Nuts ‘n’ Bolts: Lubricants for Bicycles

Contributed by Harv

We all know that bicycles require no fossil fuels, but we cannot claim complete independence from petroleum products. A miniscule amount is required for lubrication. Let’s take a look at the basic requirements and my recommendations.

Not all lubricants are alike. Our applications call for basically, four specific types, although we could make do with fewer if necessary. We need a chain lube, a ball bearing grease, an anti-seize grease, and a light oil for freewheels and derailer pivots/jockey wheels. While a light oil can be used for control cables, I use a light white grease. OK, so this is five.

Photo by Harv. Lubricant
Dispenser Devices: Aerosol Can of Chain Lube, Syringe Precision Oiler,
Pump Oilers, and 35mm Film Cans of

Chain Lube:

Forget the expensive tiny bottles of chain lube extolled as the ultimate. By actual measurement, I get well over 5000 miles before the minimum chain wear of 1/16 inch per foot appears, by using White Lithium Grease made by Pyroil. A four-dollar aerosol can lasts for many applications. A side benefit is that a chain lubed thusly will remain fairly clean and not attract dirt as some other chain lubes might.

Bearing Grease:

I use the automotive wheel-bearing grease available in a life-time supply sized can at auto accessory stores. This is somewhat viscous for racing purposes, but lasts longer and is just fine for every-day use. I think I am still using the can I purchased a couple of decades ago. You will want to use this for pedal bearings, bottom brackets (non-cartridge), wheel bearings (cup and cone) and headsets.

Light Oil:

Again, a life-time supply can be obtained from an auto-suppy or tool store. It will be labeled “Machine Oil”. Also applicable is the somewhat lighter “Air Tool Oil” which contains a detergent and is good for loosening up very old and stiff freewheels. This is the stuff you want to apply to derailer pivots and jockey wheels. Unless the jockeys will be disassembled, then you use the light grease on the bushings. Ditto for control cables. If they will not be disassembled, use the oil. If disassembled, use the light grease on the bare cable, then insert into the housing.

Light Grease:

This is thinner than the wheel bearing grease, is usually white in color, and available in the same size container and from the same source as the wheel bearing grease. It is useful for disassembled jockey wheels, control cables, caliper brake pivots, and skewers. This could be used in ball bearing applications instead of wheel bearing grease if the very utmost in performance is required (as for racing), but will require more frequent applications.

Anti-Seize Grease:

I recommend silicon grease for this application. You will want to use this for your freewheel threads, seat post shaft (where it goes into the seat tube), saddle adjustor bolt, pedal threads, crank arm bolts, crank spindle taper/splines, binder bolts, stem, handlebar clamp bolts, axle nuts (if any), caliper brake thrust washers and mounting bolts, and cable adjustors. Especially important where anything screws into aluminum threads. Silicon grease can be obtained from plumbing supply stores; it is used to lube faucet threads. Also from auto supply stores where it is known as spark plug boot grease. Industrially, it is used as a dielectric grease. For laboratory work, silicon grease is used in glass vacuum systems and for o-rings. Dow Corning makes the industrial stuff, but it is more expensive than the plumbing and auto boot greases.

As I said above, you can do with fewer different types of lube. You can use the light white grease instead of silicon; you can use the machine oil for both anti-seize and light grease. You can even use the machine oil for chain lube, but it will be flung onto your tyres and rims and require more frequent applications. So bite the bullet and get a pint of each type of lubricant. You may have to buy a quart of the machine or air tool oil.

OK, so how do you get the various lubricants from the can onto your bike? You can just open the container and stick your finger into the grease each time. And you can squirt oil from the tip of the machine oil can each time. But I suggest a better way. Remember the old time 35mm film cans from the pre-digital camera days? If you are lucky enough to have a few of these, they make great little containers for grease. You need just a smear of grease for each job, so they won’t have to be refilled too often. Unless you do higher volume work such as a community bike workspace or pro shop. For the oils, I use a basic pump oil can, a four-ouncer will do fine. One with a long spout to reach those derailers is suggested. For a very fine application of oil I use a plastic bellows syringe that I got from an ink-jet refill kit. Precision oilers are also available in hardware stores.