Lubing a Chain

I’m about get a whole lot more chain links in my stable and I have been thinking about how to minimize the cost of replacing chains.  I’ve been doing some research on chain lube and have come to 2 different conclusions: 1) Most cyclists have absolutely no idea the reasoning behind lubing a chain and 2) Sheldon “Reformed Chain Smoker” Brown was correct when he said….

Experts disagree on this subject, sometimes bitterly. This is sometimes considered a “religious” matter in the bicycle community, and much vituperative invective has been uttered in this regard between different schismatic cults.

So, what is the proper way to lube a chain?  The answer is, “it depends.”  Many people claim it will vary based on where you ride, how you ride, the conditions you ride in etc.  And to some degree, there is some truth to that, but it isn’t 100% accurate.  Rather, it varies based on how much an individual cares, how much money they are willing to spend on chains (and possibly cassettes) and how much time they want to spend “lubing” their chain.

What causes chain “stretch?”
Chains stretch over time.  Contrary to the majority’s thoughts on why, it isn’t because of elongation of the side plates.  Rather, dirt makes its way into the inner parts of the chain and then grinds away at the pin and “the hole” (aka sleeve) in which the pin rests.  Many people think the black gunk is just dirt mixed with the oil, but it is also metal shavings from the abrasive dirt inside the chain doing what it does best, grinding away your chain.  Jobst Brandt writes on the late Sheldon’s webpage…

Commercial abrasive grinding paste is made of oil and silicon dioxide (sand) and silicon carbide (sand). You couldn’t do it better if you tried to destroy a chain, than to oil it when dirty.

A dirty chain is the culprit, and you must clean the inside to keep “stretch” to a minimum.  So simply wiping the outside of the chain and then putting more oil on it does no good.

Old chain's  "stretch" compared to a new chain

Old chain’s “stretch” compared to a new chain

Remove your chain
There is only one way to clean your chain to the best of your ability, and that is to remove it from your bike.  I use Sram chains because they are a decent quality, affordable and they come with a link which makes removing the chain a breeze.  I am then able to soak the chain in mineral spirits that I keep in a glass jar.  I take the chain out, wipe it down a couple of times and then return it to the bath.  I do this a couple of times and then I hang it up to have the volatile ends evaporate.

Using gizmos which clean the chain on the bike are a PITA.  They make a mess, are wasteful with solvents that are used to clean the chain and cost more money than a couple of jars.  But, they are better than nothing.  I bought one, used it once and it now sits on my garage counter wasting space.

If you want to maximize the life of your chain, you must keep it clean – INSIDE and out.  How you clean your chain is up to you, some methods produce better results than others.  But, there is no arguing with the cleaner your chain is, the longer it will last.

How to lube your chain
The method you use to lube your chain is less important than how you ensure your chain is cleaned prior to lubing.  I keep a jar of chain saw and bar oil and I give the chain a bath.  Simply, the same process I use while cleaning the chain – pull the chain out of the bath, work it back and forth, put back in the bath, pull it out, lightly wipe it down and let it dry.  1 quart of chainsaw and bar oil is $4 at my local hardware store.

If I didn’t ride year round, living in dry Utah, I would go with the wax and graphite bath method.  If I wasn’t so cheap, I’d let the chain dry and then put it back on the bike and use a bike specific lube.

Which lube you use matters very little.  Some will argue for a dry lube.  Some will argue for a wet lube.  Some people think waxes make it harder for the chain to bend around the cogs (and therefore more power output is needed).  An interesting study done at John Hopkins has the following conclusion….

The Johns Hopkins engineers made another interesting discovery when they looked at the role of lubricants. The team purchased three popular products used to “grease” a bicycle chain: a wax-based lubricant, a synthetic oil and a “dry” lithium-based spray lubricant. In lab tests comparing the three products, there was no significant difference in energy efficiency. “Then we removed any lubricant from the chain and ran the test again,” Spicer recalls. “We were surprised to find that the efficiency was essentially the same as when it was lubricated.”

The researcher speculates that a bicycle lubricant does not play a critical role under clean lab conditions, using a brand new chain. But it may contribute to energy efficiency in the rugged outdoors. “The role of the lubricant, as far as we can tell, is to take up space so that dirt doesn’t get into the chain,” Spicer says. “The lubricant is essentially a clean substance that fills up the spaces so that dirt doesn’t get into the critical portions of the chain where the parts are very tightly meshed.

My theory is, it doesn’t matter what lube you use as long as your chain is clean and it is helping to keep dirt out.  And no, I don’t advocate to run your chain dry (although the way it comes from the factory is some of the best lube you’ll get!).

Why does this matter? 
I buy Sram chains and pay anywhere from $10-$15/chain.  I ride 5000-6000 miles/year.  If I did nothing, I would probably change out my chains every 1000 miles or so.  So I spend $50-$75 per year in chains.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s about a tank and a half of gasoline in my car, and I easily save that in a couple of weeks by predominately riding my bike.

But, I’m about to take delivery of a tandem, so now I’ll have 3 bikes that I ride regularly, and one will have as much chain on it as 3 bikes.  So now keeping my drive trains clean can save me a bundle.

Finally, sometimes we learn the hard way.  I took delivery of my commuter bicycle (from Bikes Direct – hold your applause please) in late September 2011.  I rode on the original chain for almost 4500 miles, all year round here in SLC, and finally just replaced it a few weeks ago.  While I am lucky I didn’t break the chain, I did wear down my cassette to the point I was experiencing chain skipping very frequently.  Eventually, I had to put down $30 to get a new rear cassette…lesson learned!

How do you clean and lube your chain?

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6 responses to “Lubing a Chain

  1. I haven’t tried it yet, but Velo News is all up in their…. umm…… heads about paraffin wax (the American English usage, not the English English). They say that it causes the lowest power loss, and had good staying power, and the price can’t be beat. Mess? Well, that’s another story. It’s a chore to do and will fling wax everywhere for the first few miles. It apparently lubes well until it doesn’t, at which all the wax goes away and the transmission sounds like pennies in a mason jar. Their test was done on a singlespeed rig so I’m not sure how it would translate with 9-11 speed transmissions. Think I might test it on my fixie, if I don’t screw up and make a Randy Flambé in the process!

    • My personal opinion is, if your chain is CLEAN, there is negligible power loss if running dry. Of course, you’d have to run it in a microchip clean room to keep even the smallest grain of dirt from entering your chain. The beauty of the chain and bar oil is that it contains essentially a solvent which carries the heavier ends into the rollers and pins. When drying, this solvent “evaporates” into the air, leaving a paraffin, or waxy heavy (molecular wise) residue inside the chain.

      It’s all interesting. I’ll start worrying about power loss in the chain once my body fat is down to 3% and my bike weighs 13 lbs.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I use a chain cleaner and Boeshield T-9 lube. It keeps everything running silently for 200-300 miles (depending on conditions). The chain develops a slight ‘click’ to it when it’s time to clean and re-lube. Been thinking about using an air compressor to blow out the grime and degreaser but haven’t bothered because the system I use works so well… Just might use your method though… Sounds like a great idea (I have a master link on my chains too).

    • I never squeak, squeal or click. My chain that is {….} The problem of doing things just by sound is durdy in-ards won’t make noise if they are well oiled, but they will grind. I believe this is where most people miss the boat, as this is worse for your chain than running it dry. Take your chain off, put your ear next to the chain and move a link. You’ll hear some grinding, and you can even feel it. B/c of this, I religiously clean and lube every 200-300 miles, which works out to be every 1.5-2 weeks for me (assuming I ride the same bike, which I really only have one right now, sort of). Nothing is perfect, but the mineral spirits/paint thinner really help to loosen things up inside. For me at least, it’s about longevity….

      • Yeah, I really like the idea of taking the chain off to clean it.. Probably a lot easier than messing around with degreaser dripping onto the cassette and into the pulleys as well.

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