Waxing Cross Country Skis

By J.P. Squire
The Okanagan Saturday

“Ski waxing is not a science; it’s still an art.” Fraser Blundell is allowed to wax poetic. After all, he’s been the Swix (wax) and Fischer (ski) representative in the Interior for the past eight years. He knows whereof he speaks. However, his scheduled one-hour waxing clinic at Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre last weekend stretched to two hours. After receiving so much information, participants could be excused for concluding that there is a lot of science.

Of course, it’s impossible to present as much information in a newspaper feature as you would receive during two hours of non-stop talking. So here are the basics. There are two types of ski wax: grip and glide. The grip wax goes on what is called the kick zone of classic cross-country skis.

Glide wax goes on the rest of the classic ski, on the entire length of skate skis, and on downhill skis and snowboards.

Both kinds of wax are rated by temperature. The wax for warm temperatures is soft; the wax for cold temperature is hard.

The reason for that is the crystals of cold snow and ice are very abrasive, and soft wax would be scraped off relatively quickly by this sandpaper effect.

Now, about snow. There is virgin or new snow which has all of the flakes and sharp crystals intact. When there hasn’t been any snow for several days, the snow on the trails becomes “transformed” by the groomer and the snow structure becomes more like a powder. That’s why most modern ski waxes come with two temperature ranges: one for new snow and a second for transformed snow. Wax containers or labels also come with letter designations such as HC, LF and HF.

Basic wax is hydro carbon-based or HC and costs in the range of $12. Blundell uses it most of the time.

Fluorination adds speed so you can use low fluorination or LF for warm conditions, for example.

High fluorination or HF is expensive, $200 or more for a batch which could do five to seven waxes if applied conservatively. It is used almost exclusively by high-end racers who can be zooming around the course with $60-$70 worth on their skis.

Now, for application.

If your classic skis are brand new, the bottom is black and smooth. The first step is determining where the foot “pocket” is located for the grip wax. It’s best to have the ski shop staff mark which part of the ski centre hits the floor when you put weight on your foot since the camber or natural spring in skis varies so much. Generally, you don’t want grip wax past your heel. It’s best to go longer the first time waxing and then check where the wax has worn off. That’s your pocket or kick zone. Remember a longer grip zone will also help you ascend steep hills. Blundell uses masking tape to separate the kick zone from the glide zones. If they are new skis, he recommends using sandpaper with a 100-120 grit index fairly lightly to raise micro-hairs for the wax to grip; the bottom will turn a light gray.

Don’t sand them every time you wax or sand too much because you will wear through the base. Don’t use cheap sandpaper because the sand comes off. If you are only going out for an hour, use the wax appropriate for the temperature. Two hours out and you should use a binder, an extra glue layer. It’s usually a basic hard (or cold temperature) wax that the soft will adhere to. The iron doesn’t have to be too hot, just enough to produce a nice black finish. Use a cork to smooth the wax, going in both directions so you don’t push all the wax to the rear, but finishing off front to back. For a one-hour ski, you should have a minimum of three layers of grip wax.

Swix Extra Blue will be used 70 per cent of the time at Sovereign Lake, advises Blundell. For a little extra money, you can get BR45 wax which is specially formulated to grip and then release.

Glide wax is applied the same way but remember to move the masking tape onto the edge of the grip wax so you don’t have a strip with no wax. Only two or three passes with the iron are necessary or you could burn the skis, possibly causing a blister. The top of the ski (underneath when they’re upside down) shouldn’t be too hot to touch. Scrape out the groove in the ski bottom first. In case your scraper wanders out of the groove, you won’t dig into the base as much. Glide wax, properly applied, seeps into micro-pores. A new set of skis should be waxed every time out to build up the pore wax.

Some ski shops have a hot box where freshly-waxed skis can be stored for an hour or two. When they are removed, you can often see dry spots and more wax should be applied.

As a result of pore absorbtion, older properly-waxed skis don’t have to be waxed as often. Scraping, after the wax has cooled, takes wax off the surface but not the pores so you are actually skiing on the bottom texture, says Blundell.

Push the scraper in front of you; don’t drag it while walking backward for a more even finish. You can also see where you’re going. To complete the waxing process, use a wide copper or nylon brush, then a finishing or buffing brush.

For those who don’t know, wax-less classic skis means they have a wax-less zone, usually a fish-scale pattern which grips the snow just like the grip wax. The non-fish scale part still needs the appropriate glide wax. Make sure the hollows in the fish scale don’t fill with wax from the trail or they no longer grip the same. Wax-less are best in early season, late season and backcountry. When the scales wear off, it’s time for new skis. Warm waxes are generally so soft that you should tap them on so you don’t get big globs. If you get a glob, scrape it off. Your skis should cool outside for five to 10 minutes so go back inside and put your ski boots on. Warm skis stick to the snow.

You don’t have to clean the skis off and apply fresh wax every time. But after a day when the trail is covered with tree junk, the dirt and wax should be cleaned off with a solvent meant to remove wax. There are lots of solvents out there, including turpentine, but they can leave an oily residue. Citrus solvent smells better and is easier on the hands but it too leaves a bit of residue.

Use a fibreclean tissues, not paper towels which can leave particles on the ski. Paper towels are also designed to soak up liquids, not release them onto skis. Blundell advises against using old clothing irons since wax gets into the steam holes, burns and smokes.

Their thermostats aren’t as accurate as a wax iron. He has heard them turn on and off several times as he goes down a ski which means uneven heat and uneven wax coverage. “It’s all common sense,” said Blundell. “Realistically, we live in one of the best places in the world to ski and we don’t need a lot of different waxes.”

For him, waxing is almost like meditation, putting him in the right frame of mind for cross-country skiing.

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