Use the right lubricant every time
We interrogated the guys in white lab coats and learned this: A lube formulated for a specific job usually provides far better results and wear protection than a general-purpose product or a product designed for a different job. And a specialty product usually lasts much longer. So by using the right lube, you’ll lubricate less often, avoid frustrations, and save time and money.
Used to be there was oil and there was grease. Then penetrating oil came along. One day, WD-40 showed up. Then silicone spray lubricants. Add in lithium and marine greases and the afore mentioned specialty lubes for things like garage doors and motorcycle chains, and the choices can be a bit overwhelming. Use the info below to determine which lubricant you’ll need for the job you’re about to tackle.
We’ll walk you through all the different specialty lubes and explain where to use each one. We’ll explain when to use rust penetrating oil and when to use lithium grease. But don’t worry about memorizing it all: There’s a printable chart at the end of this article. Pin it up in your shop and you’ll be the neighborhood “go-to guy” for lube advice.
Finally, we’ll give you some lubrication tips beyond just which lubricant to employ. Let’s keep everything moving!
Dry PTFE lubricant
This is a “dry” lubricant, but it actually goes on wet. But once the solvent dries, the product leaves a thin film of dry polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)—the same product used to make nonstick frying pans. The main advantage of dry PTFE is that dust doesn’t stick to it. That makes it a great lube for dirty environments like your garage or shop.
PTFE bonds to metal, wood, rubber and plastic—so it stays put. It’s a light-load lubricant, so it’s not the best lube for equipment that carries a heavy load or transmits high torque. And it doesn’t have any anticorrosive properties (although some manufacturers spike theirs with an antirust additive), so don’t use it on outdoor metal.
Dry PTFE lube is available in both aerosols and squeeze bottles. Check the label to make sure the solvent won’t harm the material you’re lubricating. Note: Not all “dry” lubes are PTFE. Some are silicone, which is a different ball game.
Synthetic grease is the best choice for gears, axles and bearings that carry heavy loads, transmit high torque, operate at high temperatures or are subject to shear stress. Synthetic grease has less rolling friction than the petroleum-based grease you’ll see next to it on store shelves. It resists thermal breakdown and shear, too, so it lasts much longer than other types of grease.
Silicone is the slipperiest of all lubricants, so it’s a great choice for items that slide against one another. Silicone repels water, but not water vapor, so you can use it to dry out electrical connectors. But don’t rely on it as a sealant in humid conditions.
Use silicone to lubricate metal, wood, rubber and plastic. However, dust and dirt stick to silicone, so use it sparingly or use a “dry” version in dirty environments.
The biggest downside to silicone lubricant is that once you apply it to an object, you can never paint or stain it. And, since the spray drifts, it can contaminate nearby walls and floors. If you ever plan to paint anything in the surrounding area, mask off the spray zone before you spray.
Like lithium grease, marine grease is formulated to lubricate high-load items. But it’s thicker and far more water resistant than lithium grease, so it does a fantastic job of inhibiting rust and preventing metal parts from “welding” themselves together with rust. Use marine grease to lubricate items that are directly immersed in water or constantly exposed to the elements. Like any grease, it’s a tacky magnet for dust and dirt.
Other products will free up stubborn nuts and bolts—eventually. But they won’t do it nearly as fast or as well as oil formulated just for that job. Rust-penetrating oil contains an aggressive solvent to penetrate the rust. And it contains a special low-viscosity, low-surface-tension lubricating oil that flows into micro-cracks in the rust to get lube deep into the threads. But don’t use it for purposes other than stuck stuff; it does a poor job of keeping things slippery.
White lithium grease
Grease is the lube of choice for higher-load items like bearings and axles because it cushions parts. And unlike oil, which tends to seep away, grease stays in place and lasts much longer. White lithium is a great all-around grease for lubricating light- to medium-load items like tools and garden equipment.
It comes in aerosol cans and in tubes. Aerosols are easier to use because the solvent helps the grease seep into tight spaces. That can save you the trouble of disassembling components to grease them.
Chain lube penetrates deep into roller chain links and doesn’t fly off when the chain is in motion. To use it, clean off the old lube with spray solvent and a brush. Apply the chain lube and slowly rotate the chain to allow it to work into the links. Then leave it alone until the solvent evaporates.
Chain lube resists water, dust and dirt better than ordinary oil. Use it for chains on bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, garage door openers and outdoor power equipment. But never use aerosol chain lube in place of a bar chain oil on chain saws.
Garage door lube
Garage door hardware operates in an environment that’s often dirty and damp, sometimes hot and sometimes cold. That’s why there’s a special lube for it.
Garage door lubes are formulated to penetrate deep into hinges, rollers and springs but dry to a fairly tack-free finish to resist dust and dirt buildup. Many brands also contain anticorrosive additives to protect against rust.
Avoid the off-brands
Cheap brands cost less for a reason—they contain less of what matters. These two beakers show how much silicone was left after the solvents and propellants evaporated from a name-brand product and a cheaper “no-name” brand. The cheaper stuff cost 79¢ less— and contained far less lubricant.
Don't forget plain old motor oil
That leftover can of 30-weight motor oil isn’t the very best lube for all jobs, but it’s a handy and acceptable friction fighter for most. Heavyweight motor oil is thicker than most spray oils, so it provides a stronger film cushion. And motor oil has built-in anticorrosive additives to resist rust. Since it doesn’t have any solvents, a full drop is really a full drop of lube. And it’s cheap—a quart should last a lifetime.
Lithium grease for garden equipment
Lubricate heavy garden equipment wheels with spray lithium grease. It’ll stand up to the load better than oil, silicone or PTFE. Take the wheel off and spread grease on by hand or shoot it with aerosol white lithium grease. Spin the wheel to work the lube into the axle before the solvent evaporates.
If you only follow one tip, follow this one: Clean out the old lube. Adding fresh lube to old, degraded oil and grease is a prescription for equipment failure. To get the full advantage of fresh lube, always clean out the old lube with spray solvent and a rag (aerosol brake cleaner works well).
Here are some more tips:
- Avoid off-brands
- Shake before using
- Don’t forget plain old motor oil
- Use marine grease to prevent seizing
- Choose dry lube for dusty situations
- Use lithium grease for garden equipment
- Use grease, not oil, for high loads