What is the cleanest bicycle chain lube?

January 05, 2021

Picture of a clean bicycle chain

I started cycling when I was about 13 years old (I'm 45 now), so I've got more than 30 years experience cleaning and lubricating bicycle chains.

During that time, I've tried many of the various chain lubes on the market, in an attempt to answer the question, "What is the cleanest bicycle chain lube?" What I want is one that stays perfectly clean, slippery-smooth lubrication, and lasts forever between re-applications. Don't we all?

Unfortunately, my experiments with various lubes and oils have often ended with a drivetrain covered in black gunk. I believe most of the challenges are from riding in the very dry and dusty desert climate in Southern California. With no moisture in the air, any dust kicked up on the road or trail has nowhere to stick - except for on the lubrication on your chain, so of course that's where it gathers.

Over time this results in the chain, cogs, and chainrings becoming filled with a sludge composed of old lubricant, mud, and dirt. Yuck. I know that dirty drivetrain is stealing my hard-earned watts, so I've tried many different cleaning and lube techniques, before finally settling on a method that works well for me, so I wanted to share it with you.

This technique results in a drivetrain that stays quiet for a long time and attracts minimal grit and grime. The chain remains clean to the touch, preventing the black "chainring tattoo" on the back of your right calf and greatly reduces the amount of grease on your hands, if you need to change a flat on the road. 

The cleanest possible bicycle chain lube

In my experience, the best way in 2020 to have a scrupulously clean bicycle chain is lubricating with wax. Here's why: 

  • It attracts minimal dirt and grit. Wax is dry to the touch, not damp like oil
  • It's economical (about $1 per waxing)
  • It keeps the drivetrain very clean

My early, 1990's era experiences with waxing were not good. I destroyed Mom's crockpot, made a big mess, and I had to source my own wax and additives, before mixing it all together, since there were few ready-made products. It was a pretty big hassle at the time - especially since removing and reconnecting the chain often required a disposable master link or special chain pin every time. As a result, I eventually temporarily abandoned waxing, changing my focus to a constant cycle of degrease, lubricate, ride, repeat. 

It's been extraordinarily dry in Southern California this past year, and my mileage has gone up too, to the point where I was spending a lot of time maintaining the drivetrain on my fleet of bikes.

So I returned to waxing this past Summer in search of a solution, and was pleasantly surprised. The difference in waxing in 1990 vs. 2020 is night and day! Modern bikes often have (re-usable) master links, which makes them simple to quickly remove and re-install. It's no longer necessary to source and mix your own wax, and with "boil in a bag" products, no crockpot needed, no fuss, no mess.

Using Silca Secret Blend hot melt chain wax, for example, is "chain waxing on easy mode". You melt the wax right in the bag (just drop the entire bag in a boiling pot of water) so there's no mess, and you can use the same bag repeatedly. 

I can swap a dirty chain with a clean one in less than 10 minutes, which is less time than I was spending degreasing previously. Here's how it's done:

  • Have multiple, pre-cut chains for your bike. This isn't an additional expense (if you rotate between two chains, each will last twice as long as a single chain, so your total $ spent on chains is unchanged. I would argue it might even go down, as correct cleaning and lube can significantly extend chain lifespan)
  • Remove the master link and drop the chain that was in use into an ultrasonic cleaner
  • Install your pre-prepped, already-waxed and ready chain onto the bike so it's ready to ride immediately while you work on the dirty chain
  • Boil the wax, I like to wax multiple chains from different bikes all at once to work quickly, saving setup/teardown time.

What you need to wax your chain - a shopping list

Here are the tools and supplies I use for chain waxing: 

  1. The wax itself, such as Silca's Super Secret Blend hot melt wax. You can also "roll your own" using a paraffin wax base; however, that's much more time consuming. I now prefer a pre-mixed wax. 
  2. Coat hanger to fish the chain out of the wax and hang it to dry
  3. Eye protection - it should go without saying that you should protect your eyes before working with solvent, boiling water, and so on. 
  4. An ultrasonic cleaner. A basic model will do - just make sure the tank is large enough to accommodate your drivetrain parts. As a bonus you can use them for many other household tasks as well. 
  5. Solvent - I like the "Zep" brand, a heavy-duty citrus based degreaser, which is still plenty strong even diluted with water.
  6. Replacement master link or chain pin for your make/model of chain (many are now re-usable, while others are single-use, so check yours to be certain)
  7. Please print my step-by-step instructions to refer to in your workshop while you do the waxing job. 

Ready for a cleaner, faster bike? 

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How to clean the chain before waxing

If you want to experiment with wax, it's critical to start with a perfectly clean and dry chain. How you get there is up to you. Many riders use the "shake the chain in a water bottle full of solvent" method, which can work acceptably.

Elbow grease with solvent and a rag or toothbrush is also an option. The results can be perfectly acceptable, but it's time consuming.  

My preferred method is to dunk the chain in an ultrasonic cleaner with citrus solvent (Zep, Pedro's, etc.), diluted with water. These are commonly used for cleaning jewelry or silverware, and work by emitting microscopic vibrations, shaking the dirt free, so it can settle into the bottom of the bath. You can get an excellent ultrasonic cleaner for under $100. Lift the chain out when done and you should have a very shiny chain clean down to the metal, no elbow grease required.

Hang the chain to dry, or you can blast it with air to remove any residual moisture if you have a shop compressor available. 

Don't move forward to the wax step until the chain is bone-dry and clean, free of old lubricant or grime! 

How to apply the chain wax

I prefer the Silca hot melt wax for it's simplicity and ease of use. Before you apply it, please read my instructions, "How to wax a bicycle chain with Silca's hot melt wax" for the exact steps I use.

Conclusions

I make no claim that this is the fastest, or cheapest, or quietest, or longest-lasting lube for your chain (although it certainly ranks up there for all those factors). Time being at a premium, the most important factor for me is cleanliness - reducing the time spent in the shop, so I can get more hours in on the bike. 

There is no "best" chain lube - but there is a best chain lube for your needs and local conditions. For me, it turns out, that's wax. 

Shop chain lube and wax

Good luck! 





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