“Whoa that is amazing dope. You must have something special in that blend, what is it? I can’t tell you that, then everyone would have it! C’mon, is it something from up north? Yeah okay it is from out on the coast. Oh then it must be expensive. Yeah but it doesn’t take much. I can almost tell by the smell what it is, Green and reddish, not as tall as most, doesn’t like much moisture. Okay you got it, I am using Cedar oil in my blend!”
This might have been a conversation in the winter of 1860 between two miners after one of their downhill ski races. There weren’t many skiers in the U.S. at this time, but up in the Gold country in California the miners used skis to get around in winter. Naturally it didn’t take long for them to start racing each other. This was about the time when they figured out they could get a little more speed out of their twelve foot long skis by doping them. This dope was usually some blend of vegetable or tree oils, animal fats, bees wax and even sperm, (I am thinking probably from whales since whale products were still big at the time), brewed up and applied to the wooden bases of their skis.
It didn’t take long for some of the enterprising ones to start selling their dope. Black Dope and Sierra Lightening were two blends that were available. Then they figured out that candle paraffin worked very well in colder snow. The rest is history. Waxing as we know it was born in the U.S. during this period.
It wasn’t until the early fifties that ski manufacturers started to use plastic bases, these are now all polyethylene and are of the extruded type which is cheaper and less dense or sintered which is very dense or hard. These days they also add five to ten percent carbon particles which gives less friction on cold dry snow and helps avoid dirt sticking on wet dirty snow. It was probably another ten to fifteen years after the advent of these poly or Ptex bases for waxing to become a real science, even though these materials are very high tech, they still need a lot of help to handle the full range of snow conditions effectively.
The very basic idea behind wax is this. When snow is cold and fresh, the crystals are very sharp. This is when we use a harder wax to prevent the sharp points of the crystals from sticking into the base or the wax and causing drag and removing wax too quickly. As the snow ages or warms up, whichever happens first, the crystals begin to loose their sharpness and round out. These more round crystals don’t dig in as much and tend to move more easily across a softer wax. As a ski glides on snow it actually creates friction, and therefore heat, this melts some of the snow leaving a very thin layer of water on the ski base. This wet layer causes suction between ski base and snow; this can only mean slower skis and more difficult control in turns and such. We actually rely on the texture of the base/wax to break up this suction much like the dimples on a golf ball reducing friction as it passes through air. This is why a good base texture is even more important in spring conditions when there is even more water present in the snow.
The miners usually heated their dope and brushed it on the ski base. Currently our best way to apply wax is with an iron. This melts the wax and heats the base so the wax can be absorbed into the material. The wax will soak into the ski base approximately 0.1 to 0.2 millimeters. It is this wax inside the base that really does the work. This is also the reason that rub on waxes are not really that effective, they work for a short period and then they tend to get skied off rather quickly. Even a good hot wax is only going to last two to four days or until the snow changes temperature.
Our poly bases are very porous, and it is this porosity that allows the wax in. But it also lets water in and that is not good for the longevity of your ski. This is why it is always a good idea to put a good hot wax on a new ski and a softer wax is the best for this job because it will soak in much deeper and create a better seal for the base. Soft waxes are also better to use for summer storage of your skis and boards for the same reason. The harder your wax is the more difficult it is to work into the base material so they require a little more technique and diligence to get them right.
My original intention here was to get into the right way to hot wax your skis or board but I got so excited about why it all works that I ran out of space, so that will have to come at a later date. This means I can prattle on a bit more about wax types and why they work.
You hear about fluorinated waxes a lot these days. Fluorine is used in some waxes to replace some of the normal hydrogen atoms. Fluorine is one of the most electronegative elements known, it is essentially Teflon. This makes it extremely hydrophobic or water hating, this negative charge makes it repel water and dirt making fluorinated waxes very good for spring conditions.
Another popular wax these days is graphite based. These graphite waxes tend to be very hard and work particularly well on black bases which also have a bit of an electronegative charge which they will slowly loose. Graphite based waxes will actually help recharge those type of bases, not to mention how cool it sounds when you say “Yeah I did a graphite wax today dude, hope you can keep up.”
Now if all this sounds way too chemically to you, it does to me, we have found a small company in Canada making some organic waxes. We hope to have some in the shop soon. Maybe we are back to Cedar oil and sperm, uh maybe you better break out the rubber gloves instead of the iron.