Lubing chain. Oil or wax, hot or drip? The inexcusably full guide

23 October 2023
The difference between the best and worst chain lube could be some 10+ watts in friction losses.

More importantly, the difference between a good and okay lube could be thousands and thousands of kilometers before you need to replace you chain, cassette and chainrings. So, it can be expensive not to know the difference.
If you are not ready to geek-out and just want an executive summary, there is one below.

Chain lubes are divided into two broad categories: oil-based & wax-based. The latter is separated into hot-wax & drip-wax.

The oil lubes have their place, which I’ll elaborate on down below, but the elefant in the room is that they make your drivetrain really dirty — to the extent that no matter how meticulous you are, periodically you’ll find black marks on your socks, jerseys, and even furniture.
As far as the wax, you could’ve seen videos where someone e.g. comes to a group ride, swipes their finger over their mates’ chains, and either makes a grimace if the finger is black, or nods in approval when it is pristine. Well, that’s not entirely true.

Yes, immediately after hot-waxing, a chain can be as clean as a brand-new candle, but even if you only use it indoors, some wax residue will be pushed out of the links, and then some dust will be attracted to it, and the chain will still have some black stuff on it. (Technically, even in a dust-free environment the chain itself will produce particles of worn-out metal, so there’s that.)

But the difference is like stepping in a pigsty or a horse corral. I wouldn’t want to do either wearing only socks — but don’t need rubber boots to do the latter.
So, the default option for cycling enthusiasts is wax.

I’ve been drip-waxing my chains for some 10+ years now — using the ubiquitous Squirt lube (googling this may be nsfw!) In recent years there have been a parade of new products, and this year I was finally convinced to switch to another one. But let’s see what’s on the market.
MINIMAP | Drip-lube — Hot-meltOil-basedChain-prepSummary |

1.Drip-lube wax

Wax products that you simply drip onto your chain, same as what you do with oil, are water-based emulsions of wax particles and optional ingredients.

The physics is simple — the emulsion gets into the chain (in-between the rollers and pins), then water evaporates, leaving only wax layer that has two functions: being slippery, it lubricates, but also it fills in any space inside the chain thus not allowing in any outside abrasive particles that would grind the metal.
Note the “inside” part — you don’t need lube on the outside of the chain. In fact, you don’t want lube to be outside, only to attract dirt, smudge everything around, and potentially bring in contamination into the chain where it matters, so it is a good idea to clean the chain with a rag after the water base dries out. (And you should in any case do that before re-lubing.)

(In some countries you can buy rolls of single-use non-woven fabric — looking similar to paper towels — which are a bless for a bike owner. Or you could use cutouts from a ripped jersey or something.)

On the tin, it can say that it’s not recommended to wipe the leftovers after application, but feel free to ignore that — apparently, they just want to make sure you don’t do that before the lube is completely dry. In general, don’t trust the tin, trust me :)

I remember when Squirt claimed that it was sufficient to wait something like 15 minutes after application (couldn’t find it anywhere now). Obviously, that’s not enough for the water to evaporate from the inside of the links, and you should always let wax lube sit in the chain overnight before riding (or wiping). Also, it is better to drip-wax the chain in a warm environment.
Speaking of bad advice from manufacturers, I would like to address Muc-Off right away to never get back to it again. I think it is just a terrible company.

They have been selling lube with uv-reflective particles that you’re supposed to spray (!) onto whole your bike the chain and then use a uv-light to make sure it is completely covered. Yeah, outside. The stupidity of this idea keeps amusing me. Almost as much as their frame airtag mount that was made of solid aluminium and hence completely blocked the signal. Or another airtag holder “smartly” hidden in an mtb tyre — so that you’d have to pump it up to a million psi/bar not to smash the thing... The list goes on and on, so no surprise the drip-wax produced by Muc-Off proves to be the worst in the tests, and by a good margin. So just avoid.
Squirt, the og, and Smoove are oldest on the market. Similar to them — albeit 10× more expensive (which I will not comment on since I’ve just spent all my ranting allowance) — is AbsoluteBlack GraphenLUBE. All three are okay lubes, but suffer from penetration issues.

Since the drip-wax lubes are emulsions, you need to vigorously shake them before use so that you would not just drip water onto your chain, while the wax particles would stay at the bottom of the bottle.

However, after you’ve shaken Squirt, it has tiny bubbles of air that get into the links together with the lube itself and leave empty space when everything dries out. Tests show that this causes premature wear on drivetrain components — same with Smoove and GraphenLUBE — and there is nothing reasonable you can do about it.
(AbsoluteBlack with its GraphenLUBE seems to be aware and suggests that you “fully immerse the chain in the lube (use poly bag) ... gently shake and articulate the links through the bag ... you will use up about 10–15 ml of lube ... you need min 2 × 14 ml bottles (or a big one) to do initial immersion”. That is some 37 € min to make one application — not an inexpensive little mess, lol.)

Btw, even a lube without bubbles leaves some space inside the links after drying out — just because the emulsion “shrinks” without the water. Thus, it is recommended to apply drip-wax in two repeats: one time, wait a couple of hours or something, second time to get rid of the empty space, wait overnight, wipe, ride. (This does not fill the “trapped” space left by bubbles, if any.)

Silca owner Josh Poertner is well-respected for his expertise, but this is where even he’s produced a questionable piece of advice — stating that wax could be applied to a non-completely dry chain (after washing it). In such a case the water droplets trapped inside the links could make “puddles” in the wax, creating some empty space after evaporating.
That said, Silca Super Secret, along with CeramicSpeed UFO Drip, are really good lubes — if to understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Unlike Squirt or Smoove, Super Secret and UFO Drip are “pure” wax emulsions, without oil ingredients added to them (don’t confuse this with oil-based products — the proportion of oils, if even present, in wax lubes is minuscule). The “pure” emulsions can be used not only on their own, but also in between hot-waxing to postpone said procedure, which makes life easier.

Without the oil component, Super Secret and UFO Drip run a bit cleaner, but the downside is that they seem to be less long-lasting in bad weather, particularly when it’s cold. (And that’s while Squirt, the regular version of which is more weather-proof in the first place, even makes low-temperature version with more, presumably oily, additives.)
Another “pure” drip-wax lube is Tru-Tension Tungsten All Weather. Unlike the others, I don’t have even second-hand experience with it, so I’ll just mention that in lab tests it demonstrates performance comparable to Super Secret, while both are slightly behind the UFO Drip.

I also never used, nor know anyone who did, Session S-Wax, but I thought that it should also be mentioned as it shows strong performance in synthetic tests. Both Tru-Tension and S-Wax appear to have some penetration issues, but to the lesser extent than Squirt, Smoove, or GraphenLUBE — and the testing shows that the performance of the former two is not hindered by those issues.

Effetto Mariposa Flower Power is similar to S-Wax in that it is not a “pure” wax, but it uses a certain wax base — as is clear from the branding, that’s floral wax. It contains some oils and stuff, which makes it not fully compatible with hot-wax, but better suited to bad-weather riding — similar to Squirt, Smoove, and GraphenLUBE, but with zero penetration issues (like with Super Secret and UFO Drip). At that, Flower Power is the best drip-wax in tests for longevity.

So, the Flower Power is what I exchanged the trusty Squirt for, after more than a decade of using almost nothing but the latter. In my experience, Flower Power runs just a tiny bit dirtier than Squirt — although still much cleaner than pure oil — but with way better penetration (not just by tests, I can actually see it), which means less drivetrain wear. That said, for this choice I’ve taken into account that I do ride in the winter and I deliberately don’t use really expensive components.
MINIMAP | Drip-lube — Hot-melt — Oil-basedChain-prepSummary |

2.Hot-melt wax

If I was using top components, I would consider hot-waxing my chains. This is the ultimate method for the following reason.

As mentioned before, regardless of how clean the environment and the initially treated chain, it will collect inside itself both external (dust, fine sand, etc.) and internal (worn chain metal) particles and will, thus, wear out — and then deteriorate the cassette and chainrings.

This is not a big deal if you ride mostly in dry conditions (and don’t use oil-based products). If drip-wax is applied correctly (which includes proper chain preparation — more on that later) and doesn’t have the above-described initial application problems, it takes up most of the space inside the links, and the amount of grime that can get in is not that significant. It does make the lube black, but doesn’t cause too much wear in the chain.
However, every single time you ride in the wet, water penetrates the links, washes out some wax, and brings in larger particles — which will eat through the chain quite rapidly. To avoid that with drip-wax, after every wet ride you should rinse your chain thoroughly with hot (near-boiling) water and/or use solvent that works (if at all) with your particular lube composition.

In general, waxes are stubborn against chemicals, and while boiling water works with some wax-lubes better than with others, it can never clean the inside of the chain completely. Combined with potential penetration issues when re-applying drip-wax after the cleaning, that makes using drip-lubes in wet conditions bothersome enough to consider hot-melting.
The proponents of this method say that it’s easy. I suppose it can be okay if you have the routine dialed-in, own the necessary hardware, run several chains in cycle, etc. — but initially it’s a bit of a hassle, to be honest.

However, what happens when you heat-melt wax and immerse your chain in it, is anything that’s inside it is washed away completely, and 100 % of the internal space is sealed up with clean wax. Thus, you “reset” the chain to nearly-best condition it can ever be in, every single time you do this.

As for the products — there are two staples: Molten Speed Wax, the classic option, and Silca Secret Chain blend (not to be confused with Silca Super Secret drip). To be honest, it does not really matter which you choose — both work well. As well as the new kid on the block, Rex Black Diamond Wax, as per the tests. Well, amusingly the test lab has just pre-released the results for candle wax (yeah, just a melted candle) — and they are okay, too!
Even more amusingly, AbsoluteBlack GraphenWAX (not to be confused with GraphenLUBE) is showing outstandingly poor performance in the tests — even against the candle, Carl. At least it is not 10× the price, unlike its drip sibling. Which makes me wander — if both use the graphene and share all other production expenses, from product development to marketing & distribution, why the price of the former is close to Silca analogue but the latter is ten-fold more expensive? Just sayin.

Speaking of candles and questionable market positioning, I cannot help but poke at Wend. Not only they have a wax-lube in the form of deodorant (applying which with your armpit would be as convenient), but also a product that you have to “rub-on” to a chain with your finger (as per the official instruction, I kid you not). They also have a boring regular melt-wax, which in the tests is down there together with GraphenWAX — somewhere below IKEA and its melted candles.
Personally, I would stay clear of anything other than Speed Wax, Secret Chain, or Rex — although some people prefer to make their own dirt-cheap compositions (and have been doing that for decades before Silca was even re-born as an American marginal-gains brand, after being a classical Italian pump manufacturer).

Hot wax melting is all about the process. In a thousand words, I could not explain the procedure better than this video:
MINIMAP | Drip-lubeHot-melt — Oil-based — Chain-prepSummary |

3. Oil-based lubes

As mentioned above, oil lubes are simply too dirty, there’s no way around it. Apart from that, they are consistently worse than both hot-melt and drip-wax lubes in regards to the chain wear. In fact, the best oil-based lubes are about ten times worse than the best wax lubes in that regard.

That said, there is one scenario where oil-based products are indispensable. Even the best lube can only last some hundreds of km in the real-world conditions (oil, hot-melt, drip-wax — all of them). And as explained above, wax lubes require at least several hours to dry completely after application before the bike can be ridden.

Which brings us to ultra-distance events, where even the best-prepped chain will run out of lube at some point, but there will be no time to reapply wax. Some suggest carrying spare pre-prep chains — but to me it sounds ridiculous.
That’s where Silca once again shows its marketing prowess and in addition to the already strong proposition of hot-melt + in-between drip, offers Synergetic — oil-lube that has the scenario of its use right in the name.

First you hot-melt. Then you keep adding drip-lube in-between your regular rides, before you get caught in a rain. In which case you hot-melt again. And if you happen to be in a long event, you use Synergetic oil on top of all that, just to be able to keep riding. Then you re-prep the chain (using a Silca product — of course, there is one) and hot-melt again. All under one-brand umbrella. Genius!

That said, in this scenario it doesn’t really matter what oil you use (nor what hot-wax, nor whether you top it off in-between with drip-wax or not) — that’s more like the last resort and you want to get rid of the oil-based lube as soon as your ultra is over.

Well, if you have a really long event, you’d want to use something that will last as long as possible after a single application. Your choice than would be, as test results suggest: Rex Black Diamond (non-hot-melt — those namings!), Rex Domestique, or Revolube. An honorable mention goes to the oil, albeit not tested thoroughly, but sworn by Rene Herse’s Jan Heine and other notable randonneurs — Dumonde Tech Original/Lite.

Actually, I’d like to elaborate on Rex Black Diamond drip a bit. It is claimed to be wax-based, but it contains so much oils that it should be considered an oil-based rather than wax-drip lube. This means that you’d want to deep-clean your chain after it, before applying wax-based lube. But also Black Diamond drip is running cleaner than your regular oil-based lube (but dirtier than the waxes). Considering that it can be used on the go, I’d consider this the best among oily lubes.
MINIMAP | Drip-lubeHot-meltOil-based — Chain-prep — Summary |

4. Chain preparation

Whether you have a brand new chain covered in factory grease, or the one that you’ve oiled before, it needs preparation before waxing with either hot-melt or drip-lube.

How greasy/oily/dirty the chain is when you dip it into a hot-melting pot doesn’t affect the result — only how soon the wax in the pot will become too contaminated. That will take quite some time if you do at least something to clean the chain, so being a bit lazy here is fine.

For drip-wax, however, the thoroughness of the preparation is crucial. This may be the difference between your wax lasting 300 km or 30 km per every following application. And if you don’t pay attention, but just assume it lasts 300 where in fact it’s 30 — your chain will reach the terminal 0.5 % wear in just 1200 km or less.
Removing grease or oil from metal chain requires solvents. They differ in:
• how effective they are;
• how stinky and/or potentially harmful;
• whether they leave residue on their own;
• how expensive and readily available in sufficient volumes they are where you live.

The last point is why I can’t just give you recommendations for particular products. You will need to read and understand a few things about the hazardous substances :)
The brands are trying to address this by offering chemical strippers and cleaners that work well with their products. First, this doesn’t mean they work on whatever is already on your chain. Second, you are lucky if you can get enough without spending too much. Third, the resulting carbon footprint most likely defeats the purpose of skipping local harsh chemicals and choosing the “sustainable” option with global logistics and marketing-driven costs.
Generally speaking, there are three steps you can do to make sure the chain is properly cleaned. You may or may not be able to skip one or even two, but if you are not sure what you’re doing — trust me, better overkill this.

1) Degreasing with an organic (oil-based) solvent that will leave some residue.

Keywords: petroleum, benzine, petrol, gasoline, kerosene, turpentine, mineral turpentine, mineral spirits, white spirits, white gas, Coleman fuel, lighter fuel, nitro thinner, acetone. You can most likely buy these in paint shops, construction markets, hardware stores, car and motorcycle service points, gas stations, etc.

In this step you want to submerge the chain into the solvent and agitate through the links to create as much mechanical rubbing in them as you can, and then dispose the contaminated solvent. It is enough to use as little liquid as necessary to just cover the chain. The ideal container for that is a box in which Sram chains are sold — where there is just enough space so you can gently stir the chain with something line an Allen key.
You should repeat the first step several times over. There is no need to soak the chain in the solvent — just move it around for a couple of minutes per a repeat. In the video above you could see how Ronald Kuba soaks a number of chains in a large container just once — remember, he does it the quick-and-dirty way for hot-melting, not for drip-lubing.

2) Washing with surfactants to remove the residue.

Surfactants separate the residue left by the oil-solvent from the metal, after which the gunk can be washed away. This one is easy — just use a dishwashing liquid or similar detergent. I like to place a rag over my palm, “crumple up” the chain in it, pour some product on top, fold the rag over, and squeeze around the chain inside it. Then rinse with running water. The rag can be reused, as it should not hold the grease thanks to the dish soap.
3) Rinsing with spirits to finally clean and dry the chain.

Where I leave you can buy inexpensive 96 % ethyl alcohol (ethanol — theoretically drinkable stuff — but not pure enough!) in any hardware store. But often you will only have a choice of either isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) or methyl alcohol (methanol). All three work just fine.

Surfactants can also leave residue — a thin film on the surface that could prevent wax from adhering onto the metal, same as oils. Also, after the previous step the chain is wet, and you want — as soon as viable to avoid corrosion — to either heat-dry it or submerge in alcohol to kill two birds with one shot (and a horse or something — drinking is bad for you, kids).

After the chain has been either rinsed with or, better yet, submerged in the spirit, just hang it for a while — the pure alcohol will evaporate quickly living nothing behind but the squeaky-clean chain that now you can lube.
Separately mentioned is brake cleaner — it is a strong solvent that evaporates quickly and without residue. It is probably sold everywhere in the world, and if you can find it in large volumes, rather than in more wasteful spray cannisters, it could be the only product to use for the chain preparation.
MINIMAP | Drip-lubeHot-meltOil-basedChain-prep — Summary |

Executive summary:

• hot-melting is the best method, as only it allows to completely ”reset“ the chain to its best state every time;
• however, hot-melting is a process that requires equipment and motivation — jump to the above video for details;
• recommended hot-melting products are Molten Speed Wax, Silca Secret Chain blend, and Rex Black Diamond Wax;

• drip-waxing can be used as a less-laborious alternative to hot-melting, either on its own, or in-between hot-melts;
• the recommended drip-wax products are Effetto Mariposa Flower Power, CeramicSpeed UFO Drip, and Silca Super Secret;
• starting with a prepared (see below) chain, apply well-shaken wax-lube on the rollers, twice with some time in between, let dry overnight, wipe with a rag;

• oil-based lubes are dirty and cause more chain wear than wax-lubes — but they are the only option for re-lubing on the go;
• if the chain is ever oiled, or brand new, it shall be prepared for wax — quick-and-dirty for hot-melting, or thoroughly for drip-lubing;
• if you want your drip-wax to last reasonably long between applications, you should really learn how to prepare the chain in detail.