Do ABEC Ratings Matter for Roller Skate Bearings?

ABEC 9 BearingPin
Does an ABEC rating really matter for roller skate bearings?

Roller skate bearings are an important part of the overall skate and certainly impacts how much fun we have skating.  Without bearings you are not going to get too far.  However, much of my writing in the coming months will show just how difficult and confusing it can be to find the perfect roller skate bearings.  There is a lot of marketing hoopla and spin (pun intended) that can leave the consumer confused about what to purchase for this application.  I’m on a mission to research and provide to you everything I find so you can pick the best bearings for your next pair of skates!  In today’s post, I’m going to look at one of those confusing bearing terms that you will see if you are looking to purchase new roller skates: ABEC ratings.

You will see roller skate bearings marketed with all kinds of ABEC ratings: ABEC-1, ABEC-3, ABEC-5, ABEC-7, ABEC-9 and even ABEC-11.  Is ABEC-11 better than ABEC-3 or is 3 better than 11?  Does the ABEC rating even matter when it comes to roller skate bearings?  What does it all mean?  Let’s go learn together.

What is ABEC?

American Bearing Manufactuers Association - 1917Pin
A photo of the group that would later form the American Bearing Manufacturers Association (ABMA) – the future creators of the ABEC standard.

First, lets understand what ABEC even means and where it comes from.  ABEC is actually just an acronym that stands for the Annular Bearing Engineering Committee (ABEC).  This committee was formed under a non-profit called the American Bearing Manufacturers Association (ABMA).

The ABMA started informally back in 1917 as a meeting of American bearing manufacturers to help the US produce better bearings for World War I.  The group then became an official association in 1934.  You can see the original bearing manufacturers group in the photo to right.

Their vision is simple today: to be the premier national association and voice of the American bearing industry.  One of their biggest fights is to combat bearing counterfeiting working with US customs to insure fake products do not enter the country.  ABMA helps to provide bearing manufacturers with specifications so that all ball bearings in a specified class would meet a universal standard.  Of course, roller bearings are used for roller skates, but they are also used in all kinds of other applications from lazy susan’s that hold your spices in your kitchen to giant engineering applications like jet engine turbines.

So, back to the ABEC rating.  ABEC created a standard known as the ABEC scale which measures the tolerances of a ball bearing.  The ABEC scale is about how precise a manufacturer has to make a ball bearing in order to meet the ABEC standard.  The ABEC standard is then used as a way to ensure that the bearing being used for an application meets that standard and is therefore usable in the application (i.e. roller skates in this case).  ABEC provides ball bearing dimensional specifications so that manufacturers of different parts can understand these dimensional tolerances and design parts that can accommodate the application in which the bearing will be used.

The ABEC scale is broken down into odd numbered categories starting with 1 and going up to 11.  As you go up in number, the ball bearing gets more round and precise.

What does Ball Bearing Dimensional Tolerance even Mean?

ABEC measures the ball bearing tolerance, but what does that even mean?  There are a lot of things that go into ball bearing tolerance.  If you want all of the details, check out this article that explains it in detail.  However, in general, all ball bearing dimensional tolerance really means is how close the ball bearing is to the stated size required in the ABEC standard published.  For each ABEC rating, manufacturers have to stay within a stated tolerance in order for the bearing to be classified as ABEC-1, ABEC-3, ABEC-5, ABEC-7 or ABEC-9.  As you go higher in the ABEC number, the tolerance diminishes and the more precise the bearing must be to meet the higher standard number.

The Best Bearings for Roller Skates

So, I know what you’re thinking:

“Jeff, I just want to go super fast on my new roller skates, so I guess I will go for the ABEC-9.  They are the most precise so they must be the best.”

And you would be right in that they are the most precise ball bearing, but they are not the best for roller skates.  There are a number of things to consider about the statement above if this is what you are thinking:

  1. Cost: You are going to usually pay a lot more for ABEC-9 bearings vs. an ABEC-1.  Save your money.
  2. Tolerance Isn’t All That and a Bag of Chips (for roller skates): How precise the ball bearing is doesn’t matter for roller skates.  For jet engines, yes!  For the space shuttle, yes!  For roller skates, no.  ABEC-1 or ABEC-3 bearings are just fine for roller skates and you are not going to notice much difference between that and an ABEC-9 unless you plan to go upwards of 240 mph on your roller skates.  I don’t plan on going that fast anytime soon….though it does sound like fun!

So, Does the ABEC Rating Matter for Roller Skate Bearings?

No.  That is the simple answer, and the world seems to slowly be catching on.  As I did my research, I found a number of really strong articles that I wanted to share here with you along with some of my favorite quotes from them.  Many of them are from skateboarding websites, however, most of the same rules will apply here to roller skates:

  • ABEC vs. Skate Rated – What ABEC Rating are Your Bearings? – Link
    • “However, a skateboard with 54mm wheels turning 20,000 RPM will be traveling about 127 MPH! Since virtually all skating is done under 30 MPH, the realistic maximum RPM your skate bearings will see is about 4700 RPM and probably 90% of skating occurs under 2000 RPM. Thus, very high precision is not required at skating speeds.”
  • All You Ever Want to Know about Skateboard Bearings and ABEC Rating – Link
    • “The most noticeable result (between ABEC 1s and ABEC 9s) is that you will end up with less money in your wallet and the people that sold you the bearings will be eating out at restaurants at your expense for a few days.”
  • The ABEC Myth – Link
    • “Steve Heplar is the national sales manager at Alliance Bearing Industries in Van Nuys, California, a major supplier of bearings to the skateboard industry. ‘It’s silly that ABEC ratings are what skaters are looking at,’ he says. ‘An ABEC 1 or 3 is all you really need on a skateboard. In skateboarding, you’re not using the precision of the bearing.'”

Some roller skate and skateboard bearing manufacturers are starting to test all kinds of things in roller skate bearings that do matter.  Things like:

  • Types of materials that the various bearing parts are made from.  Not just the ball bearing but also the inner and outer raceway, the ball bearing, the shield and the retainer.  The materials do matter.
  • Axial or Side Loads matter in skates more than the radial load (or how fast the bearing can spin).  Ball bearings in machinery uses mostly radial loads – machines spinning the bearings really, really fast (100s of MPH) in one direction.  We aren’t doing those kind of speeds on roller skates even if we wish we could.  However, with our turns, spins and jumps, we are putting more axial (or side) loads onto our bearings.  This can cause them wear-and-tear and can put a different kind of load on the bearing than just the typical spinning (or radial) load.
  • Last, and most importantly, lubricant and keeping dirt out of your bearings is the number one thing you can do for your bearings once you’ve purchased them.  More than anything else, a clean and lubricated bearing is one of the most important things to keep a bearing rolling well and for longer longevity.

How Do I Choose the Best Roller Skate Bearings?

I know what you’re thinking:

“If the ABEC rating doesn’t matter, then why are some roller skate bearing manufacturers and retailers putting an ABEC rating on bearings for roller skates and skateboard use?” 

In my opinion, the manufacturers and retailers that are using ABEC to market roller skate bearings are doing their customers a disservice.  It’s just a marketing gimmick to make you feel better about what you are purchasing.  A higher number means a more precise bearing and higher tolerance, so that must mean it’s better.  It’s not.  Not for what you are using the bearing for – roller skates.  As consumers, we are geared to think that higher numbers, scales and ratings mean something and make it better.  In this case, it’s total bunk because we are roller skaters.  If we were aerospace engineers, then the ABEC rating would be very important (as well as I’m sure many other things, too).

The way I have chosen the best bearings for me is I try them out or I ask friends what they are using and what they like.  I always stick with very reputable companies that exclusively making bearings just for roller skates and skateboards.  I steer clear of anything labelling itself as ABEC this or that.  I really pay no attention to the ABEC rating.  I have had a set of ABEC 3s that “roll better” than ABEC 9s, so in my book ABEC never has mattered to me.  It’s not that the rating is wrong, it just doesn’t matter for roller skates or skateboards.

The Roller Skate Bearings that I Recommend

The roller skate bearings that I use the most are called Bones Super Reds*.  I like them because they consistently always give me a really good roll and they are made by a bearing manufacturer that I trust to have good materials.  Are they the best bearings on the market?  No.  I’m sure there is another out there that I have not tried yet.  However, they are best for me based on the type of skating I do (mostly indoors at a roller skating rink) and they are pretty affordable – about $50 for a set of 16.  I use them in all of my skates and really have never had any issues.

Check Price at Amazon

Check Price on Roller Skate Nation

For outdoor skating, I have used the ceramic version of the Bones product called the Bones Ceramic Reds.  I will do a more in-depth article in the future about the difference between steel and ceramic bearings, but for now, know that the Ceramics are often a smoother roll and do a bit better with moisture.  They are considerably more expensive – about $100 for a set of 16 – so your wallet is a bit more impacted by these bearings, but I do like them.

I do notice a smoother roll when I have them in my indoor wheels, however, I often don’t buy them as I can’t justify the larger cost.  I can buy 2 of the Super Reds for the prices of 1 set of the ceramics.  However, some people really feel the difference on ceramics, so if you feel the difference, then maybe the cost is justified for you.

Check Price at Amazon

Check Price on Roller Skate Nation

So, there it is.  The ABEC rating is useless when it comes to roller skate bearings.  I hope the information was useful and that you have a great time skating!  Roll on!

Do you use something different?  If so, leave me a comment and tell me what you are using.  I’d love to hear from you!

[*Full disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate and do earn a commission if you choose to use my affiliate links (the links to Amazon on this page). I’m really proud of the products that I recommend and I use them often when I skate.  I will never push you to use an affiliate link as my main goal is to just give good advice and help more people enjoy skating.  I will only recommend products that I know well and use, so if you have any questions about any product I recommend, please let me know in the comments below and I will be more than happy to help you out!]