Thinking about Lubes, with Ric Hjertberg

By Ric Hjertberg, PBMA Board Member

grease monkey noun [ C ] /ˈɡriːs ˌmʌŋ.ki/ 
A mechanic.

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It’s a fact of life. Lubricants are everywhere in our work and there’s a flood of maker-generated info available. Fortunately, common sense prevails and prices are relatively competitive. Still, less experienced mechanics may wonder what they need to know. Here are some general musings for their benefit.

Toxicity
Most lubes in the bike world are organic and non-toxic. Makers knock themselves out on this topic and deserve credit. However, as a user whose hands are coated somedays from dawn to dusk, there is a difference between organic, nontoxic, and food safe. 

Organic means derived from naturally occurring sources and able to go back to nature in a moderate amount of time.

Nontoxic means non-poisonous, where exposure does not lead to long-term damage.

Food safe means ingestion is harmless.

To appreciate the differences, consider that cyanide is organic (produced by certain bacteria, fungi, and algae and found in certain seeds and fruit stones). Citrus cleaners may be nontoxic but ingestion is not healthy. Why not lobby for food safe lubes since regular skin contact is as good as ingestion, especially over time?

Exposure
Many of us do not wash hands during jobs nor wear nitrile gloves. I once picked lubes based partly on what smells good because hands smell like the lube much of the day. WD40 once smelled good to me. I built wheels with Triflow for years, preferring its mild odor. On the topic of smell, beware of aerosols—overspray cannot be controlled. What you smell or breathe, you’re eating.

Recommendation—minimize exposure, use gloves when you can, wipe down and wash clean as regularly as practical. Less exposure= better.

Lubricants vs surface protectants
They’re quite similar and can do each other’s work but keep them straight. WD40 (original formula) is a great cleaner and corrosion inhibitor with mild lubricity. It is not a lubricant and isn’t trying to be. A lubricating oil offers high load capacity and resistance to water, a very different mission. Likewise, silicones (ArmorAll) and graphite pastes and powders are good lubricants but are not oils.

Grease is a more stable preparation of oil wherein oil is suspended in a gel-like matrix and weeps out at a slow rate. A bearing packed with grease runs on oil. As the oil is depleted, the grease turns to chalky powder but it beats the chore of constant re-oiling.

Lubrication is where you can claim some territory. Have preferences, collect credible opinions from others, avoid bias. Since lubrication needs are super regional, you need to configure a program that’s compatible with where you are. Dusty, windy, dry? Wet, sandy, cool? Salty, humid, breezy? These are elements that will affect lubrication. Expertise in CO is not simply transferred to NH. Our riding environments are too varied.

The Good Old Bicycle
While we all want to be experts at lubrication, and lube makers are fanning the flames, let’s reflect on the bicycle. Much of the genius of the bicycle is its practicality and ease of maintenance. Lubricants are mandatory and specific throughout the machine world..how about the bike?

Bicycles tolerate most anything for lubrication. Olive oil, beeswax, soap, lard, automotive products—the most advanced bicycle mechanism will not know much difference. (Pro-tip: avoid lard in the high country as bears are about this time of year.) The loads, temperatures, RPMs, and efficiencies required for cycling are casual compared to most machines. We see weather and dirt but life is easy with a bicycle, one of humankind’s easiest to care for friends!

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Got ideas? Got recipes? Got stories? Want more?  Pedros will be providing an in-depth look at the chemicals we work with at the upcoming PBMA Technical Workshops.

From the newsletter of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association

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