27 April 2008

Lesson in humility: failed headset crown race press

Part of doing-it-yourself is failing to do it yourself. It's not a bad thing unless you refuse to learn from it. Up until now, I had made it a point to only post my successfuly hacks/tweaks/mods/etc to this blog. However, today's post is abouta well-planned diy tool that didn't work. Let's try to learn something from it.

While doing my annual bike tune-up, I realized that part of my headset was installed incorrectly. I designed and built this tool in an attempt to fix that.

First, a bit of terminology.

A press is simply a tool that works by pressing things together, in contrast to a jack which pushes things apart. There are lots of kinds of presses: simple ones use a screw, complicated ones use pneumatic or hydraulic pressure.

A bearing is a mechanical component that acts to reduce the friction between two parts which move relative to one another. A ball bearing is a bearing which uses balls to accomplish this (though many other types exist: the brass bushings on cantilever brakes are an example of non-ball bearings).

And now some bike terminology.

The fork is the fork-shaped piece of a bike which straddles the front wheel (n.b. the things on the back are called the stays, and are NOT a fork). The steer tube is the tube which extends up from the fork to the stem, which connects to the handlebars. The fork crown connects the steer tube to the two tines of the fork.

The headset is a pair of bearings which connect the fork to the rest of the frame, allowing you to steer without much friction. Those two bearings in the headset are cup-and-cone style bearings. These types of bearings are popular in older bikes, but are being gradually replaced with cartridge bearings. This is unfortunate, since cup-and-cone bearings can be adjusted for a prolonged life, while cartridge bearings must eventually be thrown out and replaced. Nonetheless, because the main force on headset bearings are thrust forces (parallel to the axis of rotation), and because of the size of the bearings, cup-and-cone style bearings remain the standard for headsets.

A cup-and-cone bearing consists of three pieces: two races, and a set of balls. Sometimes, those balls are held in a ring formation by an unnecessary, though helpful piece of metal or plastic called the retainer. One of the two races is concave (the cup), and the other is convex (the cone). The fork crown race is the cone which is seated on the steer tube just above the crown, on what is called the crown race seat.

The crown race is press-fit onto the crown race seat, which is to say that the crown race seat is slightly larger in diameter (1.185") than the internal diameter of the crown race (1.180"). This minor difference in diameter (only 0.005 inches) is enough to make it hard to install, though once installed, it may as well be a piece of the steer tube.

So, as I was stripping my bike down for its annual paint job, I noticed that the crown race was incorrectly seated, and I decided to remedy it. It only took a few seconds for me to decide that I wouldn't be able to press it on by hand, and so I went forth building a tool.

[3/8] DIY Headset Crown-race press :: Second attempt :: All the piecesI tried two variations on the same design. The first attempt failed: as I tightened the drive bolt, it worked well until the steel bar bent, and then the plastic snapped, and ultem shrapnel ricocheted off of my luckily-closed eyelids. Although a failure, it worked for a while; the race was halfway pressed onto the race seat. I was encouraged to try again, using a heavier construction that hopefully wouldn't snap, crackle and pop.

I have annotated the picture on the left.

[1/8] DIY Headset Crown-race press :: Second attempt :: The race guideI used my lathe to turn a piece a ultem plastic (a metal replacement, similar to delrin) into a race guide. The race guide had a 1.125" hole bored through the center of it, so it could slide along the length of the steer tube, and had a larger recess bored at one end of that hole to snugly fit the crown race.

[4/8] DIY Headset Crown-race press :: Second attempt :: The set-upI then drilled and tapped two holes on either end of the race guide, and used bolts to fasten the race guide to a bar of steel placed between the two tines of the fork. A third bolt--the drive bolt--past through the center of that steel bar against an ultem plunger, which pressed against the other side of the fork.

Again, I have annotated the picture on the left.

[5/8] DIY Headset Crown-race press :: Second attempt :: PressingI wrapped some fabric around the new paint on the fork, and began torquing the drive bolt. Just like the first time, it began working. In fact, this second attempt put the race close to the right position.

But alas, it too failed.

[8/8] DIY Headset Crown-race press :: Second attempt :: DecapitationThe failure was very similar to the first time. First, the steel bars bent. And again, since it seemed so close to being complete, I chanced tightening even further. Unlike my first attempt, however, the plastic never broke. Instead, the press tore the head off of one of the hanger bolts.

Disheartened, I decided I would need to try a different technique. But what? I couldn't easily make this design larger, since I was already working with the largest plastic stock I had available. I read and re-read Sheldon Brown's advice, until it came to me.

Duh! I have a lathe.

I chucked the crown race, and took a few (i.e. added) a few thousandths to the race's internal diameter. The race still had to be pressed onto its seat, but I could do that under hand power using the race guide I had already built.

So, as I mentioned earlier, there is a lesson hiding in here somewhere. I'll try to be thorough it down, but please let me know if I elide anything:

Lesson 1: Keep it simple, stupid (KISS). This is the prime directive of engineering. By elaborating the design, I added too many points of potential failure.

Lesson 2: Determine which problem constraints are true constraints, and which are only constraints in name / by convention. The crown race should be tight on the crown race seat so that the steer tube doesn't rattle within the bearing. But does it need to be press fit? There will be no motion between crown race and steer tube, so long as the bearings are doing their job. By increasing the internal diameter, I allowed easier installation, but without sacrificing holding power.

Lesson 3: Wear eye protection.


Dennis Ferron said...

Funny how the solution is sometimes to change the problem.

I like the idea of posting failures as well as successes. Many of my projects have gone un-blogged because I didn't feel they were a success or finished, but you've shown how it can make a good article anyhow. You learn more from failures anyway.

You know on my bike (got it at a yard sale), the factory didn't use bearing races in the head tube. The cup is just formed by the shape of the top of the head tube. Not only that, they painted the inside of the tube! So the bearings were running around in a race with more paint than grease, and naturally got all fouled up. Bah! I guess they figured "if the customer can't see it..." I'm downright scared to find out what's inside the bottom bracket.

You mentioned briefly that you can run cup and cone ball bearings with either free balls or caged balls. I've read that the difference is that caged balls have slightly less rolling resistance due to "up" and "down" sides of the balls not rubbing each other while they roll, but that free balls are still much better because more balls spread loading forces more ways. The advice given was caged ball bearings are something the factory does to be cheap, and that you should always throw out the cages and add more balls instead.

chollo9 said...

Sorry to dredge up an old post, but I only recently found your blog. As someone who HAS mistakenly overused technology before, I can relate to this situation. But, as a strong believer in the appropriate use of force as well . . ..

The easiest solution here is to use a punch, brass is best. If the race is already in place, but just not fully seated on one side, hit it above where the gap is. If you need to move the entire race, alternately tap 180 degrees apart until the race is fully seated. Make sure your punch is sharp, so you can keep it on the inside ridge above where the bearings ride.

Bike shops use what is essentially a slide hammer, a heavy hollow metal cylinder with a brass insert. Even the Campagnolo tool kit has this type of tool.

And the interference fit (which is tighter than a press fit) of a crown race is necessary in this area as the loads are very high, and the slightest shifting of the race will lead to either the headset not staying in adjustment (at best), or possibly the race's movement slowly destroying the fork crown (as you'd expect, the race is much harder steel than the fork.

I'm not saying this will happen as a result of your modification, just that it could.

Ice Dragon said...
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