Tom Sanders wrote: What I'd like to know is just what is it that gives famous wheel builders such as Joe Young or Spence Wolf such a cache among the classic biking community.
I'm with your man Bill. It's not that hard to build a good, very durable wheel if you have the time and inclination. Doing it very quickly takes much more experience and some folks will always be slow. I never got faster than about 30 mins+, but I watched folks like Brian Maloney whip out a wheel in minutes.
If you talk to Ric or John Hjertberg, founders of wheelsmith and taught by Spence, the core of their building philosophy is to choose the right rim/spoke gauge/count for the job, minimize dish and get the wheel as round and true as possible at the lowest possible spoke tension. Then start layering on tension while relieving stress due to spoke wind up. Very simple really.
I think many of the early builders had such cache because the early spokes were so bad. Once DT came on the scene, spoke breakage went down dramatically at the shop level.