The weather was finally starting to warm up, so I went out to my garage to retrieve my mountain bike. Upon retrieving my bike from the rafters, I noticed that I had forgotten to winterize the chain correctly, and the chain was pretty seized up and rusty.
DIY MTB Pro Tip: Here’s the link to the video 👉 Clean Rust from a Bike Chain
Replacing a bike chain due to a bit of rust is not only excessive, but it can also be a challenging hassle. Most of the time, you can easily remove rust from a mountain bike chain with a few simple tricks. It’s easy, it’s effective, and it will save you the time, money, and hassle of replacing the chain in its entirety.
Tools Needed To Deep Clean And Remove Rust From A Mountain Bike Chain
There are several different tools you can use to remove rust from bike chains. Essentially we are working with a standard steel alloy and oxidation. Therefore, we can apply most de-rusting techniques and tools.
Here is a list of tools you can use to remove rust from a bike chain. Keep in mind these will apply to most rusting metal applications, not just bike chains. However, we’re keeping in mind the minor nature of the components, so some of these tools or products work best on more minor things and would be a waste of effort when applied to larger surfaces.
Rust Removal Recommended Tools
Steel wool – Steel wool works well to remove rust from metal. However, you have to be cautious with getting the steel strands stuck in the links. They are just small enough to get in the fine cracks, which are suitable to remove rust but slightly inefficient given the nature of the link shapes.
Wire brush – The tried, tested, and proper tool for rust removal of bike chains. The wire bristles are excellent for removing rust and get in between the outer link plates. Also, using a stabbing motion with the bristles, most wire brushes are semi-adequate to remove rust from in between the outer link plates.
Plastic tub – If you can remove your chain and let it soak in a rust-inhibiting solution, all the better. Similarly, having a tub to clean and scrub the chain, so you aren’t getting greasy, sandy crud in your sink is a wise idea. Do the cleaning outside to avoid mess indoors.
Bicycle Chain Cleaning Kits – These kits generally have one tool worth the price of the kit – a 3-brush brush shaped in a U-shape with the bristles pointing into the center from 3 sides. These brushes are incredible for cleaning bike chains and can save a lot of time. Check out a kit like this one from Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Cleaning-Accessories-Scrubber-Mountain-
Bicycle Pro Chain Cleaner – You read that right; it’s a tool with built-in brushes that cleans your bike chain. However, it won’t work against anything other than dirt, mud, and the lightest of surface rust. These work great after a trail ride, but don’t rely on them as a rust prevention tool. You can pick them up relatively cheap from Amazon.
MTB Tools I Love and Recommend
I own each of these tools and only recommend things I own and use.
- Bike Hand Bike Repair Stand. Nice mountain bikes don’t have a kick stand so keeping your MTB safe but conveniently stored is essential. I keep my bike on my stand whenever I’m not riding it. This makes it easy to lube the chain, inflate the tires and adjust the derailleur. Highly recommended – Bike Hand Bike Repair Stand (👈 Link to Amazon to see what thousands of others have said)
- A basic MTB toolbox for replacing a chain, adjusting brakes and dialing in the fit. Bike Hand has a 37-piece box that has most of the specialty bike tools to keep your MTB properly maintained. The Bike Hand brand is value packed for the avid rider. Check out the competitive prices with this link to Amazon 👉 Bike Hand 37 pcs Bike Repair Tool Kit
- Get a good air pressure gauge, if you get just a tiny bit serious about MTBing you’re going to start playing with tire pressure. A couple psi can make your tires sticking or not. Get a good gauge, I highly recommend the Topeak Smartgauge D2, it’s accurate, flexible and easy to use. An Amazon best seller, here’s a link 👉 Topeak Smartgauge D2
- Carry a multitool with you on every ride. I’m serious, most of the time you can MacGyver something to get back to the trailhead if you have a multitool. I’ve got the Crank Brothers M19, it’s worn, rubbed and abused – but it still works. Thousands sold on Amazon – check it out with this link 👉 Crank Brothers M19
Beneficial Other Tools
- Bike stand – Nothing makes home bike repairs easier than having a good, professional bike stand
- Chain breaker – If you can merely remove the chain from the bike for proper cleaning, it will be much, much more manageable.
- Master link pliers – Optional if your chain uses a master link connector link.
- Old beach towel – I used to keep a big pink beach towel with my bike tools in the garage to lay under the bike when I had the MTB up on the repair stand. The towel kept dirty grease and oil from staining my garage floor.
- Rust remover – Using a chemical rust remover and soaking the chain in it is one of the best ways to remove rust from the inner parts of a bike chain. It requires removing the chain, but it uses a lot less work than manually cleaning all the links. Find it here:
- Penetrating Lubricant – A penetrating lubricant like WD-40 is excellent for cleaning rusty bike chains. You don’t want to use these products as actual lubricants for your chain, but they work fantastically to clean them. Here’s a good combo of WD-40 products that make an excellent team for cleaning. As well, it has a specially formulated lube made just for bike chains.
- Compressed air – Whether you have an air compressor or pick up one of those cans of air for cleaning keyboards, compressed air is great for blowing off rust dust without using water. Make sure you use eye protection and breathing protection, though.
Steps to Remove Rust from a Mountain Bike Chain
Assuming you have a wire brush at the very least, here are some basic steps to ensure you get the job done right when you clean the bike chain to remove rust.
Before you begin, if the bike is dirty, muddy, or otherwise not clean, give it a good cleaning with pressurized water like a suitable hose with a sprayer. Starting your work on a clean bike will be better, especially to remove sand and dirt, so it doesn’t get in the chain links once we clean it.
- Move the bike to a place that you can work on the wheels and drive assembly. If you have a bike repair stand, mount the bike in it. Or just flip it over onto the seat and handlebars. Remember to lay down some rags or cardboard first, so you don’t scratch the handlebar components or seat on the ground. The job goes much fast if you can turn the pedals and move the chain around quickly.
- If you have a chain breaker, remove the chain from the bike to clean it. If you don’t, then it’s just going to be a bit more challenging. Let’s proceed.
- Depending on the degree of oxidation, you may need to replace the chain. Start with a good inspection. Place your tub under the chain. Using your wire brush, briskly brush the chain in a rusty location. Look in the tub. If you see large flakes of rust/metal, then you should replace the chain. If you see only dust and sand particles or more minor flecks, then the chain is salvageable.
- If you have to replace the chain, do so now and don’t bother cleaning the old one. Check out my article on shortening bike chains for more information about cutting and removing the chain for replacement.
- If your bike chain is salvageable, continue with cleaning the chain using a dry wire brush. No solvents are required at this stage. Keep in mind that you will likely wind up tearing several pairs of rubber gloves during the cleaning process. Sometimes, if a chain is horrible, I’ll use thick leather work gloves instead. Holding the chain and cleaning it with a wire brush is challenging if you don’t want to stick yourself with the sharp wire bristles. That’s why I like the chain cleaning kit tools the best.
- Continue cleaning the chain; as you brush off all visible rust, you should be left with a bright and shiny chain surface. Move the chain along its path and clean sections at a time until you’ve thoroughly cleaned the entire chain.
- Next, I like to use compressed air to blow off any excess rust dust that may still be on the chain. This way, I remove the dust without using water that could accelerate oxidation.
- Once the chain is free of dust, I apply a coating of penetrating lubricants like WD-40 or a similar product. I allow it several minutes to soak into the links. I also use a technique I like to call chain bending.
- Wearing gloves, spray the chain with penetrating lubricant. Working your way along the chain, bend each link in both directions, and give it some lateral flex in the directions the link is NOT supposed to bend. This process allows the penetrant to get into each link, into all the smallest of spots. The motion also helps to free up and remove debris from between link components. It is the trick I use to free up old and rusty chains.
- Continue working the oil and the chain until you have completed the entire chain and the whole thing moves freely.
- Next, take a rag (preferably old-towel sort of material, like cotton but ‘fuzzy’ like a towel) and completely clean the chain, attempting to remove as much of the penetrating oil as possible. You don’t want to use water or soap, just a dry rag. It leaves a microscopic layer of penetrant on the chain.
- Let the chain sit for a few moments, so any vaporizing chemical additives that were in the penetrant have a chance to evaporate from the chain.
- Lubricate the chain completely using grease or lubricant specially formulated for chains. I like to use a semi-liquidy oil or lube that will be applied with a brush and then dabbed with a rag to remove excess.
How can I Prevent My Bike Chain From Rusting?
Rusting bike chains are caused by oxidation of the metal as it reacts with the surrounding air. Water, salt, and other things can speed up the rusting or oxidation process, so the goal is to keep foreign chemicals and air away from the metal.
To prevent air from oxidizing the metal alloys that comprise your bike chain, you need to coat the metal in an oil-based substance. Typically the best substances are the very oils and lubricants that work best to maintain the best use of the bike chain. These lubricants coat the metal in the same way that oil coats your frying pan at home. The oil prevents the air from reacting with the metal and thus prevents rusting.
When to Replace an MTB Chain
As mentioned earlier, when we inspect a bike chain using the wire brush and tub method, we can see the extent of oxidation damage to the chain by what debris falls off from the initial contact with the wire brush.
- If the debris coming off the chain is flakes of rust/metal – the chain has lost structural integrity and should be replaced.
- If the debris coming off the chain is fine dust particles of rust – the chain is salvageable if maintained.
- If the chain has deformed, bent, or stretched beyond reasonable limits – you should replace the chain. Use a tool like a chain wear indicator like this one by Bikehand found on Amazon.
How to Select the Correct MTB Chain
Mountain bike chains come in a variety of sizes. To select the right size for your bike, I recommend removing the chain and measuring for replacement. I’ve got a great description and sizing chart in my article about cutting an MTB chain you can read here: How To Cut A Mountain Bike Chain.
Where to Get a New Bike Chain
A bike chain is readily available at most major department stores that sell bikes, every bike shop, and of course from our friends at Amazon.
● All In One Chain Lubricant Finish Line 1–step
If drippy oils aren’t your thing, then check out this great product by Finish Line. The 1-step cleaner and lube come in a gel-like format, so it doesn’t drip all over the place. Keep in mind; you don’t want to keep this product in the sun as it liquefies a lot in the heat of the sun, making it runny.
● Dry Chain Lubricant Finish Line Dry Teflon
One of my favorite lubes for those dry, hot summer day conditions when you’re biking in dusty areas is an excellent dry lube, again by Finish Line. This product goes on wet but dries fast to form a barrier over your chain that prevents dust and debris from getting into the chain while lubricating the chain at the same time.
● Wet Chain Lubricant Finish Line Wet
If wet conditions or extreme rides are on the menu, you should include a wet chain lubricant like this one from Finish Line. The wet lube works excellent to fend off moisture in extreme conditions or long rides, so this lube is great to have on hand for those sorts of conditions.
The Best 3 Tips for Reducing Rust on Your MTB
- Keep your bike oiled. Using lubricants that leave a protective film is the best final stage of cleaning your bike. Take an oil-based lubricant and put some on a rag and wipe down your whole bike after cleaning it. It will help prevent rust like nothing else.
- Keep your bike clean. Water and salt are deadly for your bike’s metals. Keeping the bike clean of all mud, dirt, and debris ensures that winter salts (if you live in the North) don’t get on the metal and speed oxidation.
- Fix scratches right away, even if it means keeping a can of clear-coat Tremclad metal protecting spray paint to touch up scratches. The paint on your MTB protects it from the air, oxidizing the metal frame and parts. Keep scratches repaired to prevent further oxidation.
Get Out and Roll
We’ve discussed chain condition, replacement, cleaning, sizing, and more. By now, you’re that much closer to being a bike pro and knowing all the little details about your bike and bike chain that make you a serious and dedicated MTBer.
Remember to keep that MTB clean, keep the chain free-moving and lubricated, and most importantly, get out there on your bike and have fun!
Looking for Some More Ways to Help Your Bike Last
- Regular maintenance will keep you pedaling for years. Read – DIY Mountain Bike Maintenance Schedule
- Everyone wants a new bike, find out when it’s time to buy with this article: Repair Old Bike or Buy New – Options
- DIY Mountain Bike Tune Up – A Complete guide to what to repair and how.