Chain Waxing

Over the last several years, chain waxing has become a hot topic. Although it’s far from new, like everything in cycling, all good ideas are about a century old. Almost 10 years ago, an article comparing chain lube efficiency surfaced, maybe in VeloNews or a similar magazine. It caught my attention, not because paraffin wax promised the lowest friction, but because it kept the chain the cleanest and prevented the embarrassing Cat-5 tattoo.

Although the promise of saving 5 watts on chain lube is certainly enticing, I think the wattage savings in not scrubbing auto upholstery, my right calf, or even the dog far outweighs the benefits of a fast chain. Basically, the concept is this: keep the lube inside the chain bushings where the wear happens, use a dry lubricant that does not collect dirt, and extend the life of the more expensive drivetrain components- namely the cassette and chainrings.

As dirt collects on a chain, it grinds away the metal, lengthening the chain. The chain then starts to cut deeper into the teeth on the cogs and chainrings, resulting in the shark fin pattern of excessive wear. Chain prices range between $25-100, while cassettes can be more than $300, and chainrings can cost well over $100 in some cases. By extending the life of the chain and reducing the wear on the rest of the system, a MAMIL’s bourbon budget can be extended. Wax is completely dry and does not collect nearly as much dirt. Even drip-style dry lubricants go on wet and need time for the carriers to evaporate, so putting them on the night before a ride is critical for better performance. There are certainly applications for wet lubes, such as if you live in a place where it rains a lot and you ride in it, but since I don’t, I’m skipping over that aspect of lubrication. It’s a big internet, go find what suits your situation.

Many companies have jumped on the wax bandwagon, offering expensive bags of wax for use in double-boilers, wax-based drip-on lubes, and complex chemistry with outrageous claims. You will find none of them listed or referenced in this article. Instead, I recommend such sources as  ZeroFrictionCycling, and other reliable outlets of information. This article is about how to do a basic chain hotwax, not a shortcut to product research. If you’re bored enough to have surfed to this website, you can start looking up wax products on your own.

I thus offer up my simple method of waxing, which I find to be 1) fully functional, B) easy, and III) inexpensive.

Let’s start with the fundamentals: safety. For the love of God, do not slap a pile of wax in a saucepan and put it on your stove, unless you like fire. Keep this simple rule in mind, and the rest is easy.

You will need the following:

Wax (duh). About $4-6 per pound.
A small crockpot. Between $12-24. Yes, I know “Crockpot” is a brand name, but it’s also generic for the item. See “Kleenex” and “Xerox” for how this works.
Turpentine. $10
A jar. Free-ish.
Denatured alcohol. Another $10.
A small hook. Free.

Simple, right? Let’s start with wax. I use Gulf Wax, a food-grade paraffin which is readily available in the canning aisle at Walmart, Ace Hardware, and many other places. A pound costs maybe $6. I have lots of leftover ski wax that I’ve never used, presumably it would work as well. However, it is designed for lower temperatures and may be too soft and short-lived for hot days while riding.

Mini-crockpots can be found online at large retailers named for jungles for about $12-24. These are about 6″ in diameter, nominally about .6 quarts, and will hold exactly 1 pound of Gulf Wax. Mrs MAMIL got one as part of a set with her ginormous crockpot, and I simply borrowed it.

Turpentine can be purchased at many hardware or paint stores, a quart costs about $10. Same for denatured alcohol.

A jar may be purchased at any grocery store, most often full of jam. I am partial to Bonne Maman because the jam is delicious, and the jars are wide-mouth.

A small hook may be made by bending a spoke or other piece of wire.

Cleaning the chain: Chains come sealed in an industrial adhesive called Cosmoline. It is designed to attract dirt and pet hair, with the added bonus of making your fingers sticky and rust-resistant. This must be removed in full from the chain. Eat the jam and run the jar and lid through your dishwasher (note: do not run the jar and lid through the dishwasher AFTER the cleaning process or Mrs. MAMIL may render you inoperative in ways you do not wish to experience).

Place your new, Cosmoline-laden chain in the jar, and pour your turpentine in. Try not to overflow. Put the lid on tightly, let it soak for a while, and periodically shake the BeJeezus out of it. Keep doing this for a long time. Occasionally, open the jar, fish out part of the chain, wipe it dry, and rub your fingers over it to see if you have removed the Cosmoline. You have not, trust me. Repeat the process. After all, on their own website, they say “Removing Cosmoline has given people grief since 1939.” They also sell a remover for $45 a quart. Think about that for a moment: Forty.Five.Bucks.A.Quart.

After a few soaking and some serious shaking sessions, remove the chain and hang it up to dry (try to let it drip into the jar). Wipe off the excess, but do not wad the rags up and put them in the garbage. I use a coffee filter and funnel, and return the turpentine to its container. I then wipe and dry the jar, replace the chain, and fill it with denatured alcohol. Then I soak and shake it again. Lots of times. When I get bored, I pull the chain back out, dry it, and check it for Cosmoline. At this point, the chain has become floppy side-to-side and clicks and rattles. Occasionally, I have to repeat the process with both solvents. Note that manufacturers use different versions of Cosmoline: Nasty (TM), Super-Grippy (TM), and WTF is This Stuff (TM). Each of these grades are very sticky and persistent.

While doing the cleaning, you can plug in the crockpot and start putting wax in it. The whole pound will fit in, but I use 3/4 because I believe in Archimedes and his theories. It will take up to 2 hours to get everything melted.

Once the chain is clean (when you rub it with clean, dry fingers, you can feel the steel is clean), simply lower the chain into the pot and wait a few minutes. You will see tiny air bubbles in the wax, when these stop, the chain is filled with wax inside the bushings.

Use your hook, pull the chain out, and let it drip into the pot as it cools. Once it’s stopped dripping, hang it up to finish cooling, then rethread it onto the bike. The cooled wax will pop off the outer plates but stay inside the bushings for quite some time. I get about 500 miles in dry weather on a road bike, and 2-300 on a mountain bike. I use Squirt to top off the lubricant if I don’t have time to re-wax. Silca Synergetic is reported to be a good top-up as well, but it has not been tested at MAMIL Labs, due to budget constraints.

Wax can sometimes build up on the smallest cassette cog, simply scrape it off with a flat-blade screwdriver.

After some time of riding, your chain will start to chirp and squeak. When you sound like a flock of little birdies, it’s time to re-do the process.

To re-wax, plug in your crockpot, set a timer on your phone for 2 hours, and go do something else, like say, beer. Remove your chain, wipe off the dust, and plop it in the hot wax. You only need to do the turpentine and alcohol on a new chain. Your wax should last quite a while if you keep it clean of oils and Cosmoline. Checking it is easy: put the crockpot in the freezer for a couple of hours (unplug it first), then pop the wax out. If it’s still pretty white, it’s clean, if it’s brownish, cough up $6 for more wax.

Chain waxing has achieved cult status, and like most religions, it has ardent followers and believers. Each adherent has their own beliefs and systems, and each believes theirs is better than others (especially yours). You can take the simple procedure here and alter it, complexify it, whatever. Just don’t wad up your rags into the garbage or try to melt your paraffin directly on the stove.