Bicycle chain wax starter guide

  • Published on 2022-05-11

In this write up, I'll discuss the different aspects of bicycle chain waxing. I'll share my perspectives about the pros and cons of waxing, and discuss my experience with different types of wax. This is an attempt to answer many common questions that I have seen about waxing bicycle chains.

Different types of chain wax

Waxing. Why? And is it for you?

If you're reading this, chances are you know what it means to wax a bicycle chain. But just in case, a quick description is that chains need lubricant to work efficiency. Most lubricants on the market are oil based. Waxing lubricates the chain by covering the chain in dried wax instead of oil or grease.

I started using chain wax for the sole purpose of keeping my chain clean. Over the last 18 months, here are the things I found out:

The good

  • A squeaky clean chain and drive train. Unlike oil based lube, dirt and gunk does not stick to wax. This means the chain and the rest of the drive train is clean and dry to the touch. This is huge should you have to touch the chain to fix a road side puncture, or just taking the wheels on and off to put the bike on an indoor trainer.
  • Components on a clean drive train last longer. Since switching to wax, I have found that each chain lasts me 1000 - 2500 miles longer.
  • Having an always-clean drive train, I spend way less time cleaning my bike. And when I do, it's mostly spraying water to clean the frame—no messy degreaser to deal with.
  • One cannot over lubricate a chain with wax. This might sound like a funny thing, but one of the main reasons drive chain components wear out quicker than they should is from over lubricating with oil or grease, which attracts more dirt and wear out components more quickly. With wax, the excess would just flake off.
  • I didn't really test this, but there are many sources on the interwebs claiming that wax saves riders 1-3 watts (some big numbers there).

The not-so-good or not-so-convenient

  • Compared to oil based lubes, wax based lubes are typically more expensive. Though, this is largely offset by cost savings from components lasting longer.
  • The process of putting on a new chain is a bit more involved. Most new chains come with factory oil or lube, and requires a special degreasing or cleaning process before it's ready for waxing. Though, this is only a one-time thing per chain.
  • If a chain sees rain or water, it'll likely need rewaxing. This might be a deal breaker for those who ride in the rain or wet conditions often.
  • Most wax lubes require a few hours to dry on the chain, so you can't just put on some lube last minute and ride out the door. Though, I have not found this to be a problem. I have made a habit out of checking the chain after each ride and apply more wax if necessary.
  • Depending on which type of wax you're using (i.e. hot melt wax vs. drip on wax), the process could take a bit of time. Though, I have personally found a happy medium for my riding style—read on!

Is it for you?

Personally, I have very much enjoyed all the benefits of chain waxing and have found a relatively convenient routine. Though, as I only ride on roads, cyclists from other disciplines might have a different experience than I did. Hopefully, the information above (and below) are enough to help sway you one way or another.

Comparing different types of wax

In this section, we'll look at the different types of wax, and how they compare with one another in four areas: cost, ride quality, convenience or easy of application, and "flakes". I'll be discussing the 4 types of wax I have used: Molten Speed Wax (hot melt), Ceramic UFO Drip New Formula (drip on), SILCA Super Secret Chain Lube (drip on), and Squirt Chain Lube (drip on).

Cost

Let me preface in saying, the practical cost difference of the different types of wax are relatively low, on the orders of less than a dollar per 500 miles. In addition, whatever additional cost spent on wax is easily offset by the cost savings from drive train components lasting longer.

I did this whole spreadsheet thing then decided the numbers are largely meaningless for everyone else. The cost difference largely depends on riding style and how often one applies wax lube to a chain, so YMMV. That said, if you're the penny pinching type like I am, here's a ranking starting from least expensive to most expensive per mile:

  1. Squirt Chain Lube (least expensive)
  2. SILCA Super Secret
  3. Ceramic UFO Drip
  4. Molten Speed Wax (most expensive): On paper, the wax itself is relatively inexpensive compared to other drip on wax. Though, because it is hot melt wax, this requires taking the chain off the bike. The cost mostly comes from replacing quick links on the chain. Officially, most quick links are single use, but I have personally reuse them up to three times. Still, at $3 - $5 per pair, the cost adds up.

Ride quality

For me, the thing that affects ride quality (and component longevity) the most comes from how well the wax penetrates the rollers on the chain—in order to reduce chain friction. Compared to oil based lube, wax lube tends to be thicker, and therefore does not penetrate the rollers as easily.

Here's what I've found, from highest ride quality to lowest:

  1. Molten Speed Wax (highest quality): Having the whole chain submerge in liquid hot melt wax is that it allows the wax to penetrate every small crack of the chain. This results in a highly lubricated and efficient chain.
  2. Ceramic UFO Drip & SILCA Super Secret: These two tie for the second place in terms of roller penetration. While likely not as good as hot melt wax, their special formula allows room-temperature liquid wax to work through the roller quite well.
  3. Squirt Chain Lube: Coming in last, Squirt Lube appears to be thicker than the other drip on brands. I have noticed that the chain get squeaky and dry off much sooner.

Though, I just found out that there's a Squirt variant for those who live in colder temperature, that's supposed to be more runny and penetrates the rollers better—but I have not tried it yet.

Convenience, or easy of application

  1. Ceramic UFO Drip & Squirt Chain Lube (easiest to apply): Drip on wax lubes are easier to apply, just like regular oil based lubes. These two brands have a nice consistency that allows each drop of the wax to stick to the roller, and as you pedal the chain backward, the drops will get worked into the rollers
  2. SILCA Super Secret: Compared to UFO Drip, which I perceive to penetrate the rollers just as well, Super Secret is much thinner and more watery. It does not stick to the roller as well initially, and I find it dripping on the floor here and there during the application process.
  3. Molten Speed Wax: Unsurprisingly, hot melt wax requires taking the chain off and a dedicated crock pot. It also requires quick links and the corresponding tools for the links. While it penetrates the rollers most effectively, it definitely takes the most time and effort.

Flakes

Unlike oil based lubes, wax lubes flake off as you ride. This is how dirt stays off your chain. If you only ride outdoors, how the wax flakes off probably does not matter much to you. However, if you also use your bike on an indoor trainer, the flakes affect how easy it is to clean up.

Out of the 4 wax brands I have tried, most have nice flakes of dry-wax. The only one I had problems with is the Squirt Chain Lube. The consistency of the Squirt flakes are closer to small flakes of play-dough. It feels a bit more "wet" and tends to stick to the floor if you accidentally step on some, making it harder to vacuum up.

This photo below shows the regular flakes of wax SILCA Super Secret. Also notice how squeaky clean the chain is ☺️. Flakes of wax from SILCA Super Secret

Summary

In summary, I have enjoyed using wax lubes and will stick with it for the foreseeable future. The cleanliness and the extended component lifespan is well worth the trade offs for someone who primarily rides on roads like I do.

My personal process

I currently use a combination of hot melt wax and drip on waxes.

  • On my commute bike, I use Squirt Chain Lube, even though the wax does not seem to penetrate the rollers as well, and does not last as long per application. Since I commute in wet conditions anyway, I'm willing to apply the Squirt wax more often. Being cheaper than the other brands, Squirt is relatively cost effective for more frequent applications.
  • On my joy ride road bike, I do a fully submerged hot melt application every two months (roughly 1000 miles). In between, I use UFO Drip (or finishing up the remaining of SILCA) to top off about every 100 miles.

Note that waxed chains tend to sound more noisy compared to chains using oil lubes. Whenever the chain sounds overly noisy, a Litmus test I use is to check how easily the rollers move around. If the rollers move around too freely, I just top off with a drip on wax.

How to get started

If you want to get started with chain waxing, my recommendation would be picking up one of the drip on wax lubes. Here are some guides to clean and degrease the chain before applying wax:

HOT TIP: if you bring your bike to a shop, be very explicit and tell them to leave the chain alone. Most shops will "helpfully" put on oil based lubes and contaminate your whole drive train.

Enjoy!