24 February, 2017

Differences Between Brake and Shifter Housing & Tie-Dye Sneak Peek!

by Igor

We've had quite a few calls recently about the difference between shift and brake housing. It's probably because it's the time of year when people are swapping their winter bikes for their Spring/Summer/Fall steeds or overhauling their year-round'ers. Amongst all of the tasks to do during an overhaul, one of the key parts is changing out your cables and housing so your shifting and braking is crisp and friction free for optimal performance and safety. From the outside, brake and shift housing looks similar, but the differences are important.

Brake housing consists of an inner liner, spirally wound stainless steel wire, and an outer plastic sheath. This design makes for good, consistent braking performance. Shift housing, similar to brake housing, uses steel surrounding an inner liner, and then coated in plastic to impede moisture infiltration.
Brake on the left. Shift on the right.
But notice the difference! Shift housing uses strands that run the entire length of housing rather than spiraling. This is known as "compressionless" shift housing. This design was mainly brought about for indexed shifting, where precision was important, otherwise you would get stuck between gears.

You don't want to use shift housing for brake housing as it simply isn't designed to take the amount of force that a brake levers requires. Your housing will split and you'll have a bad time. You can use brake housing with friction shifting, but why would you when there is a better option?
We do offer this retro stainless steel shift and brake housing. Mind you, the shift housing is only compatible with friction shifting for the aforementioned reasons. On vintage, steel racing bikes this housing looks so good.

A few tips if you're installing cables and housing for the first time:
  • Your housing should have gradual, natural bends. If it's too long, you'll introduce more friction than necessary. And if it's too short, you'll have poor performance and potentially limit the range of handlebar movement.
  • Use a file on the housing end to get rid of burrs prior to using ferrules to ensure proper, flush interface.
  • Modern cables don't stretch like older cables did. Today, they come pre-stretched from the factory. Any slop you experience soon after installation is most likely the ferrules settling onto the end of the housing by getting pressed against your cable stops. Release the cable from the pinch bolt, pull a bit more cable, and re-adjust.
  • When you cut housing, the inner liner might close up. Use a dental pick, wooden tooth pick, or your trusty "Pokey-Spoke®" (a spoke that has been sharpened to a point) to open it back up.

Totally unrelated, yesterday was a balmy 70°F, so we tied-dyed. We'll post photos next week once everything dries.


Coline said...

A welcome post to clear up some mysteries of modern components... Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I once rode down the local mountain and when I got to the bottom realized my brake cable housing was shredded. That's when I realized I'd used derailleur housing instead of brake housing, and found out the second-worst possible outcome of that mistake. Luckily.

Anonymous said...

what do you mean totally unrelated? tie-dye is related to everything... i wish i could get bike parts in tie dye...

Anonymous said...

I've had many shop mechanics tell me about running a bit of shifter housing for the last bit of rear brake housing as it tends to make it less mushy.

Andy said...

For disc brakes primarily, there is now compressionless brake housing. For instance:


It has linear strands like shift housing, and an outer wrap such as Kevlar to prevent bird-caging.