I think a lot of cyclists have that moment. You pull out an old bike, or get a second-hand fixer-upper. You decide to take it out for a spin, and it’s going smoothly until…clank.
You feel like you have a rock stuck in the chain, but know that you don’t. Upon further inspection, your suspicions are confirmed: rust.
It’s not the end of the world—you can remove the rust. Here’s how to remove rust from a bike chain:
- Soak the chain in degreaser.
- Rinse and scrub the chain.
- Attack the chain with steel wool soaked in lime juice.
- Rinse again.
- Lubricate the chain.
Remove vs. Replace vs. Run Away
Okay, “run away” isn’t accurate—you run away from the problem, by getting an expert in to fix it.
That, paired with removing and replacing, is one of your three options here.
Before you remove the rust yourself, consider:
Replacing the Chain
Let’s be real. If the bike’s been rotting away in the back of a shed/garage for years, it may be beyond repair.
In those instances, replacement is necessary.
Replacement might also be a better option if:
- You’re afraid you’ll damage the chain (unlikely).
- There’s no time in your day to fix it.
- You can’t access rust-removing products (check online!)
But before you replace the chain because it’s “easier”, consider:
A new bicycle chain can run you up to $50 or more, depending on your pick. Getting a professional to fix it will increase the price.
Degreaser shouldn’t cost more than $20, and it lasts beyond one use. Pair that with some lime juice and steel wool, and we’re talking another $5 at the grocery store.
You’ll also need chain lubricant—but I won’t factor that in, because an avid cyclist should already have some around.
You can replace the chain now—what about next time?
Learning to care for a bicycle chain is a vital part of being a cyclist. Your bike—your steed—is an extension of yourself on the road or trail.
It’s better to learn how to de-rust the chain now, so you don’t have to replace every slightly rusty chain for the rest of your life.
Run Away—AKA Ask an Expert
If you have a friend who can remove the rust, great. They may not charge. If they do, it shouldn’t be a lot. But asking a professional? Even if it doesn’t cost much, the fee adds up with every fix in the future.
What’s worse, is if you ask an expert and you’re replacing the chain. Not only is it costly, it’s bad for your future as a cyclist! You should know how to change or repair your own chain. It’s a matter of responsible bicycle ownership.
If you’re super lost, you can outsource this once. But I recommend learning to do these things yourself—in fact, let me teach you.
How To Remove Rust From Bike Chain: Step By Step
So, you’ve decided to see if you can remove the rust by yourself. Fantastic!
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Degreaser—I recommend Oil Eater AOD1G35437 Original as it’s effective, and will last beyond one use.
- A (preferably new) container.
- Hard-bristle brush (optional).
- Lime juice.
- Steel wool.
- Your poor, rusty bike chain.
Step One: Inspection
First, you need to determine if your chain is salvageable. Unless the entire chain is reddish-orange, crusty and unmoving, you can probably save it.
Now, you can decide whether to remove the chain, or leave it on. A little rust means you can leave it on, but if there’s a substantial amount it’s best to remove it.
Before removal, consider—can you get it back on again? If so, power on. If not, consider running to an expert, and learn how to remove/replace a bike chain for next time.
Step Two: Degrease
Grab your degreaser of choice. You’ll also need a container, gloves and a cloth.
If You Remove the Chain
If you remove the chain, you can get more aggressive with your degreaser. With your gloves on, fill a container with the stuff, then dunk the chain in.
Use a new container if you can. There may be residual chemicals in a used one. That can hinder the degreasing process, as chemicals can react with each other, making the degreaser less effective.
Now you can leave the chain to soak for a while. The longer you soak it, the better the results. I recommend leaving it in for 24 hours.
After that, give the chain a rinse and a scrub. A hard-bristled brush should remove any residual rust. A cloth should remove any remaining degreaser.
If You Didn’t Remove the Chain
If you didn’t remove the chain, soak your cloth in the degreaser for a few minutes, instead of the chain. Wrap the cloth around the chain, then turn the bike pedals while keeping the cloth immobile. This will make the chain move through the cloth—let it run through a few times.
Repeat the process until the chain is rust-free, then give the chain a wipe down with a clean cloth.
Step Four: Tackle the Remaining Rust
Degreaser isn’t perfect, so now you have to tackle parts of the chain where rust still clings.
Grab your lime juice and steel wool from any grocery store, and get scrubbing.
Keep your gloves on for this stage, as you don’t want to scratch or irritate your skin. A scratch from steel wool is rough, but pair that with the acid in lime juice. Ouch! The acid is perfect for corroding rust, but not stinging a cut.
Here are two tips to help with this process:
- Soak the wool in the lime juice before scrubbing.
- Wipe down the chain with a clean rag mid-scrub, to check your progress.
Step Five: Rinse
Your chain should be rust-free by now. If it’s not, you need to repeat the steps or call it a day. There’s no shame in replacing the chain now!
Once it’s rust-free, rinse it in some soapy water. A free chain can have a quick dunk in a basin, an attached chain can be run through a cloth.
Step Six: Lubricate
Reattach your chain if necessary, and make sure it moves freely.
Lube your chain as you would normally. I recommend Finish Line Dry Teflon Lube for all your lubricant needs. You should also re-lube your chain frequently, to stop it rusting again.
A bicycle chain is like skin in the sun—if it’s not moisturized, it’ll dry and crack.
Now, you’re finished removing the rust from your bike chain.
Can I Use Bike Wash Instead? Wash vs Degreaser
If you’ve read through the process and you have bike wash laying around, you may be wondering if it can replace degreaser.
As convenient as that would be, no. It really can’t.
While it’s good practice to use bike wash frequently, it won’t work to de-rust a chain.
Bike wash is for general grime and grease that accumulates on your bike. You can use it on your chain, but for a different purpose. It’ll remove mud or wet grass after a cycle in the rain.
Keeping your chain clean is as important as keeping it rust-free. A buildup of grit will make your chain crunch, too.
Lubricate your chain after every use of bike wash, though. Bike wash may not remove wanted oil or grease, but it’s smart to be cautious.
If you’re looking for a fantastic bike wash, I recommend Muc-Off MOX-904 Nano Tech Bike Cleaner. Customers found it highly effective, and I think the price is incredibly fair—1 liter (33.8 ounces) is around $22.
Degreaser will remove oils or grease. It’s an aggressive substance that's corrosive to rust but not metal.
It depends on the degreaser, but the ingredient list can include anything from citrus juice (for the acid) to mineral spirits. Basically, if it’s a solvent, it’s probably in there.
You can use this substance any time you’ve been around unwelcome oils—like accidentally biking through a spill, and getting splashed.
Keep in mind, it will remove all oils, including lubricant. So re-lube after use.
Where Not to Use Degreaser
Due to the solvents used, which will attack weaker substances like rust, only use degreaser on metal parts. Keep it away from the saddle, pedals and wheels.
How Often to Use Degreaser
Because of its aggressive nature, you shouldn’t use degreaser too often. However, it doesn’t hurt to wipe down all bolts and other joints with a small amount of degreaser each month.
All connecting parts of your bike can easily fall into disrepair. I got a second hand bike once, and the bolt letting you adjust the saddle height was so rusty it took two peoples’ strength to turn it—one of whom can lift 300 pounds!
So give the chain and joints, like bolts and screws, a wipe down at least once a year. Do it more often if you use your bicycle more.
After using degreaser, always use lubricant too—not just on the chain! Like I said, if you leave the metal too dry, it may rust.
Once you know how to remove rust from a bike chain, it’s an easy process to repeat. Your first time may be frustrating, but keep the chain well-lubed and you should never have to do it again.
Be sure to keep some degreaser and extra lubricant on hand, for emergencies. And keep a stock of gloves, rags and containers somewhere while you’re at it!