Olive oil for my bike chain
October 13, 2005 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Ask MeFi is long overdue for a really dumb question: can I use olive oil (or other vegetable oils) as a substitute for regular bicycle-chain oil? Would it work as well? Would there be negative side effects?
posted by zardoz to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total)
Unless you consider extreme tastyness a negative side-effect, no.
posted by odinsdream at 6:49 AM on October 13, 2005

Well, I've had friends who have used cooking oil as a medium for oil painting without a negative result. But that's an entirely different thing.
I'm pretty sure that bike-chain oil has graphite in it and the graphite is a crucial component of that mechanical lubricant.
Cooking oil might briefly work as a short-term substitute but it probably won't be as durable and moisture-resistant/rust-preventant as the proper chain oil.
The cooking oil might coagulate (or do other unexpected things because it's organic) and not adhere to the components correctly. The cooking oil also probably won't be able to deal with the same amount of friction that mechanical grease can.
posted by Jon-o at 6:50 AM on October 13, 2005

I don't think this would work all too well. There's a small market for chain-oil alternatives like jojoba, which leads me to believe that a simple solution like this won't really do the job you want. However, substituting chain oil for olive oil in cooking is something worth thinking about.
posted by allen.spaulding at 6:50 AM on October 13, 2005

Man, I wish Jobst Brandt hung out here. He'd have a definitive answer.

My guess is that there would be no detrimental side-effects--I don't think there's anything in your drivetrain that will break down in the presence of olive oil--but that it wouldn't be as effective as lubricants used for their intended purpose--it would probably break down, drip off, etc more quickly.

If you're looking for an alternative to regular bike lubes, I use White Lightning (a wax-based lube) and am happy with it (though you've got to be very careful to clean all the oil out of your drivetrain first, and re-apply regularly). Some folks swear by a product called Boeshield, developed by Boeing.
posted by adamrice at 7:11 AM on October 13, 2005

Vegetables oils go rancid. They also won't stick like a good chain lube and they'll attract dust and grit. Plus I doubt there is a SL wear rating on the bottle.
posted by Mitheral at 7:14 AM on October 13, 2005

Short term it would probably be fine. It will break down more quickly than other substances designed as lubricants, and will no doubt attract a lot of dirt and gunk, but how frequently you clean and lube your chain is generally more important than what you use. Also, (regardless of what you use) if you take your time to apply into the gap at each link and wipe off excess, you'll get the oil where it needs to and cut down on gunky build-up.

When you finally get to a hardware store/bike shop:

Tri-Flow makes, in my humble opinion, the best stuff for oiling a chain. Correct viscosity for penetrating into the rollers and teflon for good lubrication. I've heard mixed views on the wax based stuff, like White Lightning. Depends on the conditions where you ride.

3 in 1 oil has vegetable components, so you'll have the same issues with breakdown and gunk attraction. And try not to use WD-40. It's really a cleaner (the D stands for "detergent"), not a lubricant, and once it dries out it does a not very good job at protecting moving parts.
posted by jalexei at 7:15 AM on October 13, 2005

I don't think this is a stupid question. Food oils do get rancid and degenerate, though, which leads to them gumming up the works. So unless you're prepared to clean the old oil off and relube pretty often, it's probably not a good idea.
posted by iconomy at 7:15 AM on October 13, 2005

Oh, and I think the "WD" in WD-40 actually stands for "water displacement" or something like that, but my point about it being a cleaner rather than a lubricant stands...
posted by jalexei at 7:19 AM on October 13, 2005

The real question is: why ? If for ecology's sake, I'd say just go with one of the biodegradable lubes out there. Nashbar has one from FinishLine that is teflon and biodegradable (I didn't know teflon could do that...). It looks a little more expensive than the equivalent amount of EVOO, but it'll do the job guaranteed. If it's just for kicks, I'd say try it and see what happens.

Although it'd be a great prank to pull out your bottle of chain lube after a ride and squirt it on a salad, just to mess with your fellow riders.
posted by GreenTentacle at 7:19 AM on October 13, 2005

Visiting a friend's summer place a few years ago, I found myself in a situation where I wanted to ride a crummy old bike (well, it's not like I wanted to ride a crummy old bike, but that was the only bike available). The chain was completely immobile, and my lubricant options included only cooking oil, candle wax and Astroglide. The cooking oil worked, but it worked very, very poorly (lots of dripping, and lots and lots of repeated re-applying). If I found myself in the same situation again, I might try one of the other options.
posted by box at 7:36 AM on October 13, 2005

Triflow is great, but 3 in 1 kept my chain in great working order through years of very stressful daily riding. It neither collected gunk nor broke down too quickly.

I would think that the problem with vegetable oil would be rancidity. I'm also not sure how sticky it is. Other people have talked about gunk collection, and that might be a problem, which then wears down not only your chain but your entire drive train. (Good chain oils fall pretty much in the middle between WD-40, which is not sticky at all, and something like Tenacious Oil, which is very sticky. I'm jusst not sure where oo falls.) Also, and this may not be an issue depending on where you live and where you keep your bike, olive oil begins to coagulate in the 40s F. That might not be cool, to come out to your bike all locked up on a Fall day.
posted by OmieWise at 7:38 AM on October 13, 2005

AskMetafilter: lubricant options include cooking oil, candle wax and Astroglide.
posted by junkbox at 7:43 AM on October 13, 2005

Incidentally, this reminds me of the part in The Hamlet when one of the Snopes (not Flem) greases his old shotgun with bacon grease. I always thought that must have smelled like delicious death.
posted by OmieWise at 7:46 AM on October 13, 2005

As a small aside, White Lighting is a great overall lubricant. I used it in my biking days and had some left over, and started using it to lube woodworking equipment. It does not attract dust, which is a real plus in the woodshop. I use it to lube trunnions, geared movement mechanisms, ways, etc.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:11 AM on October 13, 2005

Baby oil is a light mineral oil that works, in a pinch, for trumpets, hinges, and bikes. Use Vaseline if you want a thicker version. Sunscreen would be better than nothing, if you were biking on a desert island.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:11 AM on October 13, 2005


You want something that'll stay on the chain and not damage the chain. Olive oil fails in this regard, since it's a wet lube it'll attract dirt, since it's a low viscosity wet lube it'll sling off and make a mess, and mostly this just sounds like a great way to annoy yourself.

If you want to kick it old school take off your chain and put it in some melted paraffin, then hang it up to dry. This will last a long time.

Otherwise White Lightening chain lube has much the same effect without the chain-off-and-hanging thing.

Wet lubes, like Tri-Flo, 3-in-1, whatever, have the slinging problem. Tri being synthetic hangs in a bit longer, and I can't think of a good reason to use 3 in 1 on a chain (it's the lube of choice for freewheels, however).

Mostly: Chains are really cheap and really easy to replace. On my BMX race bikes I change 'em out ever six months, and on my not-race bikes I just check the stretch and hit 'em with White Lightening every once in a while.

I was really hoping your question would explain your inspiration for this. I can't think of a single good reason. I've been broke as ass and just rubbed some old axle grease on a squeaky chain before, but never have taken something out of the kitchen cabinet.
posted by Elvis at 8:14 AM on October 13, 2005

Wet lubes, like Tri-Flo, 3-in-1, whatever, have the slinging problem.

Agreed, though the way to minimize that is to take care with the application. I'm a bit nuts about my bike being as silent as possible, and am willing to clean and service a bit more in lieu of the wax-based stuff. My one experience with White Lightning drove me nuts with some (minimal) chain noise, though I'll freely admit I'm far more sensitive to things like that than a normal person.

It's been a long, long time since I raced BMX (still kicking myself I don't have my old P.K. Ripper). What's the benefit of 3-in-1 on a freewheel?
posted by jalexei at 9:00 AM on October 13, 2005

The answer is GUM. Vegetable oils gum up. Mineral oils do not.

Use non-vegetable oils or waxes on your chain. (I love white lightning; it cleans, degreases and lubricates all in one step. I've got 3000 miles on this chain and it hasn't even stretched yet; I spray it once every 2 rides.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:08 AM on October 13, 2005

I can't be bothered to get proper lubricants for my cheap, crappy bike, and have used Vaseline with no obvious ill effect.
posted by theora55 at 10:13 AM on October 13, 2005

I wouldn't use cooking oil for mechanical lube. Mechanical lubricants are supposed to keep the lubricated parts separated. I doubt that cooking oils work well in that task.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:35 AM on October 13, 2005

The still-excellent 1992 Bridgestone Catalogue (PDF via Sheldon Brown) says "Olive... oil or hot, melted butter will keep your chain lubricated for at least 300 miles under dry road conditions" (page 13).

So, if you need something that is a quick-fix, you won't do any harm to your chain, provided that you have degreased it prior to application.

Basically, every liquid lubricant will hold and attract the grit that will eventually wear down the bushings of your chain. I use melted paraffin in all conditions, and it works great. That very same Page 13 in the catalogue gives a good recipie, and the paraffin will hold better than White Lightning or other like liquid-applied lubes in all temperatures, under all forms of precipitation, under the dirtiest of conditions.
posted by Avogadro at 11:25 AM on October 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

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