I’ve seen a few posts here and there on the subject of tripod maintenance. Most are horrible, incomplete or usually both. Cleaning and lubricating your tripod, no matter what material it’s made of, will extend its life. The biggest point of contention seems to be over lubrication, so here’s where I’m going to attempt giving a definitive answer for most tripods and ball heads.
For the legs, I use CRC Dry Graphite in the aerosol formulation. It sprays on using a solvent base that’s safe on plastics and resins, is designed to let the graphite adhere to the surface and dries quickly. For carbon fiber legs, this is the best lubrication available for the shims and bushings to ensure your legs extend and retract with no binding and in some cases can facilitate the legs extending and retracting via gravity. If you own a tripod with carbon fiber legs, you’re well aware that their lightness usually prevents gravity extension/retraction, especially those with twist locks. If your carbon tripod’s legs used to extend via gravity when new, a good cleaning and shot of this lubricant will have it working that way again.
To use, disassemble the legs by completely unscrewing the twist locks and pulling the leg section free to expose the shims. At this point, clean all grit from the legs and shims, using a pushrod and cloth to clean the inside of the legs. Spray the lube to the outside of the shims, let dry and reassemble.
For the twist locks, clean the threads with a plastic brush and wipe clean with a lint-free cloth. Then apply a bead of silicone grease to the threads before rethreading the twist locks. This will help keep grit and grime from getting into the mechanism and let the twist lock glide smoothly without binding or galling. Only apply enough to coat the threads without squeezing out onto the leg sections via the bushing. I personally use Crystal Silicone Clear Bike Grease as it’s temperature resistant to maintain its viscosity in warm weather.
Now for the ball head. Sure, they’re all advertised as being “self lubricating,” and this is due to their use of Delrin snubbers that contact the ball when tightening. Delrin is a self lubricating polymer, not unlike Teflon. However, you probably noticed that despite this, your ball head’s ball had a layer of waxy grease applied to it when it was new. If you’ve since removed or otherwise wore through this grease, your ball head probably doesn’t feel as smooth when moving it around through the range of your friction knob. You may even encounter a bit of stiction when trying to move the ball around. To give it that “factory fresh” feel without impacting the maximum holding capacity of the locks, I use DuPont Dry Film Aerosol Lubricant with Teflon. Sprayed lightly directly onto the ball or sprayed onto a rag and transferred, this will give the ball a very light coating that removes any hint of stiction without risk of drift. Being a dry film, it won’t attract dirt or grime, particles that can damage the Delrin snubbers within the head. However, if you need something more substantial, say you tend to work in humid, wet conditions and especially around saltwater, motorcycle chain was is what I turn to here in Seattle during the winter time. My preferred brand is Maxima and I apply it to a rag and then wipe it onto the ball. Just be careful with this stuff as it’s easy to over apply. Be fast, as it sets quickly and once it’s set, it won’t be easy to wipe onto the ball. Oversaturation can gum up the inside of your ball head so I don’t recommend spraying it directly; it sprays on as a liquid and dries to a thick wax within a minute. If you’re at all unsure and unable to disassemble your ball head for cleaning, the use of this stuff may not be in your best interest. However, this will have your ball head feeling like it’s gliding on silk through the whole range of friction.
As for the clevis bolts, just about everyone has covered that. Just remove the bolts, clean, apply fresh grease, either the grease I recommended above or a molybdenum compound if you’re really picky, and reassemble. Use a torque wrench if you have one to prevent overtightening and to obtain consistent tension across all 3 legs.
So, to quickly recap, disassemble and clean thoroughly. Use aerosol dry graphite for inside the legs, silicone grease for anything threaded, and aerosol teflon or motorcycle chain wax (not bicycle) for the ball head. This will prolong the life of your tripod by keeping friction and oxidation at bay. I recommend cleaning your tripod at least once per season or after any outing where your tripod was exposed to water and dirt.