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Inline Skating Newsletter Article

Skate Maintenance in a (big) Nutshell

By Liz Miller

Updated 5/4/01

Equipment maintenance is a very important part of the inline lifestyle if you are interested in making the most of your investment and in rolling swiftly, comfortably and safely wherever you want to go.

Boots and Brakes

Let's start with the easiest maintenance tip: how to store your skates between excursions. Because all brands of inlines make your feet sweat, be sure to air dry your skates after each use in a well-ventilated area. This helps reduce the bacteria buildup that causes smelly boots. If the tongue is covered with molded plastic, make it a habit to secure it with the buckle or laces as though your foot were in the boot. This prevents it from forming a crimp where it's jammed between the plastic sides, which can be very painful on your forefoot next time you skate.

Replace the heel brake before it wears down to the screw head or metal core. If you don't, you risk dragging that on the pavement or worse, wearing off the screw head that allows you to remove it. Some brake pads have a wear limit line molded into the rubber to help you gauge when to buy a replacement. Make it a habit to buy two or three brakes at a time because even good skate shops have a hard time stocking parts for every type of skate they've ever sold.


The more you skate--whether time or distance--the more wear on your wheels. It's a good idea to make a visual check of the wheels each time you skate to judge how much "coning" has taken place. A coned wheel looks significantly shaved off on one side, usually the inside edge. Often only two or three of your wheels show this type of wear, but even when you see it on just one wheel, it's time to rotate.

You rotate your wheels to even out the wear so they'll last longer, the same way we do with our automobile tires. This not only saves a few bucks, but you get a smoother, safer ride. Beginning skaters may not see any signs of coning for weeks or even months after learning to skate. For other types of skaters, skating and wheel types, even with frequent rotation, a set of wheels might last only a few weeks. That's why it's important to watch for those shaved off edges.

Rotation step one might be the hardest: find that little tool that came in the box with your skates! Usually it's one or two Allen wrenches sized 3/32". Find a large, clean surface with room to lay out a rag, your tools and the removed wheels and bolts, axle guides, and heel brake where they'll stay put and in sight. The easiest way to manage a skate while removing its wheels is to grip the cuff upside down between your thighs, toe end facing out.

Rotation diagram
There are two parts to wheel maintenance: flipping each wheel so the flattened side faces the opposite direction (usually away from the inside arch), and rotating the wheel positions. Swap the positions of the wheels with the most wear with those showing less wear. When you've rotated 3 or 4 times, swap wheels between the right and left skate to make up for extra wear from the inevitable stronger leg. Use a dry toothbrush to gently whisk away the grit from each bearing surface, taking care not to grind the dust inside.

While the wheels are still out, wipe down the boot and wheel frame and clear the frame of any debris that might be lodged inside.

Do you want to Rock and Roll?

Now is the time to decide if you're interested in "rockering" your wheels. Most skates come with axle guides that can be rotated to shift the center wheels up or down and the end wheels farther out. A rockered setup positions the two center wheels slightly lower than the toe and heel wheels. The resulting curved wheelbase is more maneuverable for quick turns, which is desirable in hockey or for artistic skating.

A flat wheelbase is much more stable for beginners and cruising on a bike path because you roll with all four wheels on the ground instead of just the front or back three (depending on where your weight is). Some skates allow you to slightly extend the wheelbase length even more by rotating the spacers in the front and rear wheels. These spread the end wheels a bit farther apart which adds stability in forward skating.

Buy the right wheels for your skates

When it's time to replace your wheels with a new set, be sure to purchase the proper size for your frame. Speed wheels won't fit on most recreational skates because they're too tall. Also, you want to choose the wheel profile that best suits your type of skating. Taller, harder, skinnier wheels roll faster, wear out slower, vibrate more on rough surfaces and tend to lose grip on smooth surfaces. Shorter, softer, fatter wheels roll slower, turn and grip better, give you a lower center of gravity (slightly better for balance) and wear out faster. Aggressive skaters use short, hard wheels, while fitness skaters with only rough asphalt to train on would choose tall and soft.

Rather than become a wheel wizard yourself, take your skates to the closest inline specialist and ask for help or to have the work done for you. It can be a tedious and frustrating process removing the wheels and both bearings from each wheel, installing the old bearings in the new wheels, and installing the new wheels on your skates. But some of us think it's kind of fun!

Non-Serviceable Bearings

Even if you avoid puddles and sand, dirt and moisture have a way of filtering into your bearings and slowing you down. Lower cost bearings are usually not serviceable because their shields are not designed to be removed. Clean the outsides of non-serviceable bearings by brushing them with a dry toothbrush.
It's possible to convert non-serviceable bearings to serviceable, although you will always have one side exposed because the shield is missing. To do this, use a tiny, sharp object to pry off either of the fixed metal shields and discard it. After cleaning, install the open side of the bearing toward the inside of the wheel to keep dirt out.

Serviceable Bearings

Speedskaters require optimum speed, and freshly cleaned or new bearings are considered a major contributor to that goal. The rest of us, frankly, aren't likely to notice the difference! (See Dan's article on this, Bearing a Little Left.) Those who are interested in the bearing cleaning ritual, read on.

Clean and lubricate serviceable bearings immediately after they get wet, and when you begin to notice drag, unusual vibrations or squeaking.

  1. Remove wheels from skates and extract both bearings out of each wheel. (Bearing pushers are available to make this a bit easier.)
  2. Remove one shield from each of the bearings. With luck, this will be as easy as peeling back a little rubber ring to expose the balls and inner race. Metal shields are usually held in place with tiny C-rings, which must be pried out from under the edge of the bearing case. Use a push pin to pull out the exposed end of the C and pop it out. Once the ring is removed, you can pry off the shield. (If it's stuck, try easing it off with the push pin or soaking it in solvent for a few minutes and then tapping the bearing on a hard surface.) Leave the balls and cage installed.
  3. Collect all shields, C-rings and the open bearings in a container just deep enough for submersion. Place the bearings open side down so the dirt can drop out as it dissolves. Add your favorite solvent:
    • Full strength biodegradable detergent, or
    • Citrus solvent, or
    • Nail polish remover (flammable and smelly!). Avoid highly flammable solvents such as lacquer thinner and gasoline.
  4. Swirl the bearings in the container and probe with a soft toothbrush if necessary to remove dirt and grease. Soak really gritty bearings overnight.
  5. Rinse the bearings with clean solvent or, to remove all traces of solvent, use hot soapy water (but expect a longer drying time).
  6. Dry thoroughly, either by air drying or using a blow dryer.
  7. Re-lubricate with just enough of your favorite grease or oil to coat the balls and race, using:
    • 3-4 drops of sewing machine or other household oil (spins slightly faster than grease but attracts grit and requires more frequent maintenance)
    • Grease (might take a few miles to expel residue and spin freely but lasts longer).
  8. Reassemble bearings, wheels and skates.