Best motorcycle chain lube | 55 tested, plus why you DO need to use one

Best motorcycle chain lube_THUMB

 

Unless you’ve got a motorcycle with a shaft- or belt-drive, chain lube is an essential part of motorcycle maintenance.

There, we’ve said it. Forget the conspiracy theories that chain lube’s a scam; in this feature we’ll show you why it’s essential, how to apply it and – importantly – which is the best for the average road rider.

With 55 lubes reviewed, including gear oil and chainsaw oil, we’ve also employed the services of a leading lubrication testing lab to ensure this is the most detailed and trust-worthy test you’ll ever see…

 

Why you DO need chain lube

Most modern bikes use a chain with O-rings (or X-rings) that seal in grease from the factory between the rivet and the bushing, which keeps it flexing smoothly and reduces internal wear. That’s there for the lifetime of the chain, which is why you don’t want to be too aggressive with your cleaning, or use products that could penetrate.

I’ve spoken to people at RK, Tsubaki, DID and JT – all agreed that chains DO need lubricating.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_01

The O-rings that seal the factory grease inside the chain sit on either side, between the inside and outside plates. The roller is not sealed, and sits in the centre

 

Reason one: The O-rings that keep the grease inside the chain need to be kept lubricated, so they don’t harden or crack.

Reason two: Perfect chain alignment is practically impossible, so if the plates are slightly out of line, the O-rings could allow some moisture in to start affecting the grease – a decent lube can help seal that.

 

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With the chain cut apart, the centre roller can be removed, showing how it needs to be kept lubricated

 

Reason three: The roller that contacts the sprocket is NOT sealed, and it spins on the outside of the bushing, so this definitely needs lubricant underneath it, and it is experiencing pretty high loads.

Reason four: While there’s a large force between the chain rollers and the sprocket teeth to push lubricant away, metal is not smooth; tiny dips and crevices will – to some extent – hold some lubricant and reduce wear between them.

Reason five: Chain lube can help protect from corrosion; this doesn’t just keep it looking better – if rust builds up on the inside faces of the plates, this again will cause damage to the O-rings that protect that factory-fitted grease.

Reason six:  A chain lube will reduce friction – few road riders would notice the difference, but race teams use O-ring chains (except on some low-capacity and classic bikes), and they use chain lube, despite having the budget to regularly replace those chains.

Friction causes heat, but the lubed chain on Rutter’s S1000RR was temperature tested as it came into the pits after the TT and it was showing just 38°C; something reduced the potential for heat to be caused through friction.

 

How this chain lubes test was done

54 metal discs were coated with chain lubes for this review, as well as another that was left bare; a big thanks to crash-protection and aftermarket accessory specialist Evotech-Performance for manufacturing these for me.

Every plate was tested for fling, stickiness, corrosion protection, ease of cleaning, appearance and O-ring safety. From there I chose the ten that performed best overall, then sent them – along with 80W90 gear oil, chainsaw oil and Scottoiler fluid – to a world-leading lubrication testing lab to have them put through IP239 four-ball wear tests and extreme pressure weld tests.

It would have been too costly to have all the products put through this testing, so I had to narrow them down, which is why it’s important to remember that they were chosen based on their performance for the average road rider who wants to put the minimum effort into maintaining their chain, and who doesn’t want the back wheel to be covered in crud.

The video below explains how the test was done…

 

55 chain lubes tested

Watch the full video as we find the best motorcycle chain lube

 

What’s the best value chain lube?

The order of all the graphs will be based on this one: the cost per litre of each lube. Of course, it’s unfair to compare the Renthal lube, Motul C5 chain paste and Pro-GreenMX chain lubes directly to the aerosol cans as they don’t waste any volume on propellant (though the Pro-GreenMX is still relatively pricey at £15 for 125ml).

 

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Cost per litre of each motorcycle chain lube on test
Struggling to read the graph?
Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

Is an oil, wax or dry chain lube best?

One of the reasons some people dislike chain lube is that it can fling off and make a mess of the rear wheel; that’s why it’s something I’ve tested for. However, if a chain lube remains sticky while it’s on the chain, it can attract dirt and grit that can create a grinding paste that could damage the O-rings and accelerate wear on the rollers.

So a lube that flings a lot might be good in dusty conditions, but then again it’ll need re-applying far more regularly in order to be effective in reducing wear and – crucially – preventing rust.

The alternative is a lube that’s ‘dry’ or waxy.

This test is aimed at the average road rider – someone who uses their bike regularly and in all weather – who doesn’t want to put too much effort into maintaining their chain. For that reason, I’m looking for the chain lubes in this test that fling off the least, AND that hold onto the least amount of grit.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_06

This graph shows the lubes that fling the least – they were tested by spinning on a lathe at 1,100 rpm for 20 seconds, then again for a minute to see how much came off. Lower numbers are better.
Struggling to read the graph?
Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_07

Here we can see the actual weight of the sand that was retained by the plates after being dusted. This was done AFTER the fling test, to provide a realistic example of how the lubes would perform on the bike.

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

Why is it so important to prevent rust?

A rusty chain looks bad, but corrosion on the inside faces of the plates will damage the O-rings that seal in the factory grease around the rivets. Once these start to dry out the chain will get tight spots where it doesn’t flex properly.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_09

Lower numbers are best, and these are the results after all of the plates were sent to the testing lab (after being spun) for a modified version of the ASTM D1748 corrosion test.

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

How good does your chain look?

Nobody wants a chain that looks horrible, so before cleaning the plates to check for the levels of corrosion, the lab assessed them for appearance, giving a subjective rating of one to four, one being the best…

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_10

Lowest is best for the better-looking of our chain lubes

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

The importance of cleaning your chain

You should always apply lube to a clean chain, so it’s good to know how easy it is to get these lubes off. I first tried washing them with plain water, then sprayed them with paraffin, then finally I hosed them off.

If I’d used a branded chain cleaner to test these lubes it could have biased the results in favour of that brand’s lube, so I stuck with paraffin (kerosene in the US).

I placed a chain O-ring over a hole carefully drilled in a completely flat and solid piece of steel – that won’t distort – then applied a light pressure on the top using a jig I quicky knocked up. With this immersed in paraffin, none got through, so while there are potentially more environmentally-friendly chain cleaners for sale, I reckon paraffin was a valid baseline for this test, and I’ve no qualms using it.

Never use petrol to clean a chain – it’ll damage the O-rings very quickly.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_08

The lubes with the lowest numbers are the ones that I found the easiest to clean off.

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

Is your chain lube O-ring safe?

To make sure that all the lubricants were safe on O-rings (or indeed X-rings, but not Tie-Fighters), I submerged O-rings kindly supplied by aftermarket and performance parts specialist B&C express into each product for four full weeks, and I’m pleased to say that none caused any swelling, hardening or cracking.

 

Ten lubes selected for lab testing

Keeping in mind that this test is looking for a chain lube ideal for the average UK rider, I selected the ten that performed the best in all the tests I’d carried out. These were the ones that would go on to the lab for the final tests, along with gear oil, chainsaw oil and Scottoiler fluid…

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_12

This graph shows the overall performance of the lubes, and the ten that performed the best in these tests…

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube for wear protection

The four-ball anti-wear test in IP 239 sees one ball sitting on top of another three, with a static load of 40kg at ambient temperature. The top ball is spun at 1,475rpm for 60 minutes, then the wear scars on the balls are measured radially and perpendicular under a microscope. The results are averaged out, giving a Mean Wear Scar Diameter.

There’s no industry standard for chain lubes, but in general, a wear scar of 2mm is usually considered very high in lubrication testing, whereas one of 0.4 is good. As a rule of thumb, a wear scar of one millimetre or more would usually indicate that a lubricant isn’t performing as well as it should.

The lubes are decanted into a beaker before being tested to allow them to de-gas, but that can mean that waxy and oily lubes can’t really be directly compared. But still, XCP stood out as having a truly brilliant wear protection level, actually matching that of gear oil.

They all performed pretty well, apart from Muc-Off’s Dry Weather. Würth’s High Performance Dry Lube didn’t fare that well, but considering it’s also the least sticky lube on test (besides silicone spray, which unsurprisingly isn’t great as a corrosion protectant), it wasn’t a failure. Cosmetically, it’s one of the best.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_13

Lower numbers are best in this graph showing the results of the IP 239 four-ball anti-wear; the performance of the XCP is truly outstanding.

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube for extreme pressure

The rollers that engage the sprocket come under some pretty high loads, and asperity welding can occur where the small imperfections in what appears to be smooth metal weld together then tear apart as they rub against each other.

While drive chains aren’t kept in a bath of lubricant, a decent lube will – to some extent – help to reduce this damage, especially where it creeps under the unsealed roller.

In IP 239 the weld test uses the four balls stacked the same way again, but now they’re only spun for 10 seconds at a time. The load is increased by 10kg at a time, each test carried out with a new set of balls. At the point that the balls weld themselves together, they start smoking, or the machine starts shuddering or creating excessive noise, the test is stopped. That’s the welding load. The passing load is the test that was carried out before, so 10kg lower.

With no industry standard I can’t tell you if there’s a lower limit to this, but the comparison in no less valuable.

All of the lubes performed fairly similarly, though S100’s White Chain Spray 2.0 stood out as having the best extreme pressure characteristics of any of the spray products. In fact, it was better than chainsaw oil.

Scottoil dropped down here, but remember that it’s constantly and automatically replenished, unlike gear oil and chainsaw oil, which you’ll need to reapply far more regularly than a can of lube.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_14

This is the only graph where higher numbers are best. Here we can see the performance of the selected lubes in an IP 239 extreme pressure test.

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

The best motorcycle chain lube

I chose the products that went to the lab for lubricity testing based on their performance in all the other tests, but in the graph below you can see the results for fling, stickiness, ease of cleaning, corrosion protection, appearance, mean wear scar diameter and welding load. The lower the number the better, so I flipped the welding load figures to work in this graph.

I must stress again that this test is about finding the chain lube that will appeal to the average road rider, who wants to do the least amount of work in maintaining their chain. There are some products that might have revealed great wear protection if they’d made it through to the lab, but one of the most important points with a chain lube is to prevent rust.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_15

Here are all the results combined for the final selection that went to the lab. Shorter is best.

Struggling to read the graph? Download a hi-res PDF here.

 

If you want to use normal oil, the gear oil that chain manufacturers recommend works fine. But remember that they’re simply suggesting something that they know will work to some extent, and that doesn’t favour any brand, and that won’t lead to litigation if that product changed or didn’t perform as expected. The problem is that it flings off like crazy, and as the testing has shown, that means it offers poor corrosion protection – there’s no point testing rust proofing without spinning the samples first, which is why I did this the way I did.

Gear oil WILL make more of a mess, and it’ll need reapplying a lot more than a dedicated chain lube, but overall it performs better than chainsaw oil.

The testing of Scottoil showed it worked very well when you remember that it’s a constant loss system. This isn’t really designed to coat the outside of the chain plates, which while only cosmetic, can get a bit rusty if you haven’t got the delivery just so. Still though, they really do keep the rollers well lubed with little hassle. There are other chain oilers available too, like Tutoro, PDOiler and Loobman, but I don’t have any experience of these. Anecdotally, automatic oilers tend to be popular among their owners.

Würth High Performance Dry looks really good, and did well across the board but it struggled in comparison to the others in the wear and weld tests. How much that matters will have to come down to your own judgement, but it did have better wear protection than the Muc-Off.

Dry lubes are worth considering, but personally I’m going for something more oily or waxy for that peace of mind in wear performance.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_16

 

Maxima Chain Wax did very well across the board – it should keep your chain and the rear wheel looking good, it holds very little sand, it’s reasonably easy to clean off – though leave it long enough and goes very hard, so it’ll take extra effort – and it had good wear resistance, if not comparatively good extreme pressure performance. Though with these results, we do keep in mind that the chains aren’t sitting in a bath of lube; they’ll only perform for so long, but we’ve covered that earlier and as we’ve seen, there’s more to a chain than simply where the roller meets the sprocket.

Bulldog BDX was a surprise as it’s an all-purpose spray. It did well in my corrosion protectants test, and while it is a penetrating spray, it didn’t creep past the O-ring in my test rig.

S100 White Chain Spray 2.0 had the best extreme pressure performance in a chain lube, and performs well, as well as giving a clear but not untidy indication of where you have – and haven’t applied it.

But it was XCP’s chain lube that really shocked me – to give wear resistance as good as gear oil is outstanding. It showed a high initial fling, but then it didn’t spray off in the second fling test, indicating that if you don’t put too much on, it’ll give you much better results and it won’t keep spraying off the chain like gear oil and others. Remember, all the testing of corrosion protection, stickiness, cleaning and wear were done after the plates had been spun, so any excess was gone and the results were far more valid.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_03

Spray the lube along this top edge of the bottom run of the chain.

 

What’s the best way to lube a motorcycle chain

Lubing your chain is something you really should do regularly, but fortunately it’s pretty easy…

  • You should really only apply lube to a clean chain. If it looks clean but needs a top-up then go for it, but it’s unlikely to stick as well as if you’ve cleaned it first, so you might see more fling than expected.
  • Don’t worry about the chain being warm, fresh from a ride; it’s something people often say, but chain lube manufacturers reckon it’s more important that the chain’s clean.
  • Use a cleaner designed for O-ring chains, or simply paraffin (kerosene in the US). Be careful with stiff-bristled brushes as they could damage the O-ring, and don’t use a jet-wash to blast away the grime – it’ll push past those seals and blow the factory grease out of the rivets.
  • NEVER APPLY THE LUBE WITH YOUR ENGINE RUNNING. Ever. Seriously. I used to, but I was an idiot who was lucky not to lose at least one finger.
  • If you don’t have a centre-stand on your bike, invest in a paddock stand; wheeling the bike forward between each spray is a pain.
  • Pop some card or a sheet of wood behind the chain to catch any overspray.

 

Best motorcycle chain lube_04

The S100 Clean Bob attaches to the can to catch excess lube. It’s only designed to fit cans with a 57mm diameter though (like those from S100)

 

  • Working along the length of the bottom section of chain, spray the lube on the top edge, which is the inside edge that’ll press onto the sprocket. A good lube will creep around the O-rings and under the rollers before setting.
  • Wipe any excess off with a rag.

And that’s it. You really need to do this well before riding the bike – ideally the night before – to give the solvents in the lube time to evaporate and the product to set, so it won’t fling.

Below is a video from MC Garage showing how to lube a chain. Ari does say it’s only the O-overlapping links that need lubing, but it is the roller too, as he corrects later in the video. Remember too that a thin coat on the outside plates will keep the chain looking better by reducing corrosion.

 

How to lube a chain

This video from MC Garage gives great advice on applying chain lube

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