Before I get into the specifics of skate bearing maintenance, understand that your bearings are the most delicate part of your skates, and therefore you should take the greatest care of them. The better you take care of your bearings, the better your skating experience will be and the less frequently you will have to replace them. This will not only save you money, but a lot of frustration over the long run dealing with corroded bearings.
Sealed or Shielded Bearings
Every skate bearing has what is known as a casing. The casing is basically what keeps all of the internal parts of your bearing protected from the elements of the terrain you skate in. Casings will be present in one of two possible forms. One is known as a sealed casing, the other is a shielded (also referred to as serviceable) casing.
Sealed bearings are just that, sealed. Their covering is not removable and thus you are unable to get inside of the bearing for cleaning and lubricating purposes. In most cases, you will find sealed bearings on lower-end, inexpensive skates. Understand that sealed and impenetrable are not interchangeable phrases here. Water, dirt, and dust can easily get into sealed bearings. The sealed part is used to describe the inability for you to service this type of bearing.
Shielded bearings on the other hand are what are known as serviceable. A serviceable bearing is typically found on middle- or upper-end skates. They provide a metal “cap” which can be popped off to access the inner workings of the bearings and allow for easy cleaning and lubrication. The images to the left are serviceable bearings and illustrate what I am describing.
To remove the cap, you can use the tip of a knife, a safety pin, or another thin object. Depending on the bearing, it may also have a seal around the cap which you must remove prior to removing the cap (see the top image). If it does not have a seal (see middle), you will simply need to remove the shield.
It is more likely that you will see a serviceable bearing nowadays, as they are more common than sealed bearings. Please note that you do not have to remove the cap of your serviceable bearing in to clean or lubricate it. It does however make the job much easier and results in a much better cleaning and lubrication and ultimately will prolong the life of your bearings.
Bearing Service and Maintenance
Now that you are aware of and understand the two types casings that you will find on skate bearings, it is time to put it all together to service and maintain your bearings.
But before I get started in the actual maintenance of your bearings, I feel it is important to go over a few preventative items. These are things you should avoid. Things that will ultimately add years to your bearings and result in fewer times you have to service your bearings. You may already know what some of them are, but you may also be presented with a few that are new to you.
With the preventative measures out of the way, it is now time to learn how you actually service your bearings.
Step 1: Remove the bearings from the wheels. This process begins the same way you would replace the wheels. Start by unscrewing the axles using the proper tool, usually an Allen Wrench. Next you will need to pop the bearings out of each side of the wheel. Each wheel will have two bearings, one on each side. This means there will usually be 8 per skate, or a total of 16.
Step 2: Your bearings have now been removed, allowing you to do a number of things with them. One of those things is to clean your bearings. To clean your bearings, begin by simply wiping each bearing off with a paper towel or a cloth. This will remove any excess dirt and grime. I also recommend that when cleaning your bearings that you purchase a bottle of bearing cleaner. Bearing cleaners come in aerosol cans that allow the cleaner to simply be sprayed on, or you can elect to purchase a bottle that allows you to fully submerge your bearings for soaking. Whichever method you choose, please follow the directions precisely to ensure proper care is being taken of your bearings. If you do not elect to purchase a cleaner, simply wipe them off. Whatever you do, do not use WATER! Remember, water to bearings is like kryptonite to Superman…it is NO GOOD!
If you have serviceable bearings, you can also elect to clean and lubricate the inside of your bearings as well. To do so, you begin by removing the shield. Recall that you do not have to do this, but I recommend that you do so for a more efficient bearing servicing. Lubrication of your bearings is very important because it is what allows your bearings to spin smoothly. Understand that the lubricant used within the bearing will affect the speed, and that different bearings use different types of lubricants. A common lubricant is grease. Grease offers protection against contaminants, but is not as fast as oil because it takes a slight amount of friction to melt grease to the proper lubrication consistency.
Other lubricants available are gels or oils, which are typically faster. They do however require more maintenance because they do not last as long. It is worth noting that re-lubricating a bearing with a different type of lubricant isn’t bad, but matching them is preferable.
A common mistake is the use of lubricating products such as WD-40. While it may seem like you’re doing the right thing, you should never use this product on your bearings. The reason is because it is not a true lubricant and it will corrode your bearings.
To lubricate your bearings, spray a few shots of the lubricant into the bearing or around the seal if it is an aerosol lubricant (remember no WD-40). You may also put a few drops in if the lubricant is a liquid. You will then want to allow your bearings to sit for a few minutes and wipe any excess lubricant gently off.
Step 3: After your bearings have had a few minutes to sit, it is time to put them back together (if you took them apart), and then put them back in your wheels. Put the shields back on the bearings if you removed them, and pop one bearing into one side of the wheel. Insert your spacer and insert your second bearing on the other side of the wheel. Put the wheels back on the frame and screw the axles in. Once you have completed your reassembly, you can now go enjoy your freshly cleaned and lubricated skates.
Video Tutorial: Bearing Maintenance for Inline Skates
Provided you have properly maintained your bearings, you will not have to replace very quickly or frequently. However, bearings will need replacement at some point. You will know that your bearings need to be replaced when they no longer glide smoothly or efficiently, and all service and maintenance is no longer effective. Ultimately, this is primarily a judgment call on the part of you, the skater. To replace your bearings, follow the same process outlined above for servicing them. Although brand new bearings will simply need to be popped in to your wheel in place of the old ones…no need to clean or lubricate them fresh out of the packaging.
You can of course elect to replace your bearings before they go bad. This is done frequently by skaters looking to upgrade to a smoother, faster bearing without giving up the comfort of their skates.
I cannot emphasize enough how much proper bearing maintenance will affect your skating experience. If it does nothing else, it will increase the life of your skates.