Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lights Out, Wax On


I've actually started to bore myself with all the light reviews, so I thought I'd move on to something even more dull-yet-contentious: chain maintenance. One of the older ways to clean and lube a chain is by dipping it in melted paraffin wax. Now, there's all sorts of back-and-forth in the Interwebs jabber-space about the effectiveness of wax as a lube, and I do not want to go too far down that path. I'm just presenting this as a "how to" in case anyone wants to give it a whirl and see if it works for them.

The first thing you need is a dirty chain and the mechanical aptitude to get it off your bike:

Next post: How to clean a filthy bike, apparently.

 Easy enough, right? You probably have one of those in your possession already, or else you would have moved on to another blog by now. Note that mine has a shiny SRAM Powerlink in it that lets me take the chain off by hand -- a nicety but not a necessity. Just get that chain off of there however you need to.

The next thing you'll need is a slow-cooker (more common branded moniker: Crock Pot) and some paraffin wax:
I'm melting! Melting... melting...  

I would strongly, strongly suggest that your cooker be 100% dedicated to chain maintenance and not (repeat, NOT) reused for foodstuffs. If the crust of dirty wax blobs on mine doesn't convince you of that, I'm not sure what will. You don't need a huge one -- 1 quart is plenty, and those tend to go on sale cheap around back-to-college time (I think I got mine for $10). They're also plentiful at thrift stores. If you research chain waxing (because if you've read this far, I suspect you're as geeky as me), you'll hear all about double boilers, cans you melt on the stove, yadda yadda yadda. Don't bother. Why risk waxing your stove, setting your kitchen on fire, making a mess, or enraging someone who lives with you? Just get a cheap slow cooker and be done with it.

As for wax, I get mine at the local grocery store (in the canning section) for around $3 a pound. Not bad compared to the nutty prices those little 4 oz. bottles of magic chain goo cost at the LBS, right? Paraffin is also available at beauty supply stores (apparently, people dunk their hands in it), but you pay a premium for the same stuff.

So, you have your pot, you have your wax, you have your dirty chain. You'll also want some stirring/grabbing gear -- I use an old spoke and a pair of Vice Grips that can be set to gingerly hold the chain without squeezing or marring it. You'll also want a bit of safety gear... at least little eye protection and a pair of work gloves. Call me cautious, but being scalded and/or blinded by hot wax isn't my idea of a good time. Not that there's anything WRONG with that...

Now, let's wax! Step 1, throw wax in pot as shown above. Step 2, turn pot on HIGH. Step 3, put chain in pot:
White men CAN dunk! 

I've let the wax get completely melted before dunking the chain, but it's not necessary to wait. I've also threaded my old spoke through the side plates and roller of one of the opened chain links (the spoke head won't pull through)  so it will be easier to fish the chain out later. Step 4 is to wait for the wax to melt and let the chain soak.

Exciting stuff, huh?

Having fun yet?

You can go stir it around with the spoke if you want.

Thrilling, I know.

Look at the bright side: You now have a new simile for boredom to go along with "like watching paint dry" and "like watching grass grow."

Okay, so once your wax is completely melted and covering the whole chain, leave it in there for a while to cook all the gunk out of the nooks and crannies. Stir every once in a while if you're the sort of person who feels like you need to participate. I usually leave mine in for 30 minutes to an hour.

Next, the delicate extraction operation. Got your gloves and eye protection on? Good.
The clock radio doesn't lie: Time stops while waxing. 

Carefully lift the chain out with a combination of your old spoke and some sort of mechanical grabbing device (pliers, tongs, whatever) letting the excess wax drip back into the pot (or if you're a slob like me, all over the sides of the pot and the workbench). Let it cool until you can just touch it without going "OW OW OW OW OW" and reinstall it on the bike. If you let it get really cool, the wax hardens and makes the chain tough to thread through the derailleur. Spin the cranks a few times, wipe off any excess drips/flakes with a rag, and you've done Mr. Miyagi proud:
You'd think someone could have cleaned the bike 
while waiting for the wax to melt... 

Turn off your pot and call it good. Once the wax re-hardens, you can pop it out of the pot and scrape the gunky layer off the bottom of the wax cake if you want. I find that it doesn't tend to re-deposit on subsequent waxings (you can use the same pot of wax again and again and again), so I don't usually bother. At some point, I intend to get fancy and add a mesh screen/basket to my pot so the chain isn't sitting in that settled gunk, but I haven't been that motivated yet.

Some notes on wax as a lubricant, since I'm sure I'll hear about it:
  • It's lousy in wet conditions. Washes off quick and provides no rust protection. I generally switch to something wetter (and dirtier, unfortunately) in the winter.
  • Your chain will probably get noiser faster. A couple hundred miles is when mine starts to sound bad. The wax still seems to be working, it's just not damping chain noise the way a gooey lube would.
  • There is nothing cleaner than a waxed chain. Nothing. I don't care what the magic chain goo salesmen tell you. A chain that's seen only wax can be grabbed bare-handed without leaving a mark. This is great for bikes that get thrown into cars or live inside apartments/houses, especially if those cars/apartments/houses don't belong to you.
And finally, a chain waxing haiku, just because I wanted to use the pun "waxing poetic":

Melted paraffin
swirls in waxy rivulets
cleansing my chain links. 

You're welcome.   :-)

1 comment:

Julia said...

"I would strongly, strongly suggest that your cooker be 100% dedicated to chain maintenance and not (repeat, NOT) reused for foodstuffs."

I'm scared that you needed to give this advice to your readers! :)