Panaracer: Hand-Made Tires

A highlight of my visits to Japan is going to the Panaracer factory. It’s a magical place, where some of the world’s best tires are made largely by hand. It resembles a storybook factory: Huge machines emit hissing steam. Skilled hands assemble casing, beads and tread. Hot tires cool as they move along conveyors under the roof.

The main reason for my visits to the factory is to discuss ideas for new tires, and improvements to existing ones, with Panaracer’s engineers (above). These guys know more about making bicycle tires than almost anybody in the world. We bring them our ideas, they provide feedback and input, and together, we finalize new designs, like the innovative tread pattern of our Steilacoom knobbies.

During recent meetings, we’ve been talking a lot about tubeless tires. Tubeless is an emerging technology without real standards yet. We must figure out how to make tires that work on as many different rims as possible. When customers have problems, we try to diagnose and troubleshoot for them. We all share the goal of making the most of this exciting new technology.

Once we have finished our meetings, we often get to walk around the factory. Two weeks ago, we saw our Steilacoom, Switchback Hill and Snoqualmie Pass tires being made. It was the first time that my visit coincided with one of our production runs – great fun!

There is nothing really toxic involved in making tires at this factory – just steam and heat – so there is no need for protective clothing, not even earplugs. (Like many Japanese, the worker below wears a face mask for protection against spring-time pollen, not industrial pollution.)

Making tires starts with kneading the hot tread rubber in huge machines that look like they belong in a giant bakery. The rubber is rolled into thinner and thinner strips, until it has the right thickness for the tread.

The casing is stored in huge rolls, ready to be impregnated with rubber. Both the thickness of the threads and the amount of rubber coating determine how supple the tire will be. This is where the experienced workforce and time-tested machinery allows Panaracer to go a few steps further than most tire makers and use ultra-fine fabric and a very thin rubber coating to make the lightest and most supple tires possible.

The tires are assembled by hand. It’s a fascinating process, and I could easily spend a month photographing the factory. There is enough material write a book! But there are too many trade secrets, so no photography is allowed. Panaracer’s engineers would prefer if nobody knew what is going on in their factory.

Ever since I first visited this amazing factory, I’ve wanted to show our readers how high-end tires are made. It took us years to persuade the company to do a photoshoot last year. Each photo was carefully vetted before it was cleared for publication in Bicycle Quarterly. Knowing this, I feel incredibly privileged to be allowed to see everything and ask questions about anything when I am visiting.

Once assembled, the raw tires look almost like the finished product (above), but they are only loosely assembled. They still lack their tread pattern, too. All this comes in the next, most impressive step…

Each tire is vulcanized (above). That means it is placed in a mold that is engraved with the tread pattern. Steam heats the mold until the rubber partially melts. The tread rubber flows into the mold and is imprinted with the tread pattern. Since the tire partially melts, all its elements are fused together and become inseparable, making the tire very strong. When the tire emerges from the mold, it is no longer flat, but has the domed shape of, well, a tire. After it cools, it’s ready for quality control and packaging.

In the past, vulcanized tires were considered slow, and hand-glued ones were faster. That was because the casing material used in the factories that vulcanized their tires was stiff and not optimized for performance. With all tires, the casing is by far the most important factor that determines the tire’s performance and comfort.

Panaracer’s high-end tires use very supple casings, yet they are vulcanized. This combines the best of both worlds – the naturally round shape of the tire further optimizes the tires’ performance: As the wheel rotates and the contact patch leaves the ground, the tire automatically resumes its round shape.

Many hand-made tires are not vulcanized. Held together with strong glue, they look like the raw tires in the photo above – flat. When their contact patches leave the ground, tire pressure has to overcome the tire’s natural flat shape to make it round again. According to Bicycle Quarterly‘s testing, this makes the tire about 3% slower.(1) The very best tubular tires, such as those made by FMB, are assembled on an inflated casing. That way, the tire has the same round shape as a vulcanized tire. Why aren’t all tires vulcanized? Small makers don’t have the machinery that is required.

For the Compass Extralight models, Panaracer uses a casing usually reserved for their top-end racing tubulars. Panaracer doesn’t use this casing on their own clinchers. The company feels that their tires may end up with inexperienced customers, who may need sturdier tires.

We are glad that Panaracer’s engineers are willing to push the envelope a bit further for our Compass tires. We are confident that Compass customers try to avoid crashing into potholes and obstacles that could ruin a high-performance tire. In any case, the limits of what supple tires can do are quite high – witness the photo above showing a set of Compass Extralight tires in action. The tires survived the long and rough descent from Odarumi Pass in Japan without damage.

I cannot show you the factory, but if you are going to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) in Salt Lake City, Utah, this weekend, you’ll be able to meet the people from Panaracer. Stop by their booth and tell them how much you enjoy the tires they make for us!

The full report on the Panaracer factory was published in Bicycle Quarterly 58. If you missed that issue, it’s available as an individual back issue or with our 4-pack of the last year’s Bicycle Quarterlies.

Click here for more information about Compass tires.

(1) We tested two tires made with the same casing and tread. One was assembled on an inflated casing, the other “flat-glued”.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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42 Responses to Panaracer: Hand-Made Tires

  1. Sebastian says:

    Hi Jan!

    Excellent report as usual. I recently had the privilege to visit the bicycle tyre factory of Continental in Korbach, Germany. We were shown the whole place and saw our own co-engineered tyres being made step by step until the final product. It makes yourself very proud to hold a product in your hands that came out of a mold you saw in the beginning and before that only knew from CAD and technical drawings.

    Looking forward to complete my “La Fraise Cycles” I built at a framebuilding course a few weeks ago with Compass/Panaracer Switchback Hills EL.

  2. marmotte27 says:

    Great post and images as usual. Thanks. If I remember correctly, some time ago it was possible for a while to click on the images on your blog to acces a larger format. As your images are always full of interesting details or scenery, I’m sure many readers would appreciate if that was possible again (if it feasible technically, and timewise…).

  3. Bryan says:

    Great article! I love my Barlow Pass and Rat Trap tires and although they are not as flat resistant as my Schawlbe Marathon Supremes (still my preferred tire for long distance touring) they are by far the most comfortable tire I have ever experienced. The Barlows preformed flawlessly on D2R2 which is a good test for durability and comfort. I would like to add that the first Rat Trap I received was defective (layers did not match up) but your customer service folks corrected that quickly.

    • With a hand-made tire, there will be some variation, and very rarely, a tire can be out of spec. Usually quality control catches this, but if not, we try to solve the problem quickly.

      As to touring, unless you ride on the shoulders of busy highways that are full of debris, you probably won’t need the puncture protection of the Marathons. I have toured for many thousands of miles with our Compass Extralight tires without a single flat during those tours…

      • I find, for long tours and comuting that might have sections of debris strew road, the Panaracer T-serv is the best compromise. Still light and supple enough to be fun to ride, and get a good grip in the rain, but pretty flat resistant. They might not get as many miles as a marathon, but they are cheaper.

      • Generally, wider tires are more flat-resistant. They run at lower pressures, so they roll over debris that would puncture a narrower, harder tire. It’s like somebody stepping on your toe with a high-heel shoe vs. a running shoe…

  4. Nick Jones says:

    I coincidentally came across this article from a British extremely-niche cycling magazine this morning. Your mention of the shape of the tyre and its contact patch prompted me to provide a link.
    http://www.atob.org.uk/technical/small-tyre-design/
    It looks like these guys at least were onto the idea of wide, supple and smooth back in 2004 even if the mainstream hadn’t found it.

    • Thank you for sharing. You are right, they were onto some interesting ideas already back then. Pro racers also have known that supple, hand-made tires were faster – at least since the 1930s, they’ve been racing on handmade tubulars.

      • We used to race on Clement Campionato del Mondo seta (silk) tubular tires back in the early 1970s. I think they were in the 30mm range. Great tires and expensive! Then tires got narrower. What happened?

      • The Del Mondos were lovely tires. I only experienced the last ones, made in Thailand (?), but even those were wonderful. However, I raced on 21.5 mm Criteriums, thinking they were faster. Knowing what I know now, I regret that choice!

  5. Dr J says:

    Nice! So when will Compass offer something wider than Switchback Hill? Say, 650B x 55mm?

    • The Switchback Hill already measures about 50-51 mm when you run it tubeless on a wide rim. The incremental gains are pretty small beyond that point. Personally, I detect little difference between running a 54 mm-wide Rat Trap Pass and a 50 mm-wide Switchback Hill, provided the rotational inertia of the wheels is the same. This was the case when we tested the Open U.P. for the latest Bicycle Quarterly. With superlight carbon rims, the 650B x 50 mm felt very similar to the 26″ x 54 mm with aluminum rims on my Firefly. The (slightly) lighter rims compensated for the (slightly) larger wheel diameter on the Open. When I calculated the inertia, I realized it was the same…

  6. Bill Gobie says:

    Given the knowledge Panaracer and other manufacturers must possess, why do tires so often differ from their nominal widths?

    • That is a long story. One is that tire width is influenced by many factors, which is why the same tires measure quite differently on different bikes. Rim width, casing construction, pressure, whether mounted with tubes or tubeless, and age all affect a tire’s actual width. A brand-new Compass Bon Jon Pass 700C x 35 mm with standard casing, mounted with an inner tube on a narrow 20 mm (outer width) rim and inflated to a low 40 psi will probably measure less than 34 mm wide. If, instead, you use an extralight casing, mount it tubeless on a 30 mm wide rim and inflate it to max pressure, then ride it for 5000 miles and measure it at the end of its service life, you’ll probably find that this tire measure closer to 39 mm. That gives you a range of 34-39 mm for what nominally is the same tire!

      Usually, this isn’t a problem: For OEM (original equipment manufacture, meaning parts that are put on new bikes), tire width simply doesn’t need to be that accurate. The bike frame should have enough clearance, and the bike should be spec’d with a tire that is wide enough. Whether it actually measures 44 or 40 mm doesn’t make a huge difference. Compare this to cars: My car has tires that are nominally 185 mm wide. I’ve never checked their width, but if I measured them, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were somewhere between 175 and 190 mm wide. The ISO specs for tires actually offer quite some leeway. What is important in a production setting is the fit between tire and rim, and that is actually very accurate.

      We are only discussing this because cycling enthusiasts these days are putting the widest tires possible into their frames. A millimeter or two can make the difference between go or no-go. I recommend starting with a tire you know will fit. If you find you have a lot of extra clearance, you can size up when the time comes to replace the tires.

  7. Fred Blasdel says:

    Tubeless is NOT an emerging technology, the standards are very well established.

    The UST design for rim profiles and tire beads dates from 1999 and was officially standardized by ERTRO in 2001. The Stan’s alternative BST design is from 2005 and got very popular a few years after that, because the original Arch and Flow rims were outstanding for their time and the design’s oversized bead seat does a good job of compensating for traditional tires.

    • The International Standards Organization (ISO) doesn’t have a standard for tubeless tires yet. And the fact that tires still sometimes explode off the rims without warning indicates that the technology isn’t quite mature yet. An inner tube reinforces the joint between tire and rim. With tubeless, you remove that, which greatly increases the force that tries to separate the tire from the rim. Tolerances are much more crucial here, and unfortunately, many rims still vary too much in diameter.

      • I would place more of the blame on the tires than the rims. I have been running tubeless tires since around 2002 and in all my personal experience, and working in and owning bicycle shops, the only blowoffs I have seen were from improper installation or from one specific manufacturer that uses a fairly dated bead design that stretches too much, and has far to much variance in their tires due to their more primitive manufacturing process.
        When using a proper ERTRO approved UST/TCS rim and tire blowoffs simply do not happen under proper use. Where is gets hairy is mixing tires without a proper UST/TCS bead with rims that may not provide an proper mechanical interface between tire and rim bead.
        WTB and Mavic are still leading the way in standardizing tubeless tire systems by testing and publishing strict recommendations on rim inner width and tire size.
        When one actually takes advantage of the technology and information available they will have a wonderful and worry free ride experience. When one doesn’t… well that’s when things go rubber side up.

      • It’s relatively easy to make a stiff tire stay on a rim, even tubeless. Car tires have done that for decades. It gets a lot harder with a very supple tire, as it’s so flexible that it can move off the bead in just one little spot.

        You mention WTB rims – those are the only ones where we’ve had real trouble mounting (any) tire tubeless, yet other riders report great results. It appears that the rim diameter varies from one production run to the next – some are tight-fitting, others (like ours) extremely loose. That illustrates the problems the bike industry is facing as it tries to make this technology work.

        The Compass tires that are tubeless compatible have a bead that meets all the standards and has been tested extensively – but it still requires the rim to be within spec.

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        Respectfully Jan your tires still vary too much in diameter, especially after being used. A stretched Switchback Hill is very difficult to seat tubeless on a standard UST rim even with a compressor, and seriously risks blowoff.

        The only other premium tires with any tubeless incompatibility are WTB’s, which are sized overly strict to ERTRO spec and so are too tight to fit on a BST rim. Maxxis, Continental, Innova, Schwalbe, Vittoria, Specialized, etc. are all making very high performance tires that are trivial to tubeless on any modern rim. It hasn’t been possible to buy a real mountain bike without perfectly safe tubeless compatibility for years.

      • It hasn’t been possible to buy a real mountain bike without perfectly safe tubeless compatibility for years.

        Mountain bike tires are relatively stiff, which makes it much easier to get them to stay on the rim. Even WTB’s Horizon weighs more than 100 g more than a (slightly larger) Compass Switchback Hill Extralight.

        That said, hundreds of riders are using our tires tubeless, without problems. I’ve been running four different sizes (Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″, Switchback Hill 650B x 48, Snoqualmie Pass 700C x 44, and Steilacoom 700C x 38 knobbies) tubeless with zero problems, on Stans, Enve and Reynolds rims. The only problems we’ve had among the BQ team were on WTB and Velocity rims, where the sizing appears to be inconsistent.

        As to stretching the tires, I don’t know what you are doing to them! They really don’t stretch much after the first mounting – otherwise, they’d blow off the rim with tubes, too.

      • DaveS says:

        I don’t run tubeless, but have experience the problem with clinchers not seating on a rim properly due to variations in tire and/or rim diameter. I’ve complained about this at multiple bike shops, but I’m always told about the soapy water trick to get them to seat. The problem is that I don’t carry soapy water in my inner tube repair kit on my bike to be able to address this issue in the event of fixing and remounting a tire in a remote location. Anyway, I find it unacceptable to have standardized parts fit like this.

        What I don’t know is how to truly tell if a rim and/or tire is out of spec. When I purchase a new rim, I usually mount a variety of tires to give me an indication if there will be an issue. This blog has brought up a couple of points. Jan states that rims are often out of spec. Branden Govoni states that tires are often out of spec. How do you guys measure rim & tire diameters? What is the spec (specifically tolerance)?

      • The easiest way to check whether your tire or your rim are out of spec. If you have a suspicious tire/rim combination, put a few different tires on the rim. Then you know whether all tires don’t work on that rim (rim out of spec) or whether it’s just one tire. Put that tire on another wheel. If it doesn’t on any rim, then the tire is out of spec.

        For example, when we had trouble mounting our Switchback Hill tires on a set of WTB rims, we tried some other tires, and they fit as loosely as the Switchback Hills. And all these tires fit fine on another wheelset. So we decided the rims were undersized…

        You can also put the rim on an alignment table on top of a long ruler and use blocks to get accurate measurements. Measure three or four spots, because rims rarely are perfectly round. Then you can average the diameter… Measuring the tire directly is more difficult.

  8. Jacob Musha says:

    You mention comparing the speed of two different tubular tire constructions. I’m curious, have you compared the speed of road racing tubulars against high end clinchers, such as Compass Extralights? I am already phasing out skinny tire bikes, mostly because I prefer the ride and capability of wider tires. Knowing that a Rat Trap Pass might roll as fast as a racing tubular makes an even stronger argument for getting rid of those bikes (I have too many and want to downsize.)

    • We compared two Challenge clincher tires. One was a prototype which was assembled inflated, like FMB does. However, soon thereafter, Challenge changed to flat-glued construction, because they had too many problems with tread separating from the casing. The flat-glued production tires rolled about 3% slower.

      The problem with assembling tires on an inflated casing is that the pressure you can apply is limited to the tire pressure. On a flat surface, you can press down much harder and get a better glue bond.

    • Rider X says:

      I would be careful making any inferences about construction on what is essentially a sample size of n=1 for each treatment. Tire-to-tire variation is confounded with treatment so it is not clear what the source of the 3% difference is.

      • The variation between tires, especially high-end ones, isn’t that great. So you are right, we don’t know whether the flat-glued tire is 2 or 4% slower, but it’s pretty clear that it is slower. And that is what tire makers have been saying for decades, so the result doesn’t come as a surprise. In fact, even the makers of the tires we tested used to tout the round-glued quality of their tires, so the switch – apparently necessary because the high humidity in Malaysia makes it hard to get a good glue joint – must have been particularly painful for them. (FMB doesn’t glue tires on humid days, which fortunately in Britanny/France are pretty rare.)

  9. This article reminds me a guided visit I attended while studying Industrial Engineering.

    We were amazed for the amount of really old machinery, and when I asked our guide (the factory manager) why he told us “-yes, we could use newer equipment, but it would be prohibitively expensive to match the accumulated expertise of our workers, so we don’t even try. No machine can give us both the accuracy and flexibility of our workers. We even have people who were trained by their own parents!”

  10. Bill Russell says:

    Reading this article makes me hopeful that Compass will come out with a 20″ tire. There is a surprisingly ready market for a “fast” 20″ tire; the lunatic intersection of velomobiles and racing BMX. My guess is that Compass was surprised with the sales volume of their 26″ Rat Trap Pass; the same will hold true for a 20″ model.

    • Fred Blasdel says:

      There are already some truly outstanding 20″ supple tires from Tioga, and they just released a whole new generation of them for Rio 2016. Alienation is also developing true Tubeless BMX tires capable of being run without sealant at the high pressures needed to stand up to landings.

      I think a tire targeted specifically to Bromptons would be a better use of that effort.

      BMX would certainly be the easiest path to getting Compass tires into the Olympics though!

    • Björn says:

      ++++

    • Shu-Sin says:

      I motion yey for a fat, fast 20″ tire in the 451 variety for mini velos. Maybe BQ can do a proper test ride of a Hirose mini velo… and then bring some nice rubber this side of the pond.

      The guys who did packbiking in the latest issue of BQ might have found it much easier if they had mini velos with supple tires (?)

      • The Minivelos are a really neat idea, but even in Japan, it’s a bit hamstrung because no great tires are available for them. Yet the idea of a 20″ tire is difficult to realize – you want a 451 mm version, most others prefer 406 mm, etc…

  11. Jon says:

    This was very interesting indeed.

  12. Tony Hunt says:

    After reading about your experience in the Otaki 100 I thought it would be great to see you try it again on some Compass plus tires. Perhaps on a 650b+ Rawland Ulv, which has BQ DNA, or a Ti Jones Plus, which was such a successful climber.

  13. Rich Wolf says:

    I wonder if the higher pressure requirements of narrower road tires has something to do with tires coming off rims vs. mountain bike tires run at lower pressures?
    I have good confidence on my 700c Snoqualmie pass tires staying on my narrow mountain bike rims tubeless after running them for some time. I don’t go over 35 PSI though.
    Still waiting on your 700 c 2 inch wide tires though!
    By the way what is the rolling resistance difference between your standard tires vs. you extralights?

    • Yes, higher pressures are more problematic. A fatbike tire will stay on almost any rim, since the pressure is almost the same as the atmospheric pressure outside. That is why we don’t offer our narrower tires tubeless yet…

      We don’t have reliable measurements of the Standard and Extralight casing performance yet. The Extralights are definitely faster, but by how much is hard to say until we have better measurements. Our focus usually is on basic research, like our recent tests of different tire widths, rather than trying to advertising our products…

  14. Froste says:

    I was wondering if you have any experience with your tubeless tires (Switchback Hill specifically ) and hookless carbon rims such as the Light Bicycle ones? I am considering these on my new Enduro Allroad machine. I have heard good reviews on their durability, perhaps not Enve class but good enough.

    I am wondering if you think that they are compatible with your tires and how they would work with and without tubes.

    https://www.lightbicycle.com/XC-650B-mountain-bike-hookless-27mm-wide-cross-country-rim-tubeless-compatible.html

    Thanks!

    • We have limited experience with carbon rims. As I mentioned, Enve and Reynolds rims seem to work well, although the Reynolds rims we tried were a tad large, and seating the tires required a little more pressure than is ideal. (Two set of tires tired…)

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