How Often Should I Lube My Motorcycle Chain?

Chain-driven motorcycles are by far the most common on the road today. The power produced in the engine is transferred to the rear wheel by means of the chain attached to two sprockets. A chain in good working order is critical to safe power delivery.

Motorcycle chains are wear items that need maintenance just like oil and tires. They are simple by design but carry a heavy load in terms of your motorcycle functioning properly.

Chains require regularly scheduled interval maintenance in order to have a long healthy life. If neglected, a motorcycle chain will wear prematurely and possible break.

In general, a motorcycle chain should be cleaned and lubricated every 600 miles. If you ride more aggressively than average or take your bike to the track, reduce the interval to 300 miles. If your bike sits for long periods, service your chain once every 6 months.

Proper Motorcycle Chain Maintenance

In order to avoid racking up excessive repair costs or experiencing a catastrophic failure, your motorcycle chain should receive regular maintenance. This includes not only lubrication but also cleaning. There are several products and methods available for this service, but we will talk about the right way.

Tools Needed For The Job

  • If your bike doesn’t have a center stand, a rear stand is preferrable
  • Plenty of shop rags
  • Rubber gloves for your hands
  • Cleaning brush
  • Chain cleaner
  • Chain lubricant
  • Scrap piece of cardboard

Dual-sided swingarm rear stand . Very useful.

Motorcycle Chain Service Procedure

  1. Lift the rear wheel off the ground by means of your center stand or a rear stand. If you don’t have either of these options at your disposal, you can still service your chain, it will just take more time.
  2. Perform a visual inspection for any tight spots, damage, rust, or grime. We are trying to make a determination here if a simple maintenance is all that is needed or if repairs are in order.
  3. Using a chain safe cleaner with a rag and brush, circulate the chain by rotating the rear wheel by hand and scrub off all of the dirt and grime. It should be apparent at this point why it is easier to stand stationary and spin the wheel rather than have to roll the bike if you don’t have a stand. A standard wire brush will work here but there are also chain-specific brushes designed to wrap around the chain which work well.
  4. Now that the chain is clean, use your chain lubricant to evenly coat the inner and outer seals of the chain from the top. Use the piece of cardboard to shield your bike from overspray by holding behind the chain as you spray. Again, having the rear wheel off the ground is ideal.
  5. After spraying the chain, wipe off any excess lubricant from the chain. We aren’t looking to get lube on the outer metal links, that will just attract dirt and sling all over the back of the bike. We have lubricated the rubber seals and bushings which was the primary goal.

How Do I Know If My Motorcycle Chain Needs Service?

Besides the interval of mileage and time discussed above, there are some observations you can make to determine if your chain needs to be serviced.

As a general rule, your chain needs to be serviced if you notice any excessive clacking noise when the rear wheel rotates or if the chain looks dry.

When you spin the rear wheel or roll the bike with the engine off, you should not hear the sound of the chain clanking against the teeth of the sprocket. Of course, there will be a little noise, but it should be smooth and flowing not loud and cringy.

Also, when inspecting the chain, note the health of your sprockets. The teeth should be sharp and pointed upward, not rounded or curved at all.

If you follow a conservative maintenance interval, you shouldn’t notice any of these concerns until the chain has reached the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced.

What Chemicals Should I Use On My Motorcycle Chain?

There are many fields of thought regarding products to clean a motorcycle chain. I want to keep things very simple and provide some specific recommendations and warnings.

Maxima CleanUp Chain CleanerWD-40
Maxima Chain Wax LubricantDegreaser
Click the links in the “good” section to check the best pricing on the Maxima products I personally use and recommend.

I use and recommend the Maxima product because they simply clean and lubricate the motorcycle chain without causing any adverse effects like seal degradation, premature wear, or flinging. Nothing is worse than going on a ride after a chain service and having a line of wax sprayed under the bike from the chain flinging.

It is not recommended to use WD-40 or degreaser to service your motorcycle chain.

Even in a pinch, hold off and use a proper cleaner and lubricant

While I have not personally seen WD-40 damage a chain, in my experience it does leave the chain dry and in need of lube soon thereafter. WD (water displacement) is not the goal of our chain service. We want lubricant to get down between the links into the rubber rings and bushings, which this product does not help us accomplish.

On the other hand, degreaser will eat away at the rubber seals inside your chain and cause premature wear. This is the exact opposite result we are trying to accomplish and can cause the chain to break.

Different Types Of Motorcycle Chains

Most street bikes will have one of two chain types: O-ring or X-ring. This does not change the method of maintaining the chain, however, is good information to have for proper bike ownership.

To keep it simple, the X-ring is a superior product as there are two ridges that can be used as lubricating surfaces rather than an O-ring with one smooth surface.

Notice the difference in sealing surfaces and places for lubricant to stay in place between X-Ring and O-Ring chains.

This results in less wear, less seal distortion, and a better sealing surface to hold grease. X-ring chains typically last longer than O-ring but also cost more on average.

Chain Size

Besides seal types, chains are also separated by size. The most important metrics to keep in mind when selecting the proper chain are width and length. The type of bike you have determines what width you need. The length of chain is measure by links and should match the chain coming off of your bike.

Most bikes I’ve owned have roughly 120 links, but make sure to reference your manual or count the links yourself.

I’ve made a simple reference chart to assign chain size to the type of bike.

Chain SizeApplication
400-499Small scooter, dirt bike
520Large dirt bike, ATV
525Casual street bike
530Performance street bike
600+Cruiser bike

How To Properly Adjust A Motorcycle Chain

This is fairly simple but can go really wrong if done incorrectly or neglected altogether. Chain adjustment should go hand in hand with cleaning and lubrication.

Most motorcycles have a sticker on the swingarm noting the proper chain slack measure in millimeters. Most standard swingarm bikes will have two adjustment screws near the rear with a locking nut setup.

If a chain is too loose, the chain will move excessively under acceleration and potentially slip off the rear sprocket causing the drivetrain to lock up and throw you over the handlebars.

If a chain is too tight, the drivetrain will be under excessive tension and risk the chain breaking. Also, the suspension will not be able to fully travel and the bike will ride rough.

In order to loosen or tighten your motorcycle chain, loosen your rear axle and adjust each side evenly a quarter of a turn at a time until the chain slack is within spec. Use the tick marks to match up the two sides and make sure the rear wheel is straight.

You can measure chain slack with a tape measure by moving the chain from the top to the bottom position.

When Should A Motorcycle Chain Be Replaced?

So far, we’ve discussed the different aspects of chain maintenance and prolonging the life of your chain. Eventually, even with perfect service intervals, your chain will need replacement. There are some key observations to make when making this judgement.

Motorcycle chains need to be replaced when they have tight spots between links, have been stretched so far they cannot be adjusted any further, or have accumulated excessive rust that cannot be removed.

A tight spot in a chain will look like two adjacent links that don’t line up in a straight line. A good chain lays nice and straight but an old chain will be rigid and bind up at the flex points.

As you adjust your chain more and more, eventually a chain will come to the end of its ability to stretch and become unsafe to use anymore.

Regarding rust, sometimes the accumulation becomes so invasive that it cannot be cleaned out from the crevices between the links and bushings. At this point, servicing becomes pointless and a new chain is in order.

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