Despite lofty ambitions at season’s onset, most skiers aren’t likely to get in more than eight days a year, which I would characterize as below the level of obsession. Skiers who only enjoy this mayfly-short life on the slopes aren’t likely to care much about gear optimization, as such niceties as survival are higher on the list of priorities.
But even skiers who could care less how their skis bases are prepped would be well served by caring a little bit more. One reason low-skill skiers struggle is no one has bothered to tune their skis (among other oversights); experts would struggle, too, if they had to ride on skis with ravaged bases and rusty edges. Even if you only ski five days year – correction – especially if you only ski five days a year, using well-maintained gear makes an enormous difference in how much fun you end up having.
For those of my Dear Readers for whom skiing is a near daily preoccupation, not only is it important to have the right stuff, it’s equally important to know how to tinker with it. This Revelation examines several areas of possible gear personalization that can have a dramatic effect on how it all works together.
The one arena in which gear optimization comes with the territory is racing. When glory is measured in hundredths of a second, every conceivable edge is explored. The aspect of race gear prep that is most well-known to the non-racing public is waxing; but, as with all elements of gear optimization, waxing in the race world and waxing as understood by the masses are two very different things. The purpose of this pungent essay is to find the point on the gear optimization spectrum, somewhere between doing nothing and doing everything, where the skilled recreational skier can substantially improve his or her ski experience without investing crazy time and expense.
Since waxing is something all skiers have at least heard of, let’s begin by looking at the range of waxing possibilities. Waxing provides a perfect example of the unbridgeable chasm that separates the racing world from the rest of us. Before a race ski ever sees snow, its base is impregnated by waxing it over and over again. If a pair is lucky enough to be selected for race day, its base will be micro-layered in thin veneers that become exposed to match each type and temperature of the snow surface as the racer descends the course.
Needless to say, this is not a practice recreational skiers are likely to adopt. I shudder to think how many skiers reside at the opposite end of the spectrum, which can be most kindly characterized as benign neglect. Simply put, ski bases are like alcoholics: they could always use another drink. To perform at their very best, bases should be waxed, scraped and buffed after every ski day.
Only the most avid skiers with a well-stocked, home waxing station are capable of such meticulous care. But there’s a middle ground between perfection and ignorance where performance is optimized without a lot of time and fuss.
The key is getting as much wax as possible to permeate the base material, so the surface stratum is constantly being renewed with every run. The most common method of wax impregnation is a hot box, basically a ski rack inside a big, heated bag where the skis incubate for a day. The latest technology in base impregnation is an infra-red waxer that reputedly loads more wax into the base during its roughly 10-minute application process than ironing. With this foundation, the interval between touch-up waxes can be reduced to as little as once or twice a season, depending on your skiing frequency.
At first blush, most ski bases look like a blank slate, but in fact all bases intrinsically include a pattern that’s cut into them as they’re finished at the factory. This pattern, aka “structure,” can be as simple as straight, linear cuts from end to end, or more complicated (and beautiful) patterns that improve lubricity and glide properties.
While any structure is better than none, if you’re a serious skier, you should adopt what I refer to as a “designer” pattern, like a thumbprint, chevron or barber pole. You’ll probably pay at least $50 to get some kind of standard structure when you have your bases re-set pre-season; my counsel is to pay the up-charge to switch to a designer structure. It will transform your skiing, particularly off-trail and in today’s heinous bumps.
One of the best things to happen to recreational skiers in the last 20 years is the widespread adoption of automated ski tuning equipment by specialty retailers. While the quality of their output still depends on the craftmanship of the technician operating them, they are nonetheless capable of reproducing any factory finish, and in most cases are able to improve on them.
Every ski leaves its factory with a specified base edge bevel and side edge bevel, often one degree on the base and two on the side. (Some carving models may have a 3-degree side edge bevel, which may be preferable for hard snow and prevailing eastern conditions.) For 99% of all skiers, maintaining these specs should provide years of joyful skiing, but there’s a technical elite with racing in its DNA who obsess over quarter-of-a-degree increments in side-edge bevel for a particular span of the forebody, a level of precision that is in all likelihood unattainable, and if attained, unmaintainable.
Returning to reality, the side edge in particular is subject to wear that eventually dulls its abilities. While hand tools are effective at mitigating the damage of minor dings and freshening the edge’s ability to bite, hand tools cannot do what modern machinery can. I’d suggest re-setting the 2-degree or 3-degree side edge bevel at least once a season and every preseason.