Have you ever done a wax test? That’s where you and another person with the same kind of gear, either skis or a snowboard, stand side by side and allow your bases to glide down the mountain. Neither of you should make any effort to go fast, you’re merely testing to see who has the fastest base. Very soon, one of you will pull ahead.
It’s a teaching moment, especially for the person left behind. A slower base requires more physical effort just to navigate the mountain. But a well maintained base holding plenty of wax, with edges that are smooth and sharp, will glide freely over the snow. Good gliding ability enhances the skills of any skier or snowboarder. If your gear base is dry and unwaxed, or the edges are dull and nicked, that will have a negative impact on your ability. It will make your gear harder to turn and harder to control.
Brendan Toohey is a shop tech who tunes gear professionally. He compares tuning a ski to taking your car into a garage for a tuneup.
You wouldn’t take your car in to just any garage and let someone work on it. You want someone who is trained and who knows what they’re doing.
Brendan Toohey, professional ski tuner
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Toohey explained that you can save money by waxing your gear yourself. All you need is an iron and the right kind of wax. You can use a regular clothing iron, but a specialized base iron with a digitally controlled temperature is more exact and won’t burn your base.
A shop tune starts with the basic: an inexpensive machine sharpening of the edges and a quick run over a wheel that is half submerged in a vat of liquid wax. That usually costs around $20, but service ranges up to a race tune, which can cost close to $100. That includes filing down and filling in any scratches or gouges, flattening or “truing” the base and texturing it to get the best glide for the current snow, along with hand sharpening the edges, even going so far as using a jeweler’s loupe to see any nicks or “dings” and filing them down with specialized files.
Then comes perhaps the most important part: a genuine hand-done hot wax. The plastic material of a ski or snowboard base has tiny pores that absorb the wax liquefied by the heat of the iron. The surface layer of wax residue is scraped off. When snowriding on freshly waxed gear, the friction of the base on the cold snow causes a slight melting of the snow, creating heat that pulls more wax out of the base pores.
Toohey explained that the biggest misconception about wax is that it will make you go faster and make your gear harder to control. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Frequent wax application makes the base easier to control, because its smooth glide allows easy turns and accurate stops.
Another big misconception, Toohey said, is that one wax will do it all, that you can put one wax on your gear and it will be good. He added, “But in reality, there’s different types of waxes for different types of temperatures and snow conditions. A good wax job will last five or six days if you’re skiing average ski days, but that’s using an iron and hand waxing it yourself with a specific base iron.”
Wax colors show their temperature range. Blue is for very cold snow, yellow is for warmer, wetter spring snow.
Waxes come in different colors to show their temperature range. Blue, for example, is the right one for very cold snow, while yellow is for the warmer, wetter snow of spring. Pink is usually a mid-range wax. The colors also demonstrate the hardness of the wax. Blue (sometimes green) is a hard wax that won’t be quickly worn off by cold icy snow. Yellow is the softest wax, but will handle the wetter crystals of spring with ease.
While the shop tech will know exactly what type of wax to use for the current snow conditions, this is an easy and money-saving job you can easily do yourself. Wax companies all have booklets with the right wax for specific conditions. Your home bench should contain several different types of wax. If speed is your passion, a fluorinated wax will enormously improve your glide. This is a must for racers; without it, they can’t even be competitive.
Do-it-yourself ski tuning
▪ Start clean: Set your ski, bottom up, on a sturdy table and clean the base using a clean cloth and a citrus degreaser to remove old wax and grime.
▪ The poor man’s base grind: Start with 80-grit sandpaper and rub firmly lengthwise along the base of the ski to remove small scratches. Repeat with a finer, 200-grit sandpaper. Finish with a 400-grit sandpaper, lightly dragging the sandpaper from tip to tail.
▪ Fill major gouges: To fill gouges not blended away by sanding, light the end of a p-tex (polyethylene) candle and let the molten plastic drip like wax into the gouge. Use enough p-tex to overfill the gouge. Wait 10 minutes for the p-tex to cool, then scrape off the excess with a metal scraper. Sand the repaired areas using the technique in Step 2.
▪ Hone your edges: Sharpening edges at the proper angles takes pricey tools and know-how, but you can easily repair dings and nicks at home. Lay an Arkansas sharpening stone flat on the base of the ski so that half of the stone overhangs the metal edge. Angle the stone slightly down over the edge and rub it gently along the metal to remove burrs. Once the bottom face of the edge feels smooth, place the stone flat along the side of the ski and smooth the side face of the edge.
▪ Take a file to gnarly edge damage: In spots along the edge where a rock or stump has gouged out larger nicks, lay a mill bastard file flat along the edge and file down any metal protruding from the damaged area. Do the same thing along the side until the area feels smooth.
▪ Easy waxing: Make sure skis are dry and at room temperature before you start. Clean the base with a citrus degreaser. Pick a universal hot wax you like. Get a second-hand iron to melt the wax. Keep the temperature low. If the wax starts to smoke, the iron is too hot.
Hold the wax to the hot iron over the ski and drip a few ounces of wax over the length of each ski. Then slowly iron the base of the ski to melt the wax into the base. There should be enough wax to cover the entire base in a thin layer. Let the wax cool for an hour. Scrape off all the wax with a metal scraper, leaving only the wax that has soaked into the plastic base. To finish, buff the ski with a gray Scotch-Brite pad