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bike 101: how to oil your bicycle chain (and what to use)

May 25, 2011

oil for the bike hub

I recently received this reader question…

i follow your blog with interest and of late really enjoying the what to do without a bicycle lock post.

i would like you to survey the readers as to what chain oil they use please. so many options.

i thank you in advance for considering this topic.

Sure, Steve, I hope that others can chime in with their tips on what they use to oil their bike chain! My husband and I use the same 5W30 oil that we have for our cars on our bike chain as well. I also use that same oil to refill the gear hub of my vintage Raleigh Sports, which needs oil added to it about once a month. We use a small plastic syringe to get the oil on the chain and into the hub. We are, however, no experts on the topic and some sites on bike maintanance actually say not to use motor oil or 3in1 oil (more on that below the video).

The always illustrious Sheldon Brown notes that “Chain maintenance is one of the most controversial aspects of bicycle mechanics”. You can read his extensive and informative post on chain maintanance here, which includes tips on how to oil your chain, but makes no such statement as what not to use. He does note that Phil Wood Tenacious oil is his favorite.

Here, by the way, is a short but useful video on how to oil your bicycle chain, in case you’re more of a visual learner…

This post on Bicycle Tutor cautions against using WD-40 to lubricate your bike chain, explaining how it could actually do more damage than good. They recommend mineral based chain oils such as Finishi Line Cross Country or Phil Wood Tenacious Oil, either of which should be available at your local bike shop. I actually hadn’t given the choice of oil much thought and have not had any problem using the motor oil already there in our garage on our bike chains as well.

How about you, dear readers? What do you use to oil your bike chain and what informed that decision? Please leave your recommendations in the comments below!

41 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2011 08:01

    I use a dry lube in the summer and wet lube in the cold, wet months. The wet lube, while making quite a mess over time, seems to hold up much better when riding daily through wet and snowy streets.

  2. May 25, 2011 08:12

    I have a partly wax-based lube that my local bike shop gave me… But I haven’t used it in about half a year to a year, so I don’t remember exactly what it is (yay chain case) :)

  3. Amesja permalink
    May 25, 2011 08:53

    I also use mobil-1 on the Sturmey hubs. I’ve rebuilt a number of them as I restore 3-speeds for resale. I always do a complete tear-down and ungooping of the hub innards and inspect and replace any worn parts although most don’t need anything but a good cleaning.

    The exact type of oil is not that important except to NOT use a vegetable-based oil. Veggie oils dry up and turn to glue over the years. Look at the mouth of the salad oil you have in your pantry and that is basically what the inside of a bicycle hub looks like but 10x worse after 30 years of drying up and becoming sticky glue. The biggest issue with this goop is how the clutch engages (or fails to engage) between the gear limits and how the neutral-position becomes a huge problem. Nobody likes hitting the neutral in a S-A hub as it is scary and even dangerous when riding. Often this glue is so stuck on that it can’t even be scraped off and the best way to remove it is boiling the parts in a 50% vinegar solution. It’s a messy job but gets the parts clean and like-new looking.

    3-in-1 oil is vegetable-based so don’t use it if you don’t want to have these problems down the line. This is unfortunate because their new plastic oil bottle with the extendable straw is VERY handy for oiling a hub -even better than the old metal can . I actually use one of these bottles for oiling hubs after removing all the 3-in-1 oil and making darn sure it has been cleaned out well before filling with Mobil-1.

    There are people who say to only use a “non-detergent” oil in a bicycle hub. This is not important other than perhaps a detergent oil might eat through the bearing grease in the hubs faster. I really doubt is an issue and most older hubs that have not been rebuilt have very little grease left anyhow. This is why I always do a complete teardown of any hub that comes into my shop as a matter of course as a rebuilt re-greased hub leaks very little oil compared to an older one which is like a sieve.

    I also use the same 3-in-1 bottle of Mobil-1 for oiling the chain. Boutique chain-oil and waxes are a big business for bicycle maintenance suppliers and a huge money-maker for them. Of course they are going to tell you that your chain will explode if you don’t use oil that costs $10/oz. Phooey! Although I do admit that waxes can be less messy but often don’t do a good job preventing cosmetic corrosion if you ride in the wet and winter. For my money and time plain old motor oil works well. Chains are cheap anyhow. Why spend $20+ on special chain oil/wax to get a marginal increase in the life of a $10 chain?

    • May 25, 2011 10:40

      Thanks so much for this in-depth comment with so many great tips!

    • May 25, 2011 13:05

      Wait, I’m confused. 3-in-1 motor oil is vegetable based?

      • May 25, 2011 18:19

        Lauren, I’m not sure, but I’m going to agree with this part of Amesja’s comment:

        “For my money and time plain old motor oil works well. Chains are cheap anyhow. Why spend $20+ on special chain oil/wax to get a marginal increase in the life of a $10 chain?”

        Meaning, 3-in-1 oil sounds fine to me.


      • June 1, 2011 14:27

        3-in-1 is not vegetable based and never has been. If you’re riding on a $10 chain it doesn’t really matter what kind of oil you use.

        You can use vegetable oils on bicycle chains. Yes, vegetable oil can polymerize to varnish in a few years, but no oil lasts that long on a chain.

        You should never lubricate a dirty chain, as you’ll transport the dirt into the rollers. Clean the chain, lubricate the rollers, then wipe excess away.

      • June 1, 2011 15:18

        Thanks, Richard, great advice!

    • oscargoldman permalink
      September 24, 2016 22:10

      I often see this comment about 3-in-1 being “vegetable-based,” but Wikipedia only mentions a small amount of citronella oil as an additive. The rest is a mineral oil, so I don’t see where this vegetable claim comes from.

  4. May 25, 2011 10:02

    Oh yeah, I use motor oil on the hub too, and to occasionally lube my brake cables.

    This year I replaced what may very well have been the original 60-yr-old chain on my Raleigh :D

  5. May 25, 2011 12:11

    That video is perfect. I use something that we buy at the local bike shop. I always defer to the people who know what they’re talking about more or less. I haven’t heard of using motor oil, but some oil has to be better than no oil. :)

  6. mateo permalink
    May 25, 2011 12:47

    I recently added motor oil to my vintage raleigh hub and it leaked all day! Guess I put too much in! Rear brakes haven’t worked since then due to the oil residue on the rim.

    Motor oil is fine on a chain, but don’t goop to much on or it will fling off onto clothes and parts. I’m sure you can guess how I learned that little fact too.

  7. May 25, 2011 17:38

    I usually use Singer sewing machine oil on my hubs (right or wrong, I have really smooth shifting 3 speeds) and it smells nice, like gun oil.
    I agree with Amesja chains are cheap why worry too much about what to lube them with, motor oil works fine, as does chainsaw bar&chain oil.

  8. May 25, 2011 19:41

    Thanks for the idea of using motor oil, I am going to try it out. I have been riding for 7 years and have tried all types of expensive chain oils and cannot tell if any one is better than the other.

  9. May 25, 2011 21:17

    Not an oil comment, but I saw this and thought of you! (I guess it’s an owl comment instead of an oil comment!)

  10. Vipornta permalink
    May 26, 2011 00:12

    Thank you for this usable topic. I will back soon.

  11. May 26, 2011 01:33

    Our bikes in Germany have internal chains. You don’t have to deal with the oil and dirt, which has been so amazing. My favorite part is probably how I don’t have to roll up a pant leg or tie it down. There’s no chain to get them snagged in.

    Is that something even available in the US?

    Anyway, i guess that’s how I’m “oiling my bike chain”.

    • June 1, 2011 14:30

      @Carol – yes, we have chaincases in the great unwashed United States. Chains inside of chaincases require lubrication as well — the chaincase keeps it all hidden and tidy for you.

  12. May 26, 2011 07:43

    Thanks for this advice! I’m terrible at bike maintenance and never really oil my chain. Luckily Greg is more on top of things and he uses some kind of all natural chain lube.

  13. dedhed permalink
    May 28, 2011 09:49

    Nothing causes more opinions to be strewn about in the bike world then chain lube. I’m of the opinion the any lube is better than no lube.

    Motor oil, especially modern synthetics, are more than adequate for cruisers, old 3 speeds, and other low replacement cost drivetrains. I also use whatever brand of 10-30 synthetic I have in stock inside my SA hubs. I have an old “Rem Oil” gun lube bottle I refilled that has a squeeze top and a short tube that also fits it. Works great on the SA hubs. A few drops inside is all it needs as some have found out by getting the excess on their wheels.

    I’m a bit more fussy though when it comes to modern high end (read expensive parts) drivetrains. New 10 speed cassettes and chains are decidedly not cheap to replace. On my commuter/road bikes that will get 4-5,000 miles a year in all sorts of weather I have decided to try smething new this year based on good reviews from knowledgable sources.

    So far it has been working to my satisfaction.

  14. Dan Boyce permalink
    May 28, 2011 19:51

    I have used Phil Tenacious Oil (applied, then wiped clean daily) for a number of years and find it to meet all my needs.

  15. June 1, 2011 14:15

    We are loyal to Dumond in this bicycle house for our lubrication needs. My partner has worked in the bicycle industry for many years and this is what he uses and has recommended to anyone who has ever asked about lube or was looking to purchase lube, when he was in a retail shop.

  16. Rene permalink
    November 20, 2011 11:34

    I use engine oil but I apply it with a tooth brush I keep in a jar for this purpose. I find it helps to get the oil into small areas (and removes any hidden dirt). I finally wipe clean any excess. If the chain is too dirty I give it a more thorough cleaning with hot water and a dish soap (Dawn). It does take a little longer to dry.

  17. hard climber permalink
    December 4, 2011 09:10

    i use wd-40 for my chain….sometimes even hair oil :-P

  18. EchoTango 2-4 permalink
    April 1, 2012 17:00

    I’m going to try vegetable oil – I have plenty of the stuff; I run my car on it. i cycle about 120 miles a week, the chain comes off every weekend more or less for a clean & degrease anyway, so the long term polymerisation/varnishing shouldn’t be an issue

  19. Josef permalink
    June 30, 2012 20:48

    I use Mobil grease xhp 222 actually works better than bike grease it’s sooo lubyy ;)

  20. August 9, 2012 12:36

    This is really fascinating, You are an overly skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look ahead to in the hunt for extra of your magnificent post. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks

  21. lensmaker permalink
    October 18, 2012 20:22

    I have been using Vaseline recently but haven’t been using it long enough to know long term effects. Seems to run quiet and do the job. Has anyone tried this?

  22. November 1, 2012 11:26

    I use vegetable oil on my chains and they work- periodic cleaning and subsequent lubing keeps the chain very clean- I am fanatical – I clean every few rides ad degreaser using a lemon juice based cleaner home made every month which equals about 500 km of riding between degreasing.

  23. Bill T. permalink
    April 10, 2014 19:19

    I am wondering how well SLICK-50 would do on bikes. Anyone ever give it a try?

  24. Tomtoms permalink
    May 6, 2014 14:49

    I use RSP and works very well also has a Teflon

  25. June 19, 2014 03:37

    You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I to find this topic to
    be really something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and very extensive for me.
    I am taking a look forward on your next put up, I will attempt to get the dangle of it!

  26. kaushik permalink
    August 9, 2014 09:21

    Can I use coconut oil on my chains.else what other oil .sunflower, mustard , eucqlyptus ?

  27. Phil permalink
    November 1, 2014 22:59

    Oil IS a solvent and cleaner, so you don’t need to “clean” your chain. Just wipe off the dirt, oil it liberally with any kind of oil, then wipe it off again. Wiping off the excess oil then “cleans” the chain. Also, the easiest, cleanest way to lubricate a chain is with a polypropylene plastic bottle. These can be purchased for a few cents each. Just put the nose of the dropper on the chain, squeeze gently, and run the chain by. No muss. No fuss. Then wipe it all off with a folded paper towel and you’ve got a clean, shiny, oiled chain.

  28. Erik permalink
    May 11, 2016 20:31

    What about chain saw oil ? Borge bicycle and chain saw have chains …. Makes sense to me ! Any thoughts if this works?

  29. Katie permalink
    January 2, 2017 07:42

    I have a bicycle with a chain guard that covers a section of the chain but not all what lubricant should I use.


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