How To Shorten a Bike Chain Without a Chain Tool? (2023)

As a general rule, if a chain is 0.5% to 1% longer than when you purchased it, you should consider replacing it. Or, at least, shorten it to the ideal length. The reason being, an incorrect length of bike chain can cause a major shifting performance drop and take the fun out of cycling.

What if you have a loose chain now and don’t have a tool to shorten it? In this article, we will guide you on how to shorten a bike chain without a chain tool. All you’re going to need is some regular tools you use in your daily life like a hammer, a piece of metal, and maybe a plier.

These homely tools will help you remove the existing chain links and shorten the chain to your desired length in minutes. It’s that fast and easy. Let’s show you how it’s done.

Why is Shortening a Bike Chain Important?

There is a recommended length for bike chains on all bikes. When it comes to riding comfortably and preserving the life of your rear derailleur, you should try to stick to this length.

When your bike is in motion, it is the chain that rotates the wheels. Getting your bike to move properly will be an uphill battle if your chain does not fit properly. There are few reasons that may require you to resize your bike chain.

Shortening Bike Chain

New Chain Is Overly Long

Chains are usually sold in standard lengths when manufacturers sell them. It is always going to be longer than you need, so you have to buy a chain and cut it to the desired length.

Typically, there are 116 links in a bike chain. These are the kinds of sizes you’ll see on most boxes, though some might have significantly fewer links depending on the type of bike.

Link & Size Definitions

The distance between chain pins is usually counted as a link by manufacturers, so this isn’t exactly accurate. On a bike chain, there is one inch between each “proper” link and half an inch between pins.

The above should only be remembered if the chain length seems too short in links. Links consist of two half-links. As such, two pins are counted instead of one. Most of the time, it will be pin-to-pin.

Mechanical Emergency

On a ride, you might have to shorten your chain due to a mechanical emergency. This is when a chain tool comes in handy, otherwise, you will need a lift.

A wonky front mech can damage the chain, especially when shifting to the lowest and highest gears. If the chain section is damaged, you’d have to remove it and maybe ride the middle gears until the chain is straightened.

In addition to your repair kit when you’re out on the trail or road, you’ll want to carry “master links” or “quick links” for your bicycle chain. It is possible to repair a chain without these, but chains that come with them need one in order to be repaired safely.

Changing Cassette

A chain may also need to be shortened if you switch to a cassette with a much smaller sprocket (the biggest one). For instance, you could modify your cassette if you moved house and no longer wanted an easy gear for steep hills, by changing from an 11-34t to an 11-28t or 11-25t cassette.

Having a smaller cassette range results in smoother gear changes since the sprockets are closer. It may be possible to use the same chain after making a small cassette change, such as a 34t to 32t. Chains that are too long do not have as severe an impact as those that are too small.

A chain that is too short can destroy a rear derailleur when you try to hit the biggest sprocket on the back while also hitting the chainring on the front. If you were in an emergency situation, you’d only cut a chain too short.

How to Shorten a Bike Chain Without a Chain Tool?

Using a chain tool or not, the steps you should follow are pretty similar. It is, however, likely that you will need many (but simple and easily found) tools without a Chain Tool.

How to Shorten a Bike Chain Without a Chain Tool

You will need the following tools to shorten a bike chain without the aid of a chain tool:

  • A small nail
  • Pliers
  • Hammer
  • A small clamping mechanism

Once you have got your hands on all the tools, you can get started!

Step 1 – Measure Your Bike Chain

Measure the chain to figure out how long you have it and how many links to cut off. A chain that measures more than 12 inches (across 12 links) is generally considered too long. Ideally, you should shorten the chain (or buy a new one) at this point.

If you’re using a high-power ebike, it puts high strength pull to stretch the chain. That’s why 750 watt electric bikes use specially treated high-strength chains for added mileage you may expect.

Step 2 – Prep Your Bike and Locate Master Link

Mount your bike on a holder or lay it flat, so the chain can be accessed easily and stays stable.  It is recommended that you clean the chain and mechanisms, remove dirt that may have been caught in the cassette, gears, etc.

When you clean your bike chain, you also have the opportunity to locate the all-important master link. After you’ve got it, you can loosen up the ends and start removing the links. Each link should be visited in turn.

Now that you have removed the master link, be sure to keep it safe.

Step 3 – Remove the Pins and Reassemble

If you are removing the master link from the chain, use the clamp to keep the loose connection in place. You may need to gently hit the pin with the pliers to get the pin out.

You may not see the link right away, but keep working on it until it appears. For each link you want to remove, follow these steps.

Get a good idea of how many links will need to be removed when measuring the links for the first time.

It is now time to reattach the chain ends. After completing, you’ll have to reconnect the master link. At this point, you might need a screwdriver. The master link will click once it’s in place.

If possible, I’d suggest you ride your bike one last time before you pack up your tools.

Can I Wash My Bike Chain with Water?

A dirty bicycle chain can not only negatively impact a bicycle’s performance, but it will also cut down the longevity of the chain. It is important that you regularly oil and clean the chain of a bicycle to ensure smooth shifting and acceleration. This will prolong the life of the bicycle chain as well. Warm water is usually recommended for washing the bike.

The Bottom Line

Hopefully, now you have a good idea of how to shorten a bike chain without a chain tool. As you can see, t doesn’t take a lot of skill or a professional mechanic to get the job done. The chain of a bicycle will stretch with normal cycling wear.

It’s possible to get the same amount of performance out of your current chain – there’s no need for a new one! There are obviously cyclists who prefer to replace their chains, but you can still get the same performance out of the one you have by playing smarter.

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