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Bearing Maintenance » How to properly clean your skateboard bearings

I never liked cleaning my room, my car, my apartment or my house - especially the bathroom. Actually, I'm no fan of cleaning in general. It takes time and energy that I could better spend bouncing my head off various ramps and such. But when it comes to skate bearings, you have to clean them. More importantly, you need to clean and maintain them correctly.

You can hose off your car, but its a lot better to actually wash it properly. The same concept holds for dogs - you can hose them off, but they'll only smell like "wet dog", which is only a step above smelling like dog crap. But this article isn't about dog crap or how to get it off a rug after your kid steps in it. That's a different article for folks interested in dogs and how to deal with poop.

Whether you went with a cheap (but good) bearing for $9 or broke the bank on a set of Bones Swiss, keeping them clean will make them last a long time. Most skate environments are dirty with dust, mud, water, or the aforementioned dog crap... you name it, you've probably ridden through it. And whatever it was, part of it will work its way into your bearings. You'll be able to tell when the bearings become noisy or the spin is uneven. If you ride through crap, clean your bearings right after your session, not after all the crud has had a chance to settle in and cause rust or other damage.

The fundamental reason behind cleaning them is friction. Friction is caused by the internal motion of the balls inside the bearing housing and causes heat. Heat makes the oil dissipate. As the remaining oil mixes with the dirt and crap, your ride gets noisy and worse. Don't bother adding more oil to your bearings without first cleaning them. It only helps for a short while before the damage ensues.

Here's the good news. If you regularly clean your bearings, when they become dirty, one set can actually out last a few sets of wheels.

So, being a responsible adult - at least we assume you're an adult as you're still on this site - you know about the necessity of cleaning things. Just the way you're anal about cleaning the engine compartment of your Volvo by checking all the fluids, pressures and brick-a-brack; the same applies to your skate. Fortunately, your skate is much less complex than a bloated over-priced Swedish station wagon.

Visual Inspection of Skateboard Bearings

Skateboard bearing

Pictured at left is a standard skateboard bearing. The rubber protective gasket or ring (yellow ring) keeps most dirt and grime out of your bearings.


Inside a skateboard bearing

The individual bearing balls sitting in the raceway track just beneath the rubber ring. The larger image shows ceramic bearings. The smaller inset shows standard steel bearings. In each image, you'll see the inner and outer steel walls against which the bearing make contact and spin as your wheels roll.


skateboard bearing raceway

The retainer (shown removed from the bearing housing) has a series of "cups" that hold and separate the individual bearings.


Cleaning Products (solvents)

Citrus based cleaners work well, but can leave a residue behind. Solvents work best, but are very flammable. Have a smoke away from your cleaning project and your dog. Rover probably craps on the carpet because he hates the way you smell.
If you use a water-based cleaner, make sure you dry the components immediately after soaking (more on that below). Some solvents that will do a good job are: Gumout® carburetor cleaner (found in auto parts stores); kerosene, acetone or lacquer thinner (found in hardware stores).

Cleaning Process for Skateboard Bearings

Since your bearings are encased in a round insert - that fits nicely in your wheels - its not completely obvious how to take them apart or what you need to clean. You might think rubbing Windex and a napkin around the outside seems logical, but that would make you... dumb. Cleaning the outer casing might make you feel useful, but it won't change your ride. The noisy (or crunchy) sounds are caused by the grit and dirt inside the bearing.

  1. Remove the bearing from your wheels. Some inexpensive skate tools have a bearing remover. Do not use a hammer and screwdriver to pound out the bearings. If you do that, there's really no point in cleaning them.
  2. Carefully remove the rubber ring on the outside of the bearing. You can use a bent paper clip or exacto-knife to pry it up. Don't go wild and damage the ring, it insulates the bearings from dirt.
  3. Clean the rubber ring with soap and water, not solvents (solvents may damage it), and allow it to dry. If you use a cloth to dry it, use a lint-free one - not a tissue or napkin - got it?
  4. Re-coat the ring with a light oil.
  5. Push out the ball-retainer with a paper clip by pushing in between the balls. Do this carefully, from the back side, so you don't touch the balls or their cupped seats. Scratches or abrasions to either can upset the internal flow.
  6. Place the bearing housing, still containing the individual ball bearings, and raceway into a metal can or pot.
  7. Add your chosen cleaning solution to the metal can or pot. You only need to add enough to cover you bearing components.
  8. Gently agitate the container by swishing it in a circular motion. Let the solution do the cleaning, you don't need to wipe or scrub the components once in the cleaning solution.
  9. As you notice the solution becoming darker (this happens as grime is removed from your bearing components), pour off the solution and add clean solution. Continue this process until the cleaning solution remains clear. This is when your cleaning process is complete. This soaking period can be completed in 5 or 10 minutes. There is no advantage to soaking longer or overnight. The solvents will work quickly.
  10. Once clean, remove all the components from the solution and dry immediately. A hard flat surface works best for drying. On this surface, as opposed to a lint-free cloth, you can better determine when the components are really dry. You may want to use a can of compressed air to ensure no moisture or dirt remains.
  11. Place the raceway, with the bearings (evenly spaced) into their cups, back into the bearing retainer.
  12. Add a modest amount (only 2 or 3 drops) of light weight skateboard bearing oil/lubricant. There is no need to put a drop on each ball bearing or try to evenly coat all the surfaces.
  13. Put the rubber shield back in place, making sure there are no gaps or creases. Rubbing your finger around the seal will remove creases.
  14. Now reassembled, hold the bearing between your thumb and finger and give it a spin. This will distribute the oil to all moving parts and surfaces. You should hear a pleasant hum as opposed to the crunchy sound you heard before this operation began.
  15. Apply a thin film of oil to the outer surfaces of the bearing housing. This will keep it from rusting.
  16. Pop the bearings back in your wheels using a skate tool or bearing press.
  17. Go Skate!

Some bearings require a break-in period after cleaning. This simply means that the full benefit of cleaning may not be noticed until you ride for a half hour or so.

Modifications

This is a tip or suggestion of something you should not do.

Never remove the rubber gaskets/shields (rings) unless you're cleaning your bearings!

I've actually read several pro skaters recommending the removal of these to make your ride louder. Louder!?! Are you for real? Remember when you were eight and you put baseball cards in the spokes of your bicycle tires to make it sound like a motorcycle? Remember putting replacing them with something stiffer to sound like a Harley? OK. Do you remember the first person who told you your bike looked stupid and sounded like stale cardboard? Hence, this turned out not to be a good idea.

Later in life you may have experienced a resurgence of idiocy and tried something similar with your Mom's car. I hope you didn't, but did you ever poke holes in her muffler to make it sound like a race car? Did that rumbling really give you some sort of Daytona fantasy? How much did that cost you? Sure you had to pay for the damage, but didn't anyone look at you strangely... wondering why your Mom's mini-van sounded so crappy?

That rubber ring is your poor little bearing's only defense against dirt and grime getting into the actual ball bearings. So, if you need the rush of a loud noise, I suggest you try making some sort of noise with your mouth. You'll look like a jerk, but your bearings will thank you.

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