What are longboard speed rings (washers) and are they necessary?

Sitting and talking with some beginning longboarders recently, I was surprised to hear them ask if I using speed rings (or speed washers) is necessary and if I use them. These speed washers – or speed rings – play a minor-but-critical role in how a longboard functions. Nothing that comes included with longboard components is extraneous, and that includes speed rings. Each of those pieces plays a role in the ultimate performance of your complete longboard.

What are longboard speed rings or speed washers and are they necessary? Yes, they are necessary. Speed rings are the point of contact between the bearings and both the hanger and the axle nut of the truck. When they are in place, the bearing is free to function as it was designed. Without these washers the bearing may come into contact with the end of the hanger or the axle nut, causing the shields to rub as the wheel rolls. This would slow you down. They are necessary but to make things easier, they are in-built in some bearings already (see examples here).

For such a simple component, speed rings perform a pretty complicated task. They function as links in a chain of parts that must all be in place for a longboard to roll optimally. If any of the parts in the chain is missing or gets damaged, the whole system is compromised. Let’s take a closer look at those parts to see why speed rings matter.

The Chain of Components along the Axle

Outer and inner race of a bearingTo grasp why speed rings are important, it helps to have an understanding of the parts of the bearing. The steel balls in longboard bearings roll in a channel cut into two pieces – the inner and outer races. I have opened up one of my bearings so you can take a look. The balls and outer race are the only constantly moving parts on a longboard, which is why they are polished and should be kept lubricated. Debris or metal-on-metal contact from a lack of lube result in friction, and friction is the enemy of speed.

The outer race is the part that contacts the wheel, and the inner race is the part that rests on the axle. The outer race remains fixed in place, but the inner race is a different story. A bit of clearance between the inner race and the axle is normal, which is why it is easier to mount the bearings on the axle than to seat them in the wheel. There is also often a spacer that goes between the inner races. The other parts in the chain are the two speed rings, the spacer and the faces of the hanger and axle nut.

The Dual Roles of Speed Rings

Creating Space

One of the main roles of the speed rings is to increase the buffer space between the outward face of the bearing and those of the hangers and axle nuts. The inner race of most bearings is a bit wider than the outer race, which creates a space between these parts. This space is not always sufficient to keep the shields from rubbing though. Speed rings supply a little extra free space for the bearing to roll.

Locking the Inner Races

As you torque down the axle nut, pressure is transferred through the speed rings directly onto the inner races, preventing them from spinning on the axle. Otherwise, the friction that is created between the spinning inner race and unpolished axle will produce friction. More of the energy you put into the board with each push is then lost to heat, meaning you have to push harder and more often. The board is consequently slower and more work to ride.

What happens without speed rings?

Shield Friction

Many people who complain about poorly functioning bearings are actually struggling with shield friction. The telltale sign of this friction is that your shields are worn in a circular pattern. There is no amount of cleaning or lubricating that will alleviate this situation. The bearings will continue to drag until the shields are freed from contacting the axle nut and hanger.

The proper and technical method to increase the space between the bearings, hanger and axle nuts is to use washers. Precision bearings like those on skateboards have many uses in industrial machinery, and washers are the solution that engineers use to add space for them to roll freely.

Constant Wheel Adjustments

Longboard axle nut properly tightenedSometimes people cheat and create more space for the shields by backing off the axle nut a bit. This solution just creates another problem, taking torque off the inner race and allowing it to roll on the axle. The wheel is also allowed to shift along the axle, creating added friction and reducing steering precision. To combat these issues, the rider must retighten the axle nut, which brings back the shield friction. Check out the picture, axle nut must be properly tightened – axle should stick out from the nut.

If you find yourself having to constantly adjust the axle nuts on your trucks, make sure that all your washers are in place. There should be no free play of the wheels along the axles. To eliminate it, grasp the wheel and attempt to wiggle it from side to side. If it moves, tighten the nut incrementally until it disappears. Otherwise, your bearings will not be functioning as they are meant to.

Shorter Bearing Life

When the axle nuts are not torqued properly and the inner races are allowed to roll on the axle, the friction creates more heat than the bearing was engineered to tolerate. Over time this heat and friction will diminish the integrity of the bearing’s parts, increasing the chances of failure. Even if catastrophic damage doesn’t happen, the bearing parts will wear out sooner than they should have. If you are replacing bearings more often than other people, missing speed rings could be why.

Note that new bearings will require a break-in period before they will roll freely. When spun by hand without a load, new bearings appear to roll better when the axle nuts are kept loose. This situation is completely different from the way the bearing will roll with the weight of your body pressing down on them. If the axle nuts aren’t properly torqued, that load will introduce sheer forces that cause friction and heat, increasing the likelihood that the bearings will fail.

Interplay with inner race and spacer

Some bearing sets come with spacers that are meant to keep the inside faces of the inner races a precise distance apart. This system doesn’t work if the width of the wheel’s core exceeds that of the spacer. Without spacers, over torqued axle nuts will push the inner races out of alignment with the outer races, creating friction and slowing the wheel. When used properly, spacers allow the axle nuts to be tightened with more torque so that the bearing functions as it was engineered to do.

What if I lose the washers or want to replace them?

Ultimately the speed rings are really just washers, which are available at almost any hardware store. If you lose one, a replacement is not that hard to come by. However, the solution to the problem is not to need one in the first place. You can get awesome bearings which have speed rings and spacers in-built already so you don’t have to worry about it. I am using such bearings myself, check this page out for my recommendations on bearings.

If you decide to go the hardware-store route, just be certain the washers match the inner diameter and outer diameter of the inner races as much as possible. Precision bearing washers are also known as shims in the industrial marketplace. Ask for them by name at any store that specializes in bearings.

Is two better than one?

Occasionally, some trucks may have imperfections or design flaws the cause the face of the hanger to rub against the bearing shields, even if there is a speed ring in place. A simple fix in this case is to add a second washer to shim the bearing a bit further away from the hanger. The same fix can be applied to either the hanger or axle-nut side of the wheel. Just be certain the axle nut can still be tightened until one thread is exposed past the nylon locking strip.

Conclusion

Longboarders make up a tightknit community. They are usually happy to offer well-meaning advice, but we should heed each other’s advice carefully. I have personally heard many times that speed rings are unnecessary, but I learned for myself that this is rarely if ever true. They perform a function, and depending on your combination of components, that function may be vital.

Like bearing spacers, having speed rings properly installed helps to minimize the opportunities for speed-wrecking friction to mess with your ride. They ensure that you get the most speed possible from your bearings and that your bearings last as long as possible. Smoothly rolling bearings in turn keep you from having to constantly push on flat ground, which helps you ride longer and get the most enjoyment out of your longboard.

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