How To Clean and Lube the Chain

This won’t be news for most of my readers, so…if you want to read it anyway…what you can do with this post is [a] try to guess what bike the above picture is of, and [b] post any other tips you might give to a new citybiker on basic chain maintenance.

Some people really like getting their hands dirty with motorcycle maintenance. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but there are some things you just have to do: and if you have a chain driven motorcycle (which is most motorcycles except BMW’s and some Harley’s) you have to clean and lubricate the chain. The truth is modern o-ring chains hold on to lubrication so well that they really don’t require too much fuss. Nevertheless we want to keep our bikes in top shape, and the only thing that’s more of a pain than cleaning and lubing a chain is replacing one. So here’s a quickie step by step you can do every couple of weeks or (if you’re riding long distances) every thousand miles or so…

Step One: Warm up the chain.
You do this by riding around for twenty minutes or so. The idea is that you want the lube to be on the chain as it cools down so that it is pulled into the o-rings. I don’t know where I read that. It makes sense… But from an engineering perspective, it doesn’t make THAT much of a difference. Nevertheless, it gives you an excuse to ride around for a bit.

Step Two: Clean the gunk off the chain.
Once the chain is warmed up you want to clean off all the dirt that is stuck to the old grease. You can use WD-40, Kerosene, or even just spray on lube if it’s oil based…

[a] Put the bike up on a center stand (watch this for help) or rear stand (you can do this without a stand, but it’s more of a pain, rolling the bike a foot forward at a time to roll the chain).

[b] Put the bike in neutral so that the rear wheel spins freely.

[c] Spray the chain with a cleaning agent and wipe it down. Try not to get it all over the rear wheel. Spraying downward helps. And you might want to put a newspaper or a rag underneath to catch drips. Roll the wheel slowly until you douse the entire chain. [Tip: there’s usually one link with a rivet, that looks slightly different from the others. If you can find it, you’ll have a reference as to where you started spraying]

What cleaning agent should you use? Some people just use the (oil based) spray-on chain lube and wipe it off for routine cleaning. Some people use WD-40 (but others say this is no good because it cleans too much of the lube off). Others use “chain cleaner” type products in a spray can. And old school folks use kerosene on a rag and just wipe the chain.

* Super anal types use a toothbrush to really get all the gunk off the chain. You can also use steel wool.

Step Three: Lubricate the Chain.

[a] The part of the chain that matters is the o-ring…or the links, so wherever else the lube winds up make sure you get those spots.

[b] Let it sit for a while so that the lube can “set.”

If you need a visual, try this video.

What kind of lube should I use? Everyone has their own opinion on this… I think the bottom line is it doesn’t really matter all that much! Any of the motorcycle “Chain Wax” or “Lube” that you get from a bike shop will do. Probably around $8 for a can that will last you many many months. Old school folks like using regular automotive grease. Some folks like using Teflon spray (sounds good to me, but it’s hard to find). I personally use the spray on Wax kind mainly because it goes on white…so it’s easier to see where I’ve already sprayed… but that’s really the only reason.

How often do I need to do this?

Once you know what you’re doing the whole thing should take you 5 minutes, every couple of weeks… And maybe half hour for a thorough cleaning once (or twice if you ride in the winter) a year.  When should you do it?  It really depends on the riding conditions.  Just look at your chain every now and then to see how dry or dirty it is.  A dry chain will rust in the rain, but no biggie, you can clean it off with steel wool – or just clean the gunk off and make sure it’s lubed in the right places.

[Next you’ll need to learn how to check and adjust the chain tension…]


5 responses to “How To Clean and Lube the Chain

  1. That photo is of a 2002+ Honda VFR800! Do I win a shiny prize? 😀

  2. Okay, I rescind my earlier comment. After closer inspection, I believe it’s a Ducati 848. My bad.

  3. I also think its a Ducati 848, well one must always know how to fix and lube the chain because my experience in this matter is very bad.

  4. I have my own little how-to video on cleaning and lubing your motorcycle chain here:

    Hope someone finds it helpful!

  5. Hello there, I am so excited I found your site, I really found you by error, while I was researching on google for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say kudos for a fantastic post and a all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through it all at the moment butI have saved it and also included your RSS feeds

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