How to Break a Chain Without a Special Tool

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Broken bike chain

Cycling is one of the most enjoyable athletic hobbies around. Not only does it keep you in shape, but it also lets you zip around town running errands while also seeing the local sites. A quality bicycle isn’t cheap, though, and you’ll need some technical know-how to keep your bike in shape. Sometimes, you’ll even need to know how to break a chain without a tool.

Although using a chain breaker will simplify the task, you can break a bicycle chain by gripping it with a pair of pliers and pulling it until the links come apart. Alternatively, you can use a screwdriver to pry the links free. If you have a hammer, you can even place the chain on a hard surface and break it apart using a few metal pins.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to break a chain without a tool. If you’re trying to shorten your bike chain but can’t wait for a chain breaker to arrive in the mail, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to do so using some of the basic tools you likely have at home.

Why Break a Bicycle Chain?

There are a few reasons why you might want to break your bicycle chain without using a chain breaker. Maybe you’re out for a ride and your chain suddenly snaps. Maybe you need to remove a few links to shorten your chain to fit a new cassette or chainring. Or, maybe you just want to take your chain apart to give it a good cleaning.

At the end of the day, though, most cyclists choose to break their chain to shorten it to 12 inches. Any longer than that and your bike will struggle to quickly shift into gear as you ride uphill. Whatever the reason, there are a few different ways to break a bike chain without a chain breaker. Let’s take at how to break a chain without a tool.

The Basics of How to Break a Chain Without a Tool

If you’re trying to break a few links out of your bicycle chain, prepare for a tedious and laborious task. Just accept that it’s a necessary process and embrace the work that you’ll have to do. The general process of how to break a chain without a tool can be broken into three steps:

  • Removing the chain – Your bicycle chain is locked into place by a master link. You’ll likely have to clean the chain to find the master link before you can disassemble it.
  • Shortening the chain – This is where things start to get difficult. You’ll have to learn how to break a chain without a tool by removing each link one at a time. This involves clamping and prying away pins until your chain is short enough.
  • Reassembling the chain – Once it’s short enough, you’ll then have to reassemble the chain on your bicycle by clamping the master link back into place and oiling your chain.

With a little patience and some elbow grease, you should be able to break and reassemble your bicycle chain within a couple of hours.

Step 1 – Remove the Chain

Before you can start shortening your chain, you’ll need to remove it from your bicycle. This process begins with finding the master link. The master link is a small, removable link that locks your chain together. Once you find and remove the master link, the rest of the chain should fall off easily.

If it doesn’t, you’ll likely have to clean your chain to remove any dirt or debris that might be preventing the links from disconnecting. To remove the chain, follow these steps:

  1. Start by flipping your bike over so that it’s resting on the handlebars and seat. This will give you easier access to the chain.
  2. Locate the master link on your chain. It should be relatively easy to find since it’s the only link that can be removed without a chain breaker. It should have a small arrow on it, indicating that it’s the master link and showing which direction to push it to break the link.  
  3. Once you’ve found the master link, grip it tightly using your dominant hand to create a Z shape. This should create enough leverage for you to pull downward and force the link apart.
  4. If the master link is relatively new or it simply won’t come apart, you can use a small screwdriver to pry it open.
  5. With the master link removed, the rest of the chain should fall off easily. If it doesn’t, you can gently wiggle it until it comes loose.

If you have trouble finding the master link or removing the retaining pins, consult your bicycle’s owner’s manual. It should have specific instructions on how to remove the chain from your bike.

Step 2 – Break the Links to Shorten Your Chain

Once you’ve removed the chain from your bike, you can slowly begin prying loose unnecessary links until your chain reaches the desired length. To do so, you’ll need a couple of pairs of pliers or a screwdriver, and a nail. Alternatively, you can use a hammer and a steel nail but this process is more likely to damage your chain.

Once you’ve assembled your common household tools, follow these steps to break your chain:

  1. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, grip one end of the link that you want to remove.
  2. Using your other hand, tap the nail into the pin holding the link together using the second pair of pliers. If you do not have a second pair of pliers, you can use the butt of a screwdriver or a hammer but tap gently.
  3. After removing the pins, pull the links apart using both pairs of pliers to break the link.
  4. Repeat this process until you’ve removed enough links to shorten your chain.

If you don’t have needle-nose pliers, you can also use a pair of regular pliers but you’ll likely find it easier to control your grip using a narrower pair.

Step 3 – Reassemble Your Bike Chain

Once you’ve removed the desired number of links, it’s time to reassemble your chain. This is a relatively simple process that can be done in a few minutes. To reassemble your chain, follow these steps:

  1. Start by threading one end of the chain through the rear derailleur.
  2. Pull the chain through until there are an equal number of links on both sides of the derailleur.
  3. Thread the other end of the chain through the front derailleur until there are an equal number of links on both sides of the derailleur.
  4. Thread the chain through the chainring until there are an equal number of links on both sides of the chainring.
  5. Pull the chain through the master link.
  6. Using your fingers, push the master link together until it clicks into place. You can use a similar Z-shaped grip to create leverage while reassembling the master link
  7. Re-oil your chain if you cleaned it completely. If you try to ride your bike without properly oiling your chain, it may become stuck and crack.
  8. Finally, test the chain to make sure it’s secure by pedaling forward and shifting through the gears.

If your chain is still too long, you can remove additional links by following the same process as outlined above. To avoid this complication, though, always measure your chain before breaking it apart.

Tips to Help Easily Break a Chain without a Chain Breaker

A chain breaker is specifically designed to help remove links from a bicycle chain but it’s not entirely necessary. As long as you have a few common household tools, you should be able to break the chain with ease. Nevertheless, here are a few tips to keep in mind when breaking your chain without a chain breaker:

  • Use a pair of needle-nose pliers – Needle-nose pliers will give you more leverage and make it easier to break the links. Using a larger pair of pliers may work to pull the pins loose but you’ll need a steadier hand to get a good grip. On the other hand, the smaller surface area of a pair of needle-nose pliers is far easier to control.
  • Be patient – Breaking a chain without a chain breaker takes a meticulous hand and some patience. Go slow and steady and don’t get frustrated if the pins are stuck in place. The more you rush and the more you try to force it, the more likely you are to damage your chain.
  • Work with a clean chain – It’s easier to break the links if you have a clean surface to work with. Taking a moment to clean your chain before breaking it will make it easier to grip and pry the links apart. Otherwise, your hands will get greasy and you’ll struggle to hold the pliers.
  • Lubricate your chain – Once you’ve reassembled your chain, be sure to lubricate it. This will help prevent rust and keep your chain in good condition.

Once you’ve successfully learned how to break a chain without a tool and shortened your bicycle chain, you’ll soon be shifting gears uphill without any trouble.

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Paul Tuthill
Growing up in Scotland, Paul developed a love for the outdoors and a desire for adventure from an early age.