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I am considering adding a hint of grease to an inline barrel adjuster.

barrel adjuster

When the barrel adjuster (C) fully gobbles up the metal threads (B), it can be hard to determine whether turning the barrel adjuster actually increases/decreases the tension in the cable (center line). It could be that the cable housing (A and D) are slipping against the metal parts (B and C).

Swifty commented on this issue:

I have used both grease and oil on barrel adjusters, depending on what is at hand. Oil will get it moving but not last as long, grease will reduce friction and stick around to protect the threads. No issue around the adjuster moving when you don't want it to, it's held/compressed together by all of that cable tension anyway.

But I'm worried. If I add a hint of grease between B and C, wouldn't the constant compression between the two threads (B and C) cause the B part to gradually disappear inside the C part, ruining whatever fine tuning you started with?

Another way of asking this question, by way of analogy, is this. Say you have a piano swivel chair. The top spins to adjust the height of the chair. But if you lubricated the joint well enough, someone sitting on the chair and lifting their feet off the ground momentarily will find themselves spinning from the pressure exerted by their own weight on the two helixes that are the threads. The cable housing is likewise under constant compression. Does compression + lubrication cause slippage?

Update

The barrel adjuster in question is made of aluminum, which can only be polished so much. For barrel adjusters made of stainless steel (do these exist?), it's perhaps possible to rely on the sheer polish of the surfaces and never need to grease the contact surfaces, but for aluminum, it appears almost necessary to add a hint of grease.

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    I anticipate a 50:50 split between "yeah but Swifty's an idiot" and "grease, monkey grease!" (Noun. grease monkey (plural grease monkeys) (idiomatic, slang) A mechanic, often with the specific connotation of an automobile mechanic.) maybe 60:40 – Swifty May 2 at 8:44
  • @Swifty .. and I am hoping for this answer: "There is this space age material that consists of grease with beads of roughness thrown in. The beads of roughness hold your barrel adjuster where you left it, regardless of how much shaking the cable endures on the road. But if you turn gently yet firmly with just your fingers, then above a certain torque the barrel will indeed turn, entirely fluidly." Does a mixture of a threadlocker and grease exist? – Sam May 2 at 8:48
  • @Sam : It's called mud, normally! ;-) – Carel May 2 at 12:19
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    I've never known it to be necessary to lubricate a barrel adjuster. – Daniel R Hicks May 2 at 12:31
  • All adjusters on a bike are normal right-hand thread. So closing/tightening them will compress them, effectively making the outer housing shorter and the inner longer. – Criggie May 2 at 12:47
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It is very unlikely that the constant compression on the joint would result in any turning of the barrel adjuster. Two factors affect this:

  • firstly the friction between the threads and the friction between the adjuster against the cable sleeve has to be overcome. The way friction works is that until a minimum threshold force is reached there is no movement. Multiple tiny jolts do not add up over time, they have no effect at all.

  • Secondly there is a negative leverage effect when turning the threads. When tightening a bolt the bolt applies a much greater force on the job than the spanner applies on the bolt. In this case you are working in reverse, so the compression force on the threads results in a very much weaker turning force on the barrel.*

It is extremely unlikely that the return spring on a brake caliper or gear shifter could provide anything like enough force to overcome the friction and turn the adjuster barrel.

Any turning effect that did happen would probably come from mechanical vibration or something banging or rubbing against the adjuster.

* one way to look at this is that the flats on a bolt with a 5mm head travel 3.14 x 5mm in each turn. The bolt moves forward maybe 0.5mm. So the force gets amplified approximately 30 times. In reverse the pressure on the bolt is weakened by a factor of 30 when it tries to push the flats around.

UPDATE

For anyone interested in how lubrication makes a difference:

There are two types of friction, static friction and dynamic friction. Static friction states what the resistance to movement will be for two stationary surfaces in contact. For any two surfaces the sideways force needed to make them move is proportional to the force pressing them together. Typically for dry metal-metal contact this coefficient of friction is about 1, i.e. a 1 Newton force pressing the surfaces together means a 1 Newton sideways force is required to make them move.

Once the surfaces are moving then the coefficient of friction generally falls to a lower value. For dry metal-metal surfaces the static and dynamic coefficients are about the same, getting the surface moving does not change things much.

Lubricating surfaces typically lowers the coefficients of friction. However, the lowering is not equal: for typical metal-metal contact lubricating lowers the static coefficient a bit, it lowers the dynamic coefficient a lot.

So, lubrication does not make the barrel adjuster much easier to turn, but once you have got it turning lubrication does make it easier to keep on turning.

Finally: we need to consider the difference between force and impulse. If I tap my car with a pencil it applies a high force to the car (listen to the sharp explosive sound it makes). The car does not move because the duration of the force is transitory, the impulse imparted by the pencil is minimal. If a tow-truck rolling very slowly gently nudges the fender the car moves along the road. The force is low (no sound, no damage) but the duration is long and the impulse is considerable.

Imaging a pencil tapping the barrel adjuster. It may well have enough force to make the adjuster move, but the duration of the force is minimal. Theoretically it will get the adjuster to move, but in a random direction and for an infinitesimal distance.

On the other hand the return spring, a twisted cable etc might be able to apply a smaller force for a long time in a consistent direction. It can't get the adjuster to start moving, but if it could then theoretically it might be able to keep it moving one-way for a non-negligible distance.

However, lubricating the adjuster still won't allow the spring/twisted cable to get the adjuster moving because lubrication does not change the static friction much.

Add lubrication and the pencil tap together and they might make a difference. The pencil tap adds a negligible movement in a random direction. Even so it is a movement, and the lubrication has lowered the dynamic friction so that might allow some other force (low but in a consistent direction) to keep the adjuster moving for a while in one direction.

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  • You're not explicit about the conclusion. I think I understand. You are saying: "add grease if you want. This is all right if the threads in your barrel seem rough and cannot easily overcome the friction with the cable housing. The compression will not overcome friction even in the presence of grease." Is that right? – Sam May 2 at 13:44
  • Sam -Yes. In the question you ask specifically if the constant compression will make the threads slip. It won't. In fact the compression from the return springs will actually make slippage less likely as it increases the friction. Adding grease is not going to make any significant difference to the effects from the compression. Vibrations and rubbing etc may or may not make your adjuster loosen (or tighten), adding grease will make this more likely. – Paul D May 2 at 17:06
  • I certainly get creep on mine (even after degreasing as best I can). Best guess is it's the cable outer brushing on my front (fork crown mounted dynamo powered) light. I do wonder about a very heavy damping grease like kilopoise though – Chris H May 5 at 11:02
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It could be that the cable housing (A and D) are slipping against the metal parts (B and C).

Nope. The housings butt up against flanges in each half of the adjuster, and cannot slip.

When first installed the housings may not sit quite right and slip a little before seating properly.

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