Anyone who has been in the market for bearings have probably heard of the ABEC scale for bearings. We're here to tell you it's worthless.
Though most skateboarding brands have good intentions in mind, using ABEC is a marketing tactic to sell skateboard bearings.
Allow us to explain...
The ABEC scale is a bearing industry standard for the tolerances in manufacturing of ball bearings. It goes ABEC 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9; the higher the number, the tighter the tolerance.
It was established by the Annular Bearing Engineering Committee (ABEC) of the American Bearing Manufacturer Association (ABMA) to provide manufacturers dimensional specifications to meet standards in each class.
It only measures dimensional tolerances in manufacturing; it translates nothing about load handling, speed, materials, or lubricant. In the world of skateboarding, all of these other things are so much more important than dimensional tolerances.
Bones Bearings call themselves "Skate Rated"
Your next thought might be: ok, but still, a high ranking in the ABEC scale will mean the bearing was manufactured with tighter tolerances, thus being better.
A higher rank will mean less discrepancies among bearings, but since the scale only measures tolerances (that is, maximum allowed dimensional errors) an ABEC 3 bearing could have better lubricant, seals, and maximum load than another bearing rated ABEC 9.
So does high precision in bearings actually matters for skateboarding? The short answer is not really, the long answer is it depends on what you want to give importance to.
Instead of going by the ABEC scale, we encourage our customers to evaluate the quality of their skateboard bearings based on criteria that’s actually relevant to skateboarding.
1. Brand Reputation
Flashy new bearing companies pop up here and there, with promises of better bearings. But it is important to look at the history of the brand.
We support other names who have also been dedicated to delivering quality products for years. Did you know the Bones do not give ABEC rating to any of their bearings? Instead they opted for "Skate Rated" as they designed their bearings specifically for skate applications.
Zealous is also a brand well known by skaters and for good reason. Their humble bearings were among the first affordable bearings with built-in spacers. We also like Oust for their premium materials and attention to engineering.
Of course, we also dig our esteemed Dragon Bearings for their various lubricant choices and labyrinth seals.
If you feel duped by reading this about the ABEC system after all these years, you may not be willing to take another skate company’s word on this.
This is why we also recommend checking out what fellow skaters say through product reviews. Whether you do this by combing the comment section or going to the skatepark and polling the locals, you can take comfort in the unapologetic and honest nature of fellow skaters.
To properly understand the functionality of your bearings, you’ll need to understand how and what they’re made of. We’re talking seals, shields, balls, lubricants, retainers and all the other details that keep you rolling.
For more clarification on what to look out for, Stoked Ride Shop’s Ultimate Bearing Guide provides a comprehensive analysis of all the moving parts, but here is a brief overview of each to get you aquatinted.
Bearing seals and shields are designed to protect the bearing from outside debris, while helping to keep lubricants inside the bearing. There are a lot of types out there, but we will focus on the two main ones.
Metal - The most durable, but the hardest to clean and provides the worst seal from debris. These are often not removable.
Rubber - Rubber is easily removed, but more easily damaged. There are two kinds: regular and labyrinth. Regular seals seal slightly better than metal. Labyrinth seals sit in a groove in the metal race and create additional distance for the dirt to travel. These are the best seals for skateboard bearings and found on Dragon Bearings.
Two races (or rings) makeup a bearing and they are call the inner and outer race. They act as tracks for the balls to roll in. The races are held together by the balls themselves, so standard ball bearings are not too keen on side loads.
Different companies do various things to the races to make the balls run smoothly, but ultimately it lubricant used is usually the most important.
A quick reminder that bearings are not meant to be floating by themselves on the truck axle; they are designed to be held in place by washers and a spacer between them or designed with built in spacers. This reduces some of the stress when the bearing experiences side loads.
It is widely believed that ceramic balls are superior to the standard steel balls because they are stronger and smoother.
Ceramic is stronger and smoother than steel, but steel is malleable. Where ceramic cracks, steel deforms. This translates to ceramic balls disintegrating once they take damage while steel will endure.
Keep in mind that after taking damage ceramics should be replaced. If you’re looking for bearings that will take abuse and last, steel are the better balls.
Commonly used ceramics include Si3N4 (Silicon Nitride), ZrO2 (Zirconium Dioxide) and SiC (Silicon Carbide), with Silicon Nitride being the hardest and most practical in skateboarding.
TLDR; Use steel when load is changing (tricks, park, etc). Use ceramic when speed is needed (racing, slalom, etc).
Lubricants are arguably the most important part of the bearing. They help the bearings to flow smoothly and, depending on the lubricant type, will either help with speed or longevity.
Most bearings, including our RACE and CERAMIC styles, use a light oil which provides a faster spin. The downside here is that it tends to slowly leak, due to the thinner nature of the oil, and will need re-lubing from time to time to keep your bearings at optimal performance.
If you are looking for lower maintenance and a longer lasting bearing you'll be best with a grease based bearing such as our ENDURE or BUILT styles. These will need a bit more breaking in to get the thicker grease flowing, but once done you'll be left with very little maintenance, if any, on your bearings.
Used to evenly space the balls within a bearing.
Retainers use one of two main materials; Nylon or Metal (usually Steel or Brass). Nylon retainers offer less drag than their metal counterparts and provide a faster, smoother ride. In addition to this, a nylon retainer will still work fine even if cracked or deformed most of the time, while a deformed or cracked steel retainer will scratch the balls (hah hah), you might see metal shavings coming out of the bearing when this happens.
Outlined below are various ball retainers, from the open-faced, removable, 'crown' style, to the 'cage' style (as shown in the gold and silver) which cannot be easily removed.
At Fireball Supply Co., we take pride in the transparency we have with the skaters who put our bearings to the test. With our approach of providing an accurate understanding of product to our customers, we aim to keep you 100% satisfied whether you’re rocking Dragon ENDUREs or Bones Swiss Ceramics.
As always we urge you to take the utmost care of your bearings. Here's a handy guide to looking after and getting the most from your bearings.
If you have any other questions about the ABEC scale or any bearing-related topics, feel free to reach out to us directly here and we’ll get back to you with an answer in no time.