Wax on, wax off

This is a quick summary of my experiments with chain waxing. Would Mr Miyagi be happy?

  • I am probably late to this game. I have commuted for years over mixed on/off-road and gritty and wet conditions, and have worn chains down to 1% wear in a matter of months.
  • My faithful old Surly: I became scared to oil it as the chain was so encrusted with gunk, it hardly turned. And I believed the marketing that is often put on the bike oil labels – all weather – reduces friction etc.
  • I have been on multi hour bike rides where the thin wax based lube has come off completely, and the chain becomes a symphony of squeaks and rattles.
  • After purchasing expensive bike chain cleaner liquid, and numerous chain scrubbing devices, I’ve often been frustrated with the resultant grind and grit, and general pollution of the air (volatile organic compounds), and cans of dirty cleaner everywhere.
  • My grandfather (an engineer like myself), told me once he used to ride and race bikes and soak chains in paraffin wax in what must have been the 1930s and 40s at Alexander Palace.

Time for a rethink

In 2020, I was on my third chain in 18months, and opted for Ultegra 11 speed. However, I wanted to make this chain last a little longer (i.e. 6 months!), so before I put it on the bike, I did some research:

  • Chain wear tools. I have used one for years, but now I come to find that it may not be telling me what I need. There are some that are better than others
  • Podcasts on friction and marginal gains (not fussed about marginal speed gains, but I am fussed if my chain and cassette lasts 3 times longer)
  • Review of the data and results of some decent testing into chain hardness, elongation, and lubrication

All of this brought me to the conclusion that I should try waxing.

It’s worth adding at this point that waxing isn’t for everyone. You need time, planning, and some rounds of chain cleaning that can be arduous (there is a pollution aspect to this too, but in terms of the lifecycle of the chain, so far it seems way less).

Chain setting after wax

So after a few months in, here are my waxing takeaways:

  • Over this winter (2020), and using the gravel bike on what is predominantly mixed on and off-road, I have re-waxxed about every 2w on average. More frequently if the rides are wet and gritty resulting in a contaminated chain.
  • The cleanliness of the chain and cogs is amazing. Nothing seems to stick. No gunk!
  • There is no wear reading on my new chain wear gauge (ok less than 0.5%)
  • Cold winter weather and wax do make a chain initially feel like it’s seized up. Summer will be interesting to see how that differs.
  • Post wax, initially the chain was very tight and shifting gears was utter rubbish. Even after the break-in period. Now it’s loosened a fraction, that is less of a problem. Different chains may have different behaviours here.
  • You do need to care for the chain post ride (brush it clean, and dry it if wet). I twist to see how much wax is left, or grit can be felt – If any at all – then a re wax is on. Surface rust will set in if the chain is just left (nothing new there).
  • I have the re wax process down to about 10 mins or less. If I want to let the wax set, that is anything from 20-40 mins, then loosen the links and reinstall. First half an hour or so will have rough indexing, but I can live with that.
  • I use a camping stove at lowest heat with a thermometer. An event when I was a kid showed me that raw flame near melted wax is a recipe for disaster. I never leave it while on. Hazard warning!
  • To break the chain, I am reusing the standard Shimano chain link at the moment. This might not be the best idea to do this repeatedly. However I always carry spares and tools.
  • The chain has had no petro chemicals in term of oil or cleaner since the first wax. Once applied, I just relax, and use no other solvents/oils.
Check the temperature

Would I do this again?

Yes.

I may try a different chain manufacturer next, as over the last few months, there has been a fractional loosening of the links which has made post wax-indexing much better. Could a different chain brand be better from the get go?

Would I do this for all my bikes?

Not yet. Maybe when it’s their time for new chains?

Plus there are some amazing new oil lubricants on the market now (some of which I also use). Check out https://zerofrictioncycling.com.au/lubetesting/ for more info.

Good luck!

Bike showing the usual Winter riding conditions
Mucky lane in winter near here

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