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Bicycle chains with higher model numbers (and slightly higher prices) are often nickel-plated or half-nickel-plated. What are the benefits of nickel-plated chains over non-nickel-plated chains?

How durable is the plating--does it wear off, or do its benefits last for the life of the chain?

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Mostly looks. The nickle will prevent corrosion, but a chains should be sufficiently well lubed that corrosion isn't a problem anyway. In theory the nickle might reduce friction slightly, but that assumes that the parts you can't see are also plated, and even then the benefit would be slight. –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 22 '13 at 3:12
    
@DanielRHicks Wouldn't that depend on the type of lube? For example, DumondeTech chain lube is designed to adhere to internal surfaces and should be reapplied infrequently. So it's not protecting against corrosion of external surfaces. –  amcnabb Jun 22 '13 at 3:37
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Pretty much all purpose-made chain lubes provide some degree of "coating" that would prevent corrosion. Dumonde Tech says "Plating bonds to chain; can’t be washed off!" –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 22 '13 at 12:01
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Well, that's not what the blurb says. –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 22 '13 at 17:54
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If your chain is rusting before a chain-checker gauge says it's worn out, you're not lubing your chain enough, or you're not riding your bike enough that a high-end chain will make a difference. –  Stephen Touset Aug 5 '13 at 22:32

7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted
+50

Nickel plated chains have this done for aesthetic purposes, and to provide corrosion resistance. They are also less susceptible to the chain binding itself up.

When two metallic surfaces create friction against each other, they create small areas of abrasion (Much like a plaque in your arteries). Over time, these increase to the point where the chain can kink in spots. Nickel helps to stave this off.

The wearing may be slightly higher than with a non coated chain, but the difference to the lifespan of the cogs (cassette) is negligible. Chains should be replaced around the 2500km mark on a regular basis, and cassettes anywhere from 5000-10000km depending on many factors. You'll go through 2-3 chains per cassette, and usually I replace my cassette with every 3rd chain no matter what.

Dust/dirt/mud and poor maintenance will do more harm and accelerate wear faster than any plating on the chain will.

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Nice answer, but I would put a caveat on equating wear to km or miles ridden. If you ride only on roads in Southern California you will get a much higher "distance-life" for a given chain than you would in the Pacific NorthWest. Also, the type of chain needs to be factored into any distance-life equation, a race chain won't last near as long...e.g.: SRAM PC 1091 versus the 1030, the 1030 will last 2 -3 times longer and still be in good shape. –  Ken Hiatt Aug 7 '13 at 6:15

The main benefit is corrosion resistance at a slightly higher cost. Plus the near chrome like finish looks better.

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They're also easier to clean since the plating is so smooth. –  WTHarper Jun 22 '13 at 1:52

As stated above, the main reason for nickel plating is to stop rust.

Personally I would only want the nickel on the outside surface of the chain. The reason is some modern nickel plating (though I admit I don't know if this is the case with bicycle chains) is harder than steel and so would wear the sprocket and chain-ring faster if the plating is on the inside of the links. I would rather wear out an inexpensive and easier to replace KMC chain than a pricey 10 speed Shimano XTR cassette! Kinda like on my old TV how I would prefer it not to blow a $200 picture tube (back when $200 was a lot of money) to protect a 10 cent fuse!

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The hardness issue is very interesting--it would be nice to have definitive data about whether nickle-plated chains are harder than steel cogs. I would be a little surprised, but it's an interesting possibility. –  amcnabb Jul 12 '13 at 20:43

Most of the bicycle chains are made using some form of steel/steel alloy. Nickel is an essential element in forming stainless steel, the reason to add Nickel is to retain the austenitic structure(a type of crystalline structure) for wide range of temperatures.

Stainless steel has the appearance of a nickel-plated chain, but will still retain the look when old and used(kept clean of course). Unlike steel; the nickel-plated chain's plating may get worn off due to use and appear as though paint has chipped away.

You may also see some chains that have special electro-plating of chromium/nickel, a.k.a dripping chrome trying to be aesthetic.

Nickel plating on metal is known to provide corrosion resistance and has lubricant effect.

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In the gun world, companies will coat the reciprocating parts (mainly the bolt) with nickel-boron to reduce friction, going so far as to claim that you don't need lubricant.

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Drew was really the only one to hit on friction, but that's a big factor to consider for nickel plating benefits. To borrow directly from the words of a company that specializes in plating, benefits include:

  • Excellent Corrosion Protection
  • Wear Resistance
  • Lubricity
  • Tarnish Protection
  • Decorative Appearance
  • Good Diffusion Barrier
  • Surface Hardness
  • Magnetic Characteristics

Obviously some of these bullets are more beneficial than others to the application of bike chains.

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Thanks for sharing the list--that's really helpful. –  amcnabb Aug 12 '13 at 17:05

The main benefits of nickel plating for bike chains are hardness, corrosion resistance and wear resistance. This article explains more about each benefit

There's a bit more information about nickel coatings on this website too.

Hope that helps! :)

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