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I know there are numerous different ways of lubricating a chain. Some prefer to remove the factory grease from a chain and lubricate it with a different lubricant immediately, others use the factory grease as long as it stays in the chain. Some wax their chains, some use a dry lubricant, and others use a wet lubricant.

I'm interested in finding the way to lubricate a chain that has the lowest total cost, including labor costs. Let us assume that the cost of a new chain corresponds to one hour of labor.

I don't care about chain cleanliness at all (except when it has an impact on chain life). After all, no way to lubricate a chain makes it so clean that it doesn't stain clothes that hit the chain, so clothes hitting the chain must be prevented and thus chain cleanliness doesn't matter except when a cleaner chain has longer life.

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    I’m voting to close this question because it was asked so the asker could answer their own question
    – Adam Rice
    Jul 24 '21 at 16:57
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    @AdamRice that's a perfectly fine reason for a question across all SE websites, it allows to share knowledge with others.
    – Klaster_1
    Jul 24 '21 at 18:17
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    @AdamRice yeah I know it feels a bit artificial, but SE does specifically allow this. Personally if I ask a question where I know the/an answer, then I leave it a day before posting the answer.
    – Criggie
    Jul 27 '21 at 9:19
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Waxing a chain is the lowest overall cost. I bought 5kg of plain unscented paraffin wax for $25, and after 3 years have not used up the first kilogram.

The only tool needed is some kind of boiler. I use an electric frypan that had lost it's non-stick coating and was no longer suitable for food. You could even melt the wax in a dedicated saucepan on a stove top in the kitchen - the smell is not particularly strong. Otherwise the only consumables are some wire hooks to pull the hot chain out, and some scrap cardboard to catch drips.

You mention time cost - that's one failing of waxing a chain. I find it takes about 20 minutes to melt the wax, and though I can do other things while the wax melts and heats, I don't leave the room. Don't want to forget it, though my IR thermometer shows it doesn't exceed 200 degrees C even with the lid on.

I find that waxing the chain monthly is acceptable, about 1000 km. Elsewhere I've seen figures of "every 300 km" which seems too frequent for me. Another technique is to have several chains in rotation, and wax them all at once.

Occasionally I have found a waxed chain needs work but I'm short on time. So I have just added oil to the waxed chain to get me through the day. In this case, the oil only lasts 50-100 km before it needs work again, a proper re-wax. The oil either runs off the waxed surface while riding, or will dissolve in the molten wax in the pan.


Aside - while a waxed chain isn't spotless during use, it is a lot cleaner than an oiled chain, and a casual brush by clothing won't make much of a mark.

I don't need to clean the chain much before a rewax - a quick wipe with a rag on the outside is all that is required before cooking.

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    If you count total time for the cycling season, waxing might actually win out. I've not personally used it but I've heard it's very maintenance free once it's done. You can use a small slow cooker from a yard sale or thrift store that will be very affordable, and on the proper setting will have almost no way of igniting the wax.
    – Kibbee
    Jul 24 '21 at 12:07
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    I waxed my chains for a while, but stopped because it takes too much time compared to dry lube.
    – Klaster_1
    Jul 24 '21 at 18:21
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    You explicitly ask in the question to include labour cost, then in the answer explicitly mention the length of time it takes (20 minutes). You do not mention how often various techniques need doing - is that 20 minutes once a week, once a day, once a year? Oiling a chain (without concern for cleanliness) take seconds, and oil is cheap if bought i bulk and not bike specific (Bike specific is mainly for cleanliness and marketing).
    – mattnz
    Jul 24 '21 at 21:47
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    @mattnz good point - adding now. I find that monthly is acceptable, about 1000 km. Elsewhere I've seen figures of "every 300 km" which seems way too often for me.
    – Criggie
    Jul 24 '21 at 22:01
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    For melting wax, I prefer a double boiler, which you can make out of two pots one of which fits inside the other.
    – HAEM
    Jul 26 '21 at 11:56
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This is a somewhat bike dependant answer, and I wouldn't recommend it on expensive components, but for my winter bike I use the zero maintenance approach.

I have a cheap single speed MTB. I use a cheap rust resistant chain. It gets lubed once with a heavy wet lube when it goes on, and then its maintenance free thereafter until it is replaced in autumn for the next winter season.

I anticipated this approach would lead to high levels of chainring and sprocket wear, but as yet i've had no signs of them needing to be replaced after 4 winters.

Total cost £5-10 for chain, £0.1 for lube and £0 for time per year riding.

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  • I'd guess your chainring and sprocket are fairly chunky steel. Do you know if it is 3/16" derailleur chain or 1/8" singlespeed chain?
    – Criggie
    Jul 27 '21 at 11:29
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    @Criggie its a 1/8" singlespeed chain. Not 100% sure, but I think the one currently on there is this one: kmcchain.com/en/product/…
    – Andy P
    Jul 27 '21 at 11:59
  • yeah - singlespeed chain doesn't need any sideways deflection, so it seems to have tighter tolerances and therefore far more to wear through before it elongates. This is a good solution, but likely not have as much benefit on a derailleur-equipped bike.
    – Criggie
    Jul 28 '21 at 10:53
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Here is description of my approach. Certainly this is not the only possible approach and there are probably infinitely many ways to lubricate a chain. Yet, I think my way of lubricating a chain probably gets very near the lowest possible total cost. I already know it gives 4000 km chain life for 110kg rider on an e-bike and does so at very minimal amount of chain maintenance work.

When installing a new chain, the factory grease must never be dissolved from the inside of a chain. The reasons are two-fold: firstly, it is a very good lubricant, far better than any that can be applied easily at home. Secondly, not removing the grease inside the chain and replacing it with some other lubricant easily saves 20 minutes of time, a valuable resource.

However, the factory grease is applied not only inside the chain but all over the chain. From the external surfaces, it might be beneficial to remove the factory grease by using a solvent that dissolves oil and grease, evaporates quickly and leaves no residue. One such solvent is isopropanol. Gently moist a rag with isopropanol and use the slightly moist rag to wipe away the factory grease from the side plates of the chain. Some amount of the grease still stays on the insides of the side plates that can't be easily degreased. It is important that the rag is only slightly moist and not very wet, because a very wet rag would let the isopropanol inside the chain, diluting the factory grease where you don't want it to be diluted.

After a chain has been installed, it must not be relubricated if it isn't starting to squeak, and should not be cleaned except before relubricating it due to a starting squeak. The reason for not unnecessarily relubricating a chain that doesn't squeak is that a chain that is running low on oil (and thus starting to squeak) is also running low on dirt inside the chain. So by waiting until lubrication is necessary, there is natural action that removes dirt from the inside of the chain. Just observe a chain that has been in use for a long time. The rollers are shiny clean. Although you can't see it, the half-bushings and pins of the chain are also shiny clean. Thus, if you let a chain run low on oil, you let it also run low on dirt. This natural action cleans the insides of the chain without needing any of your time.

The reason for not cleaning a chain that doesn't need new oil is that it requires lots of your time. Obsessively cleaning the chain every week would increase the cost of chain maintenance at no clear benefit.

The proper moment to lubricate a chain is when it barely starts to squeak. It may require some skill to accurately detect the correct time to lubricate a chain. There isn't much room for error here, because delaying chain lubrication by 100km from the optimal relubrication point is probably already too much delay. Usually at the end of the useful life of lubricant, the chain starts to be a bit noisy and a quiet growl can be heard from it. This quiet growl can be best heard when riding beside something like a noise barrier that reflects the sound from the chain to your ears. Then at some point of time, very soon after the quiet growl can be heard, slight squeaks can be heard occasionally from the chain. At this point of time, the squeaks are not loud and are not continuous. They only occur during some point of chain movement, probably coming from individual links that happened to have less lubricant than most chain links. This is the moment when the chain should be brushed externally and relubricated. Leaving the chain unlubricated would make the slight squeaks worse, and develop a continuous squeaking sound of an unlubricated chain.

It is important here to properly detect the correct moment. Once I measured a chain to be well below 0.5% wear and slightly later detected barely starting squeak from the chain. I delayed the lubrication of the chain, thinking that it's not probably completely dry of oil, so there might be still a very little grit inside the chain. The squeak became worse and worse. Then when I no longer could tolerate it, I thought it's now a good moment to lubricate the chain -- after all, practically all dirt inside the chain is gone now. The chain was already worn, despite being well below the 0.5% limit only slightly earlier. The lack of oil caused accelerated chain wear.

Before doing any work on an old chain, its wear must be checked. The proper wear limit to discard a chain is 0.5%. A proper tool must be used: only Shimano TL-CN40, TL-CN41, TL-CN42 and Park Tool CC-4 are known to be accurate. Most chain tools are junk: http://pardo.net/bike/pic/fail-004/000.html -- an alternative to Shimano tools and CC-4 is to use an inch ruler, but there are several drawbacks of this approach: (1) it requires accurate eyesight and well lit area, (2) it requires a ruler at least 12+1/16" long (so in practice you are looking at very long rulers like 24" rulers because they don't sell 12+1/16" rulers) or a ruler 12" long plus extrapolation to guess where the 12+1/16" mark would be, (3) it requires a ruler with inch scale as opposed to millimeter scale and an inch ruler may be hard to be found in the metric world.

When lubricating a barely squeaking chain, the rollers, pins and half-bushings of the chain are shiny clean. The only dirt is on the insides and outsides of side plates. This dirt should be ideally removed on the bicycle, as removing the chain and cleaning it off the bicycle would require too much time. The best way to clean the chain is by two stiff brushes, such as nail brushes or vegetable brushes. Ideally the brushes should be plastic brushes as wooden brushes tend to have the strings to fall off easily. The on-the-bike cleaning machines require lots of solvent that needs to be disposed of properly, make a huge mess because the solvent drips everywhere from the chain, and leave the solvent inside the chain necessitating you to wait for its evaporation, thus requiring lots of waiting time. Thus, the on-the-bike cleaning machines should be avoided.

The cleaning of the chain is important here because oiling a chain carries dirt to the inside of the chain, and thus reduces chain life. Normally you don't unnecessarily clean a chain, but when lubricating it improves the chain life if you clean it.

The two stiff brushes are ideally used when the bicycle is mounted outdoors in a workstand (doing it indoors would make the floor dirty). The two stiff brushes are first used to scrub the outsides of side plates of the chain, on left and right side of the chain. When the chain is externally clean, the two stiff brushes are then moved to above and below the chain, so that the brushes scrub the insides of the side plates of the chain. This cleaning of insides of the side plates is slightly more challenging than the cleaning of the outsides, as the brushes are at an inoptimal angle. Yet, a reasonable job can be done quickly.

When the chain looks visibly clean, it is lubricated with a thixotropic spray type motorcycle chain lubricant. Here it is important to underline that the lubricant should be one made for motorcycle chains. A bicycle chain is a low tech application and can be lubricated with practically any liquid, including water (although water evaporates quickly so it won't lubricate for long, and leaves the chain rusty). In contrast, a motorcycle chain is a high tech application and requires a proper lubricant. Because of these differences, most lubricants sold as bicycle chain lubricants are total crap, sold for 20 euros per 50 milliliters (costing the manufacturer only 2 euros per liter or 0.1 euros per 50 milliliters). A spray type motorcycle chain lubricant is more likely to be thixotropic.

The thixotropy is a shear thinning property. A thixotropic lubricant if left to settle, becomes very thick. Thus it stays in the chain and doesn't fly away. If agitated (such as by shaking the spray bottle or spraying it), it becomes very thin, easily penetrating to the innards of the chain. This thixotropy property can be tested by shaking the spray can, spraying it in a glass container, agitating the glass container and seeing how thin the lubricant is (it should flow easily). Then after leaving it settle for an hour or two, it can be gently agitated again and it should not flow easily anymore, unless agitating it enough to make it thin again.

The spray lubricant bottle must be shaked first (this shaking activates the thixotropic lubricant making it thin enough to flow to the innards of the chain). The spray lubricant is sprayed on the rollers of the chain. From the sides of the rollers, it goes to the insides of the rollers, and from the gap between two half-bushings, it goes to chain pins. Unfortunately, some of this lubricant stays on top of the rollers, and on insides or outsides of the side plates.

The excess spray that stayed on the outsides of the chain is wiped away, first using a dry rag to remove most of it, then if wanting to do a very thorough job of removing it from the surface, using a rag gently moistened in isopropanol to remove the remaining thin surface layer. Note the rag should be only gently moistened with isopropanol and not fully wet with isopropanol, as you want to avoid any possibility of isopropanol flowing to the innards of the chain and diluting the applied lubricant.

After lubricating a chain, it should be good for 1000 km in dry weather. If riding in wet weather or if expecting to get the chain coated in mud, it might be beneficial to omit removal of the surface oil layer.

This way of lubricating a chain has the following cost structure:

  • Chain: costs 1 hour of work to pay for it and lasts 4000 km for 110kg rider on an e-bike
  • Chain installation and removing surface grease at 0 km: 20 minutes
  • Chain cleaning and lubrication at 1000 km: 20 minutes
  • Chain cleaning and lubrication at 2000 km: 20 minutes
  • Chain cleaning and lubrication at 3000 km: 20 minutes

Thus, the total cost is 35 minutes per 1000 km.

The 4000 km chain life was based on measuring a soon-to-be-lubricated chain with 3000km using Shimano TL-CN41, and it still was slightly below the wear limit. I know the lubricant lasts 1000 km, so I know the next time I measure the chain will be at 4000 km (and I suspect TL-CN41 will tell it's worn then). Note that usually 4000 km is considered a good chain life for average user, and that e-bikes plus heavier-than-ordinary riders should see reduced chain life. So, given the application (110kg rider + e-bike), the 4000 km chain life is very good.

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    -1 for being far too long an answer, I’ve applied a wet lube at around 500km chain life as in the UK it’s particularly wet most of the time. After a few rides I wiped it down with a rag and left it. 2000km it still looks like a fairly new chain
    – Dan K
    Jul 24 '21 at 14:18
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    Dry chains, which you are advocating, are not efficient, cost effective nor reliable. Jul 26 '21 at 22:15
  • +1. I don't think this answers deserves such negativity, even if one doesn't bother to read it through. I think this answer is interesting and informative, even though I can't agree with everything. The applicabilty of motorcycle lubrication is particularly doubtful: moto chains are actually much lower tech than modern bicycle chains, they are not weight-critical and much more tolerant to losses/friction, not to mention they don't need to withstand side-to-side bending. Maybe OK for an e-bike...
    – Zeus
    Oct 18 '21 at 0:03

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