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So im thinking of waxing my chain (with parafin wax) what would the advantages of this be over wet lube (i use muck off). Anybody have any experience with waxed chains?

Thanks.

  • In many ways paraffin/beeswax is an ideal lubricant (and most chains come from the factory waxed). However, it collects dirt and can only be effectively applied/refreshed by removing the chain from the bike (so you're far less likely to maintain it properly). A chain washer (with solvent) and a liquid wax of the climate-appropriate type is far more practical. – Daniel R Hicks Nov 29 '17 at 23:08
  • I've switched from oil lube to this one: www.squirtlube.com (not an advert, just an experience). I'm happy with it - in summer I've done some xc races, sometimes in lots of mud - this lube performed much better than oil: less friction and less mud on the chain – k102 Dec 1 '17 at 14:41
  • Lube oils for chains contain waxes ( microcrystaline ?). I am not a lube engineer but I talked with some about motorcycle chain lubes. – blacksmith37 Dec 15 '18 at 20:28
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I have been using paraffin wax this year on my "fast" road bike as a bit of an experiment. This was using the hot wax approach, where paraffin wax was melted (in a slow cooker) and a clean chain dipped in the hot wax.

Pros

  • Very clean drive train, even after 2000 km the cassette and rings sparkle. Straight paraffin (i.e., without bees wax) does not attract dirt. I rarely find myself cleaning the drive train as it just isn't needed.
  • Efficient - feels quite efficient when pedaling. Nothing earth shattering, just a positive feel. Perhaps this is confirmation bias, due to the Velonews research. I haven't tried to quantify any differences yet.
  • Longer period of time between maintenance. Typically 400-600 km between needing to reapply.
  • Reapplication of hot wax can be quick 15 min - if you have the setup.
  • Lower wear rates. My preliminary results have shown lower wear rates relative to wet lube, but I need more data before I can sign off on this. See ParkTool CC-2 chain checker incorrect readings for an example of how to measure chain wear rates precisely measured in the field.

Cons

  • Time consuming to prepare a chain for first waxing (ALL LUBE must be removed). This step is critical and time consuming (see below).
  • Chain runs a bit nosier, especially if cross chaining.
  • Chain must be removed from the bike to re-wax
  • More paraphernalia required (e.g., slow cooker, wax, gloves, solvents, jars)
  • You need to be organized. Wet lubes are easier, if you don't plan.
    • Typically, I have about 3 chains pre-waxed which I rotate once the wax has worn off.

Additional Details on Hot Waxing

When done right paraffin wax adheres to the metal and takes up the space between the rollers and inner links. Because the wax is solid at room temperature, this means the chain is running on a film of hard wax, which increase efficiency and reduces roller wear. This only works if you prepare the chain correctly, otherwise the wax will not adhere and the wax will not remain between the rollers and inner plates/bushings (inner plates act as bushings in modern chains).

Initial Preparation

Probably the most critical step for a successful hot waxing is preparing the chain. All lube must be stripped off. EVERYTHING. No residue, just bare metal. This is actually more difficult than it first sounds. I typically follow this tutorial by Molten Speed Wax (although I haven't tried their wax yet). The mineral spirits do a good job of stripping out oils, but they do leave a residue. Mineral spirits is therefore followed by rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) baths, which leaves bear metals. After drying the chain is ready for a hot wax treatment. Regular bike degreasers will likely not be strong enough.

Solvents are expensive and potentially harmful to the environment so I reuse my solvents, but moving them down the chain. I use about 6-7 sequential baths (4 mineral spirits, 3 alcohol). Tedious! Afterwards solvents will need to be disposed/recycled at the proper facilities- not down the drain!!!

debris Example of the debris removed from a new chain after the first solvent bath.

Multiple Chains

Because of the tedium and work involved I tend to prepare batches of chains then rotate them on a bike. This makes re-lubing as easy as swapping a chain. I also use master a link, which I tend to reuse a number of times before replacing.

Re-waxing

Re-waxing is as simple as wiping any dust or dirt off of the chain and re-inserting into hot wax again. Any remaining dirt tends to fall out of the chain as you mix the pot, settling on the bottom. Afterwards you can cut out the dirty wax which settles to the bottom of the pot. I typically keep my re-waxing wax separate from my first time wax which is pristine.

Known Unknowns

Right now I get good longevity in the dry, even better in the cold and dry (as the wax is harder), but I have no idea the longevity in the wet and muddy. I remember the Velonews test showed good friction performance (the paraffin keeps out mud) but I am not sure anyone looked at longevity (i.e., how long before re-waxing).

Once I set my commuter up on a waxed chain I will have a better of how this may pan out.


UPDATE 1: Wear Rates

The wear rate of Paraffin treated chain is significantly lower (p < 0.001) with a wear rate about 40% of the wear rate measured while using oil. In the figure below oil was used on the chain for the first 100 hours before switching to paraffin. The slope of the regression lines indicates the wear rate, with the shaded region indicating the 95% confidence region for the regression line. Note that the measured wear drops slightly after switching to paraffin, my best guess is that the wax fills some of the space between the roller and pin, effectively reducing measured stretch.

oil vs paraffin chain wear rates


UPDATE 2: Wet weather

Wet weather riding with a paraffin waxes chain is a mixed bag. The waxing doesn’t last as long as in dry weather due to the wet and grit wearing away the wax. Typically torrential down pour conditions on gravel tracks I get about four one way commutes (about 100 km) before I swap chains. If it is light or misting rain I can get a week’s worth or more. To rewax the chain I wipe off the dirt off the chain with a wet rag, let the chain dry then throw it into the hot wax.

The one big plus is that the drivetrain remains relatively clean and can be polished in a couple minutes with a wet rag. Wet lubes would produce a nasty mess under the same conditions.

In the end there is no free lunch, there is always more maintenance in winter.

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  • I strongly second the statement that solvents must be disposed of properly. In the US, this would mean at a county or city hazardous waste dump. In theory, it's possible to distill the solvents to recycle them. Molten Speed Wax in the US and Zero Friction Cycling in Australia offer pre-waxed chains for sale, and to my knowledge at least the latter distills and re-uses solvents. The distillation process does require equipment, and it's unlikely that consumers will find it cost-effective to buy. Also, I believe either denatured or isopropyl alcohol is acceptable; the former may be cheaper. – Weiwen Ng Aug 30 at 12:11
  • @Rider_X, thank you for a very thorough answer. I'm about to give this a try... I have the wax, MoS2, and PTFE. I'll be getting a secondhand slow cooker soon. One followup question... How long do you typically leave the chain in the hot wax? It seems reasonable that the first immersion would be the most critical, to allow full movement of the wax into the spaces of the chain, and as I don't have a nifty ultrasonic washer, I'll probably use some other form of mild mechanical agitation, but for how long? – Andrew Oct 8 at 13:20
  • @Andrew I usually leave the chain in for about 15 minutes, it takes a minute or so for the chain to warm up fully (the wax will solidifying on the cold chain) then a few more minutes for all the trapped air to dissolve. You don’t need an ultrasound, just stir the chain to agitate. – Rider_X Oct 8 at 14:59
  • Thank you, much appreciated. One writeup suggested a little battery-powered milk frother... I'll probably get one of those. – Andrew Oct 8 at 16:40
  • @Andrew I can't see the milk frother helping, just stir the chain with what ever you have that is clean (I use an old spoke). The one add-on I did find helpful was a metal grate at the bottom of the slow cooker, this allowed debris that gets released when re-waxing to settle to the bottom while at the same time keeping the chain elevated above said debris. – Rider_X Oct 14 at 17:31
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Generally wax based lubes (here, I’m not talking about dipping your chain in hot paraffin wax, but of liquid lubes with wax in them) are best in dry conditions. “Wet” lubes are best in wet conditions. Wax based lubes are a type of “dry” lube.

Wax based lubes tend to reject dry dust and dirt quite well. In my experience, they will literally clump up into waxy balls of dirt and fall off. This effect does not work well in wet conditions and, if it is wet, wax based lubes will need reapplication so frequently that they are not good to use.

Wet lubes attract dust and dirt. So in dry conditions they will make dirt stick to the chain, which can end up essentially making a grinding paste that will wear down your drivetrain. That being said, it will last much longer in wet conditions.

The two types of lube are not compatible. Wet lubes will block dry lubes from adhering to the chain, and vice versa.

I live in a rainy climate and mostly use wet lubes, but I do have a “dry day only” bike where I use a wax based lubricant.

There is a technique of literally submersing your chain in melted wax. This is great for getting it in all the internal spots that may be hard to reach, although you can do something similar with wet lubes. Notes that if you soak your chain in a wet lube you should definitely wipe off ALL the excess lube. With dry lubes this doesn’t really matter as any excess will just fall off the chain.

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    Paraffin waxing a chain is very different from wax based lubes. The latter use a carrier to get the wax into the chain and never last as long as a paraffin hot wax treatment. – Rider_X Nov 30 '17 at 6:18
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    Based on the comment to the original question I was beginning to suspect that might be the case. I’ll have to do some reading in the subject, but indeed I’m starting to doubt the accuracy of my answer given the specific mention of paraffin wax. – WillyC Nov 30 '17 at 6:26
  • I clarified the answer a bit as I was confused in the first paragraph and thought the OP was nuts. – RoboKaren Nov 30 '17 at 18:39
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My answer will be nowhere near the quality of the answer above. If unscientific observation from an old duffer has any value, read on. In the early sixties we paraffin waxed our trail motorcycle chains for our days of riding and camping in the rainy Olympic mountains. It didn't take us long to develop noisy and rusty chains. As an Industrial Engineer at Boeing, I was given a quart of the cutting fluid developed for use drilling the huge titanium landing gear beams to the center bulkhead. We began using it on our trail bikes and learned to just ignore chains for long intervals. I thought I had the ultimate answer. I retired and moved to Arizona and have become an avid mountain biker. I used a series of oil based wet lubes and found our volcanic pumice, powdered clay, and sand turns oil lubes into a mess similar to asphalt. I was so excited to find Boelube available. I found it significantly better than other oil based lubes. But, it still gathers grit and makes a grinding slurry, I returned to hot paraffin treatment and would get chattering chains in 60 mile or so trail rides. Now I clean the outside of my new chains thoroughly with alcohol and use 1 of several paraffin liquid waxes (like White Lightning). They don't begin talking to me until about 80 miles. I change them out about every 800 miles.

My conclusion is use Boelube in Seattle and bike shop liquid paraffin in the desert. Even as an old retired duffer with lots of time, the effort to hot paraffin chains may exceed its value. New chains are cheap. Gears and chain-rings are not. After several years of saving maybe still good used chains, I threw them all away.

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    The key to titanium cutting fluids is chloride ( or halide) . Not a good thing for steel, it promotes corrosion. – blacksmith37 Dec 15 '18 at 20:25
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    I like that this acknowledges that different lubes are appropriate for different conditions. – Deleted User Dec 18 '18 at 14:00
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By my reading, the other answers don't appear to discuss why paraffin wax should be better than standard drip lubricants.

By way of background, Wikipedia defines waxes as organic compounds (i.e. anything with carbon-hydrogen bonds) that are malleable solids at ambient temperature. Paraffin is one type of wax that is typically derived from petroleum and that contains between 20 and 40 carbon atoms. The main feedstock for paraffin manufacture is slack wax, which is a mixture of oil and wax. This is a byproduct of oil refining.

Now, recall that chain wear occurs between the pins and the rollers. The pins and rollers wearing away is what causes chains to apparently lengthen with use. You need to ensure that lubricant penetrates between the rollers and pins, whereas we apply drip lube to the outside face of the rollers. When external contaminants like dust and dirt get onto the chain, they eventually make their way into the gap between the rollers and pins. They accelerate chain wear by forming a grinding paste or lapping compound. Dave Rome of Cyclingtips further explained this process in a different article.

Wax may prevent contaminants from entering the chain's internal spaces

Recently, Dave Rome wrote a detailed guide to chain waxing. He discussed why immersing chains in molten wax may be preferable to standard drip lubes: because the wax solidifies at standard operating temperatures, it forms a physical barrier between contaminants and the chain. The contaminants seem not to stick permanently to the wax. Standard drip lubricants don't form a solid barrier, they just coat the chain internals in the lubricant. And unfortunately, dirt can stick to the lubed chain, and the dirt can get inside the rollers.

Furthermore, Adam Kerin of Friction Facts has argued extensively (citations in the last section) that when you re-wax a chain, bathing it in molten wax should flush out all the contaminants between the pins and rollers. Naturally, if your chain is very dirty (e.g. after a ride in the rain or off-road), you should swish it in boiling water first. This will melt the wax on the chain, taking out most of the contaminants that have stuck to the wax or the chain internals.

Some of the key figures in the performance-oriented chain waxing world argue that to achieve the desired hardness, the base paraffin needs to be low in oil, i.e. it needs to be highly refined. If there's enough oil in the wax, it will create an oily surface which will retain dirt and other external contaminants. They suggest that home waxers should purchase the highest-quality food grade paraffin they can find and/or afford. Referring back to the Wikipedia article on wax in general, food-grade paraffin is non-digestible and will simply pass through your digestive tract. Some of its culinary uses are coating some cheeses (e.g. Edam) and candies.

Performance aspects of waxing

Rome's article cites some drivetrain friction testing done by CeramicSpeed. Waxed chains have generally lower friction than drip lubes. In lab tests, some of the best drip lubes can beat at least some waxes. One counterargument CeramicSpeed and others raise is that waxed chains resist contaminant entry better than typical drip lubes. Contamination inside the chain will increase drivetrain friction. Thus, Smith contends that waxed chains maintain low friction longer than drip lubes in normal operating conditions.

In addition, it matters what friction modifiers are included with the wax. Friction modifiers basically decrease the amount of drivetrain friction further. Friction Facts, while it was an independent entity, published a recipe for a wax blend that was reproduced in a 2013 BikeRadar article by James Huang. The suggested friction modifiers include PTFE, the same substance used on non-stick cookware, and molybdenum disulfide (MoS2).

At the microscopic level, the surface of a steel chain is rough, i.e. there are microscopic peaks and valleys. This means that you have rough surfaces sliding on each other as you pedal and as the chain articulates. Josh Poertner of Silca illustrated this in a recent YouTube video. The friction modifiers come in very small particles, which may help smooth the chain surface by sitting the valleys. These modifiers probably have lower coefficients of friction than the plain steel as well.

Jason Smith also argues that while wax may have a poorer lubricity than some drip lubricants, that is not the only cause of friction in the chain. Viscous drag and stiction are two other mechanisms of drag. Viscous drag should be caused by objects moving in fluid. Stiction, or static friction, occurs when two objects in contact try to get moving. Smith argues that solid waxes should minimize both types of friction relative to drip lubes. On net, solid waxes should have lower friction than drip lubes. In fact, chain manufacturers commonly suggest that the stock chain grease is a good lubricant. Smith agrees it has good lubricity, but he argues that is likely has high stiction and viscous drag, plus it attracts external contaminants. He asserts that he has tested factory chain grease to be relatively high in friction.

Where do these arguments come from?

The two main high-quality sources of the arguments for waxing appear to be Jason Smith and Adam Kerin. Both currently are bike industry players.

Smith started an independent outfit called Friction Facts. He conducted a lot of research on chain friction. He was bought by CeramicSpeed in about 2014; CeramicSpeed sells (very) premium lubricants and ceramic bearings.

Molten Speed Wax is a US-based company that sells chain wax. I believe their wax is a slightly modified version of Smith's published formula.

Kerin runs Zero Friction Cycling in Australia. He conducts a large amount of testing on chain durability (which he argues should be generally correlated with drivetrain friction, i.e. high durability should generally imply low friction). He is a retailer for various products that he has tested, and he stocks Molten Speed Wax, but he also stocks a number of drip lubricants. I would consider him generally independent.

I don't follow academic engineering research, so I don't know how grounded these contentions are in science. I don't say this to cast doubt on the arguments. I merely didn't put in the effort to evaluate them according to my usual standard - but I work in health services research, and picking apart claims in health care is what we do, and it also means I lack the technical background to evaluate these engineering and physical science claims anyway.

Drip waxes versus molten wax

There are a few lubricants that are emulsified waxes. Recall that an emulsion is defined as a mixture of two liquids that do not normally mix. Mayonnaise contains oil and water, and the lecithin in egg yolks is an emulsifier (i.e. it enables the two substances to mix). You apply these lubricants like you would a normal drip lube. However, in theory, they will harden to form a wax coating on the chain's surface and inside its rollers. These lubricants should give you at least some of the advantages of molten waxes.

One disadvantage of drip waxes is that their formulations may contain more slack wax. Recall that this is a mix of oil and dry wax, and it's the feedstock for paraffin. As discussed above, oils will attract and retain dirt, whereas a fully dry wax should not allow dirt to stick permanently. Moreover, if you buy the explanation on viscous drag and stiction, oils should be subject to both those drag mechanisms, so drip waxes may not have quite the same performance as (solidified) molten wax. They might not retain low chain friction as long as a molten wax treatment; Ceramicspeed's Smith makes this argument in the Cyclingtips article (NB: he tested Smoove, a wax emulsion, as slightly faster than Molten Speed Wax, which is traditional wax, albeit in a lab test in clean conditions, so before introducing any contamination.) Last, because the wax is suspended in a liquid carrier, drip waxes may not leave as much wax in the chain as molten wax. This argument was advanced by Josh Poertner of Silca in a forum post.

In addition, the drip waxes do require you to clean your chain about as thoroughly as you would for molten wax. I discussed this in a previous SE answer. Riders who are willing to degrease their chains off the bike but not to use molten wax might want to reconsider their objections. Naturally, the additional equipment and time are the obvious costs, so the question is how much additional benefit there is to molten wax.

Cyclingtips previously published some test from both Zero Friction (Kerin, independent) and Ceramicspeed (Smith, they sell a drip wax lube and treated chains) data. They indicated that Smoove and Squirt were both very good wax-based drip lubes in terms of friction and chain longevity.

Conclusion

Hopefully, I've explained how and why wax proponents think that waxing can outperform drip lubricants. This doesn't necessarily mean it's worth the investment for most cyclists. The individual steps involved in cleaning and waxing the chain are not too hard, but there are many of them. And if you don't clean the chain sufficiently, the wax won't adhere properly. If you don't re-wax your chain frequently enough, the wax coating will abrade off. In both cases, you would have been better off with drip lubricants and regular cleaning methods. Last, molten waxing does require a concomitant investment in other equipment - two classes of solvent (i.e. some type of degreaser plus an alcohol), jars or bottles for agitation, a spare chain unless you really are willing to remove your only chain every week (or less), a slow cooker, extra quick links.

Also, Molten Speed Wax and Zero Friction do sell waxed chains (i.e. they complete the preparation work for you). Buying direct from them would enable you to move to waxing without having to buy the solvents. It would also reduce the rationale for an ultrasonic cleaner (which is not at all necessary for waxing; you can just use degreaser baths in a bottle/jar). If waxing becomes more popular, I'd expect that some local bike stores may offer chain preparation or even regular waxing as customer services; one store near me does so.

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My short and simple answer is based on my experience using both wax and oil, and both in a variety of conditions. Wax is great for short periods of time. Within an hour of riding I start hearing my chain, and if you hear your chain, it is wearing out faster, and not sufficiently lubricated. Using oil based lubes will always collect gunk and grit, which is a pain, but using a good light oil and saturating your chain with it will keep your chain quiet, which means less wear. I probably spent as much time on chain maintenance with oil as with wax, but the oil protected my chain better. Regardless of road/trail conditions this is a pretty constant result for me. I oil my chains.

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So im thinking of waxing my chain (with parafin wax) what would the advantages of this be over wet lube (i use muck off). Anybody have any experience with waxed chains?

Why the wax? A wax is not a lubricant. If pushed out, it won't replenish like oil does.

You won't see any chain manufacturer adding wax to their chains. They use a wet lube. The stock lubricant of chains (similar to grease, i.e. oil held in a thickener matrix) unfortunately cannot be applied practically later as the stock lubricant needs to be heated during application. But you can reach close to the stock lubricant quality by using motorcycle chain lube.

Use a thixotropic motorcycle chain lubricant in a spray can. It is agitated before application. The agitation makes the lubricant thin due to its thixotropy. When sprayed, it easily penetrates the chain. When left to settle, it gradually thickens. When starting to ride the bike, it becomes thin again due to its thixotropy (shear-thinning property). When parking the bike, it gradually thickens.

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  • Uh, despite the fact that I'm no fan of waxing chains, it is a fact that most chains are delivered from the factory waxed. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 23 at 16:29
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    What is the source for chains being waxed in factory? In a Shimano interview, it is specifically said it is a grease not a wax: bikerumor.com/2011/06/28/… – juhist Aug 23 at 17:11
  • Just speaking based on the chains I have installed. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 23 at 17:56
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    @DanielRHicks I agree with juhist that chains are delivered in a cosmoline-like grease. It’s definitely not a wax. Now, i don’t agree with juhist that this substance is a better lubricant than wax. – Weiwen Ng Aug 24 at 11:11
  • A correction to my comment: Wikipedia defines cosmoline as, emphasis mine, a "common class of brown wax-like petroleum-based corrosion inhibitors". Moreover, if you expose it to air long enough, it may harden to a more wax-like texture once the volatile hydrocarbons evaporate. This may be the source of some mutual confusion. I maintain that factory lubricant does feel markedly different from hard paraffin wax. – Weiwen Ng Nov 21 at 15:42
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Here's an interesting book on bicycle chain construction, use and wear:

Everything you need to know about Bicycle Chains: A book of special insights for expert mechanics Kindle Edition by Johan Bornman (available to borrow free as of Oct 2020 if you have the Kindle Unlimited subscription) (placeholder -- I'll try to include the relevant info from the book in the next day or so)

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  • Can you summarize the relevant information from the book? Not everyone has the ability to go borrow it, and it isn’t clear from the title how it relates to the question about paraffin wax. – Weiwen Ng Oct 7 at 23:14
  • Might be better as a comment, not an answer. Would you like this converted or do you want to edit it into an answer ? – Criggie Oct 8 at 1:17

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