How to Remove Rust From a Bike Chain (in 5 Easy Steps)

Whether you’ve been biking for years or new to biking, a rusted bike chain can be frustrating. Apart from degrading the beauty of your bike, it can also cause it to snap, slip, or skip. Proper care is needed to prevent a bike chain from rusting, but since it is mostly exposed to dirt, it doesn’t take much for it to rust. So, how do you remove rust from a bike chain?

To remove rust from your bike chain, run it through a rag soaked in degreaser to first rid it of dirt and grime. For heavy buildup, soak the chain directly in degreaser for a few minutes. Now, wipe the degreaser off and scrub away the rust with steel wool or bristle brush soaked in lime juice.

The rest of this article will explore in detail the steps involved in removing rust from a bike chain and also discuss how to prevent rust from further forming on it.

Tools Needed to Remove Rust From Bike Chain

Before proceeding to the steps in removing rust from your bike chain, it is important to first consider the tools you’ll need. Having the right tools on hand allows you to focus on the job and complete it faster and more efficiently. Here are some of the tools you may need:

  • Rubber gloves
  • Protective goggles
  • Degreaser
  • Steel wool or scouring pad
  • Lime juice or WD-40
  • Towel or dry clothes
  • Toothbrushes or bristle brushes
  • Chain lubricant

After gathering your supplies, prepare your work area. It’s best to work in an open space as the chain cleaning, and rust removal process can be very messy. If you’re working indoors or within an enclosed space, cover the floor with large towels, old carpets, newspapers, or old bedsheets.

Inspect Your Bike Chain and Evaluate the Damage

The first thing to do is to inspect the check and determine how much it has rusted. You can do this by turning the bike upside down or hand it on a rack.

  • Place the handlebars and saddle on a drop cloth to avoid scratching its paint job or damaging it. A kickstand can also work if your bike isn’t too big.
  • Stand on the drivetrain side and check the full length of your bike chain for any rust. If your chain is only rusted on the surface, you can clean it and have it in good condition again.
  • If the rust is heavy, you may need to detach the chain from the bike to be able to effectively remove all the rust between the links.

However, if your bike chain is severely rusted and the links don’t flex or you notice any structural deterioration in the metal, you may need to replace it for safety reasons. Fortunately, bike chains aren’t expensive, and you can get one below $50 depending on your type of bike.

If you need to detach your chain before cleaning it, check if it has a master link. The master link is distinctly different from the other links on the chain and allows for easy connection or disconnection of the chain. It is wider and has some sort of indentation on both sides of the pin.

Not all chains have a master link. If you can’t find a master link on your bike chain, you’ll need to use a chain tool to open it.

  • Simply position the tool between any two links and force out the center pin. Be sure to keep the pin safe for reassembly later.
  • If you’re not familiar with how to remove and reattach the chain, it is advisable to take pictures of the chain and the complete drivetrain before removing it.

Clean the Chain and Remove Grease and Dirt

Before cleaning the rust off your bike chain, you’ll need to rid it of grease and dirt. Your chain accumulates grease and builds up dirt as you ride your bike. Cleaning the buildup helps to reveal the rust formed on the metal beneath. You’ll need a degreaser to effectively remove all the grease and dirt.

When choosing a degreaser, look for one that won’t cause damage to your chain. Avoid using gasoline or diesel as a degreaser for your bike chain. There are plenty of safer options specifically formulated for bike chains.

If you can’t get a degreaser at your local bike shop, you may use isopropyl alcohol or paint thinner as a degreaser. However, you’ll need to thoroughly lubricate the chain after using solvents like these as degreasers.

Degreasers can also harm your skin, so put on a pair of rubber gloves when handling one. You may also need to wear protective goggles to avoid them getting into your eyes.

  • To remove dirt and grease buildup, simply soak a clean rag in degreaser and run the whole length of your chain through it.
  • If your chain is attached to the bike while cleaning, you may need to use a toothbrush or bristle brush to get into the crevices and tight areas.

If you have a heavy buildup of dirt and grease, you’ll need to remove the chain and soak it in degreaser. Fill a clean plastic container with degreaser and soak the chain in it for at least 30 minutes. For more severe buildup, you’ll need to soak it for longer.

If after soaking, you still find thick, stubborn grime on the chain, fill a bottle with degreaser, and put your chain in it. Shake the bottle vigorously for a few minutes before soaking it again. After removing the chain from the degreaser, use a brush or rag to scrub off the grime.

Scrub off Rust With Steel Wool and Lime Juice

Lime contains citric acid that reacts with the rust and breaks it down. Once the rust is softened, you can easily remove it with a scouring pad or steel wool. Lime juice and steel wool can be abrasive on the hand, so you’ll need to wear latex gloves, especially if you have cuts on your hand.

  • Dampen the steel wool in lime juice and scrub the rust off the chain.
  • With the bike upside down or hanging on a rack, scrub the whole length of the chain until all the rust comes off.
  • You may need to discard the steel wool and use a new one if it becomes clogged with rust. If you don’t have an extra piece, rinse it with hot water and soak it in lime juice again.
  • To get in between the links and areas the rag can’t reach, dip a toothbrush in lime juice and work down into those areas.

For heavily rusted bike chains, detach the chain from the bike through the master link or with a chain removal tool.

  • Pour lime juice in a container large enough to accommodate the chain and soak it in it. The amount of time you’ll need to soak it will depend on how heavy the rust is.
  • After removing the chain from the lime juice, use a scouring pad or steel wool to scrub off the rust.
  • If you still have some rust left, repeat the process and soak it for longer this time.

If soaking your bike chain in lime juice doesn’t remove the rust, spray WD-40 directly on it. Allow the WD-40 to sit for some time, then scrub off the rust with a wire brush. Spraying WD-40 helps to get right into the links and tiny ball bearings of the chain.

Rinse the Chain Thoroughly

When you’re satisfied with the amount of rust removed, rinse the chain thoroughly to ensure all the lime juice and steel wool are removed. Leaving lime juice and steel wool residue will further cause the chain to rust.

  • Rinse your bike chain clean with soapy water. Dip a clean brush in a mixture of dish soap and water and use it to wash off all the residue.
  • Inspect your bike chain as you clean it and look for rust spots that were not removed.
  • Avoid using a power washer as the pressure from the water can remove the grease from the bearings.
  • After rinsing, dry off all the water with a dry cloth or paper towel. Ensure that the chain dries completely as moisture is one of the major culprits of rusting. You may also set the chain aside to air dry further.

Reattach the Chain and Lubricate It

If you didn’t remove the chain from the drivetrain, you could start the lubrication process after the chain is completely dry. If you detached the chain, the pictures you took earlier would serve as a reference.

After reattaching the chain, check the motion of the chain and ensure that it spins freely. Also, all parts of the drivetrain should move smoothly. If you feel some sort of resistance or hear strange noises from the chain, you may have reattached it incorrectly.

Improper reinstallation can cause the chain to warp and compromise its structure. Most errors can be easily corrected with your finger. In some cases, you may need to completely remove the chain and start all over again. If you find yourself really struggling with the reinstallation of your bike chain, you may seek the help of a professional or look up tutorials on YouTube.

Once the chain is properly reinstalled, apply lubrication to it. A good lube helps to prevent further buildup of grime and rust.

  • Apply lubrication liberally to all parts of the drivetrain, ensuring each link on the chain is well lubed.
  • Spin the wheels of the bike to rotate the chain as you lubricate it. Once the chain completes a revolution, it’s lubed, and you’re ready to hit the road again.
  • If your bike is of the geared type, you’ll need to shift through all the gears to ensure that the lubricant is properly distributed through the cassette gears and chainrings.
  • Allow some time for the lubrication to get absorbed and wipe away the excess lubricant with a rag. Cleaning excess lube is important as it can attract dirt and cause grime to build up again.

How to Prevent Rust on Your Bike Chain

Removing rust is only a small part of the job. The best way to deal with rust is to prevent it from forming on the chain in the first place. Rust is formed on your bike chain when it is exposed to moisture, mud, road salt, and other elements.

The key to avoiding rust is to keep your bike chain clean and dry. Since it is almost inevitable to prevent your bike from getting wet and dirty, regular care and maintenance will go a long way in preventing rust.

Thorough Cleaning and Rinsing

Clean your bike chain and every other part of your bike whenever it gets dirty. If it is just light dirt, you can clean it with soapy water and a rag. If there’s heavy dirt or grime buildup on the chain, you may need to remove it from the drivetrain and soak it in a bottle of degreaser.

Scrub off all the mud and dirt with steel wool and wipe it clean with a clean rag or towel. You can repeat the process with different rags until the rag is mostly clean. You may also hose the chain down as long as it isn’t terribly dirty. In this case, use low pressure as you don’t want to remove all the grease between the links of the chain.

If you don’t want to clean the chain manually, use a chain cleaning device or scrubber to get into the rollers, inner links, and outer links. A chain scrubber has automatic rotating brushes that help to get the dirt of a chain easier and faster.

Regularly Lubricate Your Bike Chain

Lubricating helps to prevent rust and protect your bike chain against the elements. After cleaning the chain, apply lubricant on it. Use the lubricant liberally but not too much. Ensure the lubricant gets to all parts of the drivetrain. Applying too much lube will attract dirt, so wipe off excess lube with a clean rag or towel after it has fully penetrated the chain.

It is not recommended to apply lubricant on a dirty chain. Also, don’t lube immediately after or before a ride. How often you’ll need to apply lubrication will depend on how often you use it and where you use it. If you ride your bike more than twice or thrice a week, clean and lube your chain at least twice a month.

If you use your bike in muddy, rainy, or snowy conditions, you should lube the chain more often. Don’t wait until you notice some resistance or unusual sound in the chain before lubricating it.

How to Choose a Good Chain Lube

The main purpose of the lubricant is to reduce chain wear and accumulation of dirt. Look for lubes that are specifically sold as bike-chain lubricants.

You’ll find several types of chain lubes in your local bike store; however, it’s best to choose one that works with the weather in your area. If you live in wet weather and bike on snow, rainy, or slushy roads, choose a wet lube as it is more resistant to these conditions and elements.

If you bike in arid conditions, choose a dry lube. Dry lube evaporates faster but attracts less dirt than wet lube. Keep in mind that you’ll need to apply it more often, typically, after you go 50 to 100 miles (80 to 161 km).

Also, use WD-40 only as a cleaning agent and not as a lube. WD-40 evaporates faster and contains only small amounts of lubricant. It offers little to no protection for your chain and allows dirt and grime to build up. Relying on it for your lubrication needs can cause more damage to your bike chain.

Here are some additional rust prevention and chain care tips:

  • Use a chaincase to protect your bike chain from dirt and other elements.
  • Never let rust accumulate. Rust can spread to other parts of your bike and cause immense damage. Attach it immediately after you discover it.
  • Do a regular inspection of your bike, especially if you don’t use it often.
  • If possible, clean your bike chain after every ride.
  • Don’t use heavy oils as a lube for your bike chain.
  • Don’t ride with a chain that has been structurally compromised or altered by rust.

Conclusion

It may not seem like it, but the chain is one of the most important parts of your bike. When rust begins to form on it, you need to remove it before it spreads to other parts or deteriorates the chain itself. The best way to remove rust from a bike chain is to degrease it and clean it with lime juice or WD-40.

To protect your chain from the elements and keep it free of rust, apply lubrication after cleaning it. Be sure to choose a lube that’s formulated for bike chains. If your bike chain is severely rusted and your notice warping or some change in shape, it’s time to discard it and get a replacement.

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