Out of Bike Chain Oil? Here Are Some Genius Alternatives You Never Knew Existed!

Riding with a dirty, unlubricated chain is a great way to destroy the life expectancy of your whole drive train. It also makes for a frustrating riding experience. At times, it seems everyone has their own opinion or secret magic recipe that they use as chain oil and swear by. It’s hard to know how many of these methods are good and which should be avoided.

The option for lubricating a bike chain is to use commercial chain oil specifically designed for that purpose and the conditions you ride in. Other viable options included using wax as a lubricant or using motor oil. You can use regular grease for a short-term solution, but not in the long run.

Not all bike chain oil options are created equal. Some are really good and extend the life of your chain, while others should be avoided entirely if possible. On top of that, even the ones that are really good have certain shortcomings that you need to be aware of when picking the right stuff for your needs.

The Best Options For Bike Chain Oil

Your bike’s drive train is obviously crucial if you want your bike to pedal forward, and your chain is the component that binds the whole train together. Whatever oil or lubricant you put on your chain will run through and smear off of your gear cassette, chainrings, and derailleurs.

Use Paraffin Wax To Completely Coat Your Chain

A method of lubrication or ‘oiling’ a bike chain that has become immensely popular in recent years is to coat or soak the whole thing in paraffin wax. Yes, regular old candle wax. Sure, there are companies that manufacture and sell wax made explicitly for this purpose, but you can use household candles as well.

The process involves submerging your chain in a bath of melted wax and essentially slow-cooking it. This allows the wax to seep into the linkage and bearings of the chain, which leaves behind a microscopic coating.

The benefit of waxing your chain is that it doesn’t attract dirt as much as oil-based lubricants, and it lasts a lot longer, saving you money. The downside is that it takes a bit more effort initially, and it isn’t the best option if you live in rainy climates or wash your bike very often.

How To Wax Your Chain

If you want to give the hot wax craze a try, here’s a step-by-step guide:

  • Step 1: Remove your chain. Unfortunately, if you are opting to wax your chain, you will need to remove the whole thing. So, use a chain breaker or find a weak link to split the chain and remove it.
  • Step 2: Clean your chain. The next step, which is vital before applying any new oil or lubricant, is to give your chain a good scrub with something like surgical alcohol or a chain cleaner.
  • Step 3: Prepare the wax. With your chain cleaned, you can go ahead and melt the wax in a small pot until it’s all an even liquid. If you are using household candles, you may need to use a binding agent, and you definitely need to remember to remove the wicks before you continue.
  • Step 4: Submerge the chain. Now, you can go ahead and dunk the entire chain in the wax while continuing to apply heat. Cover the pot and stir it around every few minutes. After about 30 minutes, your chain should be completely waxed.
  • Step 5: Dry off and refit the chain. Next, you want to leave the chain to dry completely. Once dried, it will be pretty stiff, but you can roll it around a broomstick to break off the excess wax. Once the chain is moving free again, fit it back on your bike, and you should be good to go for another couple hundred miles.

Use Chain Lubricant For Reliability

If you aren’t brave enough to dip your toes into hot waxing but you’re looking for reliability, then stick with regular chain lubricants. These are designed specifically for bicycle chains, so, at the very least, you have some peace of mind.

Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as running to your local bike shop, grabbing the first bottle you see, and squirting it on your chain. There are several varieties to choose from, such as drip wax, dry lube, wet lube, etc.

You need to pick the chain lubricant that is best suited for the conditions you ride in. Drip wax is a good middle-ground option if you are unsure and gives you some of the benefits of hot waxing.

The downside of regular lubricants is that they can become quite expensive because you use quite a lot of them. Also, because they are oil-based, they will attract some dirt and grime, forcing you to clean your chain regularly.

The Less Great Options For Bike Chain Oil

This brings us to some options that do the job of lubricating your chain but come with a few downsides of their own. The biggest common downside to all these alternative options is their proclivity to attract dirt and debris.

As dirt builds up on your chain, it starts to become a gritty paste, which starts to behave more like sandpaper than lubrication. That sandpaper paste will gradually grind away at the inner workings of your chain, which completely messes up the typically tight tolerances between links and bearings.

Over time, this will cause your chain to ‘stretch’ as the gaps become bigger. The further knock-on effect is that the links won’t sit as neatly on the teeth of your gears, causing further friction and wear on your gears.

This is why having a clean chain is so important. It extends the life of our bike.

You Can Use 3-in-1 Oil For Your Bike Chain.

A commonly used bike oil alternative is 3-in-1 oil, which is readily available from just about any hardware store and inexpensive.

3-in-1 has one benefit over many conventional bike chain oils, which is that it’s not bad at cleaning your chain, thanks to its chemical makeup, which helps dissolve dirt and grime. Unfortunately, this cleaning advantage only applies when you initially oil your chain. As soon as you start riding, 3-in-1 will attract and hold more dirt than a good bike chain oil.

The other benefit it has is that it is good at preventing corrosion build-up. While this isn’t unique to 3-in-1, it is worth mentioning.

Unfortunately, because 3-in-1 is a multipurpose oil, it tries to be average at all uses and fails to be great at any. So, if you ride in ultra-dry or wet conditions, 3-in-1 probably won’t be able to keep up.

You may be wondering, what about WD40 as opposed to 3-in-1. WD40 typically performs slightly worse. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if you consider the fact that WD40 is made to be more focused on solvent jobs or displacing water. In fact, the “WD” literally means “water displacement.” In other words, WD40 isn’t as good at lubricating as 3-in-1 is.

Many Riders Use Engine Oil To Lubricate Their Chains

This may come as a surprise, but there are many riders who absolutely swear by using regular engine oil as a chain lubricant.

In fact, it isn’t necessarily a terrible idea. Engine oil has an extremely high heat and friction tolerance, so unless you’re using a Honda engine to help you along, you should be fine as far as heat is concerned.

Engine oil also has the benefit that it is a lot cheaper than bike chain oil and can also be purchased in bulk from any hardware or automotive store. So, you should never be in short supply.

However, engine oil is typically a lot thinner than chain oil, so it washes off a lot easier either by riding in wet conditions or regularly washing your bike. This means that the cost savings may not be quite as much if you are forced to re-oil your chain before and after every ride.

Grease Is The Worst Alternative Option

Finally, we get to options that you may be tempted to consider as “obvious.” The sole purpose of grease is to limit friction, so why not use it to annihilate the friction between your chain and gears? This option may even work surprisingly well for the first ten minutes of riding.

This may seem a bit counterintuitive, but grease is actually extremely sticky. No, it’s not “sticky” like a glue stick, but sticky in the sense that every single microscopic particle of dust will cling to it and never let go.

This means that when you first apply grease to your chain, it will likely feel silky smooth, but as soon as you start riding, it will amass an army of debris, ready to attack your chain and cassette.

Also, grease can be a nightmare to get rid of, meaning that cleaning your chain will be difficult at best but impossible at worst.

Conclusion

Specially made bike chain oil remains the easiest and best way for most average riders to lubricate and maintain their chains. Submerging your chain in melted paraffin wax is a good alternative that is both cheap and lasts a long time. Some lesser options include using 3-in-1 oil or even regular engine oil. Grease may be a tempting option, but it attracts too much debris and is challenging to clean.

Author

  • Miles Baxter

    Miles Baxter is an engineer with a longstanding love for bicycles, sparked by winning a mountain bike in a childhood lottery. Balancing a keen interest in mechanics with the thrill of biking, his career is a testament to the art of turning wheels and gears into adventures.

    Baxter Miles