It turns out that hot wax is not only useful for removing unshaven hairs from leggy females, cyclists and triathletes (at least those not named Felix). Apparently, it is good for lubicating bicycle chains as well.
Back in late April, while doing some basic bike maintenance and fingers covered with black, grimy grease, I decided to do an experiment. While I’ve been relatively happy with the Pro-Link bicycle chain lube I’ve been using for years, I wanted to see how the traditional “chain lubed with melted paraffin” method measured up. The claimed advantages of this method was that the chain stays much cleaner and in dry conditions stays lubricated and quieter for longer. The supposed disadvantages include poor lubrication in the rain and requiring a more elaborate setup for lubing the chain.
These are the basic steps I followed:
- Remove the chain from the bike. Clearly, having a master link (e.g., Sachs) that one can quickly undo without a chain tool is convenient for this.
- Buy some paraffin (candle wax). Supposedly, one can find large, inexpensive containers of “canning wax” in a grocery store, but I couldn’t. Therefore, I bought a large white candle from Albertson’s for $1.
- Find a pot and tin can. For the latter, I opened a can of beans. I had black bean burritos for dinner that night.
- Fill the pot up with water and bring to a boil.
- While the water is heating, break up the candle (e.g., using a hammer and screwdriver or chisel). Put the candle bits in the tin can, and put the tin can in the pot of boiling water.
- While the wax is melting, clean the chain thoroughly with degreaser and a brush. Swishing the chain around in container filled with degreaser and water also works, but in my experience, to get a chain really clean, one is going to have to bust out a brush at some point afterwards. A large stiff-bristled automotive tire brush is much more efficient for cleaning than a small toothbrush, since you can scrub multiple links at a time.
- By the time you have finished cleaning the chain, the wax in the double-boiler setup should be melted. Drop the chain into the melted wax.
- Turn down the heat on the stove; the wax should stay melted even if the water is no longer boiling. Let the chain soak in the melted wax until no more bubbles are emitted from the chain links. (The bubbles are pockets of air in the chain links being displaced by the hot wax.) Ideally, you would be doing something else (like eating dinner, or reading email) during that time, as it could take 15-30 minutes.
- After the thorough soaking, fish out the chain with a spoke end or screwdriver, do a quick wipedown of the chain with a rag (careful—the wax is still hot), and hang up the chain to dry.
- Put the chain back on the bike. You’re done!
Soaking the chain in the hot wax.
While this may seem like a fairly lengthy procedure, it really is not more difficult than taking off a chain to clean it and then dripping lubricant on it. In fact, probably the most “difficult” part (aside from the chain cleaning) is opening a tin can, emptying out its contents, breaking up the candle and putting the candle bits in the can. Note that this is only required the first time as you can save the can and wax and reuse it later.
More importantly, you will (almost) never need to clean the chain again! Check out how clean the chain was after three months/287 miles—which is when the chain started to become squeaky enough to warrant rewaxing it.
In fact, the chain was so clean that I could grab the chain and have no black spots on my hands afterwards. So during rewaxing, I did not need to scrub the chain (i.e., skipped Step #6 above entirely) and merely dipped it into the can of melted hot wax.
Another benefit is that the rest of the drivetrain—chainrings, cassette cogs, and rear derailleur pulleys—also stays super clean, reducing maintenance time.
In contrast, no chain lube—be it Pro-Link, Pedro’s Ice Wax, or White Lightning (probably the three cleanest drip-lubes on the market)—could ever keep the chain and drivetrain so grime-free. Also, those lubricants never lasted as long (maybe 200-250 miles for Pro-Link, but only 40-100 miles for the Ice Wax or White Lightning).
It still remains to be seen, however, how well the waxed chain performs in wet conditions. Here in Northern Colorado it hardly ever rains, so I have yet to try it out for more than 10 minutes in the wet. How quiet the chain remains in freezing (winter) weather also remains to be seen. I hear that the hot wax method using paraffin with a little bit of motor oil works well in those conditions. Worst case scenario is that for the extreme-weather months I switch back over to Pro-Link. I will report back later on this during the winter.
[Amendment 12/24/06: I’ve been riding quite a bit in frigid conditions lately on wet roads (due to melted snow/ice), and the waxed chain is still quiet and smooth. Still haven’t had a chance to test the setup in a downpour as it hasn’t rained out here in many months. In any case, I haven’t had to do any chain maintenance or rewaxing since I originally wrote this article 4 months ago and am still very happy with this method.]
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