bike chain cleaner

Guide to bike chain cleaning

Sand, mud, dirt causes premature wear in drivetrain, especially chain, and of course, wasted precious effort.

There are millions of methods to clean a chain, ranging from cleaning each roller with a cotton swab to dubious ones like jetting water.

Funnily, most of the time, its the lube, or lack of it, that makes cleaning a pain.

I’m an advocate of waxing chains, but also lazy enough to lube (some) chains. If you wax your chain periodically, a wipe with a soft, damp cloth is almost always adequate.

Dry lubes that is meant to be used in dry weather does not make a huge mess, while wet lubes and other nasty stuff people use, like used motor oil (don’t!) can make your chain super hard to clean.

Depending on condition, I use either “Quick” or “Deep” cleaning procedures:

Quick bike chain cleaning

This is what I do if the chain is not muddy, has huge debris on it, or when I’m not going to wax it afterwards.

If it looks clean and no visible sand or dust deposits, I wipe the chain with a dry, lint free cloth.

If there are visible sand, dust, other deposits, I mix warm water with dish soap. Dish soap is an excellent grease remover, if the deposits, or old oil leftovers are not in disastrous amounts. Get a lint-free cloth, rub it with soapy water few times, rinse, then relube. That’s it!

Most so-called degreasers, even the ones with some “eco-friendly” promises, are acidic, have super nasty chemicals, or useless garbage. And they’re mostly very expensive.

I used to wash engine parts in an ordinary dishwasher, with dishwasher soap (not the one for the dishwashers, though – in fact, they are detergents, not soaps, anyway !) getting great results!

If you are waxing your chain, instead of lubing it, you don’t need to be very vigorous about cleaning as it will not attract too much debris after all.

Deep bike chain cleaning

Deep cleaning your chains is an ugly business, and futile if not done right.

I do deep cleaning bike chains before rewaxing a chain, or on certain occassions like when I’m forced to use olive oil to lube it, because I had nothing else at the moment !

Ultrasonic cleaning is the absolute best second to none. Since I don’t have one, here is what I do:

The procedure is a 5 step process:

  1. Remove the chain.
  2. Wash your chain first, with dishwasher soap.
  3. Get a good sealed container, preferably plastic. Put your chain in. I use diesel. You may also use kerosene. The advantages of them are, they are not very volatile like petrol, and can be stored to be used later, after filtrating them. Pour diesel / kerosene, and shake like mad. Let it sit for 15 minutes or so, if you have time. Shake again. Use lint free cloth to dry it up.
  4. Now we need to remove oil from the diesel; “degreasing” in market-speak. This is needed to make paraffin stick if we wax the chain. Or if we lube it, its better to remove oils, so dust / sand won’t pile up.
  5. For degreasing, you can use lacquer thinner. Or acetone. You have to do it outside. All 2 evaporate extremely fast, so gases are flammable. Do not put it these in a sealed container and mix. Instead, get a steel pan, pour some, and rub with an old toothbrush while slowly agitating the chain. This will remove oil and some leftovers that diesel cannot remove (frankly, diesel is super efficient, and acetone is best for “detailing”, AKA removing every single dirt / grease molecule)

Thats it! Do not let your chain sit for too long. Either lube it, or wax it! Happy riding.

bike chain cleaner
These bike chain cleaners are quite popular, but does not work for me.


Specialty brushes, or “boxes with brushes”

I had varying degrees success with “special” brushes, ranging from absolute nonsense to worse then cotton swabs. So, I stick to my tried and true formula, which is eco-friendly, abundant, cheap and readily available, which is used tooth brushes.

Problem with such brushes I tried is, they are narrow and have hard bristles, which throws out nasty chemicals like petrol and oily stuff everywhere, which is not good for your tires, disc brake pads, and obviously your eyes. And they don’t work much effectively.

Those containers that you run your chain looks like a nice idea, but in practice, they are cumbersome and does not work as expected. Too much tool for every problem is not very different from having no tools at all. They take time to setup, store, organise and learn how to use them. Like most people, tooth brush is the tool I used most, after the fork. We all know how to use it skillfully, so why look for a different tool?

ADDENDUM: Do petrol derivatives corrode chains?

Chain manufacturers warns against using petrol, warning that it may cause your chain to break.

This warning doesn’t sound like a valid claim to me, as internal combustion engines are constantly subject to petrol derivatives , including fuel and oils. Older cars had steel fuel tanks, and still going strong after 50 years or more. So made a small research. Actually, petrols like gasoline and diesel is a bit corrosive, but is this significant?

Research says no: 98 octane premium petrol is way more corrosive than diesel, but it causes corrosion like 0.0005 mm in a year, if steel is soaked! So, if you soak your chain overnight, corrosion could be just few molecules deep!

Strangely, alcohol derivatives are much more harmful. Since petrol in certain countries have varying rates of ethanol, it may cause some corrosion on metals, but research says you’ll fine with up to %10 ethanol still.

What about off the shelf degreasers for bikes? Well, I guess I won’t ever use citrus-based cleaners, because I already know by my own experience that citric acid is surprisingly harsh on steel. Besides, they are not freshly squeezed orange juice – they still contain nasty chemical, but their scent repressed by freshly scented citrus oils extracted from rotten citrus fruits or pulp. Citric acid alone is a good degreaser, but not strong enough to wipe away nasty lube / oil deposits. Don’t believe me? Try lemon in your gunky chain. Lemon is neither cheap nor strong enough to make a degreaser, so there must be some missing ingredients, right?

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