Choosing skateboarding gear is like choosing any other kind of outdoor fun gear: it isn’t always as easy as ABCD. But it’s not too difficult or confusing either. With this skateboard bearings buying guide, you’ll be able to select a set of ball bearings that roll really well without costing your life’s savings.
Ceramic and titanium skateboard bearings are awesome, but it doesn’t always need to be ceramics or titanium bearings. Steel bearings may be some of the cheapest skateboard bearings on the market today, but if you think they’re far worse than ceramics, think again. In fact, good old steel skateboard bearings are some of the best options you can buy today.
How Do Skateboard Bearings Work?
Maybe you’re wondering how long ball bearings have been around. But can you believe that ball bearings have been around for over 200 years? Philip Vaughan, a British inventor, registered the first-ever patent for the modern ball bearing in the year 1794. Vaughan’s bearing consisted of metal ball bearings that rolled against a groove that comprised of an inner and outer race.
Skateboard bearings are small bits of metal, and they may not seem like the most essential part of the bearing assembly. But without these small rolling pieces of metal, skateboard wheels wouldn’t move at all. Or at least, they wouldn’t move as they do or as efficiently.
But how do skateboard bearings actually work? Skateboard bearings work by drastically decreasing friction between the ground and the skateboard wheel. Close your eyes right now and imagine how difficult moving cars and skateboards forward would be if engineers didn’t invent ball bearings.
Bearings roll rather than slide, and rolling friction is significantly lower than sliding friction. Try to imagine for a moment that engineers didn’t create bearings and that cars and skateboards and other contraptions would be sliding rather than rolling on the road. It would be a difficult existence, and it’s possible that you and I wouldn’t enjoy pastimes such as skateboarding, roller skating, and inline skating as much as we do.
So, the bearings roll, and that rolling motion moves the entire bearing which then causes the skateboard wheel to roll forward. The majority of the weight goes to the bearings. This is why you want super strong bearings, bearings that are able to stand up to side loads and other kinds of loads.
Parts of a Skateboard Bearing
A skateboard bearing consists of the following parts, each of which is crucial:
- Ball bearings
- Bearing retainers
- Inner races
- Outer races
- Speed washers/speed rings
Let’s now look at each part to gain a clear understanding of its contribution to the overall bearing design and function.
If you disassemble your skateboard’s wheels, you’re able to see the ball bearings. They’re small balls that roll and spin along a smooth, highly polished track. This track is found between the inner and outer metal races. These little components live inside a structure known as a retainer, and it’s they that power the wheels.
Should you have fewer rolling balls or more? Skateboard bearings typically contain 6-7 balls. Generally, the more the balls, the greater the rolling friction and the slower the spin. And the fewer the balls, the lower the friction and the faster the spin.
When purchasing bearings for a beginner or a kid, the number of balls inside isn’t super important. The most important is ball quality and toughness. As long as they’re rolling fine, you really shouldn’t worry about the actual number.
Inner Bearing Races
The space between the outer race and inner race is where you find the bearings. The inner race stays in contact with the wheel axle, and it features a groove on its outside circumference. The bearings roll over and along this smoothly curved and polished depression. Note that the balls live inside the retainer, and that the retainer itself exists between the outer and inner bearing races. Good skateboard bearings have an inner race made from durable materials. And the same goes for the outer races.
Outer Bearing Races
Like the inner race, the outer race has a groove cut into it, but unlike in the case of inner races this groove is on the outer circumference. Together, these two races holds the bearings in so that they don’t fall off during motion. The outer race is prone to cracking if subjected to extremely high forces.
Skateboard Bearing Spacers: What Are They and What Do They Do?
Some skateboard wheels have built-in spacers between the bearings. But most wheels don’t come with spacers, nor are spacers absolutely important in skateboard bearings.
But what are spacers and what role do they perform inside bearings? Spacers are small components with a cylindrical shape, and they’re positioned on the axle in the center of the wheel. They’re placed between the bearings (each skateboard wheel has two bearings).
Even though bearing spacers are optional in skateboard wheels and indeed all kinds of skate wheels, they’re not like useless. In fact, they’re a useful component if you know how to set them correctly in the core of the wheel.
If you set the spacers the right way inside the wheel, they help keep the bearings aligned perfectly. And when the bearings are in perfect alignment in the core of the wheel, you’re able to tighten the nut on the wheel axle however you like without adversely affecting the spin.
Spacers aren’t something to think too hard about when purchasing skateboard bearings for a kid or a beginner. In fact, many skateboarders out there don’t use spacers at all and don’t even know why they exist in the first place.
Aside from helping you tighten your wheels without restricting the spin, spacers play another critical role. If you’re into powersliding and prefer using soft skateboard wheels as opposed to harder wheels, spacers are your friend.
With spacers placed correctly inside the core of relatively soft skateboard wheels, there’s less vibration. Also, the wheel spins much more smoothly, and your powerslides are butter smooth. But if you don’t set the spacers right, do you know what you’ll get? You’ll get bearing chatter and a roll that’s way worse than ideal.
Look at the graphic above and see where the spacers and washers are.
Speed Washers: What Are They and What Do They Do?
Also known as speed rings, speed washers aren’t optional. Some skateboard bearing packages come with extras including washers and spacers. So be sure to check the description before buying to make sure the deal includes a set of washers. They’re usually 8 speed rings in the box.
Speed washers are a must-have component on skateboard wheels. Washers are small metal parts found in two places. There’s a washer between the outer bearing and the axle nut, and there’s another speed washer between the inner bearing and the truck’s hanger. See the image above to understand where the speed washers are on a skateboard wheel.
Some people call them speed rings, others call them speed washers while others call them bearing washers. Don’t get all confused; it’s the exact same thing they’re referring to.
So, what do speed rings on skateboard wheels do? Speed rings/washers on skateboard wheels help minimize friction between the bearing and the wheel axle nut. And when there’s less friction between the nut and the inner bearing and between the hanger and inner bearing, the wheel spins faster.
But that’s not the only role speed rings serve. Another important function of speed washers/speed rings is protecting bearings from wear and damage. If you decide some weird reason not to put the washers in when attaching the wheels, two things will happen. The first consequence is that your wheels will really struggle as far as speed. Second, you’ll need to replace your bearings sooner due to ridiculously fast wear and tear.
How Often Should I Replace the Washers on My Skateboard’s Wheels?
How soon you need to replace the washers depends on how much you skate. The harder and more frequently you hit the street or skatepark, the sooner your wheels will need new speed washers. One way to tell if the washers need to be replaced is when upon inspection they seem worn down. Another situation that warrants washer replacement is if they get all rusty or corroded.
What’s the Right Size Speed Washers?
The correct size of washers is determined by the diameter of the axles. Most skateboard trucks have 8mm axles, and that’s how big the hole in the center of the washers needs to be.
If the package comes without washers, you can skate without but that’s not something I recommend. Some skaters believe speed washers are an optional component just like spacers, but I disagree.
First off, speed washers aren’t expensive. They’re inexpensive, readily available components. You can buy them in packs of 100 and forget about buying them again for many months. Secondly, they slow down bearing wear while allowing for speedier rolls. D0n’t these two reasons make washers something every skateboarder should have on their wheels?
Skateboard Bearing Retainers
Bearing retainers are also referred to as bearing cages or ball bearing separators. This component houses the bearings between the outer race and inner race. One of the functions of retainers is to keep the balls separated from one another while keeping them held together.
Another important role played by this crucial component is maintaining the symmetrical radial spacing of the ball bearings. And when you apply lube to your bearings, most of it go to the retainer from where it percolates and distributes to the bearings.
Bearing retainers isn’t something to obsess about though. If the bearing checks all the other boxes, buy it. You won’t find bearing retainer information in most cases anyway.
Bearing Shields: Serviceable vs. Non-serviceable Skateboard Bearings
Some skateboard bearings are serviceable, meaning you can easily clean them, lube them up, and continue using them. Others aren’t serviceable. Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether a set of bearings is serviceable or not. Many skateboarders opt to put in new bearings instead of spending time cleaning them and lubing them all the time.
Once the bearings clog up and stop spinning as they should, these folks just swap them out for new ones. And that’s perfectly OK because good skateboard bearings aren’t too expensive. There’s many options on the market today that cost no more than $20.
Serviceable bearings typically come with rubber protective shields. These shields prevent dirt, grime, and moisture to some extent from getting in. Some bearings have two shields each on each side of the bearing while others come with only one shield.
Bearings with two shields offer the most protection. It’s super hard for grit and debris to pass through the shield and that’s nice. But double-shielded bearings are harder to clean compared to single-shielded ones.
Some skateboarders choose to go shield-less though. And that’s totally fine, except that dirt gets in more easily.
What Are ABEC Rated Skateboard Bearings?
Most bearings on the market today are marketed as ABEC rated, and that’s a good thing. The ABEC rating system was developed by the U.S. Annual Bearing Engineers Committee and has been around for over 3 decades.
This rating has 5 tolerance classes:
- ABEC 1
- ABEC 3
- ABEC 5
- ABEC 7
- ABEC 9
Generally, ABEC 9 bearings are better performers than ABEC 1 rated bearings. And a higher ABEC rating is generally better than a lower one. But this rating system focuses on bearing tolerances rather than actual material quality, speed, and durability. Knowing that a bearing is ABEC 5 or 9 tells you nothing about whether it’ll roll per your expectation and whether it’ll last.
When purchasing skateboard bearings for kids and beginners, it’s best to stay in the ABEC 3-ABEC 7 range. You don’t want the highest-precision bearings on a beginner or kid’s skateboard wheels. Nor do you want any wheels that can’t spin.
But, do you really need ABEC rated wheels? No, you don’t. Consider this: Bones bearings are some of the finest in the bearings market, but they’re not ABEC rated. So don’t think too much about this rating.
What Are Skate Rated Skateboard Bearings?
Bones bearings are skate-rated rather than ABEC rated. But not being ABEC rated doesn’t make them bad bearings at all. In fact, it seems like not being ABEC rated is a good thing for Bones bearings. Because they’re some of the fastest and best performers on the market.
Bones engineers figured out that skate bearings don’t need to be made to exceptionally high precision. According to Bones, only high RPM applications such as those in the 20,000-30,000 need really high-precision bearings. If you had skateboard with 54mm wheels spinning at 20,000 revolutions per minute, your speed would be about 127 mph! Obviously, no skateboarder ever travels that fast.
Most skateboard riders travel at below 30 mph. We’re talking between 2000-4700 RPM here. This means they don’t need the highest-precision bearings ever made.
For this reason, Bones makes skate rated bearings. Skate-rated bearings are skateboarding-specific options that are designed to satisfy the needs of boarders.
ABEC vs Skate Rated Ratings: What’s Better?
The ABEC rating controls tolerances and dimensions such as the width and diameter of the raceways (grooves), the smoothness, and shape of the raceways. But the ABEC rating doesn’t care much about important stuff such as side loading, ball bearing grade, material quality, ball/race clearances, retainer type, and impact resistance.
As for skate rated bearings such as Bones, these are designed to withstand side loads during turns and high impacts such as those from jumps and tricks. The manufacturer also claims that skate-rated bearings also tend to spin faster and outlast their ABEC rated counterparts.
I’ve skated both skate-rated and ABEC rated bearings, and I can say without fear or favor that Bones bearings outshine others pretty much all the time.
If you’re shopping for a beginner or kid skateboarder, you can use either ABEC rated or skate rated options. But unless you’re building your skateboard from the ground up, you’ll have to ride the bearings the complete board comes with. They’re not always good bearings, but replacement bearings can be purchased on the cheap down the road.
Is ILQ Rating the Same as ABEC?
Unfortunately, you can’t do an apple-to-apple comparison between ABEC rated bearings and ILQ bearings. A bearing labeled ILQ 7 may not necessarily be engineered to the standards of the seemingly similar ABEC 7 standard. In fact, ILQ isn’t a standard but a brand.
There are also bearings made to specifications other than ILQ, ABEC, or Bone’s skate-rating standards. They may not be bad bearings and there’s no reason not to choose them if the spin is decent and the price right. I’ve bought beginner rollerblades that came with SG bearings or some other proprietary bearing, and they performed OK.
Here’s a simple rule: if skateboard bearings spin reasonably well and aren’t cracked or something, buy them.
Types of Skateboard Bearings
There are three main kinds of bearings to choose from namely:
- Steel bearings
- Ceramic bearings/Swiss bearings
- Titanium bearings
Steel Bearings: Standard Skateboard Bearings
Steel skateboard bearing are the most economical option, plus most are durable. This is why steel skateboard bearings have become the industry standard. But it’s not like all steel bearings are cheap. The price depends on the actual quality of the steel used. High-grade steel skateboard bearings are definitely pricier than standard-grade steel ones.
One disadvantage of steel skateboard bearings is that they’re prone to rusting. So you want to avoid rolling through puddles. Also, steel bearings can be a little bulky, not that a beginner skater could ever notice that.
Steel skateboard bearings
- Are the most common/the skate industry’s standard bearing
- Are economical but high-grade steel ones can be pricier
- Are durable
- Easy to find online
- Prone to rusting and corrosion
Titanium Skateboard Bearings
Titanium is a low-density (lightweight) yet strong metal. Unlike steel, titanium has a high resistance against rusting and corrosion. But you still don’t want to be careless and expose this metal to wet conditions.
In terms of performance, titanium bearings are more or less like steel bearings. The upside is that titanium bearings can outlast steel ones because they’re less prone to rusting and corrosion. This is probably why these bearings are more expensive than steel ones for the most part.
Titanium skateboard bearings:
- Are less prone to rusting vs. steel bearings
- Are super strong
- Are durable
- Outlast steel bearings
- Are pricier than steel in most cases
Ceramic Skateboard Bearings
Ceramic bearings are the premium choice. These are high-quality skateboard bearings that you won’t find in complete beginner skateboards.
Compared to steel bearings, ceramic skateboard bearings are harder and tougher. That is, ceramic options don’t deform as much as steel ones do.
What’s more, ceramics resist heat better than steel ones, and this means they don’t expand as much. And because they expand less than steel options, there’s less friction generated. This means they’re better performers as far as speed.
One huge benefit of choosing ceramic skateboard bearings is that like titanium bearings, they resist rusting and corrosion better. This makes them ideal for cruisers and longboards primarily used for transportation. And because they roll like a dream, serious skateboarders love them a whole lot.
Not surprisingly, ceramics are the priciest skateboard bearings on the market today. Some of the better ones can cost well past $150. Let that sink in…$150…that’s enough to build yourself a decent custom skateboard. Or buy yourself/your child one of the best beginner complete skateboards for the money.
But there’s a downside too. While ceramic bearings are harder and tougher than steel bearings, they’re more brittle. If you’re always skating gaps, skating down stairs, and performing other high-impact maneuvers, ceramics aren’t the best choice for you.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even ceramic bearings have steel raceways. This means not every part of the bearing is rustproof. Which then means you shouldn’t always be trying to skateboard through puddles!
Ceramics are best suited for low-impact skateboarding such as cruising and longboarding.
How to Maintain Skateboard Bearings
- If using spacers, make sure to position them right to prevent bearing chatter.
- Even though you can skateboard without speed washers, consider adding them to your setup because they lead to a smoother, faster roll while slowing down wear.
- If the skateboard bearings are serviceable, make sure to clean them regularly. For folks who skateboard every day, once every two weeks would be OK. But for those who skate occasionally, it can be months before the bearings need a clean.
- Replace the bearings if they stop spinning smoothly.
- Avoid riding your skateboard through puddles or skateboarding in the rain to prevent water from getting in and causing rust or corrosion.
- If skate through wet conditions, keep skating to create enough heat to warm the moisture until it evaporates. You can also remove the bearings and place them near a heat source to quicken drying.
- Always keep your skateboard bearings adequately oiled with a high-quality lubricant to keep moisture out and encourage smoother rolls.
Wrapping It Up: Skateboard Bearings
Choosing the right skateboard bearings isn’t the hardest shopping process on the planet. But if you don’t know the specs and ratings to look for, it’s easy to pick out crappy bearings that hardly spin.
That said, most bearings on the market are OK-ish and whether they’re ABEC-rated or not, most are good enough for most skateboarders.
When it comes to price, it depends on bearing quality and brand, but you should be able to find $20 bearings that roll smoothly and last more than a few rides.
If buying for a kid or an adult beginner skateboarder, it’s best to stick with steel bearings in most cases. Because steel bearings are extremely tough and most importantly they’re highly affordable.
But if purchasing for a competition set, be willing to pay as much as $100 or more for Swiss-grade bearings.
If the bearings are serviceable, be sure to clean them regularly. And when they wear down, replace them.