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Lubricating your bike chain is an essential part of bicycle maintenance. Using bike lubricant to keep chains properly lubricated helps prevent friction and increases the efficiency of drivetrains.
So, if you run out of chain lube, can you use a different oil? Before grabbing the WD40 or cooking oil, take a closer look at the different options on how to grease a bike chain.
Why do you need to lubricate the bike chain?
Lubricating the chain helps prevent corrosion, friction and wear. It extends the life of your bike chain and aids the performance of your bike. Keeping the chain lubricated increases your “drivetrain efficiency,” which is the energy produced as you pedal. Without lubrication, bicycle chains experience more friction, which causes additional wear and tear.
A dry chain leads to additional problems, including increased noise and difficulty shifting. If your chain constantly rubs against other parts, you may struggle to shift as easily. (Are you experiencing frequent chain drop? See our post on what to do about a bike chain that keeps falling off.)
What type of oil should you use on a bike chain?
Bike lubricants come in a variety of forms, but they are all made with a base oil and various additives. The main groups of bike lubricants include:
- Light oils
- Thick greases
- Wax-based lubricants
- Spray lubricants
The texture of the oil may range from thick and greasy to light and wet. Some oils are applied with small syringes while others are sprayed directly on the chain.
Light oil is often the easiest to apply. The consistency of the lubricant allows it to penetrate every area of the chain. Light oils are typically applied on the chain rollers as you crank the pedals backward.
As easy as they are to apply, light oils may require more frequent application. This becomes more of a problem when riding in wet and rainy conditions. As you pedal, water sprays against the chain and chainring, washing away the light oil.
Thicker lubricants tend to last longer in wet or rainy riding conditions. Thicker oils often leave a greasy film that helps protect the chain bearings. However, thicker oils also collect debris and lead to dirty chains.
A thicker oil requires you to clean chain and gears more frequently. If you choose to use grease to lubricate your bike, wipe away any excess lube before riding.
If you ride off-road in mostly dry conditions, a wax-based lubricant may work better. Waxes don’t hold up well in wet and rainy environments, but they shield against dust and dirt in dusty conditions. When used properly, a wax-based chain lube offers increased longevity and resistance to contaminants compared to other options. However, they are more difficult to apply.
Before applying wax, you need to ensure that you have a really clean chain. You then need to use a rag to work the wax into the links. It is easy to over-apply, so start with a small amount.
Spray lubricants are the easiest to apply. You simply point and spray to lube your chain. Unfortunately, most sprays are too thin to provide optimal protection against friction.
WD40 is an example of a spray lubricant that a cyclist might try to use on bicycle chains, but it’s not a great idea. It’s great for a squeaky door hinge, but WD40 is too light to help lubricate your bike chain.
What’s the difference between wet and dry lubes?
Wet lubes are wet when applied and stay wet. Dry lubes leave a dry, waxy residue. Light lubricants and thick, greasy lubricants are often wet while most wax-based lubricants and spray lubricants are dry.
Wet lube is suited for most types of weather conditions. It is less likely to degrade and wash away in the rain compared to a dry lube, making it ideal for wet conditions. A wet chain lube also protects against salt corrosion, which is often an issue during the winter.
A ceramic lube is another type of lube that provides a balance between wet and dry. It dries into a tack substance that delivers higher performance and less friction.
What is the best lubricant for bike chains?
Finish Line is one of the top producers of bike chain oils. The company offers wet and dry lubricants.
Finish Line’s lubricants are non-toxic and biodegradable. The dry lubricant can easily penetrate every nook and cranny of your chain. The wet lubricant offers protection for almost any riding conditions.
What oils work as bike chain lubricant alternatives?
Here are a few bike chain lube alternatives that really work:
Chainsaw oil: Chainsaw oil is used to lubricate chainsaws, which requires the oil to be thick and sticky. Applying chainsaw oil on your bike chains should keep them lubed in the heaviest rainstorms. It’s not recommended for any other weather conditions. The thick oil creates too much of a hassle for frequent use. It can easily collect dust and debris, making it a challenge to keep your chain and gears clean.
Silicone spray: Silicone spray works well as a bike lubricant. It is often used as a sealant or lubricant for various household items. It is also easy to apply, as it comes in a spray can. However, it won’t last long. You may need to reapply the silicone spray after each ride.
Clipper oil: Clipper oil is a light machine oil used to lubricate the blades in a pair of hair clippers. As with a silicone spray, it washes away easily. Yet, it can reach every area of the bike chain to help protect against corrosion.
Vaseline: Vaseline helps reduce friction better compared to light machine oils and sprays. The texture and consistency are comparable to many grease-based bike lubricants. Unfortunately, it’s also good at collecting dust and debris, requiring more cleaning.
3-in-1 oil: 3-in-1 oil is a multi-purpose oil used for a wide range of applications, including lubricating bike chains. 3-in-1 oil is made with naphthenic oil, which is commonly used as a base oil for bike lubricants. It has a high freezing point and offers superior protection against corrosion.
What oils should you avoid using on bike chains?
Avoid oils that are too thick, such as castor oil, engine oil and gear oil. The thickness of the oil keeps it from penetrating the rollers inside the chain.
While you can use motor oils to lubricate your bike chains, you may struggle to cover every link and roller. Thicker oil is also likely to collect more dirt and debris.
Can you use these lubricants on your bike chain?
|No (too thick)
|No (vegetable oil may be used in a pinch)
|No (works as a degreaser)
Final thoughts on oils for your bike
Your bike chain needs lubrication to protect against wear and tear, and maintain performance. The type of lube should be determined mostly by your riding conditions.
If you ride in dry conditions, consider using a dry lube such as a wax-based lubricant. When riding in wet conditions, you want to avoid a dry lube.
Wet lube is more likely to offer continued protection when exposed to rain. Wet lubes tend to include greases. If you use grease, you may need to clean your chains more frequently to remove debris and buildup.
When it comes to bike lubricant alternatives, avoid cooking oils and motor oils. They’re often too thick to work well as a lubricant. Clipper oil and other light machine oils are suitable alternatives but may require frequent application.
If you can’t find anything else around the house, vegetable oils can serve as bicycle chain lube in a pinch. They are a little lighter compared to some cooking oils, but still make a mess and attract dirt.
If your bike chain is rusty due to a lack of lubrication, see our post on how to clean a rusty bike chain.