How To Remove Rust From A Bike Chain

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Whether you’re a serious biker or just a casual rider, you have to deal with the issue of rust.  The bike chain, in particular, is prone to rusting.

Exposure to moisture, air, and debris hasten the rusting process. A rust problem needs mitigation as soon as possible because the longer rust remains on the bike chain, the harder it is to remove.

But rust doesn’t have to be problematic. This article discusses how to remove rust from a bike chain using either a commercial degreaser or everyday products you probably have at home.

Step by Step on How to Remove Rust from a Bike Chain

First, before you begin, you should gather the tools required for this maintenance task. Below are some tools you may need in removing rust from the bike chain:

  • Rubber or protective gloves
  • Steel wool or other rough cleaning pad
  • Toothbrush or metal bristle brush
  • Degreaser/heavy grime
  • WD-40 or lime juice
  • Chain lubricant

Step 1: Inspect the chain

The first thing you should do is perform an inspection to evaluate the condition of the bike chain. If the chain is in poor condition, you might need a new one.

Turn the bicycle upside down to get a good view of the bike chain. To prevent scratches on the bike, lay an old blanket or towel down, then flip the bike on its seat and handlebars. Next visibly inspect the chain.  

Step 2: Should I Clean My Rusty Bike Chain or Replace It?

If there is any warping, imperfections, or deterioration, replace the chain. The pins and seals are critical parts of the chain. If the pins and seals are rusty, you should replace the bike chain because it’s no longer reinforced.  

Next, check the chain length. As the chain on the bike wears out, it gets longer. This is known as chain stretch and indicates that the chain should be replaced. To check this, you need either a chain checking tool or ruler.

The device you need is called a chain checker gauge or a go/no-go chain gauge. The  go/no-go gauge is known for its relative ease of use when checking the chain.

These products can be found on Amazon or at bike stories. The cost is relatively low; you can purchase one for less than $10.

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If you prefer to use a ruler, line the ruler up to the chain at the center of the pin and measure. Measure the chain at the 12-inch point.

Bicycle chains are always half an inch, pin to pin. At the 12-inch marking point, it should not be any more than a half-inch off. If it is more than that, it is time to invest in a new bike chain.

If the chain is still good but has some rust, there are a few easy steps to remove that pesky buildup. 

Step 3: Remove the chain from bike before cleaning

In order to completely clean the chain, you should remove it from your bike. If you are spot cleaning, you may leave it on.

Most bike chains have a master link. This link looks different from the rest. You can disconnect the master link from the rest to help remove the chain from the gears.

How To Remove a Bike Chain Without Master Link

Step 4: Clean off the surface rust

Now that the chain is completely off the bike, you can fully determine which area to begin cleaning. Usually, it is good to hold the chain from one end and shake or wiggle it so as to knock off rust or other loose dirt particles. Then, take a cloth to wipe off the first rust layer.

Step 5: Use degreaser and steel wool

To remove rust from a bike chain you will need a degreaser. You can use a commercial or homemade degreaser. Vinegar or soda pop are popular degreaser materials among DIY’ers.

If you are using a commercial degreaser, follow the directions on the label. If using a homemade degreaser, put the solution in an empty spray bottle. 

If you left the chain on the bike for a spot clean: with one hand rotating the bike’s pedals, spray the degreaser onto the bike chain with the other. Make sure you go through at least two complete rotations of the bike pedal to ensure it is saturated with the degreaser. 

Otherwise you can use a rag or rough cleaning pad to apply the degreaser to the chain. You can now use a toothbrush or metal bristle brush to clean off more rust.

Step 6: Soak the chain

Allow the degreaser to sit for 10 minutes on the chain. Check to see how easily the rust is removed. If needed, let it soak for another 10 minutes.

At this point, you either have a clean chain, or there are some heavier areas to still address.

Step 7: Scrub the Chain

After you soak the entire chain for 20 minutes, you can continue to scrub with the steel wool, toothbrush, or metal bristle brush.

If using vinegar, take a piece of aluminum foil and fold it in half, with the shiny part on the outside. Then, simply dip the foil into the soda pop or vinegar solution and rub the aluminum foil onto the bike chain. 

This process might take a bit more elbow grease and work to remove the rust than using a commercial degreaser, depending on the amount of rust on the bike chain.

Lastly, if there is any stubborn rust left on the the chain, you can use WD-40 to spot attack those last areas.

Step 8: Rinse and Dry Your Chain

After removing the rust, rinse the bike chain with warm, soapy water. This will get any remaining residue off the chain.

Rinse again with clear water, making sure to get all the soap and excess degreaser off the bike chain. Then, thoroughly dry the chain with a cloth to prevent rust from forming again.

Step 9: Apply Lubrication

Once you clean and dry the chain, apply chain lubrication following the directions on the packaging. This will not only lubricate the chain but also prevents rust from forming.

There are many brands of lubrication on the market. Whatever brand you choose, make sure you take a dry, clean towel and wipe off any excess lubrication that remains on the chain. Any excess oil will pick up dirt and make it prone to rust.

Step 10: Reattach the chain

Last, you need to reattach the clean chain to the bike which can be done by reversing the master link process from earlier. Once you hear the chain click back together, spin the pedals to crank the gears to ensure that everything is running smoothly and that the chain is back in it’s original position.

how to clean rust off your bike chain

Why is my bike chain rusting?

Oxidation is the chemical process where metal can react to oxygen and water which produces rust. Rust thrives in humid and wet conditions. If your bike is left in a damp or humid area, you may see that rust will begin to form which will likely hamper your cycling experience.

Wrapping Up

A commercial degreaser or a homemade version with vinegar or a soda pop are the best ways to get rust off your bike chain. Both techniques are effective; however, the do-it-yourself process will require a little more time and effort on your part, depending on how much rust is on the bike chain.

If your bike chain is too rusty, it might be time to replace it.

Other related articles:

How To Fix a Bike Chain

How To Tighten a Bike Chain

How To Shorten a Bike Chain

Best Bike Lube for Your Chain

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