At some point in our cycling history, someone decided that WD-40 was bad, and for a period of a few years I stopped using it on my bicycles. In retrospect, this is a little like someone saying, “Guys, waffles aren’t good anymore. No more waffles. Now we only eat crepes.” So I just ate crepes, but then later realized that no, waffles are killer. They’re the best. Don’t even say the word ‘pancake’ or utter the blasphemy ‘French toast,’ because I’m not interested.
And that’s how I feel about WD-40 now.
Let’s just back all the way the F up, and start at the start. Water Displacement formula number 40 was the product of a home chemist and tinkerer named Ivor Lawson, who sold it to the Rocket Chemical Company in the ’50s. That’s a cool name for a company, but eventually WD-40 became such a large part of their sales revenue, they renamed themselves the WD-40 Company. This is all Wikipedia nonsense you can look up for yourself, but I bring it up here to make three points. First, Lawson went through 39 recipes for this stuff, before deciding the 40th was good enough. Second, he did all this at home, and third, WD-40 has been on the market for more than 60 years, and people are still spraying it on everything from frozen seat posts to persistent eczema (that second one’s a lie).
And hoo boy did they nail the design on the can!!!?! That deep blue with the hard yellow contrast, it can only be one thing, right? I think Warhol painted the wrong can. Like you never confuse a Belgian waffle with a Moldovan waffle, right? Sorry, Moldova. And then the red cap! Like a little Shriner, tucked away in your arsenal.
WD-40 tastes like my mom’s sewing machine. Wait. That’s maybe not right. Our senses of smell and taste are so intertwined I sometimes superimpose one on the other. WD-40 smells like my mom’s sewing machine. It tastes like baby asparagus and angel tears. When I get a faint whiff of WD-40 in the air, I think of my dad and that one time I almost ran over him with the car. It’s not quite Proust’s madeleines, but it’s the same idea.
Now, to bring it back to the bike.
In my 20s, when I was flogging beater bikes all over the streets of Boston, I used WD-40 as chain lube. It’s not the best chain lube, but it’s also not the worst, especially in summertime. Later, I used it to free up frozen parts. It’s not the best penetrant (PB Blaster is), but it’s not the worst. It’s also not the best rust preventer (Frame Saver is), but it’s a pretty good one. I think of WD-40 as the three-way wrench (4-5-6mm hex) of spray stuff. You can’t fix everything with it, but you can do most stuff pretty well.
The thing is, WD-40 never leaves your bike worse than it found it, and that’s a pretty good trick in a world where sweat, road salt, rain, sand, grit, and the bus all have it in for your moving parts. In my pantheon of useful shit, it sits proudly alongside Park Blue Grease. I like to imagine them chatting about lubricity and the visual power of the color blue there in the darkness of the basement.
What are the real knocks on WD-40? I have never not lost the little red straw that slots into the spray nozzle. In fact, I have seldom been able to hold onto the handsome red cap either. So sometimes when I’m rummaging around one-handed, while holding a wrench of some sort in a very specific position, I inadvertently spray it all over my arm, but there again, isn’t this a stealth feature, the eau de cologne of the inept bike mechanic?
What else? That there are better products? We’ve covered that ground, but also, here’s the thing. There are better bike mechanics. There are better bike riders. As someone smart once said, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of a well-timed blast of WD-40, especially if it ends up where you aimed it.”