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Vegetable Oil for Lubricating Chainsaws (2008)


Tangentially related: Boston Dynamics' BigDog, which utilizes hydraulic actuators, would constantly leak hydraulic fluid while operating, be it through normal weepage or catastrophic leaks (e.g. burst hoses). Initially, they used petroleum-based hydraulic fluid, but as they began to operate out in the woods etc, this proved to be untenable, so they eventually switched to using a vegetable-based hydraulic fluid that would biodegrade within a month.

Bonus: when catastrophic hydraulic leaks inevitably occurred and sprayed hot hydraulic fluid over the hot exhaust, you would be rewarded with the lovely smell of a deep fryer!


Tangentially related, in the early 00’s in a datacenter belonging to a large multinational corporation, there was an IBM as/400 that frequently leaked puddles of yellow liquid.

A puddle was found under it; the puddle was cleaned up. The puddle came back. Repeatedly.

The data center management was perplexed. The internal as/400 professionals were stumped. IBM techs were called in. They assured the datacenter’s management that this couldn’t be coming from the hardware. The machines simply didn’t contain yellow fluid.

No leaks in the ceiling, no overhead pipes, it wasn’t coming from the chassis, no other hardware exhibited this weirdness. Food and drink had never been permitted inside. But it was coming from somewhere, because no matter how many times they cleaned it up, another puddle appeared.

When finally a camera was surreptitiously deployed to surveil the afflicted machine, it didn’t take long before the camera revealed one of the datacenter staff members was just walking up to it and urinating on it. No particular reason, just something he felt like doing.


Dunno how anyone could be perplexed ... piss smells like piss.


Piss smells like urea, and urea has industrial uses.

If you have 0 ideas about what it is, and piss seems improbable, I could see the confusion


nobody sniffed it?


I bet the IBM workers sniffed it, but then decided they couldn't write in the report "stop pissing on our servers and blaming us!". So instead they wrote "the servers don't contain any matching yellow liquids. We recommend using a camera to identify the source of the leak".


In industrial settings, sniffing unidentified mystery fluids may lead to a very bad time.


If it was in a datacenter, maybe the ventilation was too hard...


The hydraulic autopilot steering system in my boat uses a biodegradable soy-based hydraulic fluid, and it’s at least 20 years old. Similar non-marine products are readily available on amazon.


The more traditional kind of dog leaks all the time as well


... but they and their excretions are fully biodegradable.


My paper shredder's user manual recommends* periodically shredding a paper with oil drizzled on it for lubrication. It says vegetable oil is fine.

*At least, it did until I shredded it.


> At least, it did until I shredded it.

Is this a compulsion common to paper shredders, similar to how every label maker must be stored in a container labeled "Label Maker"?


I thought the first thing you did was label the label maker itself label maker


The first thing I do is print a label with my email address and stick it on the bottom of the label maker, out of anger that my last label maker grew legs and walked away in a datacenter.


This surprises me; vegetable oil gets sticky as it oxidizes. I would have expected something like mineral oil.


I don't know about other manufacturers, but Fellowes brand shredder oil is just expensive canola oil.


Confirmed: check the MSDS sheet.


I wonder if the material going through the shredder will remove the lubricant over time so buildup isn’t as much of a concern.


Some vegetable oil oxidizes much faster than some other. Sunflower oil oxidizes rather quickly, olive oil I haven't noticed oxidizing yet.


According to this chart, Olive oil has 12 times more oxidative stability than Sunflower oil! Coconut oil has the highest oxidative stability due to its 92% saturated fat content:


I cut/thread pipe with Olive oil. I also use in on material in my watch lathe.

I started using it because I ran out if cutting fluid, and noticed no difference.

(It seems like I'm always being told to use this oil, or cleaner, when I'm working on a project. Before paying for the brand name, I always look up the MSDS on the product. Many products can be made at home with experimenting.)


The last time in needed to lubricate my paper shredder, I used sewing machine oil on it.


5w30 here…


Some of my scuba diving friends go ice diving in Canadian lakes. They use chainsaws to cut access holes through the ice, and always lubricate those chainsaws with vegetable oil so as not to contaminate the water with petrochemicals.


I live way off grid, and we just use our own olive oil, on our electric chainsaws, powered by solar power. Apart from the actual hardware, it’s a neatly closed loop.


> our own olive oil

How long have you been off grid (or did the olive trees pre-date you)?


The trees are mostly several centuries old - long abandoned when we arrived.


I would think fish oil would be more appropriate for this usage.


Didn't even know that was a thing! Will have to look into getting the cert.


Komatsu builders of forest harvesting machines.

HE GEN II Natura is a hydraulic oil that is both biodegradable and a certified environmentally friendly product, biodegrading by at least 60% within 28 days. The oil does not accumulate in plants and animals and does not spread in ecosystems. The oil has a synthetic base with largely bio-based and renewable content and exceeds the certification requirements. The oil has minimal toxicity, is non-toxic to aquatic life and has been checked for allergenic and environmentally hazardous substances. HE GEN II Natura is specially adapted for use in sensitive nature areas as it is based on synthetic esters and is certified compliant with the requirements for environmentally friendly hydraulic fluid. Compared to mineral-based hydraulic oils, HE GEN II Natura has less impact on the environment in the event of an accidental leak or spill.

Komatsu SCO Natura environmentally friendly saw chain oil has vegetable and renewable content. The oil is biodegradable, non-bioaccumulative and does not spread in ecosystems. The product is also non-harmful to humans, animals and plants. This saw chain oil offers superior equipment lubrication and adheres well to the saw bar and saw chain, reducing wear and extending the equipment's service life. Moreover, oil consumption can be reduced by up to 50%. Komatsu saw chain oil is suitable for use in sensitive nature areas that risk harm from conventional mineral-based oils.


This does not jibe with my experiences or anybody I know's experiences, I think it needs more development. I've had friends who used vegetable oils then they dried out or worse turned rancid and gummed stuff up. Especially bad if a tool is left for a while, or in a hot place, though I guess this is not so much a problem in Europe. This doesn't seem like a significant enough problem to justify that anyway, "thousands of gallons" across a continent is not actually that much.


When you say they used "vegetable oils", do you mean they used a vegetable oil bought from the grocery store, or that they used one of the blended biodegradable oils specifically made for chainsaws?

I've used both the Stihl Bioplus ( and Husqvarna XGuard ( for a couple years now, and have no complaints other than the price. I do occasionally switch to back to mineral oil when I run out, so perhaps this has helped me to avoid problems.


I'm not familiar with chainsaw oils specifically, but there's a similar trend in gun lubricants, where many (non-military) ones are vegetabe oil blends with additives that are supposed to prevent gumming etc; I suspect these are very similar, if not the same compounds.

There is still an ongoing debate on whether these are good enough etc. On one hand, some people swear by them, and non-toxicity is especially nice when it's going to be heated rapidly right next to your face. On the other hand, there are certainly quite a few recorded cases of things gummied up when stored long term. It appears that the additives do help quite a bit, but it's still a failure mode to consider, unlike synthetic oils.


Tbh I wouldn't worry much about toxicity compared to the shit in GSR. Anecdotally I've never tried it but some people have tried something vegetable and it went sticky anyway. Cleaning guns regularly is enough of a pain in the ass already without maybe having to before going out shooting. I'd also never use it in a CCW or something ready for home defense because of that risk.


Christmas tree farms. They plant tiny forests and cut down every tree, running saws for many hours. I grew up near Christmas tree farms in Western Oregon, and its an odd but significant agricultural activity in certain areas. Over multiple plantings the amount of oil sprayed around could cause issues. In the area where I lived some farms have converted to wineries, so that somewhat marginal land does get converted back to food production.


The article says it's not straight vegetable oil, but lubricants "based" on vegetable oil, specifically with additives to address oxidation (going rancid).


If you look at history you'll find that animal and plant oils were used as lubricants for a long time, but were replaced by petroleum specifically because of those problems you noted.


There are drying oils and non-drying oils. Drying oils are what you want to put on your cast iron pan to polymerize the oil into a coating. Tung oil would be a bad choice for chain lubricant because it will gum up, but castor oil should be more suitable for said chain.


I was once an adherent (no pun intended) of this method, but nowadays I saturate my pans with sunflower oil instead.

After every use they get a soapy wipe out, rinse, then a one minute heat with a quarter inch of oil in the pan. The iron just soaks it right up so it’s all ready and greasy for the next fry.

Painting the pans with flaxseed oil leaves an uneven spidery brown pattern. If food sticks to the pan you have to sacrifice some of the coating. It wasn’t a durable solution for me.


A quarter inch? That seems a lot.

Cast iron pans?


Indeed, gas engines probably drip or exhaust more oil. Certainly 2 stroke chainsaws.

There's a rumor among cyclists that "3 in 1 oil" is bad for bikes because it contains vegetable oil that gums up. But cyclists will debate about oil for days.


Same with guitar players and fingerboard oils. Use mineral oil because it's food-safe and won't go rancid. Same reason I use it on my cutting board.


Mineral oil is fine for a fingerboard, but there is a caveat. Being a non-drying oil, it won't dry and nothing will stick to it. So if you put mineral oil once, it is mineral oil forever. If you try to put linseed oil or tung oil on it later, it will not adhere.

I use boiled linseed oil and beeswax on the fingerboards of guitars I've built. Linseed oil is a drying oil which will polymerize when it reacts with air instead of going rancid like food oils.

Drying oils or mineral oil should both work for the job as long as you do not try to mix them.


Wait a moment. Mineral oils are food-safe?

Don't they accumulate in the body and act as endocrine disruptors?


Isn't a certain degree of gumming-up advantageous? It would keep the oil in place after it works it's way into all the nooks and crannies, ending up more like a grease. This behaviour could be good for corrosion prevention.


You want your oil (and grease) in the bearing surfaces, not in nooks and crannies. Tackiness can indeed be good though.


That's not how vegetable oils gum, they go sticky in a way that's not like grease. Hard to explain but if you feel them both there's a huge difference. Grease will stick but isn't stick-y in the same way if that makes sense.


That's a very strange rumor since 3in1 is petroleum-based.


Rumor dispelled. Thanks!

The closest thing I could find to mentioning vegetable oil was this thread:

But the claim is without a reference, and the MSDS certainly appears to be the latest word.


Cyclists debate about oil for days. Cycle mechanics just use WD40.


Without falling into an oil debate, no cycle mechanic I’ve ever spoken to uses or would recommend wd40 for chain oil. It’s far too thin and is primarily for freeing stuck parts and cleaning. It’s not meant for long term lubrication - it dries out or get washed off almost instantly.

3 in 1 is fine, but the main advantage of a proper chain lube is that they don’t attract grime and dirt as quickly


Waxing (also possible with bee wax) once you streamline the process (chain link, hot water for cleaning, cheap wax warmer the one women use and since the new chains (every 5000-10000km) are heavily pre-lubed you need 3 steps to remove the mineral oil: 1. soak in gasoline or alike for 1 day, 2. degrease and then 3. finish it off with white spirit) is imo the best for the chain.

Clean and smooth. I rewax every week (200km), takes me 10 min in total, also a a convenient way to inspect and adjust my whole drivetrain, regularly.


WD40 is primarily a mixture of mineral spirits and light mineral oil. The mineral spirits evaporate, the oil stays behind.


You can use WD40 to clean the chain, but you better put real lube on the chain afterwards.


WD-40’s longer name is “water displacement 40”:


WD40 is a terrible choice of chain lubricant, it’s too volatile.


WD40 is a penetrant, not a lubricant, I don’t know any Mechanics who use it.

Definitely will debate lubricants for days, but no one who is in the industry uses standard WD40


I think this is part of the love for the machine, and is a part of hacker culture I find endearing even if it's not necessarily rational. I'd put tweaking your Linux windowing system into the same category :)


If you read the article it isn't just the thousands of gallons, it is also breathing petroleum aerosols, etc.

These foresters seem to have good experiences with it-


Have any studies been done on breathing vegetable oil aerosols?


We'll probably get some solid observational data, due to the rise of vaping, but that will take a few years.


Reminds me I used a drop on a ThinkPad x60 noisy CPU fan. It held long enough. Not that this anecdote means much.


We have a pecan tree in our back yard. These are "self pruning" trees, meaning they occasionally drop heavy limbs. When a big one fell, a neighbor volunteered to slice it up with his chainsaw for us. He let us know he was using canola oil to lubricate the saw, as the wood was good for smoking.


Apparently mechanical engineers learn about lubricants: how they're made, why they differ, what to use when. Greases, oils, and penetrating lubricants all are variations of the same thing: fats, soaps, additives. You figure out what your application is and how the lubricant needs to perform, then design your lubricant to purpose. (fwiw the market for lubricants is about $125B globally and grows every year)

Also, really dumb fact: you can make gallons of your own sexual lubricant for pennies. Just mix a teaspoon of xantham gum with a pint of water (and if you want to preserve the whole batch, 10 drops of grapefruit seed extract). The stuff you buy in stores is about 100x more expensive and contains potentially-harmful additives.


I use nothing but vegetable oil in my saws and have been doing so for decades. When the frying oil becomes too dark I filter it through a paper drip coffee filter and store the result in the wood shed, to be used when harvesting and preparing the ~8m³ of firewood needed to heat the farm through the Swedish winter. It works fine in the cooler climate we have here, in really hot places you might want to add something to make it stick better. I hardly ever get a broken chain, the bearings don't wear excessively and I get to use them until the chisels have been filed to the last remaining mm.


Stihl makes soy oil based chain oil - you can get it at mcguckin in boulder, so it must be relatively available. I bought some to try it and its fine. Unlike other uses for lubrication - the relatively short life of chain oil (most is expelled quickly) means that oxidative drying isn't really an issue.


I've been lubricating my chainsaw with vegetable oil because one of its uses is chunking up wood for my smoker.


You can't even buy a non-vegetable chainsaw oil in my country.

The only time I used such a thing was when I was a kid and I put regular machine oil into the chainsaw. My father never explained the difference between different oils to me. I will never forget the frown on the chainsaw repairman's face.


Using some Mazola on my chainsaw because I can't find or didn't buy proper oils sounds like a typical thing I'd do (that people will shame me for but I don't care)

Admittedly my chainsaw is a small cheap electric one, but still. Unsurprising to me that it turns out it is ok to use what I have on hand.