When I started my cycling hobby in 2014 I started out with a Trek FX 7.2, as seen in Figure 1. I put roughly 2,500 miles on that bike, and I think the most maintenance I ever did to the chain was to wipe it with a cloth before putting more lubricant on. When I upgraded to my Crossrip 3 in 2018, Figure 2, I started doing better. I put almost 9,000 miles on that bike and I routinely ran the chain through a handheld cleaner device, dried it, and then re-applied fresh lubricant. Shortly after getting my latest bike, my 2021 Émonda SLR 7, I learned about waxing bike chains and decided to give it a try since my chain was so new.
Whereas the upfront materials for maintaining a chain with web lubricant is primarily the lubricant itself, a cleaning device, and some degreaser, the bill of materials to get started with chain waxing is a bit lengthier:
- Silca Hot Melt Wax: the primary wax to be used on the chain.
- Silca Chain Coating: drip wax to be used between full waxes.
- denatured alcohol
- lidded jars
- chain link pliers
- chain hook
- chain links
- InstantPot: to melt the wax with.
- extra cooking pot: for the wax.
It’s a lot of stuff with a rather hefty upfront cost. But, as you can learn below, I think it was worth it.
Preparing The Chain
Before the chain can be waxed it needs to be completely free of any current lubricant and debris. This is best done with a completely new, unused, chain, but can be done with a relatively fresh chain. When I started this experiment I had about 200 miles on my chain. The further the chain has been ridden, the less “worth it” it will be to clean it and wax it. I wish I had started with a new chain, but I think up to about 300 miles on the chain will be okay.
Zero Friction Cycling (ZFC) has a chain prep guide that covers everything, but the short of it is:
- Soak the chain in degreaser, occasionally shaking the jar to agitate it, for a couple minutes.
- Take the chain from the degreaser, wipe off with a towel (blue paper towels are fine).
- Repeat step 1 & 2 with another jar of fresh degreaser until the degreaser does not become cloudy.
- Rinse the chain with a jar of denatured alcohol until the alcohol does not show any particulates.
As the ZFC guide indicates, steps 1 and 2 can be a long process. I used three jars for the degreaser and it took a full 10 rounds of degreasing before I was convinced the chain was clean. The short of it is that I used the full 1 gallon bottle of degreaser to clean the chain. And still it took two alcohol baths to finish flushing the chain of dirt.
Waxing The Chain
The howto that [Slica provides][slica-howto] is fairly comprehensive and easy to follow. In short:
- Put the wax into the InstantPot and set the cooker to slow cook on high. It’s easiest to put the chain on top of the wax so that it heats along with the wax.
- Let the wax heat to about 70ºC.
- Take the pot out of the cooker.
- Use a device (e.g. bent wire/coat hanger) to agitate the chain in order to work the wax and additive into the chain rollers.
- Let the wax cool until a “film” starts to develop on the surface.
- Pull the chain from the wax and let it drip back into the pot.
- Let the chain cool to ambient temperature.
At this point the chain can be loosened by pulling it back and forth over a pipe. Once the links are loosened, the chain can be reinstalled on the bike.
Rewaxing the chain is as simple as removing it from the bike, wiping it down, and repeating the above steps.
All of the information I have read on ZFC and Silca’s site/videos indicates that a chain should get about 300km/186mi before needing to be waxed again. I typically ride around 100mi per week. My first wax was around mid-March. It seems to me that I can get away with waxing at the start of every month by taking advantage of the drip wax. So, thus far I have wax my chain twice: once in mid-March and once on May 1. Between those waxes I applied the drip wax twice. The below image gallery shows all of the steps in the rewaxing process from that May 1, 2022 waxing session.
The first image shows how much dirt I removed from the chain prior to putting in in the pot from waxing. It’s one paper towel that was used to remove dirt from about a month and a half of riding. The towel is unbelievably clean; especially compared to the amount of black grease that would come from an equally ridden chain using regular wet lubricant.
Two of the images show me measuring the temperature: first of the wax as it is being heated and the second of the chain to show it has reached ambient temperature. I highly recommend getting a laser thermometer to help with this process. Guessing that things have reached temperature is not easy.
One of the images shows the tool I built for loosening the chain. It’s a small 1 square foot sheet of plywood with an iron pipe screwed in to an iron floor flange attached to the plywood. I would have used PVC pipe, but I could not find a floor flange in PVC.
Finally, two of the images show the links where the quick link will be added. In the images I am showing that I remove the wax from the surface of those links. I do this because the quick link tolerance is so tight that it is basically impossible to install if the wax is present on those surfaces. Removing this was is okay because the point is for the wax to be inside the rollers, where the primary friction happens.
After putting the chain back on the bike it is a good idea to run the chain around the drivetrain for a couple minutes. This allows most of the wax that is going to flake off to go ahead and flake off so that you can wipe it off the frame.
From here, apply drip wax about every 100 miles or every two weeks, depending on riding time. Applying the drip wax is very similar to applying wet lubricant. Wipe the chain with a rag and then drip one or two drips of wax on each roller. Work each drop of wax into the roller by rolling the roller with your fingers.
The Shimano chains are extremely quiet when properly lubricated. One fear I had going in to this experiment was if the chain would remain quiet. There are many articles and videos on the web detailing everything I have already detailed in this post, but they stop short of demonstrating what the chain actually sounds like. They always state “the chain is whisper quiet” or something similar. That statement is mostly true. The following video shows the amount of noise the chain makes with about 100mi on the chain subsequent to a drip wax maintenence:
Notice that it isn’t annoyingly noisy, but it is definitely a noticeable clicking. A freshly hot waxed chain is shown in this video:
I went into this experiment not knowing what to expect. My goal was to see if I could get a chain that would be easier to keep clean and maintained with less effort. After two waxings, my conclusion is: yes, this is going to work. The way I was cleaning my chain prior to re-lubricating it was very inefficient. I felt like it needed to be cleaned every week; if not even more often. And I was getting frustrated enough with the chain on method that was I was likely to move up to a chain off once per month method anyway.
The waxing method I described above is about an hour of maintenance from start to finish. While the chain and wax are heating up I can thoroughly wash my bike. And believe me, the Silver Comet, that I ride alomst every Saturday, puts plenty of dirt on my bike (and me) after just one ride to just a good washing (I really don’t understand how that trail imparts more dirt than any public road I ride).
Given the longevity of a pot of wax (Silca claims somewhere around 30 waxes?), the lack of grease picking up dirt, the lack of random chainring tattoos, and the minimal impact to maintenance time, I forsee myself sticking with waxing.