taking corners at barely fast enough to keep upright. I’m certain it won’t happen again and I should be able to corner at near-normal speeds now.
Hope you enjoyed my write-up! I’ll post updates as I get more use out of these tires.