Barbell coatings sit near the top of the priority list when it comes to picking the right barbell.
With several finish options having different qualities and price points, it can be a hard decision.
I own over 60 barbells, and I’ve used more than 100.
I can speak to barbell coatings because I have experience with every single one.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about bar finishes and why they’re important. I’ll detail the different types, the pros and cons, and how to keep your coating looking and performing great.
Let’s dig in.
The Importance of Barbell Coatings
Barbell coating is one of the most important factors when buying a bar. A bar’s finish plays a big role in four ways:
A barbell’s coating directly impacts the knurling and how the bar feels in the hand. There are three main types of barbell finishes:
- No Coating – Bare steel and stainless steel are examples of raw finishes. These finishes produce the best feeling because they don’t interfere with the knurling.
- Conversion Coating – Black oxide is the most common example of a conversion coating. This type of finish is applied through a series of alkaline baths, rinses, and hot or cold treatments to set the finish. Because there’s minimal build-up, conversion coatings don’t interfere with the knurling. The texture of a conversion coating is outstanding and similar to bare/stainless steel.
- Applied Coating – Applied coatings include chrome, zinc, Cerakote, E-coat, and powder coat. These finishes are applied over the bar and fill in some of the knurl depth. Therefore, these finishes don’t produce the same raw texture.
When you’re dealing with steel, oxidation and rust are big considerations. Barbell coatings can help improve resistance to keep your barbells looking and performing great.
- Great Resistance – Stainless steel, Cerakote, and electroless nickel are the best at limiting oxidation.
- Good Resistance – Hard chrome, zinc, and E-coat resist oxidation at varying levels, but all three do a good job overall. Some maintenance is recommended.
- Poor Resistance – Bare steel and black oxide are poor rust fighters. Black oxide fares better than bare steel, but both require more frequent maintenance.
Barbell coatings are a great way to enhance or maintain the look of a barbell. Aesthetics are subjective – thankfully, coatings offer something for everyone.
- Silver finishes – Stainless steel, hard chrome, bright zinc, bare steel, and electroless nickel
- Black finishes – Black oxide, black zinc, E-coat, and powder coat
- Colored finishes – Cerakote
When you combine feel, oxidation resistance, and aesthetics, you can estimate price ranges. Stainless steel, Cerakote, and electroless nickel are the most expensive options, while bare steel and black oxide are generally the most affordable. The other finishes typically fall somewhere in between.
- $$$ – Stainless Steel, Cerakote, and Electroless Nickel
- $$ – Hard chrome, zinc, black oxide, and E-coat
- $ – Bare steel and powder coat
Different Types of Barbell Coatings
There are ten main types of bar coatings, although seven are the most common. Each option has advantages and disadvantages related to feel, resistance, aesthetics, and price. Depending on the barbell type, some finishes may not be an option.
Feel: Great | Oxidation Resistance: Great | Aesthetic: Silver | Price: $$$
Stainless Steel is the most premium barbell finish. It comes at a steep price but offers an unmatched blend of feel and oxidation resistance.
Stainless steel provides a raw feeling, allowing the knurl to shine without interference. Compared to other finishes, it’s similar to bare steel and far superior to applied coatings like zinc.
In terms of fighting oxidation, stainless is a top performer along with Cerakote. If you’re training in a humid environment, such as a garage in the Southeast, you’ll appreciate the minimal maintenance of stainless.
Stainless steel provides a classic and refined look. With its rust-fighting qualities, you can rest assured it will continue to look great over the long haul.
This finish is typically reserved for barbell shafts, but you may also find stainless on sleeves from companies like REP. While not as important, stainless sleeves are a great feature.
Feel: Good | Oxidation Resistance: Great | Aesthetic: Multiple Colors | Price: $$$
Cerakote is another premium barbell coating with solid benefits. Originally used in the firearms industry, Cerakote was later introduced to barbells by American Barbell. Since then, it has become one of the most popular barbell coatings for its oxidation resistance and color choices.
Cerakote is a ceramic-based coating that’s applied over the barbell. It has a good texture, but it’s far from the raw feeling of stainless. Where Cerakote shines in comparison to other applied coatings is that it takes chalk very well.
You won’t find another finish outside of stainless that fights rust like Cerakote. Salt spray testing has shown Cerakote can last as much as 100x longer than black zinc, hard chrome, etc. Granted, you’ll (hopefully) never spray your barbell with salt water, but it’s a testament to Cerakote’s protective qualities.
Another benefit of Cerakote is that it comes in dozens of colors. If you’re looking for a pop of color to match your gym scheme or personality, there isn’t a better choice. You may also find Cerakote on barbell sleeves, but I recommend avoiding it if possible. As soon as you start sliding plates on and off, Cerakote sleeves will begin to show blemishes.
Feel: Good | Oxidation Resistance: Good | Aesthetic: Silver | Price: $$
Hard chrome is arguably the most popular and accessible barbell coating. It’s well priced, feels good (not great), and fights rust better than some.
As an applied coating, hard chrome fills in some of the knurl depth and detracts from the overall texture. It’s tackier than zinc and does a good job of accepting chalk overall.
Hard chrome does a respectable job of fighting rust, but over time you’ll likely see isolated spots of surface rust, especially in humid environments.
Aesthetically, hard chrome provides a classic steel look. Companies generally use a glossy coating, but some use a matte finish that reduces shine. It can also sometimes come in black.
Hard chrome is a great and popular coating for barbell sleeves.
Feel: Good | Oxidation Resistance: Good | Aesthetic: Silver or Black | Price: $$
Zinc is fairly comparable to hard chrome. It does a slightly better job of fighting rust while feeling slightly inferior. In general, this is my least favorite barbell coating.
Zinc is also an applied coating, but I’ve found it to feel slicker than hard chrome. In my experience, zinc-coated bars require chalk sooner. I also don’t feel that zinc accepts chalk as well as hard chrome and others.
Zinc comes in two varieties: bright zinc and black zinc. Bright zinc provides a silver, mirror-like aesthetic, while black zinc is dark. I much prefer the look of bright zinc because black zinc eventually fades at touch points.
Bright zinc is also a popular and effective sleeve coating.
Feel: Good | Oxidation Resistance: Good | Aesthetic: Black | Price: $$
First introduced by Rogue Fitness, E-coat is one of the newest barbell coatings. This is a durable finish with strong corrosion benefits and a nice price point.
The biggest knock on E-coat is its texture. This is an electronically-applied paint coating that interferes somewhat with knurling depth. It also has a reputation for being a more slippery finish, which has been my experience too. It tends to take chalk fairly well, which is good because you’ll likely need it on heavier lifts.
In terms of corrosion resistance, E-coat is one of the best performers, sitting behind Cerakote on the spectrum. This coating is popular in the automotive, farming, and machinery industries because of its durability.
Aesthetically, E-coat produces a sleek black look that holds up better than black zinc and black oxide. If you like black barbells but don’t want to pay Cerakote prices, E-Coat is a great option.
E-coat is not found on barbell sleeves.
Feel: Great | Oxidation Resistance: Poor | Aesthetic: Black | Price: $$
Black Oxide is one of my favorite barbell coatings. It requires additional maintenance, but it’s affordable and feels incredible.
Unlike applied coatings, black oxide is a conversion coating that doesn’t interfere with knurl depth. Not only does it provide a raw feel, but I’ve found it to be tackier than some bars that use stainless steel. It takes chalk better than any finish, in my experience.
Unfortunately, black oxide isn’t great at fighting rust. It’s better than bare steel, but I recommend more frequent maintenance in humid environments. Even still, you can expect to eventually see some surface rust, especially in high-touch areas.
Aesthetically, black oxide produces a matte black appearance that looks great out of the box. Over time, however, the finish can thin down and/or show some rusting in touch areas.
Black oxide is rarely found on barbell sleeves.
Feel: Great | Oxidation Resistance: Poor | Aesthetic: Silver | Price: $
Bare steel is the old-school barbell finish – or lack thereof. As the name implies, bare steel is completely raw. This is the most affordable option. It produces amazing texture but at the expense of oxidation resistance.
Black oxide and stainless steel are the only two barbell finishes that can hang with bare steel in the feeling department. Bare steel is arguably the most impressive at texture and holding chalk. There’s a reason the Buddy Capps Texas Power Bar was sold exclusively in bare steel for years.
As great as bare steel feels, it’s equally bad at protecting against oxidation. Since this is raw steel, it’s very prone to surface rust, especially in humid environments. Maintenance is necessary to mitigate oxidation, but it’s unavoidable.
Bare steel looks beautiful out of the box with a matte silver aesthetic. Over time, the shaft and sleeves will develop surface rust/patina. Some lifters love this look, so if that’s you, this may be a benefit.
Typically, bare steel bars also have bare steel sleeves.
Other Barbell Finishes
In addition to the primary barbell coatings, there are a few more that aren’t as common:
- Electroless Nickel – At one point, I thought electroless nickel would be the next big thing after Kabuki popularized it on their power bar. However, due to quality control and supply chain issues, they’ve stopped selling electroless nickel. This is a beautiful, expensive, and highly durable finish. You can still find electroless nickel on some sleeves, such as the Gungnir Allrounder.
- Manganese Phosphate – I like manganese phosphate because it’s a conversion coating that produces a great texture. It reminds me of black oxide. That said, it also creates a weird semi-black color and is susceptible to oxidation. Manganese phosphate is more popular on budget bars.
- Powder Coat – Powder coat is only available on specialty bars like safety squat bars, trap bars, etc. While it’s been very popular, many specialty bar manufacturers are moving towards chrome, zinc, and others. Still, powder coat is cost-efficient and durable.
Maintaining Your Barbell Coating
Barbells are an investment in your health and wellness. They typically cost hundreds of dollars, so you want to ensure they look and perform well for years. Different barbell coatings require varying degrees of maintenance.
Maintaining a barbell isn’t difficult, but it does require structure and attention. There are two main ways to treat and maintain your barbell:
- Brush – You should use a brush such as the 360 Brush or a deck brush every time you use your barbell. This removes skin, chalk, dirt, sweat, blood, UHMW fragments, etc. If you don’t brush your bar, this debris can gunk up the knurling and harbor moisture. The result is a bar that doesn’t feel as good and one that is more prone to surface rust.
- Oil – I recommend oiling your barbell with 3-IN-ONE Oil to lubricate, penetrate rust, and clean. It’s simple to apply with a brush or shop cloth. I recommend the following schedule based on your barbell coating:
- Monthly Oiling – Bare steel, black oxide, and manganese phosphate
- Bi-monthly Oiling – Hard chrome, zinc, and E-coat
- Semi-annual Oiling – Stainless steel, Cerakote, and Electroless Nickel
By following these maintenance efforts, properly storing your barbells, and treating them with respect, they should last years.
What is the Best Barbell Coating?
Stainless steel is the best barbell coating because it blends incredible texture with maximum oxidation resistance. That said, all barbell finishes have advantages and disadvantages, depending on your situation.
What is the Purpose of a Barbell Coating?
A barbell finish's primary purpose is to protect against oxidation and rust. They also impact knurling texture and the overall aesthetic of the barbell.
How do I Protect my Barbell's Coating?
I recommend brushing your barbell's knurling with a nylon-bristle brush after every use to remove debris. Additionally, you should occasionally apply a thin layer of oil to the bar, depending on the coating's oxidation qualities.
Barbell coatings shouldn’t be taken lightly.
They directly impact your bar’s feeling, look, and rust-fighting qualities.
Consider your environment, budget, aesthetic preferences, and texture needs to find the best barbell coatings for you.