So why do we wax?
All skis need wax to maintain the running surfaces in tip-top condition. No better substance has yet been invented that will allow the skis to run smoothly and quickly, with the maximum durability and cost/weight saving and benefit.
Without any form of wax, ski bases quickly oxidise, and will subsequently reduce the speed at which the skis will run. Look closely at the surface of an old pair of polyethylene ski bases, and see how it has developed a coating of white fuzzy hairs - this is the oxidation process in full swing.
This can also be translated into the cost of the extra effort involved to move the skis over the surface of the snow. When skiing along, snow melts under the base of skis due to friction, and polyethylene ski bases do not repel water as efficiently as glide waxes, therefore increasing suction and reducing glide. Dirt and other foreign material can also build up on a ski base, all adding to the suction and reduced glide.
Unfortunately, non-wax skis tend to be more fickle when it comes to preparing the bases for good glide, and this may be the reason why many non-wax ski users tend to avoid the subject altogether, except when the snow is so moist that it sticks (freezes) to their ski bases and creates a massive lump of gunge under the ski to lift with every step - this is termed 'balling up'.
The solution is relatively painless, but requires forward planning to ensure that the ski bases are well-nourished with wax. This is done by applying, on at least a yearly basis if nothing else, glide waxes, followed by a suitable grip wax or klister if required.
The fickleness comes from deciding what to apply over the non-wax pattern, or chemical insert, to make it as durable and water-repellent as the rest of the ski, and yet not reducing the gripping qualities. See the section devoted to non-wax skis for more information on how to achieve this.
This difficulty inherent in non-wax skis is obviously not an issue for those who chose to use classical, skating, or XCD skis, as all of these skis have smooth bases underneath.
Glide waxes and base preparation
Beginners can manage perfectly well without the application of glide waxes in the form described below, even if they use their skis regularly. All they need to take with them every time they go out skiing is some glide wax that they can rub onto the skis when balling up occurs.
If this is not readily available, candles will do, and so will silicone sprays, and as an expensive alternative, so will sunscreen. The only precondition in these cases is that the skis must first be free of all moisture, and dirt.
Another option for beginners or lazy skiers is to take the skis (new) down to a local ski shop and ask for a hot wax for their skis. Only specialist ski shops can offer this service, and some may be reluctant to avoid the grip section (if any) in the middle of the skis - check with them first. 'Hot waxing' can be done to older skis too, but ideally the skis should be first prepared for use ('tuned'), or at the very least cleaned and ready for waxing.
A special note about waxes: make sure that the wax being used is designed for Nordic ski use - Alpine waxes are only suitable for XCD skiing on prepared pistes at resorts. Alpine waxes are designed for higher speeds and consequently do not have the same durability when used on skis used for the purposes of Nordic skiing.
To prepare new skis for service, firstly check the condition of the running surfaces, and remove high and low spots, dust, dirt and grease. Use plenty of #120 or #220 grade wet and dry abrasive paper (used wet), held firmly in a block, and sand from tip to tail, continuing to remove fine waste material as you go along. Don't be tempted to conserve paper and use the same sheet over and over - it is most important to keep the abrading surface, and material, clean of residue at all times, otherwise you are wasting your time sanding the ski in the first place. If you aren't confident in your sanding ability, leave this step out. Once this is done to the skis, it should not have to be done again, unless you want to run the risk of sanding through the base.
Use Fibertex in the same manner as the abrasive paper to deburr and align the remaining base dendrites (the furry bits that are left over after sanding). Scotch nylon Brillo pads look identical to Fibertex pads, but companies like Swix claim that their stuff won't shred itself and leave microscopic splinters of green nylon embedded in the ski... so they say.
Now is the time to rill, if it is required. Rilling used to be the exclusive domain of racers who wanted to avoid suction forming under their skis, and the process of rilling creates neat indentations along the length of the ski (much like a comb does, if you press hard enough) to create a 'corrugated iron' effect. This theoretically prevents the dreaded suction, especially in the moist snow conditions we experience in Australia. Rilling is pointless in very dry and cold conditions, as cold, dry snow has little suction.
Rilling with a rilling tool merely compress the ski base with long thin channels (a riller is not meant to be used to cut channels out of the ski with a gouging motion, although this will happen if you use the riller too enthusiastically) in the gliding areas. Once rilled, give the skis a thorough clean with a ski-wax remover. Other products will work (almost anything with a very high hydrocarbon content evaporates quickly from the ski surface - 'Shellite' is good), but can leave a thin oily film that will prevent wax from adhering to it. Keep the room well-ventilated, and don't smoke or use near fire or flame. Use solvents sparingly, in any case.
A better way of cleaning ski bases - both old and new - is to apply a layer of (cheap) glide wax, and remove it the instant that it has been applied, without letting the heat penetrate the base. This pulls off the whole lot, in theory, and sets up the ski for further glide or grip wax application. The choice is yours.
Glide wax can now be applied to the ski (see sections below on specialist applications). The choice of which wax to use can be mystifying, but in reality practically any glide wax will do. This is often simplified by some wax companies by marketing of 'base-prep' waxes, or 'universal' glide waxes. If anything, the more esoteric waxes are harder to apply, and only work best in a limited range of temperatures (called 'short-range' waxes, whilst universal glide waxes tend to be 'long-range' waxes - this is not an indication of their staying power, though!).
Application is simple, so long as you have an iron, and some method of heating it to a fairly constant 60°C to 100°C. The iron may be electric/gas-powered, or whatever: even old throw-away steam irons will work, although they do tend to get a little clogged up with old waxes.
Warm the base as much as possible without ironing it too heavily (they are particularly sensitive to heat) and apply the wax via the iron, smoothing it out as you go, onto the base. Make sure that the iron will heat the wax to at least 60°C, or it will not bond to the base properly. If the iron goes above 100°C, you will see smoke in copious amounts drawing off the wax - this 'burning' of the wax will render it much slower than 'non-burned' wax, and at any rate it will not be as water-repellent. It also produces extremely noxious gases. Either way, ventilate the room well! Ski bases are not designed with resilience to heat uppermost in the manufacturers mind - so avoid 'cooking' the ski base and move the iron constantly, and do not get too carried away with the whole ironing process.
Cool the wax as slowly as you can for at least 30 minutes - cooling it quickly by throwing it out into the snow, or into a freezer, will cause the wax to go brittle, so that when you come to the next part it will chip when scraped off.
Once cooled, scrape off all of the wax that you can, using a straight-edged plastic scraper, or a metal scraper if you are extremely brave or experienced. Use long, straight scrapes, working from tip to tail at all times. Use a nylon or brass brush to remove the final traces, and to clean the rilled channels if you have created any. What you have left is a very thin layer of glide wax over the running surfaces, just enough to avoid oxidation and to repel water, and not so much that every bit of dirt and grit will become embedded into the surface.
One thing to avoid at this stage, even though it is commonly suggested, is polishing with a cloth or cork. A perfectly smooth ski base will create more suction than a non-polished one, and will travel slower. Also, there is no need to apply countless layers of wax unless you have a never-ending supply of wax, and you also run the risk of damaging the ski base with too much solvent, or theat, or scraping. For most skiers, once a season is normally enough - your best guide is the look of the surface (watch for the grey hairs - the dry look).
In the early 1990s, wax manufacturers began to produce new waxes for general market consumption. These flourocarbon waxes are chemically different to traditional and now almost universal hydro-carbite waxes. Whilst generally used by racers keen to get maximum performance out of their skis, they are well-suited for use in Australian conditions, but are by and large non-mixable with existing waxes. They are also expensive. A further update on their application will come with the next edition of this manual.
Binders are so-named because they act as a binder between the wax or klister and the ski base - in the grip section only (they are not used under glide waxes). They are not normally required, although the wax to be applied to obtain grip will last longer if binder wax is used. Racers sometimes use it, as do tourers who demand greater durability of their waxes and klisters. Most skiers tend to ignore them.
Binder wax is incredibly rowdy stuff to work with, and it is generally best to warm the surface of the wax prior to application, and then gingerly dab it on over the skis grip-section, smoothing with a hot iron as you go. Once applied, it should be made smooth with a cork, or Fiberlene. Do this before it cools, and polish well.
Be careful to apply the normal grip wax or klister over the entire surface of the binder, as binder wax in itself is just very sticky, and has no useful grip or glide properties.
Often considered the essential tool for successful waxed ski performance, in Australia they tend to be overused, as klisters are generally more suitable in very moist and coarse-grained snow conditions. However, there is such a range of grip waxes available that one would believe that only fresh snow falls all of the time.
Klisters are also grip waxes, but in the context of this appendix, they will be treated separately, and for all intents and purposes, they may be regarded as separate items. They have the same ingredients as 'stick waxes' (grip waxes that come in canisters, or sticks), but have plasticisers and gels added to make them runny, and thus more suitable for different snow conditions.
Stick waxes are colour-coded for easy identification, and relate to the temperature of the snow. This is an almost universal approach taken by most wax manufacturers, and the 'warmer' colours of the spectrum (yellow, red, violet, etc) work in warm snow 'Cooler' colours (white, green, blue, etc) swork in cooler snow.
The trick is to apply the stick wax that is designed to work in a specific temperature range - assuming that the snow is still freshly-fallen. The softness or hardness of the wax is designed to match the 'hardness' or 'softness' of the snow (cold waxes are hard, warm waxes are soft). This is because the crystal structure of very cold snow is quite strong (see 'sublimation' mentioned previously in this appendix) and can therefore bond well with a harder wax, whereas warmer snow crystals are more delicate and bond better with softer, tackier wax.
Some waxes are made to cover a large temperature range - and are thus called wide or long-range waxes. These are often seen in the form of a 'two-wax' system: one for wet snow, and one for dry snow. Other waxes are made for very specific temperatures - these are called narrow or short-range waxes. These are often used by more demanding skiers who want the best available grip with minimum compromise. This is especially so near 0°C, when snow structure undergoes massive changes, and the wax must try to accommodate those changes accurately.
Application of grip waxes is easy - just rub it on and cork it smooth, adding lots of thin layers if you want a good job, or dabbing it all on in one hit if you want a quick job (just like painting a house...). Four or five layers is normally deemed a respectable amount, but the choice is yours.
If you don't have access to an iron, or are out on the snow, just rub with a synthetic cork. Synthetic corks are better than real cork blocks because there is less friction applied, and therefore the wax doesn't clump together. If you don't have any cork at hand, use your hand. The palm of the hand is best, and gives you the added bonus of having a hand that will hold a ski-glove well.
If you don't get enough grip, let the skis run in for a while, and if you still don't get grip, then apply more wax along the length of the ski. Grip wax is wonderful in that it still allows glide when the static friction is overcome (such as when you slide the ski forward), and therefore the old Norwegian trick of applying grip wax to the full length of the ski can work wonders, and still allow lots of glide. Only racers look for that competitive edge on others by reducing the grip wax to a minimum, and thus having maximum glide. Tourers and recreational skiers are wise to grip wax a much larger portion of the ski base.
There is also a grip wax sold in stick form that breaches the gap between stick wax and klisters, called 'klisterwax' - this stuff is applied to the ski in the same manner as binder wax, although it serves a different purpose (it is used as a grip wax by itself, especially for very wet, newly-fallen snow).
Frowned upon by many skiers because of the gruesome nature of the stuff, klister is actually the most versatile and useful grip wax that a skier can use, especially in Australian conditions. This is equally true for non-wax skis, also - especially on those days when ice is in abundance. Klisters are used when the snow has changed from its original state. Practically all snow that falls in Australia undergoes change from the moment it hits the ground (or before), unless the temperature remains below zero, and with no radiation from the sun to warm it.
Once the snow has metamorphosed into older snow (see 'sublimation' mentioned previously in this appendix), then klister is the stuff to use for grip. Klister is far easier to apply if the klister tube is kept as warm as possible - this allows the klister to flow more like a thickish syrup, rather than like practically-solid honey.
How do you keep it warm? Just rub it with your hands, or apply it in a warm, cosy room (with inexpensive carpet!). If you are out skiing and want to keep it warm enough for use, tuck it deep inside your clothes - in a plastic bag - and away from those parts of the body that are used to break a fall. Those with more skill might prefer to use a butane torch to warm the klister tube, especially if out on the trail.
To apply klister, simply squeeze strips out onto the grip section in whatever pattern that appeals (a herringbone pattern is particularly nice), and then smooth out with the palm of the hand (best) or with the spreader usually supplied. As for stick waxes, it does not matter which way the smoothing is carried out - the aim is to produce an even, and extremely thin, layer of klister over the grip section, and this is most easily done by rubbing vigorously back and forth. Note that there is little extra grip to be gained from spreading the klister over the front section of the ski and no benefit whatsoever in spreading it further back than the heel, since klister has dreadful gliding properties.
Don't be tempted to rush out onto the snow with the newly-klistered skis. Wait until the klister has cooled to the same temperature as the snow before skiing off, either by placing them face-up on the snow (on a cloudy day and if it isn't snowing!), or putting them face-down if the camber of the skis is great enough to keep the mid-section off the snow (rest the skis on something if not).
Klister will go hard over time, and become more difficult to remove, especially from clothes, so it is wise to remove klister at the end of the day's activity, unless you intend to use the skis the following day. Removal of klister is best carried out with a liberal amount of scraping initially, followed by a good solvent. Heat will also do the trick, but tends to have a cumulative effect of damaging the ski base if applied too often.
Special notes for ski preparation: for non-wax skis
The only problem with non-wax skis is the non-wax bit in the middle, they say...
It is hard to believe that non-wax skis are a spin-off from Alpine downhill racing events, at which intrepid designers thought (with some insight) that skis would go faster if serrations, or 'fish-scales', were cut into the running surfaces. What they discovered was quite the opposite, so they binned the whole idea until a little-known German ski company called 'Trak' came along.
Nowadays, most ski manufacturers use the same computerised cutting device to produce patterned bases - many different designs can be cut with a push of a button, and altered to suit the length and type of ski, and its intended use. Older, but cheaper ski bases are moulded in a press, and these are termed 'positive' patterned skis, as the pattern protrudes from the gliding surface of the ski.
Skis with a negative pattern (steps cut into the ski base): Although it is quite feasible to sand and file the mid-section of these skis to ensure trueness, any work in this area will inevitably wear down the pattern. It is best to be careful to avoid ironing wax into this section of the ski, as it will require very careful and meticulous scraping to get out all the remnants from the steps to allow the skis to grip. The best solution, although not a durable one, is to use a liquid glide wax (or spray-on if you are still environmentally-unaware) in the mid-section as often as possible. It is possible to apply klister to the grip section on icy days, although cleaning up afterwards is a little more involved.
Skis with a positive pattern (steps protruding from the base): Any preparation of these bases is out of the question, and you will have to put up with what you have got. Glide waxing is the same procedure as with the negative-patterned bases, and durability is reduced further due to the projections of the base. Carry plenty of glide wax with you at all times, or be prepared to use whatever is at hand to prevent 'balling-up'.
Skis with chemical bases: There are plenty of these on the market these days, and a wide range of compounds are used to make one manufacturers skis better than anothers. Whilst it is relatively easy to sand and scrape these skis, some chemical compounds are altered by sanding, and your only solution here is to do as the manufacturer advises. This applies also to waxing the mid-section for either glide or grip. Some bases can be ruined by the application of solvents, or klisters. Be careful!
Skis with mohair inserts (are there any still in use?): Treat these in the same fashion as positive patterns. Little can be done to tune these skis, and waxing the mid-section is not normally possible. Environmentally-unaware silicone sprays are about the only solution to the inevitable 'balling up' that occurs so often with these skis. If the mohair strips are worn badly, the best solution is to rip them out and fill the holes with P-tex (can be done in most ski shops), although mohair masochists can buy replacement strips to glue back in (retailers should be shot for selling this stuff!).
Skis with mica bases: The only thing possible with these skis is to pretend that the mica isn't impregnated throughout the entire base, and wax the tips and tails as per non-wax skis, covering up the mica as you add wax. The mid-section might well benefit from a coat of glide wax, too, as the mica will inevitably wear through the wax and slow you down (or provide grip). Silicone spray helps, when used in copious quantities, to prevent notorious 'balling up'. However, these skis are better left in a museum for design failures.
Special notes for ski preparation: for normal waxable skis
If glide wax is applied to the mid-section of the ski during base preparation, subsequent applications of grip waxes will wear off very quickly. The solution is to use a slightly different form of wax to prepare the mid-section of any waxable ski.
That different form of glide wax referred to is 'Polar wax' or 'green wax' - or any wax that is designed to provide grip at very cold temperatures (temperatures that are normally not possible in Australia). Apply Polar/green wax in the same manner that you would apply glide wax, but only in the mid-section. This will act as a good binder between subsequent grip waxes and klisters and the ski base, and will provide a good running surface at the same time.
If you want to extend the durability of the grip wax or klister that you are applying, start your base preparation with a colder wax/klister than required, and then build up progressively warmer waxes/klisters until you reach the one chosen for the current snow conditions.
Rilling of the ski base is worthwhile, but is absolutely pointless in the mid-section of the ski. This also applies to non-wax skis, but that should be blindingly obvious. Just make sure that you only rill the first third of the ski base, and the last third - that will leave a smooth middle section to which you can add grip waxes or klisters as required.
At the end of winter, clean the skis and coat with a thickish layer of glide wax, and don't bother to scrape it off until next winter - that way your skis will be better protected over the harsh summer months. If you want to really play safe, put your klisters in a very secure box at the bottom of a deep freeze, too. That way you can be assured that your klisters will not mysteriously explode in their tubes over summer (a phenomena that normally occurs if you don't treat them very kindly).
Special notes for ski preparation: for skating skis
Skating skis are easy to prepare, but seem to take a good deal more punishment to compensate! Simply glide wax the entire ski base, and treat it as one continuous gliding surface. This applies to the rilling preparation also.
Make sure that you use skating waxes rather than Alpine waxes, as skating waxes are formulated to provide maximum durability. At a pinch, normal glide waxes will work well for skating - there is no need to go out and buy specialist skating waxes unless you really need that competitive edge over others. The formulation of skating glide waxes is almost identical to that of classical glide waxes (don't believe all you hear from waxing equipment manufacturers), only the way in which it is mixed is altered (to provide more abrasion resistance, at the cost of some speed).
Special notes for ski preparation: for XCD skis
Treat these skis as you would treat Alpine skis, and use Alpine ski waxes if you have them. If Alpine waxes do not have a place in your wax box, skating waxes will be satisfactory for most situations, although do not expect your skis to slide as fast as an Alpine-waxed ski.
The metal-edges of skis require careful attention, even before the skis are used for the first time. This is especially so if you intend to ski on softer snow, but is equally important if you intend to ski on very firm snow or ice.
Begin by preparing the plastic running surfaces in the same manner as you would for normal skis, either with a wax pocket if you intend to apply grip wax at any stage, or without if you intend to use skins, or mechanical assistance in the form of chairlifts/pomas, T-bars, etc. Note that rilling, although desirable, is rather more difficult to apply to the ski base due to side-cut - it is practically impossible to cut straight rills along the base.
If it is necessary to file the metal -edges to get the ski base flat, then by all means do so - just be careful not to let the file or sanding block slip as you work away. Once the bases are flat, the edges will need attention, and this is best done with a file specially made for the task (an edge-sharpener). If one is not available, a good file and a steady hand will suffice.
Metal-edges are only required on the section of the ski that can apply a reasonable force downwards into the snow or ice. This is, in most instances, the mid-section of the ski. Metal-edges to the tips and the tails are ineffective at best, and a liability at worst. But before you rush out and buy skis with half-edges (as this type of edge is known), consider why practically all Alpine skis, and most XCD skis, are sold with full-length metal edges:
Whether you have one or the other, the fact remains that only the mid-section of the ski needs to be razor-sharp to be of any assistance.
Whilst the middle third of the ski should have razor-sharp edges, the front and rear thirds should be quite the opposite, to reduce the possibility of 'hooking' or 'catching' the skis when turning. Removing the sharpness of the tips and tails is called 'tuning the edges'.
To remove the edge of the tips and tails, simply draw a file or fine stone at 45° to the edge itself for six or seven strokes, until you can feel that the edge is no longer sharp. Gradually reduce the dulling of the edges as you get closer to the mid-section, at which point the edges should be carefully sharpened to produce a clean 90° edge (tuning freaks may aim for 87°, but that is not for discussion here). A good 90° edge will cut your fingernail if you push it up against the edge.
From time to time the edges will need resharpening, but it is easier to do this after a good coat of glide wax. Note that some older Nordic skis do not have protruding edges (they are not 'offset'). Skis without offset edges should not be sharpened unless you are prepared to run the risk of filing through the sidewall of the ski. This word of caution also applies to those who have aluminium-edged skis, rather than the normal steel edges.
At the end of each winter it is a good idea to tune the skis a final time, and then put them into hibernation with a coat of light machine oil on the edges and on any metal work (bindings), and a healthy coat of glide wax over the whole base of the ski. That way they are ready to go next winter with a wipe and scrape, and nothing more.
Appendices: [ Instructor 1 course outline | Instructor 2 course outline | Instructor 3 course outline | APSI Nordic rules and regulations | equipment size charts | snow structure | waxing tips ]
©2013 Ivan Trundle
[ Contents | Preface | Organisation | Teaching | Techniques | Equipment | Resources | Appendices | Glossary | Index ]