How to clean your chain

Those who have gone before me

Over the past 16 years, I have worked for and along side gifted mechanics that had years of experience under their belt. Many had learned from technicians similar to themselves and brought that knowledge with them. Having worked with and for these wrenches, I have experienced many different theories and ideas on chain cleaning and lubrication. I have found that there are only a few basic ideas.

The first I came into contact with is the clean the hell out of it and then lubricate. Are you installing a new chain? Great drop it in the _________________ (solvent tank, plastic bottle, chain cleaner). Make sure you get all that sticky shit off before you install it. Got an old chain that is dirty? Do the same thing.

The second style, DON’T REMOVE THE CHAIN! I’ve heard many reasons behind this one, the most logical to me is that the chain can be put back on in many different ways and it will have worn with the chainrings in a directional fashion. Clean the chain on the bike. Again solvent, chain cleaner, lube. Simply process. Oh and of course, don’t forget to wipe it down when you are done so it stays clean.

And then there is the old adage of lube excessively. Run the chain so it seeps into place and wipe off whatever is left on the outside. Clean with lube, lube with lube, leave the solvent for car mechanics.

My Personal Experience

 As I mentioned I’ve been directed to perform all of these methods and have done so for years on end with each.

For a few years, it was common practice for myself to remove the chain and drop it into a used water bottle full of solvent and then shake. After only a few minutes of jerking off with a bottle, I could remove a bright chain that looked new. It was devoid of dirt, grime and lubrication. Sparkly clean.

I also used on-bike chain cleaning devices for many years. Simply set up the cleaner, run the chain through the solvent. Wipe it dry and lube.

I am opposed to both of those methods.

My Method

 I was at a three day tech seminar a few years back. As you can imagine there is a lot of “shop-talk” that goes on at these events. Sit 5-7 mechanics around a table at lunch and you get some pretty diverse ideas and the stories are endless (as you can imagine from the content of this blog). The topic of chain maintenance came up in a question/answer kind of way. Everyone at the table was shocked that I refused to have a solvent tank at my shop. The obvious follow up question was, How do you clean chains? I replied, with lube.

It was about five years ago, I took over the management of a small shop that was ran by a grumpy, artistic son of a bitch who had built his shop over the past 25 years based on the idea of quality service. At the time I was using the DON’T REMOVE THE CHAIN! method described above. In one of his fits of clarity, he walked into the service area, saw me cleaning a chain with solvent and simply asked, “Why don’t you just use lube?” And then proceeded to turn around and walk back to his studio.

In much the same way as the guys at the table, I reacted by questioning how I would clean the chain.

That simple question wouldn’t leave me alone so I started to fittle with it. I finally approached him and asked how he would do it. He grabbed a bottle of lube. Lubed the chain. Spun it several times to allow the lube to seep into the links/roller bearing and then used a rag to wipe off the excess. The chain looked pretty much the same as what I had been doing. He then told me the story of being told by some grumpy old mechanic that if you want to lube something, lube it. No need for solvents…

This is the exacted mode of lubrication that we use in my service shop. Over the years, I’ve had to train and justify my methods to a few mechanics. Some saw the logic and proceeded without issue. Others fought the idea from the beginning all the way to the moment they chose not to work for me anymore. At which point I’m sure they walked out the door and ruined as many chains as they could with solvents.

Justification

In an attempt to convince one of these mechanics, I went searching. We use KMC chains.

I found their page on maintenance, you can read it here.

They basically say to not use solvents and the quickest way to ruin a chain is to run it through a “chain cleaner.” If you don’t know much about KMC, they pretty much live and breath chains. They make ’em for every application that you can think of. They know a thing or two about chains.

Shimano is a little less blunt about their methods. If you read the chain owner’s manual you will find a section about cleaning/maintenance where it says to clean the chain to use warm, soapy water and if absolutely necessary a very mild solvent.

As an experiment, we took a shit dirty chain. It measured around .30 on KMC’s digital chain checker. We filled a chain cleaner with lubricant (yup I couldn’t even bring myself to use solvent for our experiment). We then proceeded to run the chain through the chain cleaner filled with lubricant until it looked clean. We pulled it out and it now measured .65. Edging very close to that don’t even think about reusing this chain point. We replaced the chain.

I also took a brand new chain and did the water bottle full of solvent method. I was amazed (it had been a few years since I had cleaned a chain this way) at how loose the chain felt after it was devoid of lube. I lubed it up and installed it on my bike. After about two rides, it was squeaky. I lubed it up again, same results. In comparison to “uncleaned” new chain that you can go several weeks/months without doing anything to before it starts to squeak. Yup, your chain is best lubricated when it is removed from the package. Don’t take the sticky stuff off.

If you look at this a little deeper you can find the cause of “chain stretch.” Many people think they have such amazingly strong legs that they can literally elongate the outer plates of the chain making the link longer. What is really happening is that the roller bearing and pin are wearing out creating more play in the system. So why would you want to eliminate the grease between these two parts?

Sheldon Brown wrote a tongue-in-cheek article pointing fun at the many doo dads out there to clean and lubricate a chain. He also has an article that details many of the things I’ve been discussing. The article clearly states that the factory lubricated chain is the absolutely best lubed chain. He has a different take than I do about cleaning the chain. At the end of this section, he then states that it would be best to use the same method as the factory to re-lubricate.

Conclusion: How to best care for your chain

1. Do not remove the factory lubricant.
2. Clean with lube, coat the chain in lube allowing it to seep into the roller bearing.

3. Remove excess lube with a clean rag.

4. Oh, and this is also the lube part of the process as well.

5. Lube and clean as you see necessary. Excess lube left on the chain is bad. Under lubrication is bad. If it is squeaking you waited too long. If it is gummy, you probably jumped the gun.


3 Responses to How to clean your chain

  1. Dave Stolarski says:

    What lube do you recommend? Thank you.

  2. Knuckler says:

    I personally use Dumonde Tech Lite. I live in the desert where things are super dry, so I can’t speak to its performance elsewhere.

  3. Peter says:

    As a motorcycle mechanic I have to agree that any solvent cleaning is a REALLY BAD IDEA. The only time we would solvent clean a drive chain was in the ‘good old days’ before ‘O’ ring chains were available. After cleaning with diesel (leaves oil film) they would be ‘cooked’ in a molybdenum/graphite chain wax and allowed to cool a bit so wax is drawn into pins and bushings. The heat will boil out any solvent. As bicycle chains would never need lube that heavy duty it would be dumb to wash out the manufacturers lube

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