Why are Skis Waxed? (Ski Faster)

by Simon Knott | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

Why do skis need to be waxed? The base feels really smooth to the touch without wax. However, wax serves several functions on the base of the ski, which really works in your favor.

When skiing, the friction between the ski and the snow always needs to be minimized. Any technique that helps to reduce this friction is useful to the skier. Applying hot wax to the base of the ski, scraping off the excess, and polishing the ski reduces friction, and acts as a protective barrier. Many ski wax products have evolved, which have been designed for optimum use in different applications, such as competitive or race skiing and any number of temperature variations.

waxing ski

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Ensuring that your skiing equipment is working at its best is important for the recreational skier but absolutely vital for the competitive skier. Numerous techniques are used to reduce friction as you ski down a run.

As you pick up speed skiing down a slope kinetic energy builds up. This energy is created by the act of moving and pushing downhill. At the same time friction between the base of your ski and the snow will create thermal energy (heat), in just the same way as quickly rubbing your hands together makes them hot.

This thermal energy is wasted in skiing, as you are just generating heat, which does nothing to increase your speed. So, reducing the friction between the base of the ski and snow is a useful technique to improve speed.

Photo by Derrick Mercer licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Waxing skis, to reduce friction, is just one of these techniques. It was first documented in the 17th century by the Sami Skiers of Lapland. They applied pine pitch to their ski bases, which is made by boiling the resin from pine trees and charcoal together.

What Does Waxing Your Skis Achieve?

Waxing the base of your skis promotes three functions:

  1. It smooths the ski base to make it glide over the snow better
  2. It reduces abrasive wear on the ski base by creating a barrier from ice and stones
  3. It acts as a barrier to stop melt-water from penetrating the interior layers of the ski base

The bases of skis are generally made from a polymer of polyethylene and graphite, often under the trade name of P-Tex. This is a strong, porous material that offers low friction.

P-Tex is a polymer, which is very smooth to the touch but under an electron microscope, the surface has all sorts of curves and whorls. Naturally, any snow that gets caught up in this surface will cause friction to slow the skier down.

Liquid wax fills in the gaps between the raised ridges and sets hard, and after finishing creates a super-smooth surface, which will glide much better over snow.

What’s The Process of Waxing?

  1. A strong elastic band is used to secure the ski brakes out of the way
  2. The ski is turned over and secured on a table with vice clamps
  3. A plastic scraper is used to scrape off any dirt or previous wax
  4. The iron is heated to the right temperature for your chosen wax. It’s best to use a specialist ski wax iron although a domestic iron can be used.
  5. Starting at the tip of the ski, hold the wax against the iron and let the melted wax drop onto the ski base, making an S-shape as you progress along the ski
  6. Push the iron sideways along the length of the skis slowly to melt the trail of wax into a smooth coat. Don’t allow the iron to stop at any point as this can easily damage the polyethylene base of the ski. Hot melted wax achieves much better penetration into the base layer of the ski
  7. Finish off that ski with one long pass along its entire length
  8. Put the ski to one side, ideally overnight, for the wax to penetrate
  9. Repeat the process with the other ski
  10. Mount the first ski in the clamps
  11. Use a purpose-made ski scraper to scrape off some of the wax. Ski scrapers are made of plastic, which is hard enough to remove the wax but not hard enough to cause damage to the ski base.
  12. Starting at the tip of the ski, run the ski scraper along the base of the ski at 45° to remove excess wax. Keep repeating until the scraper stops curling up wax.
  13. Finally use a hand brush made from nylon or horsehair to buff the ski base, removing the remains of the loose wax left after scraping.
  14. After this process the ski base should feel completely smooth and have a good sheen.

The importance of reducing friction in competitive skiing has led to the production of an array of ski and snowboarding waxing products for any combination of weather, temperature, and snow.

Wax Types

All Temperature or Universal Waxes

These waxes are not temperature specific and are best for all-around use when the temperature may fluctuate from day to day. It will offer protection to the base of the ski and give a good glide.

Specific temperature waxes

The ingredients in these waxes are altered slightly to perform best at a specific range of temperature. Generally, these ranges of temperature can be broken down as:

  • 19°F to 28°F — -7°C to -2°C
  • 25°F to 39°F — 4°C to -4°C
  • 25°F to 39°F — 4°C to -4°C
  • 36°F to 50°F — 10°C to 2°C

These temperatures relate to the air temperature, not the snow temperature.

In addition to temperature, ski waxes are also broken down into everyday and performance products. Everyday products are hydrocarbon-based, and performance products are fluorocarbon-based. For most applications, hydrocarbon waxes are best and slightly cheaper, while fluorocarbon waxes are more expensive and mostly used in professional skiing applications.

In competitive skiing, the choice of the right wax can make or break a win. So, well before a race, various waxes will be tested. The technicians and skiers will then pick a wax that they think will perform best on the race day.

Photo by ActiveSteve licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0