Waxing My Bike Chain Was a Game Changer

What are the benefits of immersion chain wax? Is it really better than regular lube? And how hard is it to use? I try chain wax for myself to find out.

Waxing My Bike Chain Was a Game Changer

Written by
Bruce Lin

Published on

Posted in
Tech

Are you doing what’s best for your bike chain? I thought I was, keeping it clean, lubing it before every ride, and replacing it when my chain checker told me to. But what if there’s a better way?

Readers were quick to point out that my guide to chains and lube didn’t mention chain wax. Not wax-based lubes, but “immersive waxing,” where you submerge a chain in molten wax. Immersive waxing provides superior efficiency and longevity, and it’s the best way to lube a chain … Or so I’ve read.

However, I’d bet money that most cyclists have never ridden a waxed chain and maybe never will. Up until a few months ago, I hadn't. So are we all missing out?

I decided to wax my own bike chains and find out what all the hype is about. Now, I might never go back. 

Contents 

Chain wax vs. drip lubes
What you need to wax your chain
How to wax your bike chain
Is chain waxing worth it?
Final thoughts

Chain wax vs. drip lubes

Chain wax vs. drip lubeMolten Speed Wax (left) and Muc-Off Dry Lube (right). Can you guess which I still use? 

Drip lubes are easy to use and readily available. Someone with no experience can figure out how to drip lube onto a chain and wipe it off (check out our guide for detailed instructions). It's a popular approach for obvious reasons.

So why use wax instead? Well, the simple answer is: It’s just better. Testing in controlled environments has shown that chains lubed by immersion waxing are more efficient (wasting fewer watts) and they stay efficient longer (a single wax lasts well over 200 miles). This means you’ll ride faster and re-lube your chain less. In a widely read VeloNews test (available here), they discovered that basic, cheap paraffin wax outperformed even the most expensive drip lubes.

To learn more about why I should wax my chain, I reached out to Adam Kerin, the founder of Zero Friction Cycling. I like to think of him as the chain wax messiah. His mission is to use independent testing to educate cyclists about the best chains and lube.

“I cannot think of a single area of cycling with more misinformation, voodoo, recommendations based on pretty thin/non-existent tangible assessments,” he said. “Marketing-wise it’s the wild west.”

You can ignore claims made by manufacturers and your riding buddies because Kerin’s test results clearly show that wax provides superior performance and value to drip lube. But I was also impressed to learn that wax also greatly reduces wear.

Chain wax improves drivetrain wearThis chain is at over 1,000 miles and the cassette is at almost 7,000 miles. They still have plenty of life left. If you can't tell, the white stuff on the chain is wax. 

“Drivetrain lifespan savings are simply enormous,” Kerin said. He explained that grit doesn’t stick to the wax, which creates a physical barrier to reduce wear from metal-on-metal contact. A regularly waxed chain can last up to 15,000km (9,320 miles) before reaching 0.5mm wear on a chain checker. “If you’re not getting 10,000km+, you need to make better choices!” he said. 

With the high cost of new drivetrains, tripling or quadrupling the lifespan of chains, chainrings, cassettes, and derailleur pulleys through waxing can mean huge savings. 

One final point is that waxed chains are much cleaner. Even drip lubes that claim to be “clean” or “dry” don’t come close to wax’s ability to shed dirt and grime. This means you’ll never get your fingers dirty or sport the dreaded chainring tattoo on your calf.

To learn more, check out Zero Friction Cycling, but be prepared to get lost in pages and pages of information. 

What you need to wax your chain

New or lightly used chain

YBN ChainIdeally, you start with a brand new chain because of the amount of effort and solvent needed to fully clean a used chain. If waxing an old chain, Kerin recommends that it have less than 1,000km (621 mi) on it. He also recommends using chains from SRAM, YBN, Campagnolo, or Connex. He doesn’t recommend KMC chains because the surface coatings can interfere with wax adhesion and reduce the lifespan of the wax. If you ride Shimano, the chain coatings will have an effect, but they won’t wear nearly as bad as KMC chains. 

Extra quick links

Most modern chains already come with a removable quick link. However, 11-speed and 12-speed quick links usually claim to be single-use, so it’s good to keep extras on hand for regular waxing. Kerin prefers YBN quick links because they can be reused up to five times.    

Chain wax

Molten Speed WaxMolten Speed Wax

There are a few options on the market, but Molten Speed Wax is one of the most popular and has the most data supporting its performance. Silca Hot Melt is another good option. A single bag should last ~30 re-waxes. 

“Both Molten Speed Wax and Hot Melt will last for 99% of events most riders will ever do,” Kerin said. “I have not needed to change from using Molten Speed Wax and Hot Melt for any events, even 12-hour XC marathon races.”

You can make your own wax at home. If you go this route, Kerin says to use food-grade paraffin like Gulf canning wax. Candle and ski wax have oils and additives that will reduce effectiveness. Paraffin performed very well in the VeloNews test, but purpose-made chain wax is ideal.

“Many just do not get how much R&D goes into those products by Ph.D. chemists,” Kerin explained. “No one will DIY their way close to that.” 

Slow cooker

Chain wax slow cookerThe best way to melt wax is in a slow cooker for low and consistent heat. You can use a regular-sized one, but smaller is better because it takes less wax to submerge a chain. After it took more than two bags of Molten Speed Wax to fill my big Crock-Pot, I switched to a tiny 1.5-quart Elite Gourmet slow cooker for $15. 

Swisher

To lower the chain into the wax and swish it around, you need a “swisher.” There are dedicated tools but you can save your money and use a coat hanger. 

Mineral spirits

Mineral spirits degrease chain waxThis is for degreasing the chain before the first wax. If you’re outside the U.S. it may be called mineral turpentine or white spirits. It’s cheap and available at any hardware store. 

Denatured alcohol 

After fully degreasing the chain, alcohol cleans the surface to prep for wax. Isopropyl alcohol and acetone work too, but denatured alcohol is cheaper. 

Container and gloves

For cleaning the chain in mineral spirits and alcohol, use anything that fits a chain: a jar, bottle, or Tupperware. Have another for disposing of the used mineral spirits. Use rubber or latex gloves for safety. 

Quick link pliers

Quick link pliers make removing and installing quick links a breeze. 

[product-block handle="park-tool-mlp-1-2-chain-link-pliers"/]

Chain breaker

Hopefully, you already have one for cutting a new chain to the correct length

[product-block handle="nc_lezyne-chain-drive-crmo-2"/]

How to wax your bike chain

The prepping and waxing process is fairly easy, and this is the technique I’ve been using for the past four months. For an ultra-in-depth explanation, I also suggest checking out Kerin’s “Wax Zen Master Guide” which was my guide and provides lots of great extra details. 

Step 1: Fully degrease the chain

Cut the chain to the correct length. Put it in a container with mineral spirits. For a new chain with factory grease, let it soak for 10 minutes, then shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Give the chain a couple more 2 minute agitated baths in fresh mineral spirits to make sure you get all the grease. I wiped my jar clean between each bath. For a used chain, you can just give it repeated baths until the mineral spirits run clear.

Finish by doing 2 more agitated baths in denatured alcohol to remove any film. Make sure to pour your used solvents in another container and dispose of it properly. Dry the chain and it’s ready for wax. You only need to do this step the first time.   

Step 2: Put wax and chain in slow cooker

Molten speed wax chain waxing in slow cookerPhotos: Molten Speed Wax

Thread your swisher through a few chain links. Put wax in your slow cooker and set it to LOW. Lay the chain on top of the wax, leave the lid off so things don’t get too hot, and walk away for an hour or so. Heating the chain up with the wax lets the it get into all the nooks and crannies, and if you're re-waxing, it melts off the old wax. (If you’ve pre-melted the wax, make sure the chain sits in it for at least five minutes before swishing, so it heats up.) 

Step 3: Swish chain in melted wax and hang to dry

When the wax is fully melted, vigorously swish the chain around in the wax for about 20-30 seconds. Lift it out and hang it somewhere to dry. Wax will drip off of it, so put a towel under it. 

Step 4: Install the waxed chain

Chain waxMake sure you clean the chainring(s), cassette, and pulleys before installing your pristine waxed chain (even if the rest of your bike isn't).

The wax will be fully dry in about 15 minutes. The chain will be stiff as a board so pull it off the swisher and break the wax bonds between the links to loosen it up. You can do this link-by-link (very meditative), run it over the edge of a table, or wrap it around a tube. Beware: little flecks of dried wax will get everywhere. Install the chain on the bike with the quick link. I waxed my quick link with the chain the first time but didn’t bother when re-waxing, per Kerin’s recommendation. 

Step 5: Ride and repeat

On the first ride, a freshly waxed chain will feel funky for about 20 minutes. Just keep riding and it will break in and feel smooth as glass. Kerin explains the chain is actually the fastest at about 30-45 minutes, so if you’re racing, break it in beforehand. Enjoy hundreds of glorious miles.

When it’s time to re-wax (your chain will start making noise), there’s no need to degrease again. If the chain is pretty clean, just start at step 2 and drop it right in the slow cooker with the wax. If it’s gotten dusty, dirty, or wet, you can clean it by pouring boiling water on it before waxing. 

[newsletter]

Is chain waxing worth it? 

Chain wax suppliesWaxing requires a lot of extra stuff, but yes, I think it's worth it. 

Honestly, I never tried wax before because I was intimidated. It seemed like an overly involved process for a serious but still recreational cyclist like myself. Just looking back at the list of supplies and steps, it is a lot, especially when drip lube only requires lube and a rag.

But here’s the thing. After the first waxing, things get much, much easier. The most difficult part is the initial chain prep, and really, that’s pretty easy. If you want to avoid using chemicals to degrease a chain, you can skip that step by buying a chain that’s already prepped and waxed. CeramicSpeed UFO chains are a popular example.

[product-block handle="ceramicspeed-ufo-kmc-chain-12-speed-126-link"/]

I managed to make it about 400 dry road and gravel miles before I re-waxed. That’s pretty amazing. There was no squeaking yet and I potentially could have pushed it even farther, but if you want to maximize drivetrain longevity, the best time to re-wax is closer to 200 miles.

Recently, I’ve also been riding through some nasty winter conditions, and the wax stays clean and efficient. Wet climates do decrease the longevity of the wax, so keep that in mind if you live somewhere that isn’t as dry as the American west.

If you’re on the fence, I think waxing makes sense if:

  • You’re a racer/performance-focused rider and want the fastest lube
  • You want the longest-lasting lube for epic rides
  • You want to save money by reducing drivetrain wear
  • You like cleanliness
  • You’re detail-oriented, good at planning, or have plenty of free time

That last point is key. It takes around an hour to fully melt a pot of wax. If you’re busy like me, successful waxing requires a routine. I struggled at first, forgetting to re-wax before big rides. With drip lube, I could ride whenever I wanted and just lube my chain right before I left. That sort of last-minute decision-making isn’t possible with wax.

Chain wax worth itMost of the excess wax seen here flakes off and your chain stays clean and silent for hundreds of miles. 

Now, I re-wax once a week while I do my grocery shopping. I pop the chain off before I leave, give it a quick rinse with my electric kettle if needed, and leave it in the slow cooker while I go to the store. When I come back, I give it a swish, and I have a waxed chain ready for the next week of riding. I’m even starting to think about getting a second slow cooker and several chains that I can rotate. If you aren’t the type to keep up with bike maintenance, you might not be the target audience for waxing. In that case, drip lube might fit your lifestyle better.

Also, if you live somewhere exceptionally wet, the amount you need to re-wax might end up negating benefits. In that case, sticking to regularly cleaning and re-lubing your bike might be easier. Kerin suggests using a wet lubricant like NixFrixShun (NFS) or Silca Synergetic. Also, I wouldn’t use wax for indoor riding on a trainer. The wax sheds and gets everywhere, which is especially bad if you have carpet. 

Wax top lubes

Squirt wax lubeI tried some other options, but immersing my chains in Molten Speed Wax works so well it's what I'm sticking with. 

I also experimented with Squirt, which contains a wax emulsion. Regular lubes that claim to be wax-based are mostly carrier liquid with a bit of wax. They won’t adhere to chains or perform like wax emulsions like Squirt, which is noticeably thicker and coats the chain more like an immersion wax. I applied it to my chain the few times I forgot to re-wax before a ride. It feels similar to a waxed chain, but didn't last as long as immersion waxing (I got ~200 miles before it squeaked).

Kerin refers to drip products like Squirt as “top lubricants.” Interestingly, if a top lube is compatible with the wax on your chain, you could actually extend the time between re-waxes by applying a top lube. (After using Squirt I chose to clean and re-prepped my chain anyway before putting it back in my slow cooker so I didn't mix the two products.)

“Silca Super Secret chain lube is number 1 as it was specifically designed to be used as such,” Kerin explained. “There’s also Tru-Tension BananaSlip Tungsten All-weather or Race, CeramicSpeed UFO drip, and AbsoluteBLACK GRAPHENlube. Smoove and Squirt work to a point but they are a completely different wax base.”

Using only a top lube may be a good option for those not ready to commit to putting their chain in a slow cooker. Just know that, just like with immersion waxing, you still need to take the chain off the bike and properly prep it by removing all the factory grease.  

Final thoughts

Chain wax best bike lubeMy filthy personal bike with a freshly waxed chain. Racing, training, good weather, bad weather, wax just works.

I’ve been riding waxed chains for months now, and I don’t think I’m going back. It feels faster (and I know that it really is from the data), and my drivetrain stays quieter for substantially longer. Not having to re-lube my chains before every ride has been pretty liberating. Currently, the only bike in my quiver without a waxed chain is my road bike, but that’s because it’s been living on the trainer through the winter. Once the weather improves, it’s getting the full wax treatment too.

With practice, I can easily keep every chain waxed and ready to go, and life is good. I’m doing my first race on a waxed chain in a month, so expect to see me on the podium (just kidding). Really though, I like wax so much, I plan on riding and racing waxed chains for the foreseeable future, maybe forever!

Update 2/7: So I raced the 2022 Old Man Winter in Lyons, CO. It ended up being the muddiest, wettest race I have ever done. After 60+ miles, my chain still ran smooth and silent. Many of the riders around me had super squeaky chains, and some even fell off my group due to gears skipping. I don't think the wax would have lasted much longer than the race distance, but it's safe to say, I'm sold on using wax in harsh conditions. 

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