DIY Automatic Chain Cleaning Machine

Chain Cleaner

Spring is here and it’s time to pull the bikes out of the shed. One think that is often overlooked is bicycle maintenance. No one wants to be that guy walking his bike home after a part failure renders the bike unrideable. One portion of proper bike maintenance is cleaning the chain. A contaminated bike chain can wear quicker, not be as flexible, hinder shifting and increase wear to the drivetrain cogs. Tired of sitting there cleaning his chain with a tooth brush, [Ally] built a washing machine for bike chains.

This machine is quite simple, it’s a plastic box full of turpentine and dish detergent. The chain is submerged in the liquid and a lid is put on the box. At the local hobby store, [Ally] purchased a small gearbox and motor assembly. Powered by a 5vdc wall wart, the output shaft of the gearbox spins a crank that in-turn agitates the box, chain and cleaning liquid. After about 5 minutes the chain is free of grit and gunk. Not bad for a few dollars, spare parts and a little bit of time. Check out the video of it in action after the break.

While you’re waiting for your chain to be cleaned you should work on making your bike pedal in both directions.

48 thoughts on “DIY Automatic Chain Cleaning Machine

    1. I clean mine with Kerosine and then relube using a moly spray lube I’ve been entertaining doing an automatic oiler on my primary road bike with a piezo diaphragm pump doing a speed dependant drip rate.

  1. I used a servo and an STM32 dev board for a similar cludge… and before anybody says it, yes it was overkill and I know I should have used a 555 some rubber bands and an old washing machine motor or whatever, but I had the servo and dev board to hand. .. and strictly speaking I didn’t actually use an arduino… but I did use the arduino IDE to program the STM32…

        1. In this case I’m mainly concerned with cleaning the plastic keyboard membrane (the switches if you like) as well as the keytops. Milk spilt into the keyboard was the problem, so there was a certain recursive satisfaction about using a milk bottle to remove the milk from the keyboard.

    1. When I had to clean some hardware I hung a small tub off the edge of my work bench using some wire. One end of the handle was secured to the work bench and the other to a crank I made out of heavy wire that was chucked into a cordless drill. With the drill weighed down to the bench, the chuck hanging over the edge and a zip tie to hold the trigger down part way; it was fairly effective.

      1. that’s about the same way I made my stonewash polisher for knife blades. filled a bottle with pieces of broken coffee cups and hung it from the crank. I used a wall wart to power the drill too.

  2. i don’t really see a hack here. i see a guy that built a crappy washing machine for no good reason other than to say he did it. i mean is it really that much more complicated to blast the chain with WD-40 and call it a day?

    1. It has all the essence of a hack. He wanted to perform a task, so he gathered a bunch of components, none of which were meant for this task, and hooked them up in a way that they did the job for him. If thats not a hack, then I dont know what is.

      Also, I think you missed the point about cleaning the chain. Removing the dirt improves the flexibility, regardless of what lubrication you choose to use.

      1. Actually, the dirt migrates to a spot out of the way… and stays there.

        When you spray degreaser and whatnot onto your chain you’re just washing grit into the spots you don’t want it to be.

        Leave it ‘dirty’.

        The obsession bicycle riders have with keeping chains clean is bizarre. Take a tip from motorcycle riders, oil it when you remember, replace it when it’s worn out. Otherwise ignore it. (Some riders can’t be bothered remembering to oil, so they add devices to continuously drip oil onto the chain.)

          1. Having derailleurs changes nothing.

            Say you finally use that gear, that sad lonely crud-covered one unused in 5 years.

            Crunch crunch crunch goes the cogs & chain…

            Shortly afterward the crunching stops as the crud gets moved around (or falls off) and things go back to normal. Problem solved by doing nothing.

            Go have a look at a chain. How much crap has it got all over it? Now look closely at the bits that matter (contact surfaces), how much is there?

            When you clean the chain, all the new grit (plus the old stuff) gets washed all over the place.

            Oddly enough, a ‘poorly maintained’ chain will last as long as one babied. I don’t clean chains, I still get well over 5,000km out of them.

    2. Why not wd40? Um…. because wd40 is neither a good cleaner not a lubricant? The film it leaves is good for rejecting moisture, but is sticky. The blast may even drive grit into the links and rollers. As a cleaner, without agitation, it will only remove loose material, and any material that is between the plates or worked into the rollers will not be freed.

      40+ years with bicycles and motorcycles, as well as experience in industry with chains sizing from 2mn (at a couple watts) to over 4″ (at over 1000HP) tell me that to get the max life, thorough cleaning requires getting the crud OUT, followed by a good lubrication.

      Is this a hack? opinions may differ, but I’d say yes.

          1. The process usually involves an old toothbrush and a lot of scrubbing, not sure how effective the above method will be without a quick scrub of the brush too.

    1. Two different solvent/cleaners, one picks up where the other leaves off, I’m guessing. Personally I have had good luck with citrus based cleaning liquids for bicycle maintenance, and they don’t generally leave a sticky/toxic residue behind. Just make sure to re-lube after cleaning with a good lightweight oil.

  3. Baby wipes – not sure what babies get up to that requires this level of cleaning but baby wipes will clean a chain / grease / bicycle in general. Good for taking oil off your hands too.

    OP is interesting but it’s a pain to have to remove the chain even with quick links. For road bikes, I use a PTFE based dry conditions chain lube (even in the wet) / baby wipes every few days and, as above, a chain cleaner if needed.

    1. Baby sh*t is the most pervasive alien weapon ever devised, so you need something equal to the task. Cleaning a bike chain is easy when compared with dealing with the toxic (green?!) sludge that appears in the Pampers(tm).

  4. I am almost 110% sure you are not supposed to remove a bicycle chain for cleaning, ever.

    People argue about it all the time but every manufacturer has the exact same recommendation.

    1. Yup.

      It’s a odd fetish that only bicycle riders have. Then again this is the culture that produced the ‘fixie’, so they’re quite used to making stuff up when asked “why are you doing that?”

    2. The only reason you wouldn’t remove the chain is beacause you’re likely to damage the link pins when taking the chain apart. If you bother to pop the wheel off and take the chain out as a whole, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t. The manufacturers don’t recommend cleaning the chain because the factory grease is probably the best thing you could have in it. At first you should merely add oil and brush it clean on the outside.

      That doesn’t mean you should never ever clean your chains – unless you want to replace them as soon as the factory grease gets gunked up full of grit. After some amount of use, cleaning and re-lubing extends the life of the chains.

      1. Apparently you’ve never removed the chain from a bicycle before. Unless you use quicklinks, you can’t easily remove the chain without removing a rivet. The chain goes through the rear triangle of the frame.

  5. I clean my chain, on the bike, using a toothbrush and some eco chain cleaning solvent, every 200-300 miles. Even if I had the bath machine, I’d rather do it the old fashioned way, because I won’t have a pint (or whatever) of turpentine to dispose when I’m done.

    All the same, kudos the builder for rigging it up. If it works for him, that is all that matters.

  6. Rock n roll lube. That stuff is amazing. Make sure to put something under your bike before you apply it though. The chain will drop so much grease that your driveway will be stained for years.

  7. Those little blue things suck and do not clean worth a damn, using a toothbrush hardly does anything but push the dirt into the rollers and misses alot.

    This hack hawever certainly aint no mucking about with thes wun. Nice accent mate, and even nicer hack!

  8. I heard from offroaders that 90 wt. gear oil was the start off lube to oil a chain.
    A bicycle brought indoors is clean though compared to dirt bikin’ two stroke fun.
    I drip naphtha on to soak awhile, then use a rag around the tensioned part to get most off. Then drip some more and give it the blast of an air gun while turning. Repeat till clean.
    Hands-clean way…
    Hookup the chem gun to shop air, fill with an ounce or two of naphtha and blast it clean into a rag on the floor. Unless it’s one of those “sealed” roller chains this will blast crud out of the inside of the rollers. You can tell when it’s clean on the rag/floor.
    Blow dry, lube.

  9. This can’t be properly discusses without mentioning ShelBroCo Chain cleaning. It’s the only proper way

    Otherwise, just ad some more oil. I prefer chain saw oil as it sticks very well to the chain, unlike regular 10W40 motor oil which tend to get slung of the chain more easily. Fun fact: Since I switched to real oil instead of boutique lubricants in small bottles, my chains seem to last a lot longer. I’m guessing that fancy lubricants mostly benefit the shops that sell them.

  10. I used to take my road bike chain off and soak it in solvent, relube and put it back on. Then it dawned on me that bike chains are cheap and I was wasting a lot of time. Now I just wipe the chain with a paper towel and relube with Super Lube synthetic grease. This stuff is great because it doesn’t attract dirt. Every so often I just buy a new chain and put it on.

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