Homemade Bicycle Chain Lube

by Ed Wagner
Chain cleaning and lubrication is an essential part of bike maintenance

Chain cleaning and lubrication is an essential part of bike maintenance

John Howard/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Put two cyclists together and soon they'll have an argument about chain lube. Cleaning and lubricating a chain is essential to bicycle maintenance because the other drive train parts are expensive. A worn-out chain that receives infrequent lubrication causes accelerated wear on chain rings and cogs. Chain lubes fall into two broad categories: oil based and wax based. Regardless of the type you choose, regular maintenance is key.

Chain Wear

A new bicycle chain will measure precisely 12 inches long over 12 links. Each link consists of an outer and inner half link. As it wears, or "stretches," those 12 links will eventually measure 12 1/8 inches. That is the wear limit. Replace the chain when it reaches that limit.

Chain Cleaning

When it comes to drive train maintenance, dirt is the enemy. It acts as an abrasive on metal parts, slowly wearing them down. Keeping the chain clean is a vital part of bike maintenance, and cleaning is always necessary before applying lubrication. For many years, kerosene was the choice of professional bike mechanics, but more environmentally friendly alternatives are in use today. A two-liter bottle half filled with a de-greasing detergent is a good choice for a home mechanic. Put the chain into the bottle, cap it then shake it. Don't soak the chain overnight as some de-greasers are slightly corrosive. Remove the chain, rinse it in fresh water and hang it to dry.

Paraffin as a Lubricant

Paraffin was once a popular chain lubricant but more modern wax-based chain lubes are more convenient. Paraffin is nothing more than candle wax and it can still be found among the canning supplies in the supermarket. To lubricate a chain, first melt the paraffin in a double boiler. Paraffin is flammable. Never attempt to melt it over a direct flame. When the wax liquifies, remove it from the heat and soak the chain in it for a few seconds. Remove the chain and hang it so the excess paraffin drips off. Several chains can be lubed at the same time, so you'll always have a ready spare.

Motor Oil as a Chain Lube

Motor oil will work as a chain lube, particularly the higher viscosity oils like SAE30 or SAE40. Like paraffin, simply soak the chain in the oil, then hang it so the excess drips off. Wipe it with a rag and it can be installed on the bike. Two problems occur with oil. First, it comes off easily in the rain. Second, it attracts dirt, lots of dirt. An oiled chain is difficult to keep clean.

Bacon Grease

Bacon grease works about as well as motor oil and it has similar problems with rain and dirt. The grease has to be poured through a coffee filter to remove any remaining bacon bits. A chain would be lubricated similarly to the method used for paraffin, dipping it in the liquified grease and hanging it to drip. Obtaining bacon grease may result in a chain reaction involving eggs, home fries, orange juice, pancakes and a long nap afterward, so it's not without hazards.

About the Author

I'm a professional electronics technician working on commercial aircraft. My main responsibility is the Honeywell Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Computer, a 486-based machine that uses GPS information to compare aircraft position, speed and altitude against a simplified terrain map of the planet. This is a flight critical system on modern aircraft, but it's not the sole focus of my work. I've done maintenance on aircraft electronics beginning with the largely electro-mechanical systems on 727s and DC-10s, mostly on autopilots but including navigation and communication radios as well. I enjoy explaining technology to people unacquainted with it, and try to write as simply and directly as possible.

Photo Credits

  • John Howard/Digital Vision/Getty Images