It's a query almost as old as the Bard himself: When it comes to lubricating your chain, what is the right stuff?
Well, is the chain an O-ring type? (For practical purposes, we will use "O-ring chains" to refer to all the various cross-sections of such seals.) Or is it just a simple roller chain, with no rubber rings of any kind? Some manufacturers recommend using a lube specifically formulated for O-ring chains; others say these lubes can still harm the O-rings and that you should use 90-weight gear oil. Some OEMs and chain manufacturers insist you clean the chain first with kerosene, gasoline or a high-flash-point solvent (one that won't easily ignite).
To try and clarify the issue, we spoke with P.J. Harvey, president, chairman, CEO and founder of PJ1 Products. He's been in the business for almost four decades, and although he did not actually invent chain lube, he has certainly influenced its formulation for both plain roller and O-ring chains.
Now would be a good time to start repeating this mantra: Spray on, wipe off, it's easy, an
Motorcyclist: Why do O-ring and non-O-ring chains need different lubes?
P.J. Harvey: Mostly because none of the commercial lubricants available on the market should penetrate the O-ring. If you eliminate the need to develop [a lubricant that provides]--I call it a cushion--between the pin, bushing and roller of each link, you can make the chain lube a little different. For example, make it more tacky and more adhesive [for O-ring chains]. And that's the main reason we came out with the different chain lubes.
MC: And that's presumably the same reason every other chain lube manufacturer did so as well.
PJH: I'm not sure what their justification is. We started with a standard, the [PJ1] Black Label, before the O-ring chains became popular. And then as they became more popular we felt they had different requirements, one of which is preservation of the O-ring, which [our lube] didn't have before. And since we didn't need to get [the lubricant] inside, we didn't need to make it quite so viscous for the cushion effect. That's what's so good about the Black Label when we introduced it in 1970--it really put a lubricant inside the link with a memory.
MC: What do you mean by memory?
PJH: I use the example of some melted wax that's real soft and you can mold it. But as soon as it hardens, you hit it with a hammer or throw it or drop it, it can split. A lubricant won't change like that. It will still have the adhesiveness, the tackiness, it will still have the memory to pop back as a lubricating film.
For O-ring chains, the Blue Label [chain lube], without needing that to a degree as required before, we could make it a little thinner coat, make it much more adhesive and yet still be able to protect the O-ring and still provide the lubrication needed between the chain and the sprockets.
MC: Does the Blue Label have any sort of penetrating carrier to get behind the O-ring, then wick away to leave the lubricant inside?
PJH: Not to get behind the O-ring, but to get all over it. We do not want to penetrate the O-ring seal. The chain manufacturers have done an excellent job of developing a good internal lube. Before they had the O-rings, they couldn't keep the lubricant in the chain. And now that they can seal it in there, you want to protect that seal, and that's what you want in a [spray-on] lubricant. Some lubricants made for [conventional roller] chains have a carrier that might be deleterious to the O-ring material. And many chain companies use different kinds of material for the O-rings; they're not all using the same thing.
But yes, the carrier in our lube does evaporate, and that's what's important--what remains. We suggest that as soon as you lube the chain, you turn the wheel a number of times, take a dry cloth and try to wipe every bit of it off that you can. It's already begun to work. There will be a coating there, enough to keep the chain from rusting.
MC: So a non-O-ring chain lube--your Black Label, for instance--is just more viscous, correct?
MC: Are there any other differences between your two lubes, any additional additives?
PJH: There are some differences, but nothing of any great significance. The non-O-ring lube is more viscous, and the Blue Label is a bit more tacky.
In terms of chain maintenance, all there is to it is cleaning and lubricating the chain on a regular basis, at least every 300 miles on a streetbike under normal conditions.
MC: If an O-ring chain lube doesn't need to get lubricant past the O-rings and inside the chain, what does it do for the chain then?
PJH: It keeps the chain from rusting, it lubricates the O-ring itself and it does provide some cushion effect between the chain roller and the sprocket, which reduces wear on the sprockets and increases the chain's life.
MC: Any thoughts on moly-based or wax-based chain lubes?
PJH: I don't know. I think the use of wax is misleading. Wax in general does not have a memory. And by that I mean once it's compacted, it doesn't pop back to where it needs to be the next time around the sprockets. You need something that's got memory, something that has some viscosity, that'll stay on the chain. And there's a significant difference there.
The chain on a modern motorcycle is engineering genius when you think of the power that chain has to deal with and the limitations imposed on the size of the chain.
MC: Any thoughts on the use of WD-40 as a chain lube for O-ring chains?
PJH: Whether it's WD-40 or LPS3, a motorcycle chain has such demands on it, and one of them is absorbing shock, whether it's between the sprockets and the chain, or whether it's between the internal parts of the chain. And WD-40 doesn't have that, it's not designed for that purpose, it's not formulated for that.
MC: What about cleaning the chain? Almost all the OEMs and chain manufacturers recommend cleaning the chain with kerosene.
PJH: First, some kerosenes can, I think, affect the O-ring itself. Secondly, kerosene can leave a film, and that makes it more difficult for the chain lubricant to attach itself to the chain's surface. Naphtha [used in some spray chain-cleaners] can also leave a film.
MC: So how's an owner supposed to clean their bike's chain?
PJH: Well, if there are some commercial products out there--and a lot of people use our Super Cleaner for that--that can remove the dirt but not leave a residue, that's the key to the whole cleaning process without damaging the O-rings or undermining its seal.
The important thing is just to maintain the chain, and you'll get an incredibly long life out of it. And frankly, it's something everybody can do. Spray on the lubricant and wipe it off with an old rag, and you've got a chain ready to go. It's not a big deal. Anybody can do it.