Wax, Waxing, Waxier?


Section III: Equipment: I won't go into much detail here, but it is important to note a few things with your equipment. Invest in a good ski vice clamping system. You don't want your skis moving around when you are doing your bases, edges, or waxing. Attach the vice setup to something of comfortable height, such as an adjustable ski bench. Those bench things are expensive though, and I have resorted to using the dining room table. Make sure you drape some sort of drop cloth around the area if it is a living space you want to keep clean. Wax scrapings stick to everything. Oh, about the vise...get a setup that has a boot insert that snaps into your bindings to mimic a boot being in there. This offers another clamping point and also keeps the ski brake out of the way. If you cannot find a vice setup like this make sure to invest in some ski brake retainers!

The most important investment would be a GOOD ski iron. At least that is my opinion. For cripe's sake don't use a clothes iron. Their bases are not thick, they cannot hold an accurate temperature, and they have those little steam holes in the bottom that will trap wax and mess things up.

What defines a ski iron as good? There are several things to look at. First off, make sure the base of the iron is thick. A lot of times this will purposely be advertised. The closer to a half-inch thick, the better. Why? A thicker base will allow the iron to maintain a constant temperature and thus provide a uniform waxing result. Also of consideration is the +/- rating that the iron's thermostat will hold. If this is not advertised then don't buy it.

For instance, my iron's description appears like this: "Analog thermostat with accuracy of +/- 2 degrees C, and a base plate of 1/2 inch thick!" (I always find it funny that the temperatures are generally in Celsius, but the plate thickness is in inches. Odd, yes?)

Once you get the iron, it would be wise to check the iron's thermostat against a known reliable source such as an infrared thermometer. This will allow you to confirm that it is performing the way it is advertised.

You will also need a plastic scraper to scrape the excess wax off with as well as a soft brush to polish the bases with. You will frequently see these advertised in ski supply catalogs as "plastic scraper" and "polishing brushes." Look for horsehair or fine, soft nylon for the brush.

So let's recap the equipment you have used up to this point: You use some sort of brass or stiff nylon brush in the beginning to prep the bases, if applicable. You then should be using some sort of ski vice clamping system and a table to clamp it to. Follow that up with some wax, a wax iron, and a plastic scraper, and you're just about all set.

Section IV: Hot wax time! Okey dokey, let's get the show on the road! If you haven't done so already during base inspection, if you want to clean up the bases with a stiff nylon brush it certainly wouldn't hurt. Brush tip to tail, and wipe the ski off of all debris when done.

Take a peek at the wax that you have chosen to use. On the package you will see some sort of "iron temperature" rating on it. This indicates what setting you want your iron on. The colder rating waxes will require higher temps because they are harder. Regardless of temperature, I let my iron warm up for 15 minutes before hand so the baseplate of the iron is of uniform temperature. Pay attention to the rating, you do not want to BURN the wax. Burning wax or burning bases is bad bad bad. When you are done, put the wax back in its original wax box, that way you have the specs ready for viewing the next time. It also pays to not put your bar down in any sort of bench crap like wax scrapings and metal filings. If you don't know why please stop reading.

La, la, la, ok your iron is warm now, right? Eh, don't touch it to find out. If you have previously used your iron, make sure to take some paper towels and clean the thing off as it warms up to get any old wax residue off. This will help avoid cross contamination as well as a smoking iron should you use a temp setting higher than your last waxing was rated for.

Hold the iron vertically over the ski, press the wax of choice up against the ski for a second or two and let it start to drip onto the bases. I generally have about one drip every two inches underfoot, and an extra few drips at the tips and tail. The number one mistake beginner waxers make is to drip way too much wax onto the ski. This does nothing except make your life more difficult when it comes time to scrape.

If you hold the wax to the iron and start seeing generous amounts of smoke, STOP. Your iron is most likely too hot! That wax smoke has some really funky chemicals in it that can make you very sick. Double check the waxes indicated ironing temperature and double check that your iron is functioning properly. If you are seeing just a whisp or two of wax, that's not a big deal. Oh, cover up your smoke detectors no matter what!

Now with the iron, start at the tip and work your way to the tail in a uniform manner. At this point in time it does not matter if you go tip to tail or tail to tip. Your goal is to start to melt the wax dots and spread them out. This does not happen right away. You will probably be working the iron back and forth for a few minutes. My iron has a crosshatch pattern on the bottom which does help spread the wax quicker. As you are doing this you are opening up the pores in the p-tex. These open pores absorb wax, and continue to absorb wax as the ski cools. This is similar to how your skin pores open up in a hot shower. Don't wax yourself with ski wax, please. (although your hands will have an amazing water repelling coat of wax on them when you are done scraping, it's really wierd!)

There is three very, very important rules. NEVER LET THE IRON STAY IN ONE PLACE! ALWAYS KEEP IT MOVING AROUND! DO NOT KEEP GOING BACK OVER THE SAME AREA MORE THAN A FEW STROKES AT A TIME! If you do not follow these mantras you will overheat the p-tex in your bases. This 'closes' the structure of the base and it will then refuse to absorb any wax. This is called "burning your bases" (this term is different than "base burn" which is a term applied to a base that has been buffed white and dried out from skiing on it without wax. This isn't as bad as burning it with an iron!)

Honestly it's sort of like ironing clothes with a real hot iron. If you leave the iron in one place, you burn your clothes. Same here. I have observed that the wet trail of wax should follow the iron about 4 inches behind it. In other words, when I make a pass, the wax should be non-liquid at whatever speed I am moving the iron in a trail no longer than 4 inches behind the iron itself. If you notice the wax is wet/drying in an odd pattern, don't fret. It is most likely because of the material the ski is made out of. Different materials of different thicknesses within the ski will absorb more or less heat, thus producing an odd melted wax pattern.

Once I have coated the bottom of my skis uniformly with wax, I make 2 to 4 tip-to-tail single passes with the iron. The harder the wax, the more passes I make. Remember, if the wax is staying liquid more than 4 inches behind the iron, wait until it hardens before making another pass. This final tip to tail actoin allows the p-tex hairs to align in the proper orientation as discussed in the base inspection section. The first pass I make I use the plain iron. All subsequent passes I make I use a piece of waxing paper under the iron. I have seen this advertised in catalogs as "fiber free paper," "hot waxing paper," or similar. Do not use paper towels!

The use of the paper allows for a few different things to happen. It helps soak up extra wax and with the extra wax always comes a little dirt, oil, or other crap you have skied over. It also adds just a little insulation between the base and the iron in case I'm being a duh-duh and overheating something. The more extra wax it soaks up the less you have to scrape. Also, the cleaner the ski is, the better you will glide and the longer your bases will last!

Equipment Tip:

There's nothing worse than spending an hour waxing, scraping, polishing, and drooling on your skis to just mess it up by slapping them base-to-base. The skis will slide against each other and it is even possible that the edges will scape the bases, thus ruining your nice waxjob. Get ski straps or base protectors. I use an old sock on tip/tail, it works great!

Make sure your final pass from tip to tail is in one stroke. Even speed, no picking the iron up, no squiggly side to side motion! This makes sure everything is lined up in the correct direction on the microscopic level.

When you are done with this, carefully remove your ski from the vice and repeat with the second ski. Make sure you store your first ski somewhere safe, and don't put it base-down on anything. Let the skis sit for at least 15 minutes to cool off and allow for better wax absorbtion. I have heard of some people putting thier skis outside in the snow to accelerate this, but I do not beleive in that. I don't like the idea of thermally shocking my expensive investment. I grab a beer and watch the FIS tourneys on TV whilst the skis cool off.

I generally use about a half an ounce of wax per pair of skis.

Section V, Scrape: I always scrape my skis. I know of some people who do not. A good friend of mine (the same one who comments about "Base restructuring 101" and "Edge filing 102" to people who like to ski on rocks) does not scrape. He has a wax that claims that you do not need to scrape it. He seems to get along just fine. I will point out, however, that acceleration and top speed are not important to him. There are other people who also state to just let the mountain do the scraping and polishing for them. To each his own, but I scrape.

You should not be skiing on a layer of wax.You should be skiing on your bases that are impregnated with wax. Well, if you look at your freshly waxed bases you can certainly tell there seems to be a little extra on there. You remove this by taking your plastic wax scaper and scraping from tip to tail. Always tip to tail with this!

Place the scraper at the tip, and hold it at a 45 degree angle towards the tail. Pull it towards you in an even motion, and you do not need to do the whole ski in one pass. I usually work in 10 inch sections or so. You will get a ribbon curl of wax just like you were shaving a piece of cheese. Remove the ribbon of wax, and repeat. I usually scrape the 10 inch sections until I am getting very little residue on the scraper, then I move on to the next section overlapping the previous section by one inch.

When I have completed this, I usually make a few entire-ski-at-once passes from tip to tail just to clean it up a bit. I don't know if this really does anything, but it certainly does not hurt anything. After this you can either de-vice the current ski and scrape the second, or you can proceed on to the next section, polishing.

Equipment Tip:

I use hold a steel scraper against my plastic scraper, about a half inch up from the ski. This keeps me from bending the plastic scraper with my fingers. I found that I bend plastic scrapers, forming a concave shape that gouges the wax in a narrow strip instead of a nice even strip. Do not scrape the ski with the steel scraper however, as this could resurface your bases!

Section VI, Polishing: Wax on, wax off. Wax polish! Wax make go fast! Rememeber that Porsche anaolgy I used earlier? Let me use another one. Lets say you bought the Porsche and actually put some wax on it. Cool beans. But you would polish it, right? If you don't polish it it won't shine. Do you know why it shines? Because when you polish wax you smooth the surface out allowing it to uniformly reflect light. If you don't polish, the rough surface scatters the light. The key word there is "rough".

The surface might look smooth to you after scraping, but eh...it's not. Break out a soft nylon or horsehair brush and get to work. Tip to tail brushing with medium force, like you were polishing some shoes. Tip to tail, none of this swirly haphazard stuff. Make sure the brush you are using is advertised as a final polishing type brush. Also of note is to make sure you use a seperate brush for fluronated and non-fluronated (hydrocarbon) wax. You don't want to cross-residue.

How much do you polish? Until they are shiny, silly. Or you can use the time method. I usually spend five minutes of brushing. Don't worry about over-brushing. Remember, you want to ski on the wax that has impregnated the open pores of the p-tex, not a layer of wax on top of the p-tex. The scraping and brushing removes that layer, but is hard-pressed to rip the wax out of the base. If you were to mistakenly use a stiff brush (as in the base prep section) then yes, you would be removing the impregnated wax. So use the right brush!

I check my wax job by taking a squirt bottle and spraying my bases. The water should bead up instantly. It should run off when I tip the ski. Just like a freshly waxed car.

Section VII, Optional multi-layering: Generally I don't go too overboard with multi-layering my waxes. Howver, for the ultimate in performance, you can multi-layer your waxes. You want to do this after polishing. For instance, if I were to be in a race and wanted the ultimate speed, I might wax my skis with some hi-fluoro wax. After scraping I would break out the super-expensive Cera-F powder and sprinkle that over what I just did. Then iron in. Cera-F wears off fast, so I would do this right before my run. The multi-layering would effectively protect my ski bases against the ravages of the course. Most higher-fluoro waxes overlay quite well with other less-fluro waxes. Do not mix fluoro and non-fluoro, however.

Another common multi-layering that I do is with graphite wax. Heh, heh, a little secret of mine. If the snow is really dry or dirty I rub some of this graphite infused floro wax on the skis first, followed by dripping on my wax of choice. Then I iron them together. The graphite reduces static generated by friction and also helps repel crap from being absorbed into the bases.

"Static electricity generated by friction?" You say. Yep, dry snow certainly does that. Your skis then drag, snow starts sticking to them, and they also start absorbing crap out of the snow. Ick.

Section VIII, The other waxes: There are alot of other products out there that claim to be geared towards this or that type of terrain, conditions, or skiing. I dont get into those but I am familiar with them, at least with the Swix line of products.

I've seen base-burn powder that claims to protect your bases in rough, cold snow. We're talking like 25 below zero F... Swix also has a new high fluoro "BD" wax which has some sort of uber-secret chemical in it. This is designed for new snow sitting on top of old snow. Does that really matter after a hundred people have mixed it up like cookie dough? I don't know. I've even seen glacier wax, Cera-F in a spray can, and of course the graphite wax that I use.

You can experiment as you see fit. Be prepared to pay for performance, however. Waxes like the top-of-the-line Cera-F waxes run about $125 for 30 grams in powder form. The spray can equivilent is $120! Yeesh, don't confuse that for body spray deoderant!

Section IX, Comparison: Does all this work really make a difference? It is easy to tell between some wax setups and hard to tell between others. The temperature of the snow can turn within the hour, your technique can change from day to day, and many other factors come into play. There are some definite differences that I have personally experienced that I would like to share.

Waxed skis vs non waxed skis: Definite 100% difference. Go on a gentle slope and try to slide on unwaxed skis. A person who is lighter and using shorter skis than you will still glide farther. It's like the difference of waxing the slide at a playgound. I recenly experienced this on the better end of things. My friend was skating across a 'cut over' type flat trail. Even though he started at about twice my speed I just cruised right on by with no extra effort. The difference? He didn't wax his skis at all this year. Now on big slope I'm sure it wouldn't matter anyway, but across the flats it sure does.

Waxed skis, wrong temp vs correct temp: Well, I have experienced differences more often than not. Another friend of mine, who weighed in at within 5 pounds of me and had the same length skis, recently commented as to why I kept passing them on the flats. I noticed that when we stopped next to each other on a gentle slope, pointed the skis downhill and leaned forward, that I certainly got a jump on acceleration on him, followed by a constant out acceleration up to top speed one could achieve on this particular slope. This is with no other energy-producing things going on such as skating or pole pushing.

What was the difference? Well I had actually done their skis several weeks before with a wax suitable for the next day's temperature and snow conditions. They did not end up going out that very warm and wet day. The first time that wax job hit the slopes was with me, and we had made the same number of runs on the same trails that day. I think the wax on their skis wore off by the second or third run due to it being so cold and the snow being so sharp but the wax being a soft, warm, and wet type of wax. I, on the other hand, had put the proper wax on my skis the night before. I had geared toward the dry, cold snow currently on the mountain.

When all was said and done at the end of the day (about two runs after above demonstration), the bases on the wrong-temp waxes skis were definitely base burned. Mine weren't shiny anymore, but they also were not base burned. I know there are many other factors that may have come into play such as base structure, skiing technique (perhaps they slide/skid more than I, thus wearing wax off faster), or maybe they had damaged their bases on previous waxings thus not allowing the bases to absorb as much wax as mine.

I do find it odd, however, that I am usually able to out accelerate and out glide my compainions who use generic wax when we are on the flats, usually regardless of the speed we entered the flats at. I am not comparing to steep slopes because most of my companions concentrate on technique on the steeps, not speed or acceleration. With that being said, if I follow a good skiier friend of mine, turn for turn, in his tracks, I still reliably gain on him.

I hope that you have learned something here. I was thinking of putting some videos online to try and show you visually what to do. I don't have the time for that right now, but perhaps when things slow down I will be able to do that. Remember, what I have outlined here is not all gospel. There are many, many different opinions on what to do and how to do it. There are things we all do agree on and that you must remember:

  • Waxed skis last longer and ski faster
  • Always move from tip to tail when fooling with your bases
  • Move the iron. Burned bases suck.
  • Snow conditioned waxes will always perform better than generic waxes, if all else compared is equal
  • Hot waxes will always recondition your bases better than corking in or other rub-on methods
  • Bad bases with proper waxing will almost always peform worse than good bases with a half-assed wax job if comparing ultimate in performance
  • In the end, if the pilot of the skis has poor technique, fix that before you get all picky with the wax.