I think that all wheel builders would agree that one of their goals would be to arrive at a finished tension that was as close to equal as possible. If achieved, this will go a long way in maintaining a wheels strength and balance over its lifespan.
The only available tool to help you ascertain the variance in overall spoke tension would be a spoke tension meter. There are many different models available at various different price points. An inexpensive spring driven one will run you less than a $100.00 and the most expensive digital models can be as high as $900.00 Is a spoke tension meter absolutely necessary? You could answer both yes and no to this question.
In the history of wheel building a spoke tension meter is a relatively new invention. Literally millions of well built wheels were finished without them for well over a century. Riders raced in the largest events including the Tour de France on wheels that were done by master mechanics who built them relying on many years of experience and "feel". A most unscientific term by modern day standards but nevertheless something that worked. I myself had the same approach for most of my 40 plus years of wheel building. I relied on extensive experience and an unquantifiable thing called "feel", something that I learned to trust implicitly. A few years ago I bit the bullet and bought my first spoke tension meter. I was honestly hesitant in the beginning because I was convinced that this nifty new tool wasn't going to help me build better wheels. I was both right and wrong! My new tool was a DT Swiss Tensio 2. A very well made and somewhat expensive analogue spoke tension meter. The DT Swiss meter comes with a protective plastic carrying case and a handy booklet that provides you with spoke tension information on all the various spokes that are produced by DT Swiss.
After using it for awhile to analyse my wheels I realised that my initial suspicions where correct but with an interesting twist. True, I wasn't building better wheels, but I now had a way of doing accurate comparative work of the tensions of different types of wheels. I was now able to dialogue with other wheel builders and component manufacturers about the specifics of spoke tension and we could all be talking the same language. This was the part that opened up a new avenue in discussion. Its important to say at this point that I didn't stop paying attention to the way that a wheel "felt" as I was building it. "Feel" was as important as it ever was. That unquantifiable thing that luthiers like Stradivarius used daily to build the finest violins ever was just as important as a work bench full of expensive tools! I can't stress this enough. But an old dog had learned a new trick. Today I use my spoke tension meter several times through out a build to assess how the overall tension is ramping up as I am getting closer to what I would call the "finished tension". These numbers vary according to what I am building with. For instance, I will get very different readings if comparing a 24 hole radial front wheel with bladed spokes and a 36 hole rear touring wheel with 14 gauge straight spokes and a cross 3 lacing pattern. Its important to mention here that your spoke tension meter is only a tool to make an assessment of what tension your spokes are at, and not a tool that informs you what your finished tension should be. That all important information is arrived at by extensive experience with all kinds of different rims, spokes, hubs and spoking patterns. The longer that you build, the more that you will be exposed to. There's no short cut! By incorporating a spoke tension meter into your build and keeping accurate records of your work you'll begin to refine the process that leads to excellence. Therefore I would highly recommend that new and old builders alike invest in a high quality spoke tension meter and learn how to incorporate it into their workflow. It will be a valuable teaching tool that will pay for itself many times over and give you further insights into your work. In my next blog entry I will be reviewing a custom made digital spoke tension meter made by Filip Kralyevski. Check it out!