How I clean my roller skate bearings

Before a game we try to get together as a team and do an evening of skate maintenance, which often leads to bad lube jokes (likely due to the fumes of all the cleaning products). It’s a great way to bond as a team and last time it lead to us all painting our nails the same colours in preparation for the bout.

Last week I went ahead and cleaned 2 full sets of bearings on my own. Without the distraction of lube, fumes and nail polish, I figured I would document how I do it and share with y’all.

Things you’ll need

Containers, dirty bearings, bearing puller, a small screwdriver or nail file, cleaning agent of your choice, rags, canned air, lube, etc.

**DISCLAIMER: My way isn’t necessarily right, but the procedure is what I’ve picked up from reading, talking to other derby gals and asking questions at skate board shops. If your way works for you, keep doing it!!!! If you see me doing something glaringly wrong, please speak up!!!!!

Removing your bearings from your wheels…

The best way is to get a bearing pusher/puller. Most multi-use skate tools have them. Below is a video of how to get them out. It’s sort of a wiggling/round-and-round motion. It’s easiest to pull from the back of the wheel, then push your tool through the middle of your wheel to pop the other one through and out.

Bearing tools are available at most skateboard shops.

How to tell if your bearings are dirty…

If they look like this…

I know the focus is off, but you can even see the grime on the bearings in the background.

Then they are dirty.

If you hold them between your fingers, give them a spin and they make grinding noises or don’t even spin to the count of 1, then they are dirty.

Wiping surface dirt from your bearings help a little, but if little grains of dirt get caught between the balls inside the bearings, you need to take them apart for a deeper clean.

Before I go on, inspection…

It’s important to also inspect your bearings for loose parts & make sure they aren’t lopsided. Remember we are putting a lot of pressure on our bearings by almost always leaning in one direction. I’ve never had it happen to me yet, but I imagine bearings will eventually start to bend over in the direction you’re leaning in over time, especially if you don’t rotate them. So if they are clean, lubed but still don’t roll well, they should be ditched or made into a keychain decoration.

Taking apart your bearings…

Before you take apart your bearings you should wipe all surface dirt away with a towel. My bearings have removable crowns on the back. You must be careful when removing them to avoid cracking or breaking the shield. I use a small eyeglass screwdriver to gently pry the crown off the back.

The dollar store sells cheap little screwdrivers perfect for this job.

There are many different styles of bearings on the market and how you take them apart varies. The bearings shown above have an easy-to-remove crown. However if you also remove the rubber shield on the other side, the little balls will fall out and roll all over your floor. Don’t do that if you have these types of bearings. A commenter below said that with these types of bearings its usually easier to remove the rubber shield and keep the crown in place. So do what works best for you. (Thanks to Rink Rolled for the info)

Bearings that have 2 rubber shields on both sides usually have spacers in between the bearing balls to hold them in place. Use a safety pin to pry out both sides of the rubber shields.

Bearings that are fully encased in metal, aren’t able to be taken apart to be cleaned (to my knowledge). But Rink Rolled says this…
“Bearings with metal shields can be cleaned (except cheap sealed ones). Metal shields are held into place with a metal C-ring along the outside of the bearing. The C-ring can be removed with a pin and the shield will come right off.”

Edited to add (Dec. 23, 2011)
I found this great video that shows the different ways to take apart bearings. Check it out!

What to use to clean your bearings…

Once all my crowns are removed, I put all my bearings in 70% rubbing alcohol. Better yet, if you can find 99% alcohol (you usually have to ask for it behind a pharmacy counter) do it. Paint thinner and kerosene also work but they stink and those are hard on your skin. Bearing-specific cleaner purchased at your local skate shop is also an option. Some use environmentally friendly options as well, but be careful in what you choose because if there is any film or residue left on those little balls, they won’t roll nice. EG: Dish soap isn’t great for bearings.

Soak em if you got em!

My rookie mistakes!

The first time I washed my bearings I used soap and water. I let them soak too long and the little balls were literally rusting before my eyes. If you’re going to use water, make sure you have a way to dry them FAST! When I saw them rusting, I panicked and grabbed my hair dryer and frantically started blow drying them on the hottest setting. Don’t do that either because it kinda shrinks the outside rubber shield which helps hold your bearings together. If you have a hair dryer with a cool setting and want to try that out, go for it. More about drying your bearings below.

Cleaning the crowns…

One of my teammates told me to not wash the crowns with chemicals or rubbing alcohol as it can break down the plastic. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but now I give them a warm soapy water bath and get the dirty grunge of lube and dirt off with a toothbrush, while I let my bearings soak in the alcohol. Then I rinse them in water. To finish the crowns, I give them a quick rinse in the rubbing alcohol, to ensure any leftover residue is gone, then towel dry.

The crowns get really gross when mixed with your lube and dirt.

Cleaning the bearings

I give them a good scrubbing with a toothbrush, shake them in the alcohol and repeat until they are clean. Then I towel dry them to get rid of the excess moisture.

Brusha, brusha, brusha

Don’t have a brush? Here’s an even BETTER option!

After you take them apart, put all your bearing pieces in a water bottle, fill it alcohol and shake it for 20 minutes. This advice comes from Coach Pauly himself! Under most circumstances, the friction of shaking the bearings in the alcohol is enough to get them clean.

Edited to add (Dec. 23, 2011)
Below is a great video that explains in detail how to clean bearings. Some of his techniques are different than what I outline, so you can choose what works best for you!

Drying the bearings…

If you use paint thinner, that stuff evaporates very quickly. Other cleaners may need a little help to dry before the bearings start to rust. If I can’t find 99% rubbing alcohol and use a lower percentage, I use canned air and give them a blow to make sure. But if you’re lucky to know someone who owns a mini air compressor, that’s a cheaper alternative. Give them a good blow to ensure all moisture is out of the bearing.

Its recommended you have more than one can handy for this job because the cans freeze up and lose their blowing power with constant use.

Inspect your bearings

Make sure the balls are smooth, no pits and the inside track is clear of debris or other issues.

Putting your bearings back together…

Using the little screwdriver that I used to pry off the crowns, I position each individual ball to approximately match up with the sockets of the crown.

Sometimes you need a steady surgeon hand...

Then I press the crown in. If everything’s lined up nice, it should snap in easily. Careful not to push too hard to crack or break your crown.

Dont force it! Use your screwdriver to reposition balls while the shield is sitting loose on top if its not snapping in easily.

If you have the bearings with the spacers in them, all you have to do is snap the rubber shields in place.

What if your bearings fall apart during the cleaning process?

Watch this video…

Add the lube…

This can be done before putting on shields/crowns or after. But it also depends on the kinds of bearings you have and how they are put together. I’ve done it both ways, mainly because sometimes I forget before replacing the shields. I do one drop on opposite sides of the exposed bearing, though I’m told one drop is also good enough or maybe do 3 drops for good measure. You don’t need to use skateboard lube for this. You can go to Canadian Tire and purchase 3 in 1 automotive oil and use that as well. Speed cream that hairdressers use for their clippers and other devices is just fine too. Essentially, any kind of lubricant on the market that is meant to reduce heat and friction will work on your bearings… another Coach Pauly tidbit.

Give them a spin…

Put the finished bearing between your fingers and give it a spin! It should have a nice WHHHHHIIIIIIRRRRRRRR sound (but not tin-sounding, otherwise you need more lube), come to a smooth stop and roll for a decent amount of time. If you hear odd noises coming from your bearing or if it stops abruptly during spinning, you probably shouldn’t use it anymore. Or you can try to soak them overnight and give them another shake or brush to try and make them come back.

Keeping your bearings cleaned and maintained is a good way to extend the life of your bearings which in turn, helps you save money. Make sure you give yourself a couple of hours to do this process and it’s way more fun doing it in groups.

Happy cleaning!!!!

**EDITED TO ADD Talk to your local skateboard shop tech guy for more information about cleaning bearings! They skate in way more dirty/nasty areas than we generally travel too and are a wealth of information! They also sell fancy cleaning containers to help clean your bearings more effectively!

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42 thoughts on “How I clean my roller skate bearings

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  5. I just found this via a google search – exactly what I was looking for. I am thinking of pulling out my skates which have been in storage for a while and could not remember what I had to do to clean and lube the wheels!!!

  6. This idea’s great, but what if you can’t remove the housing on your bearings? Can you put the entire bearing + housing in alcohol, shake it, then lube them when they’re dry?

  7. A few things,

    The thing you are removing is not the “back shield,” it is the crown (sometimes called the retainer or cage). The bearing you are cleaning only has a rubber shield on one side. I don’t think taking off the crown will hurt anything; It just seems unnecessary. Most people only take off the shield because it is much simpler to put back together.

    Bearings with metal shields can be cleaned (except cheap sealed ones). Metal shields are held into place with a metal C-ring along the outside of the bearing. The C-ring can be removed with a pin and the shield will come right off.

    Other then those two points, thanks for the write up.

    • My local skateboard shop keeps old bearings at their repair table. They may be willing to give/sell for cheap bearing parts as my shop has given me old bearings (to make jewellery) in the past.

  8. Hello again,
    Do you think its good if i just use the bearing without the crown? i mean, keep only the rubber shield side. (inside wheel of course).
    I use Bones Ceramics.
    TY

    • No! This is a horrible idea. Please do not do this! One of the skaters in our league did that and she compleatly lost her wheels. Without the crown the ball bearings will fall right out. At best you will ruin your expensive bearings, at worst you will seriously hurt yourself. I have heard of people leaving the rubber shield side off so they can easily service thier bearings, but never leave the crown off.

  9. The purpose of a steel ball bearing is to reduce friction and support radial and axial loads. This is achieved by using at least two races to retain the balls and transmit the loads through the balls. Usually, one of the races is held fixed. As one of the raceways rotated which causes the ball to rotate, and because the balls are rolling have a much lower coefficient of friction than if two flat surfaces is rotated against the other.

  10. Hey Roller Girl,
    Thanks for this web page. I’ve been cleaning inline skate bearings for a while but had never encountered bearings where you couldn’t take the side panels off. Your “Remove Bearing Shields Seals” link says you can’t! Oh well, I got them clean anyway.
    I suggestion: I’ve always used mineral turpentine to clean the bearings. Yes it’s stinky, but you don’t have to worry about drying the bearings afterwards. In fact, after you add some oil for lubrication (a couple of drops per bearing) the mineral turpentine/oil mixture is a great, light, somewhat self-cleaning lubricant. (I learned that years [decades] ago when I was lubricating the valves of a trumpet :-)
    Cheers, Geoff

  11. I don’t have a bearing pull, but I read thar you can remove your bearings by putting your wheels in your trucks and wiggling them. I tried it, and it worked with the back bearings, but now I still have one bearing in each wheel. Do you know of another way to get them out without a bearing pull?

    • Hi Erica,
      I didn’t know about bearing pullers until I got some “quad” skates! I’d always used a screwdriver on an angle to work the bearings out. This worked fine in inline wheels, but not quad wheels. Since then I’ve modified my technique to use a flat-head (“minus” sign) screwdriver to push the bearing out from the opposite side. Works like a charm :)

  12. Now, what advantage does pulling the crown out have over simply taking the rubber shields off of the outside for cleaning? I know I’m a skateboarder, through and through, but I’ve never seen it done that way.

    • The bearings I had at the time had the crown exposed and I found I could clean the more thoroughly. But I’ve done it removing the rubber shields as well. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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  14. Metal Bearings with a non-removable pressed in shield CAN be removed. It requires a verrrry small flat head screw driver.

    Please be aware they shield will not ever go back on – only remove one and place bearings into clean wheels with the open side facing the middle.

    Gently place it flat on a solid surface, place the screw driver in the small crack between the inner ring and bearing shield. Be cautious to stay “shallow” so you do not wreck your inner mechanisms.

    Clean as per usual.

    Derby love <3

    Sly

  15. Late to the party here, but thanks for the writeup – it’s better than most I’ve seen. A few things though:
    1) I agree with a previous commenter – there’s generally no need to remove the crown, unless your bearings are dirtier than you should ever let them get. The solvent, with some agitation, generally gets between the crown and the bearings and does its job.
    2) Really, really avoid paint thinner and other similar solvents. They do a great job, but as you pointed out, they’re hard on the skin. They also evaporate and then condense on stuff in your house – if you’ve ever used Varsol inside, then noticed that smell again days later when you use something like a toaster or an electric stove, you’ll know what I mean. I no longer use the stuff.
    3) Really, really try to get the 99% isopropyl alcohol. In my experience, water can sometimes put a patina of rust on bearings no matter how careful you are, and the other 30% of that ‘alcohol’ is water.
    4) Mix your 99% alcohol with a bit of oil, (motor oil, gear oil, 3-in-1 oil, etc) at a ratio of about 9 parts alcohol to 1 part oil. Alcohol is hydrophilic, so it attracts water. It also evaporates fast, which means it cools the bearings, and moisture can condense on them. But adding oil leaves behind as a thin film that helps prevent rust.
    5) If you don’t or can’t clean your bearings often enough, lube with good grease instead of oil. It’s not gonna slow you down – how long your wheels roll when you spin them with your hand is NOT a good indication of how well they roll when you’re skating. But the grease DOES tend to trap some grit BEFORE it gets to the bearing surfaces – and that grit shortens the bearing life. (Grease can be harder to clean out, so I only use it when I know my bearings are going to get extra dirty, like if I’m skating outdoors).
    6) Relating to point 3 – don’t use water to clean your bearings! I’m an electronics technologist, and I use water to clean circuit boards all the time, so this isn’t a ‘Water! Oh noes!’ reaction. I used it on bearings once, and saw that patina of rust I mentioned form really fast. You might be OK using water, but you might not. Alcohol is 5 bucks a bottle, and even crap bearings are 20 bucks a set – using water isn’t worth the risk.

    Cheers!

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