Sometimes, the most important part of something isn’t the one you can easily see. For example, anyone can understand why wheels are very, very important on roller skates, but there was a time when they didn’t roll all that well. It made skating more difficult, which meant fewer people did it.
The first boom in the popularity of roller skating came with the addition of ball bearings—or just “bearings”—to the wheels of roller skates. They made skating easy, and therefore fun, for people of all ages. In this post we’ll cover what bearings are, why they matter, and the types you can put in your skates.
What Are Bearings?
A bearing is circular with flat sides—a short cylinder or thick disk—and they usually come in sets appropriate to what they’re needed for. They are what make it easier for you to move fast and do some tricks. While you could still do those things without bearings, you’d find it quite difficult and much less fun than it currently is.
How Do Bearings Work?
To start with, it’s important to know what friction is. “Friction” is the resistance between two objects; generally, the more surface area something has the more friction it experiences when it contacts something else. Sometimes, such as with the fingerprints of your hands, that’s good—the resistance caused by friction helps you grip things. But if you want movement, friction is the enemy.
Ball bearings consist of a number of spheres spaced evenly apart in a “cage” arranged between inner and outer “races.” They turn around the axle as the wheel turns around them. The fewer and smaller points of contact that exist in a bearing mean less friction is created, which means you can move faster much easier than if the wheel was in direct contact with the axle.
What Kinds of Bearings Are There?
For roller skates, there are three types of bearings you should know about:
These might be termed a “normal” or “traditional” bearing. This is a bearing that will have an “ABEC” rating, ABEC (Annular Bearing Engineering Council) being the governing body that determines the rating of normal steel bearings. The ABEC rating system is more about quality than speed, but it will give you an idea of what you’re looking at; put simply, a bearing rated ABEC 7 is better than a bearing rated ABEC 5. However, the testing is so brutal it would be impossible for any human to match, so you aren’t likely to notice a difference.
Bearings that have a rating that includes the acronym “ILQ” (InLine Qualified) have been engineered and trademarked by a single manufacturer.
Most Swiss bearings are no longer made in Switzerland, but they’re still called “Swiss” because of how they’re made. What differentiates Swiss bearings from other types is the casing, the outer shields, and the inner race. A bearing that has all or even just some of these technologies qualifies as “Swiss.”
Swiss bearings are notably more expensive than normal steel bearings. In the past, this meant you were buying a higher quality bearing made with better technology, but there is a debate as to whether modern Swiss bearings really match up to the Swiss bearings of the eighties. If you really want Swiss bearings, your best bet is to look for the brands that are known for making them. This is a situation where brand does matter.
Swiss bearings don’t have an ABEC rating and are identified as just “Swiss.”
You may have heard at some point that certain sports and racing vehicles have ceramic brakes. This is because ceramic brakes are lighter, harder, and much more heat-resistant than traditional brakes, allowing for harsher handling at higher speeds. It’s the same way with ceramic bearings for your skates.
Ceramic bearings are made of a compound called silicon nitride, which means that they’ll pretty much last forever. No human could hope to harm them. They’re much harder than steel, self-lubricate, and are capable of withstanding powerful physical impact. Since they excel at reducing friction, they’re faster than steel bearings, too. They’re also a little more than one-third the weight of traditional steel bearings.
All of this means that ceramic bearings are incredibly popular. When it comes to bearings for your skates, there is currently nothing better than ceramic on the market. But you will pay for them. Making ceramic bearings is much more difficult than making steel bearings, so you’ll be paying for the time someone put in to craft them for you.
Ceramic bearings have no ABEC rating, as they far outstrip any normal steel bearing out there.
Do Bearings Need Care?
Oh yes. Steel (and Swiss, because they’re typically made of steel) bearings need regular drying, cleaning, and lubricating to protect them. Without these the bearings will heat up and may become malformed, or they may rust and either lock up completely or roll very roughly.
Even ceramic bearings, for all their being sent from heaven to make our lives easier and more fun, need care. While the bearings themselves are in no danger of rusting, surrounding parts are still made of metal and are vulnerable—particularly moisture, humidity, and grit. So a little bearing oil will make your life simpler and protect the considerable investment you’ve made by buying ceramic bearings.
How Many Bearings Do Wheels Need?
Roller skates and rollerblades need two bearings per wheel. So one roller skate needs eight bearings, and a pair of roller skates needs sixteen bearings. A set of rollerblades with three wheels apiece will need twelve bearings. The quick math is to simply count how many total wheels you have (that is, on both skates) and then multiply by two.
Rollerblades also need a “spacer” between the bearings of each wheel.
Which Bearing is Best?
That depends entirely on you. If you’re a casual, infrequent skater and regularly take time to care for your skates, plain old steel bearings with pretty much any ABEC rating are going to be adequate and especially cost-effective for your needs. Steel bearings have been around for ages and are used daily in a variety of industries, which means it’s hard to go wrong with them.
If you skate more often or are otherwise rough on your skates, Swiss bearings are made in such a way and with such technology that they’re usually better able to handle the increased friction of extra wear. Treat them well and they can last for decades. With how the global market is these days there’s really no need for Swiss bearings to cost what they do, but you may consider the expense worth it. Just realize you may be able to do just as well with traditional steel bearings if you made sure to maintain them.
Ceramic bearings are long-lived bearings for hardcore skaters and generally require minimal maintenance because they don’t rust. Professional speed skaters are likely to use them because they handle friction so well, and some trick skaters find them worth the expense. But ceramic bearings are the most expensive bearings available to roller skaters (usually over one hundred dollars), so you need to think hard about whether you really need them.
Time To Get Rollin’!
If you’re a really, really casual skater and only ever skate at a rink, the bearings that come with your skates are likely to last for either a very long time or until you buy your next pair of skates. If you skate a lot more often and especially if you skate outdoors, you can expect to need to regularly check your bearings for wear and damage. Make sure you know what bearings you have and keep them clean so you can keep skating.