Submersion drivetrain waxing: no chain removal required
The benefits of submersion (aka hot) chain waxing are well proven at this point. Research by the likes of Friction Facts and Zero Friction Cycling has shown that a correctly waxed chain is not only more efficient and impressively clean to touch but that those two attributes contribute to greatly increased drivetrain longevity, too.
However one of the key barriers to chain waxing remains the fact that you must remove the chain and submerge it in melted wax. And it’s this very fact that led an electrical engineer friend (James Lawson-Craig) and I down a six-month-long path to find a simpler way.
The idea is relatively simple. Rather than go to the trouble of undoing a chain quick link to then only dip the chain, why not just give all of the drivetrain components the same low-friction benefits?
I first tested this theory by individually waxing each drivetrain component in my existing slow cooker. That proof of concept was successful – not only have I witnessed even further reduced drivetrain wear, the idea of having derailleurs moving on waxed linkages means my shifting has never been smoother. The chain coating lasts 250-400 km and reapplication is as simple as dipping the drivetrain back into the wax. I’ve also found that the coating on the other parts lasts even longer, and so you can use a wax-based top-up lube to keep the chain purring between full submersion dips.
Ok, the concept worked, but it wasn’t without hard lessons. For example, cassettes quickly turn into expensive candles if you don’t heat the wax enough or pull them out of the wax fast enough. Likewise, given that chain wax is a lubricant in a solid form, it’s important to keep it away from braking surfaces. Unfortunately, this immediately ruled out anything that involved the entire bike or anything to do with the wheels. But soon enough the process got smoother and smoother, and the next step was making it more accessible and easier than current chain waxing protocols. Coating just the drivetrain is the only sensible goal.
With the rear wheel out of the bike, I found it too slow and tricky to coat the cassette. My testing showed that while this coating can be marginally beneficial, the risk of over-waxing or getting wax in the freehub body was just too great. And plus, most of the wax coating on the cassette would quickly chip away.
That leaves just coating the front chainrings, chain and two derailleurs. The drive-side chainstay can be coated and my testing found this offers some paint protection from chain slap. And while it’s an extra step, I found that you can greatly reduce the container size and amount of required wax if you remove the rear derailleur and let it sit nearer to the crank in wax.
Similarly, I’ve also found it beneficial to dip the pedals for a non-messy, low friction coating (Speedplay users should consider dipping their cleats, too). There’s no need to take off your pedals when doing this.
What you’ll need
To get started you’ll need to get the drivetrain extremely clean (detailed later) and you’ll need a way to melt and hold a large quantity of wax. There are two paths here:
Option 1: Industrial slow cooker
These are often used in professional kitchens for preparing large meals. While it’s not a happy occurrence, COVID has created a saturated used market for such things and you can pick these up from most kitchen suppliers for less than the price of an SRAM Red cassette.
The better versions of these machines allow you to set an exact temperature and leave it without concern. Be sure to treat yourself to an extra stainless steel insert so you can use your new appliance for entertaining 40-80 of your closest friends, too.
Option 2: Storage bin and an electric heater
Ok, so this one sounds like a joke, but stick with me.
If you’re like me then you don’t have space or budget for an industrial slow cooker. Thankfully, a large (and low height) storage bin or portable kids pool will work. I settled on using an old council-provided recycling bin (pictured), however, the height of this was far from ideal. Ideally, find a container that’s at least 50 cm in length but not greater than 20 cm in height.
With the container sorted you’ll need to use a portable water heater as the heating element. These can be bought on eBay for as little as US$9 / AU$12. Care must be taken as it’s easy to burn yourself or the plastic container with one of these, but hey, it’s cheap.
Obviously, you’ll need more than one packet of wax for this process, but thankfully the wax will last for tens of thousands of kilometres and you will recoup some of the costs by not having to replace expensive chain quick links.
The cheapest approach is to use a food-grade paraffin wax such as Gulf Wax. This will get you most of the longevity benefits at a greatly reduced cost. Alternatively, a larger upfront investment will provide lower friction gains and increased longevity. For this, my two personal suggestions are Silca Super Secret Hot Melt or the original, Molten Speed Wax.
The amount of wax required will depend on the size of your heating container. You’ll need enough wax that the melted level can cover the whole crank (the tallest part). For my low-cost bin that’s arguably too big, I needed 13 bags of wax (500 g each). I used a mixture of Silca Super Secret, Molten Speed and Gulf as it’s what I had on hand. With a more appropriately sized vessel, you likely won’t need more than eight bags.
The waxing process
Ok, so you’ve got your wax, and you’ve got a way to heat and hold the wax. It’s time to begin.
Like regular chain waxing, the most important and arguably time-consuming stage is the initial clean. I’ve detailed how to do this before, and you’ll want to follow the “obsessive” process detailed in our chain cleaning article. For best results, you’ll want to treat the cassette, crank, chain and derailleurs to this process. Yes this is a lot of work, but it’s worth noting that it’s a one-off. Once you’ve done the prep you won’t need to again. As they say, a little pain for much gain.
Everything all clean? Good.
- Turn on the slow cooker or electric heater with wax inside. Leave to begin melting.
- Remove wheels from the bike and set aside.
- Optional: Remove rear derailleur and let it hang as near to the front crank as the cable allows (this allows a smaller wax container to be used).
- Once wax is melted ensure it is between 70-100ºC (158-212°F). If using an electric heater, pay attention to its placement and don’t let it touch you or the bike.
- Place the clean crank, derailleurs, and chain into the melted wax.
- Now swish all submerged items in the wax. This process mixes the friction modifiers through the wax and lets the wax get into the tight spots of the derailleurs and chain. Air bubbles rising to the top is normal.
- Allow the chain to sit in the wax for another minute and then repeat the swishing. By now you shouldn’t see any air bubbles come to the surface.
- Now, carefully remove the bike from the hot wax and watch for wax drips. Hang the bike somewhere clean (with a container or rag below for wax drips) for it to cool. Pay close attention to not get wax on or in your disc brake calipers.
- Once cool, the chain and derailleurs should be stiff and should resist articulation. Manually break up the wax bonds at each link and pivot point.
- It’s normal to experience rough and jumpy shifting for the first few minutes of riding. Be careful as chain skips from tight links can happen if you didn’t break up the wax bonds thoroughly. The chain should begin to feel wonderfully smooth after approximately 20 minutes. I’ve found the shifting smoothes out with a further 10 minutes of use.
- Occasionally rub your calf against your chain and big chainring to remind yourself of your handy work.
Once the smoothness is gone you can either use a top-up lube (such as Silca Super Secret SS Drip or CeramicSpeed UFO Drip) or you can repeat the steps above excluding the detailed clean. A dirty waxed drivetrain can be cleaned with boiling water, no chemicals required!
For more information, or to learn how to wax a chain the traditional way, please refer to our complete FAQ to chain waxing. Happy cooking!
Note: Whole drivetrain waxing isn’t recommended for electronic drivetrains. In theory, it’ll work, but we haven’t tested it yet. SRAM and Shimano weren’t available to comment at the time of publishing.
Edit: APRIL FOOLS!