Making life easier… (8) Clean and lubricate your chain

This article was published in 2000, in Newsletter 31.

Although some people on bikes seem to believe that an orange-coloured chain is normal, most Campaign members understand that they ought to look after their chain. Not only does this make pedalling easier, but a neglected chain quickly wears out your expensive chainrings and gear clusters, sending replacement costs rocketing. So, what should you be doing?

Before every ride, have a quick look at the chain. If it looks at all ‘dry’ or worse, you can apply some lubricant by turning the pedals slowly backwards. However, thorough cleaning and lubrication is best done by periodically removing the chain, something described in most books on bike maintenance. In this article, I’ll describe my rather traditional approach to getting a chain really clean while it’s off the bike.

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A helpful DIY tool you can make to assist removing and replacing chains on derailleur-equipped bikes is a simple S-shaped hook fashioned out of an old wire coat hanger.


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Use this tool to hold the derailleur cage forward so that the chain is slack. This makes using a chain-tool much easier!


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For a chain thickly encrusted with grime, nothing beats soaking it in a tub of cleaner. I use paraffin because it’s cheap and easy to find. An old toothbrush is the best thing to scrub the dirt off. Another approach (shown here), which is best suited to chains that are regularly cleaned, is the old ‘washing machine’ trick. First, put the chain inside a plastic bottle one third full of cleaner.


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Second, put the lid on and shake vigorously for about a minute. Just in case, keep a thumb on the lid! Third, empty the cleaner into another container. You can reuse it if you allow the muck to settle. Some of the modern environmentally-friendly cleaners need rinsing in water. If you used one of these, half-fill the bottle with fresh water, fit the top and shake to rinse the chain before draining.


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Use your DIY wire hook to fish out the chain. Wipe the excess liquid off the clean chain with a rag. Laying the chain on newspaper also helps to dry it. If you rinsed it in water, disperse the moisture with a water-dispersant spray such as WD-40.


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Now the chain is ready for lubrication. The challenge is to lubricate the internal parts: that’s where the chain wears most. Modern spray lubricants are best applied liberally while the chain is laid flat on the newspaper. Conventional liquid lubricants like oil are best applied by immersion (shown here). Lower the clean chain into the lubricant, and leave it there at least until no more small bubbles float to the surface. My favourite lubricant is plain 20W/50 engine oil, cheap and very effective. Finally, by positioning the tub beneath a suitable nail, hang the chain up on the nail so that the excess lubricant drips back into the tub.

Leave the chain to drip-dry for a few hours (ideally overnight) before wiping it and refitting it to the bike. While you’re waiting, why not give your chainrings and gear cluster a clean-up too?

David Green