Greasy chains can be a real annoyance for bike commuters who ride in business attire. Sure, it’s simple enough to use a cuff strap or tuck a pant leg into a sock, but if you’re a numbskull like me, you still eventually manage to get grease on the cuff of every pair of khakis in your closet. Full chain cases are the obvious solution, but not everyone wants a chain case. Another approach is a belt drive, but again, we’re talking a specialized bicycle. What many people may not realize is that a perfectly clean running chain lube has been available all along.
Wax makes an excellent chain lube. It runs extremely clean and it seems to be good for chains. Chain waxing is nothing new (here’s an old article by Grant Petersen on chain waxing from 1992). I’ve waxed my chains on-and-off going all the way back to the 1980’s. There are those who claim a waxed chain will not last as long as a chain lubricated with modern synthetic oils (probably the manufacturers of those products), but anecdotal evidence seems to support the contrary. Personally, I’ve put what I’m guessing to be 10,000 miles on a waxed chain, and I’ve seen claims of up to 15,000 miles. Whatever the numbers, it seems waxing is sufficiently effective to assuage any concerns about bicycle chain life. The obvious downside to chain waxing is that it’s a bit of a process, so if your chain maintenace method consists of dribbling a little oil on your chain every few weeks and calling it good, the waxing process may may be too much and you can stop right here. But, if you’ve had it with greasy chains and you’re interested in an alternative, read on!
First you’ll need a 1lb. block of paraffin, available at most grocery stores as “canning wax“, or at craft stores as “premium candle wax” (not to be confused with bee’s wax). You’ll also need either two pots to use as a double boiler, a real double-boiler, or an old crock pot. It’s also nice to have an old spoke or a wire coat hanger handy for fishing the chain out of the hot wax when the time comes.
Here’s the process:
- The first time you use the hot wax method you’ll want to sanitize your drivetrain before starting (you’ll only need to do this once). Remove the chain and strip it using your favorite biodegradable degreaser (my favorite method is to fill an old plastic soda bottle 1/4 of the way with Simple Green, feed the chain in the top, put on the cap, shake like crazy, let it soak for 10 minutes, shake like crazy again, then rinse the chain thoroughly with water). While the chain is drying, scrub your chainrings and rear cogs. Use whatever method you’d like, just make sure everything is squeaky clean and dry or the wax will pick up and absorb the oily gunk that was leftover, defeating the purpose.
- Heat the block of wax in your double-boiler or crock pot. [CAUTION: Paraffin is flammable. Attempting to melt paraffin on the stovetop without the use of a double boiler may cause a fire! —ed.] Once the wax is completely melted and is about the consistency of water, turn the heat down a bit and carefully place your chain in the wax. You’ll notice bubbles emanating from the chain; these bubbles are the air that’s being forced out of the inner pockets of the chain by the wax (this is good!). Let the chain stew for about 15 minutes; the wax will adhere better if the chain gets up to about the same temperature as the wax. Once you’re convinced the chain is sufficiently saturated, turn off the heat and wait another 15 minutes for the wax to partially cool and thicken to the consistency of syrup.
- Using your old spoke, fish the chain out of the wax and hang it up to drip dry (this is best done outside). If done carefully, you won’t lose a drop of wax and your significant other won’t kill you for dripping paraffin everywhere. Once the chain is hanging, use a clean, coarse rag to wipe the excess wax from the chain.
- You can either just leave the remaining wax in the pot to harden for use on another day, or if you’re the frugal type, you can reheat the wax and pour it through cheesecloth into another container to filter out any dirt and grease particles that were picked up during the process. If you choose to forgo the filtering process, you’ll get 4-5 uses out of a batch of wax before you need to replace it.
- Reinstall your chain and enjoy the clean, silent ride of wax!
The first time out you’ll notice some wax flecks on your bike and the chain may slip a bit; both will subside as the excess wax flakes off.
Expect to get anywhere from 400-600 miles per wax job, depending upon your local conditions (just like with any lube, the nastier the conditions, the sooner you’ll have to re-apply). Be sure to re-wax your chain as soon as it starts squeaking.
Straight paraffin works well in dry conditions, but you may need to add a little Teflon (PTFE) impregnated oil such as Slick 50 to increase its effectiveness in wet conditions. One or two tablespoons of oil per 1 lb. of wax is plenty. Grant Petersen advocates mixing paraffin with bee’s wax at an 80/20 ratio. Whatever your flavor, adding anything to pure paraffin will increase its stickiness while reducing cleanliness.
Very few people still use this antiquated method to lube their chains, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but if you like the idea of a super-clean, greaseless, yet well-lubed drivetrain, you might give it a try sometime.
Note: A variation on this post was originally published on my old site, The Recumbent Blog, back in 2007.