Bicyclists disagree about the benefits of chain wax versus oil in protecting the chain from dirt, wear and moisture. Oil is the more common treatment for chains, and more versatile, as it can be applied whenever needed without significant preparation. Bike expert Jim Langley points out that while wax repels dirt and keeps the chain in good condition for a longer period, it requires significant preparation and is unsuitable for wet climates.
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Both products usually derive from petroleum. Chain wax often uses paraffin wax as its base. It may come as a block of wax that you must melt, in a spray can or in a bottle with a drip dispenser. Jim Langley and the website Bicycle Fixation note that some riders add beeswax or other additives to their chain wax for better waterproofing, longevity and chain performance. Other types of chain oil are made of renewable resources, such as soybeans, according to Bloom Bike Shop.
Chain oil is thin and easily gets into the rollers and spaces between links when applied. When melted, wax has a similar consistency to chain oil but solidifies as it cools. As the chain rotates during a ride, flakes of the wax come off the chain, while the rollers inside the chain rotate smoothly against the layers of wax.
Many bicyclists swear by chain wax for better lubrication and protection, but there are no conclusive performance studies to back up claims for wax or oil as chain lubricants. Bicycle Fixation, in supporting the use of chain wax, points out the downsides of other lubricants: light chain oils don’t last long enough; sticky and thicker lubes grab too much dirt; and heavy grease is too dangerous to apply, as the chain must be boiled in it. Bike expert Sheldon Brown, on the other hand, argues that wax is not as good a lubricant as oil or grease, though it does keep dirt off the chain.
You should apply chain oil to a chain that has been thoroughly cleaned in solvent or another degreaser and then dried. Oil the rollers between the links only. Sheldon Brown suggests not using spray oils when oiling a chain on your bike to avoid greasing your wheel rims or tires. He advises oiling on the side of the chain that faces your rear wheel sprockets to decrease the problem of the front wheel throwing dirt onto the outside of the chain, which the oil brings into the chain. Wax your chain by melting paraffin wax in a double boiler, dropping in a clean and dry chain and lifting it out to drip dry.
The packaging on many bicycle chain oils encourages bicyclists to clean their chains and reapply the oil after each ride. Bicycle Fixation says that a properly waxed chain needs a new coat of wax every 400 to 500 miles. The Bloom Bike Shop points out that dry oils and wax-based lubricants wash off easily in the rain, while wet oils collect dirt easier in dry conditions. When using chain oil, reapply it regularly, particularly when riding in the conditions opposite to those for which your oil was intended.