To quote the legendary Chevy Chase, “it’s all ball bearings nowadays.”
While I’m relatively certain he wasn’t talking about longboards, the quote still stands — ball bearings are a key part of a great ride. When longboarding, it’s easy to think about high-quality wheels or a great board at the expense of the small, lowly bearings. Overlooking the quality longboard bearings is a costly mistake, as they can be the difference between a slow, noisy drag and a smooth, wicked fast rush.
But what is a bearing? Is there more than one type of bearing? Are all bearings ball bearings (actually no)? And why do you need to think about which one is the best for your longboard?
Stick around and find out.
What Is A Bearing?
A bearing is a machine that reduces friction between moving parts and constrains motion to only one desired direction. The simplest bearing, called a plain bearing, is no more than a simple shaft rotating in a hole. This has direct contact between the bearing and the shaft, often producing a great deal of friction.
Bearings that reduce friction can be ball bearings, rotating bearings, even magnetic bearings — where magnetic forces repel the metals to bring friction to near zero.
For longboarding, the only bearing we need to pay attention to is the ball bearing. It’s all ball bearings nowadays.
Ball bearings, in contrast, are devices composed of tiny steel or ceramic balls that rotate around a small track. They allow two pieces of metal to rotate around each other, as opposed to rubbing against each other. The small balls that rotate between the two plates reduce friction between the two pieces of metal, thus increasing speed, efficiency, and longevity.
The balls are held captive with a device called a cage. The cage keeps the balls properly placed inside of the bearing, and creates small reservoirs of lubrication behind each ball, which helps keep the friction to a minimum.
It’s this lubrication and reduction of friction that is critical in making longboards ride so smoothly.
How Does A Bearing Work?
So how does a ball bearing work on a longboard?
Simple: it connects the wheel to the axle. Without the bearing, the wheel rotation would be directly rotating against the axle, causing all sorts of friction and mayhem. With fresh bearings in rotation (ha), your wheels will glide over the axle, making for a smooth ride.
Each wheel has two bearings that are fitted with a spacer — a device that keeps the bearings in the wheel the proper distance apart from each other. While you can technically install bearings without a spacer, it is highly discouraged.
Without spacers, your longboard bearings can fall out of alignment. This can lead to noisy wheels or even bearing failure mid-ride (a dangerous situation). Importantly, longboard spacing is often slightly further apart than traditional skateboard spacing. Keep an eye on that!
Related to the spacer is the speed ring. A speed ring or a speed washer is a small ring that is placed between the outside of the bearing and the nut. This reduces any contact between the nut and the bearing, which significantly lowers friction. Lower friction equals a smoother ride. While some longboarders have called speed rings optional, they help extend the life of your bearing and can give you a bit more performance than you had before. Definitely include them!
How Can I Get Great Skateboard or Longboard Bearings?
Like everything mechanic, skateboard and longboard bearings fail. They fail from getting dirty, from rusting, or even from having been manufactured from shoddy parts.
Being such a critical piece of the longboard, you have to choose a bearing which will give you the ride you want, while also being durable and cleanable enough to prolong its useable life.
Luckily, there is a rating system for bearings that helps discernable bearing buyers (like you) make an informed decision on which bearings to buy.
It’s called the ABEC scale.
ABEC (Annular Bearing Engineering Committee) Scale ranks a bearing into one of five categories: 1, 5, 7, and 9. These categories determine how much tolerance of deviation from engineering specs a bearing is allowed to have. Category one may have up to 10 micrometers of deviation from its spec, while ABEC 9 has 2.
It does not determine the strength or durability of the bearings themselves, but precision is a big factor in the speed and durability of the bearing. A good thing to remember: the higher the rating, the smoother the ride.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the entire story. While ABEC ratings determine the precision of the bearings, that’s all they do. They’re the same for longboard bearings or highly advanced machinery that does thousands of RPM. ABEC 9 bearings would be overkill in a longboard. Additionally, bearings for this nature are able to handle heavy radial load (forward motion) but low axial load (lateral/across the body motion). Longboards endure much stronger axial loads, so ABEC ratings don’t do much to help with durability.
As a result, a lot of companies that exclusively manufacture skating bearings have developed additional methods to test and rate their bearings, which take the unique elements of skateboarding and longboarding into account.
Additionally, many companies (from countries with more lax standards), slap an ABEC rating on their product without it actually conforming to the ABEC guidelines. Some packages have even advertised ABEC 11! That’s not even a real thing!
So, ABEC is a good guide and a great starting place, but do not get caught up in the ABEC rating over everything else. The most important thing is a smooth ride, not if your bearing could also function in a nuclear reactor.
Check out our picks for the 8 Best Carving Longboards.
How Do You Care For Your Bearings?
The number one rule is to not skate in the rain. The majority of bearings (even ones with ceramic balls) are metal, and metal rusts. Rusted metal doesn’t glide. Rusted metal damages a bearing. No amount of cleaning can fix a damaged bearing.
Ok, so you remembered to never longboard in the rain, but somehow, you wound up skating through a big mud puddle. What’s the game plan?
First, wipe off your shoes. No one likes mud inside.
Then, quickly clean out the bearings. The best way to clean them off is to remove the wheels and open up the bearings. Flip your board upside down and grab a wrench.
Then, take the nut off the axle and slide the wheel off. Reposition the wheel at the very end of the axle, and twist at an angle to pull the bearing onto the axle itself — like popping open a beer. Once that is caught, you can gently push the other bearing out from the inside of the wheel.
Next, gently open the bearing shields. This is easier for nylon shields and can be accomplished with a thin knife. For metal shields, look for a clasp on the outside, but do note that some metal shield bearings cannot be opened.
From here, gently soak the bearings for at least several minutes in a simple cleaning solvent (cleaning alcohol works great). After they’ve soaked, remove them from the solvent and quickly dry them. A can of compressed air can help them dry quickly.
Finally, add a light amount of lubricant to the bearings. But what lubricant does the trick?
Do not use something like W-D 40. In fact, do not use any heavy, oily lubricant not built explicitly for skating. Even a traditional bearing lubricant — not skating lubricant — is a bad idea.
Because these types of lubricants can attract dirt. Traditional bearings used in heavy machinery are not in contact with dirt, mud, and grime. Therefore, the lubricant for those traditional bearings could be exclusively focused on making the bearings go as fast as possible.
With longboards, you have to deal with dirt.
Luckily, there are many brands of specially made skating lubricant that can help grease the bearings without attracting grime.
Speed cream by Bones is a great synthetic lubricant that keeps the bearings rolling without attracting too much gunk. It features very low viscosity (thin) and a high temperature tolerance, and produces a micro-thin layer of lubrication as the bearings circulate. Fast and long-lasting! Well worth a purchase!
After cleaning your bearings, lubricating them with a skate lubricant (not W-D 40), it’s time to reassemble your board.
Pop that shield back on, replace the bearings, and lock that wheel in place!
Great! You know what bearings are, you mastered the ABEC scale, you’ve remembered that ABEC isn’t a reliable indicator of how good your bearings are, and you know how to clean your bearings. You’re a pro.
What Does A Good Bearing Do?
Then, you wonder, “but how much of a difference can a good bearing make?”
The thing to remember is that a new bearing is a good bearing. What makes a difference, predominantly, is the wear and tear on the bearing itself. All bearings will break down, and once they start to wear, your ride will suffer. While high-quality bearings will last longer and give you faster rides, a new, cheap bearing is often better than an old and beat up high-quality bearing.
How can you tell if your bearing has gone bad?
One easy way is to give your wheel a spin. Lift your longboard off the ground, so the wheel isn’t touching the pavement first, then give it a roll. How long does the wheel roll? If it seems abnormally slow, you probably need to swap out the bearings.
Spin it again. This time, give a listen to any sound. If you hear a prominent rattling sound, the odds are that your bearings have worn down. That sound is friction — the parts not seamlessly gliding over each other like they would in a new bearing.
Again, while some of this may be fixed with lubrication, no amount of cleaning or maintenance can make up for damage.
Another method is to wiggle the wheel. If the wheel moves left and right along the axle, it’s gone bad. Replace immediately!
For a solid set of bearings that aren’t getting banged up, the consensus seems to be to replace them about once a year.
So you gave your wheels a spin. It sounded like death. The wheel slid from side to side. You’ve finally admitted you need a new bearing.
What Are The Fastest Bearings?
Bearings aren’t the only component of a fast ride. Good wheels, a proper axle, and a solid board are huge contributing factors. We mentioned earlier that ABEC 9 bearings can rotate way, way faster than a typical longboard can go. But, a bad set of bearings (or a really rusted set of bearings) can absolutely slow down your board by providing too much friction.
What you want are bearings that are well-lubricated, won’t overheat at high speeds, and can take both lateral and axial damage. Ceramic bearings, when properly made, have the advantages of not expanding when heated, not rusting, and producing less friction than steel. They are, however, usually much more expensive than steel, and can sometimes be a little more brittle.
Besides, as you’ll find out below, the land speed record for a board was made on steel bearings. Go figure.
Are There Differences Between Longboard Bearings and Skateboard Bearings?
Technically, no. Both bearings are a standard 608 size. Longboards and skateboards do have a slightly different spacing between each bearing within a wheel, and longboards often have larger wheels than skateboards. It is for this reason that a few of the companies we’ve come across have designed bearings with a longboard in mind. However, these bearings will work fine in a skateboard. Remember, a new bearing is a good bearing!