I appreciate the convenience and versatility of my spray can of multipurpose oil (such as WD-40 and Royal Purple Maxfilm) as much as the next handyman. But specialty lubricants and dispensers offer top performance for many applications. In addition, petroleum-free products now provide environmentally conscious alternatives that work fine for many uses.
Face it: You wouldn’t think of relying on a single size of wrench or one type of saw to tackle all of your projects. Similarly, every serious DIYer should keep a variety of lubricants on hand and understand how to choose the appropriate one for the job.
Lubricants’ main task is to reduce friction, heat and wear on moving parts. Some also prevent or dissolve rust, displace water or clean surfaces. To choose the best type, consider the surface materials, environmental conditions and performance requirements. Avoid the “nuclear” option — products that provide unnecessary functions for the application at hand. Chemical overkill is wasteful and ecologically uncool. For instance, why use a rust inhibitor on interior hinges that are never exposed to moisture?
Base oil is the heart of any lubricant. It can be mineral oil, vegetable oil such as soy, synthetic polymer, lanolin (wool grease) or even water. Lubricants also can be classified by type: oil, dry, silicone, white lithium or penetrating. Each lubricant has specific properties that make it suitable for some purposes and not for others. Additives such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and graphite are used to modify base oils and enhance specific lubricating traits.
Because of government regulations that limit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), manufacturers have had to modify some lubricant formulas. As a result of their efforts to protect the air while maintaining performance, they’ve come up with state-of-the-art formulas and dispensers for specific applications. Here’s a look at what’s available and how to make the best choice in a given situation.
Garage door lubricant (which contains white lithium grease) can be used on rollers, tracks and cables for smoother operation and to reduce noise.
Manufacturers make some lubricant choices easy by simply naming products for their intended purposes or applications. Others display the lubricant type and provide examples of common uses in smaller print.
Chain lube is specifically engineered for bicycle, motorcycle and garage door opener chains and cables, and garage door lube is for garage door rollers and tracks. These products are designed to stay put throughout numerous cycles and to prevent rust and friction by shedding moisture. To remove grit that can collect on links, be sure to clean chains and sprockets with a degreaser or mineral spirits and dry the surfaces before applying lubricant.
Penetrating oil is another product that declares its intended use. The thin, rust-dissolving formula seeps into the tiniest openings. Need to loosen a stuck bolt or frozen spark plug? This is the product of choice to soften hidden rust or to free heat-seized threads.
Radiator Specialty Co. recently put a new twist on its nearly 70-year-old Liquid Wrench penetrating-oil formula. It replaced the anti-seize graphite particles with Cerflon, a solid microscopic synthetic lubricant. Unlike graphite, Cerflon is colorless, so it won’t stain surrounding surfaces. High solvency and low surface tension produce capillary action for rapid penetration without attacking painted surfaces.
Dry lubricant reduces friction without oily or greasy buildup. It’s a good choice for interior hardware and in applications where you want to minimize dust accumulation.
Dry lubricant goes on wet but creates a powdery white film rather than an oily residue. It’s preferred for applications where a sticky, wet coating would attract dirt or stain surrounding surfaces. Dry lubricant also is odorless. Use this product on interior-door and cabinet hinges, drawer glides, folding knives and locks. Some formulas, such as B’laster dry lubricant and 3-In-One Professional High Performance Dry Lube, contain PTFE synthetic fluoropolymers. They can be used on metal, vinyl, wood or rubber. The complete line of B’laster products is available at The Home Depot.
White lithium grease creates a thick, long-lasting coating that clings to surfaces in hot, freezing or wet conditions. Thickeners allow the coating to build up without sagging. Use it on garage door rollers, hinges and tracks, trailer hitches, vehicle hinges, tractors and marine fittings.
Silicone spray can be applied to almost any surface, and it’s particularly useful for keeping dirt from building up on shovels and other gardening implements.
Clear silicone lubricants not only make large surfaces ultra-slippery but also repel water and are safe to use on painted surfaces, rubber, plastic, wood and metal. Reach for this type of lubricant to prevent soil and snow from sticking to shovels, snowthrowers, wheelbarrows, mowers and outdoor equipment. (Note: Don’t confuse silicone lubricants with silicone-base waterproofers that help tents, boots and raincoats to repel water. They are different products intended for different purposes.)
Motor oil such as 3-In-One (blue can) is formulated to lubricate bearings in electric motors. It has characteristics of 20-weight motor oil and is perfect for central air conditioner and furnace-fan motors. Caution: Always follow manufacturers’ recommendations and avoid over-lubricating motors. If the lubricant gets on windings it may attack them, and you will smell burning oil. Apply only enough lubricant to coat the bearings, usually two or three drops maximum.
Spouts, sprays and straws
Once you decide on the best type of lubricant for the job, consider which type of dispenser will enable you to efficiently coat the surface that needs lubrication while keeping it off of surrounding surfaces.
Aerosol cans are good for coating large surfaces. In fact, WD-40 Big Blast can dispense lubricant at almost four times the rate of a standard WD-40 can. When equipped with straws, aerosol lubricants also can concentrate material deep into hard-to-reach recesses. However, it takes a light touch and a keen eye to avoid overspray. (Note: Many aerosol lubricants are highly flammable. They should not be used around electrical current, battery terminals, sparks or flames. To avoid a fire or explosion, always read warnings on the can before using a product.)
Manual pump sprays, such as WD-40 Trigger Pro, avoid potentially flammable propellants. So do dropper bottles, which dispense lubricants one drop at a time. Dropper bottles are a good choice when only limited lubrication is necessary and you can count on gravity to carry the coating to where it is needed. 3-In-One Multi-Purpose Oil boasts a 5-in. telescoping spout that provides additional control in tight spaces.
Chain lubricant is designed to penetrate links and provide protection against moisture and dirt. It can also be used on most other metal surfaces that are exposed to the elements.
Soy-base lubricants (such as LubeFix from Nutek) and lanolin-base products (such as Fluid Film from Eureka Chemicals) offer environmentally sensitive alternatives to petroleum-base lubricants. Nutek boasts that it uses nitrogen (instead of carbon) propellant, recyclable aluminum containers, and less plastic compared with other manufacturers’ dispensers.
Natural alternatives do have a downside. They can be less stable in harsh conditions and require more frequent application. They also can develop an oxidized varnish layer and turn brown over time, even in the can. But petroleum-base lubricants have drawbacks as well. Some formulas can damage plastics, painted surfaces and O-rings in plumbing fixtures. (Silicone grease is the correct choice for faucet O-rings.) So make sure you consider all of the factors before choosing the best product for the job.