by Nick Di Cristofaro
The Cat. 5 tattoo—it’s the greasy mark you get on your calf after you lean on your chainring. I don’t think there’s a rider who hasn’t had this imprinted on their leg. Wouldn’t it be nice if this never happened again? Your drivetrain would need to be clean and free of grease. Waxing your chain can fix that. It can also increase the life of your chain, which, in turn, can save you money.
When I say waxing, I mean immersive chain waxing, not the use of a wax-based drip lube you would find in a bottle. I’m talking about submerging your chain in hot, melted wax so that the substance penetrates the component fully. With the right equipment and some patience, you can do this process at home.
A waxed chain resists contamination because the hard, slippery coating doesn’t attract dirt in the way liquid lubes do. The wax creates a barrier so that dirt doesn’t stick. There are some drawbacks that come with waxing. The process is more time-consuming than lubing with oil. You will also have to get some new equipment, unless you have a spare slow cooker lying around. In the long run, however, if done right, waxing will save you money. It can make your chain last three times longer. A healthy chain will also mean less wear on your other drivetrain components.
Essential gear for waxing
Start with a new chain. You can wax an old chain, but you will need to spend more time cleaning it. Also, make sure you have quick links for your model of chain. Later, you’ll want to be able to remove the chain easily to re-apply wax, which you should do after roughly 300 km. A quick-link tool is nice to have for snapping the link off.
I recommend a bicycle-specific wax such as Molten Speed Wax or Silca Secret Chain Blend. You can make up your own wax melt by sourcing the raw ingredients, such as paraffin for the base. But DIY wax does make the process a bit more complicated. The bike-specific brands have additional additives with lubricating properties.
You’ll need a way to melt the wax slowly with a low heat source. A small, inexpensive slow cooker works best, but you could use an old pot on a hot plate at low heat. To monitor the temperature of the melted wax, a digital or candy thermometer is the tool of choice. For the initial cleaning of the chain, mineral spirits or a strong degreaser is essential. You’ll also need denatured alcohol for the final cleaning and stripping of any solvent prior to wax submersion. Make sure you have three glass or plastic jars on hand. Large Mason jars work well. Grab a metal clothes hanger or bend an old spoke into a hook. You’ll use this tool to handle the chain in the cooker. Safety first: use thick rubber gloves and protective glasses or goggles. Rags are necessary for wiping and cleaning. Aluminum foil can catch dripping wax.
The waxed chain will need a place to hang straight as it dries. A nail on an exposed stud or a hook will do the trick. Finally, I like to run the stiff, freshly treated chain over a piece of plastic pipe to get the rollers moving freely once again.
How to wax right
In the slow cooker, melt your wax. This process will take a little while so get it started before you begin cleaning the chain and other components. Use your thermometer and monitor the temperature. Do not exceed about 93 C.
Clean your drivetrain fully. Make sure your rear derailleur, chainrings and cassette are spotless. Then dry the parts. Clean the chain. If the chain is really dirty, get most of the gunk off with a rag before submerging it in solvent. You might need to repeat this process a few times. With a new chain, you’ll still need to clean off all the factory oil or grease. After you have scrubbed the chain a few times, throw it in a jar with the degreaser and close the lid. Shake it for a good two minutes. Remove the chain, wipe it, and if you have the ability, blow it dry with compressed air. Allow it to dry before the next step.
Fill another jar with the alcohol. Throw the chain in and shake it up. Remove it, wipe it and throw it in another jar with clean alcohol. Repeat the shake-and-dry process. Pour your fluids through coffee filters to strain out dirt. You can reuse the liquids a few times.
Once the chain is dry and your wax is at the right temperature, thread the chain into the J-bend tool and dip it in the wax. Let it sit there for 10 minutes. Then agitate it for a minute to help the wax penetrate. Letting the chain soak is imperative to allow the metal to heat up and expand, which allows the wax to get in everywhere. Remove the chain from the wax. Let it drip for a bit. Then hang the chain straight to dry. Don’t forget to dip and agitate your quick link, too.
After about 15 minutes, the wax will be dry and the chain will be super stiff. Break all the links loose by hand, working them back and forth. Or, you can run the chain over a plastic pipe. Do this process a few times to work in all the links.
Install the chain on your bike. Make sure the quick link grooves are free of wax chunks and that it clicks into place correctly. With your bike on a stand, run the chain through all the gears. Wax bits will fly off initially. Also remember, you’ll need about 30 minutes of riding to get the chain worked in fully.
More waxing tips
After the initial waxing, do not add any oil or other types of lube. If you do, you will need to clean the chain fully once again before re-dipping. You might want to have a few chains in rotation so you always have a waxed chain ready to go. It’s easier to clean and wax a few at a time. Once your chain is waxed, re-dipping is much easier. Simply wipe the chain down, and then place it in a pot of boiling water to remove the old wax. After one alcohol bath, the chain is ready to be waxed once again.
You are now on your way to smooth shifting, extended component life and grease-free calves.
“If done right, waxing will save you money.”
This story originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine