Don’t let the title fool you. Although it sounds like it, this Revelation isn’t about the degree to which skiing is top of mind among Helsinki society. The purpose of this exposé is to shine a light on a subject about which almost all skiers are woefully uninformed, namely the condition of their skis’ bases and edges.
Just in case you don’t imagine this subject worthy of your attention, I hasten to point out that how well your skis are tuned and maintained isn’t just a factor, it is the factor that determines how well your skis perform. A properly tuned ski, regardless of brand or type, is a delight for skiers of any and all abilities while an untuned ski is such a detriment that even supreme skill cannot overcome its liabilities.
To illustrate just how wide is the chasm between the general skiing public’s understanding of base preparation and the reality of the situation, allow me to answer the most common question on the subject: how often should one wax the base? The answer most skiers want to hear – and is provided in many instances – is once or twice a season, depending on how often you ski.
The correct answer, however, is as often as possible. Every day is best, if you have the tools at hand. That’s a long march from once a season. To cover this ground, let’s travel the path that leads from doing nothing to doing everything.
Stage One: They’re Ready Out of the Wrapper!
All skis are “finished” to some degree at the factory. But just how well depends on many factors:
- How stable the newborn ski is coming off the production line.
- The ski baseline and how well machinery can follow it.
- How much investment the ski maker puts in the base and its finish.
Leaving aside a couple of ultra-premium brands that lavish post-production attention on their skis – costs that show up in their elevated MSRP – it’s wise to assume that your new skis are at best partially prepped. The base isn’t so much waxed as it is sealed and its condition isn’t improved by spending months in warehouses and in transit. Any ski that isn’t top-of-the-line gets less attention; plus, cheaper skis are more likely to distort because their construction is weaker.
A quick note to parents: kids’ package skis are money-losers for brands, so they get almost no treatment. The foam core models that are the usual entry-level fare are most likely so railed that Bode Miller couldn’t turn them. If your little tykes seem to have trouble with anything but a fall-line flying wedge, it could be due to a ski that won’t allow the child to do anything else.
Stage Two: New Ski Prep
Any retailer who merits classification as a specialty shop is well aware that most of the skis on his/her wall are only partially prepared on arrival. Hence the common practice of offering “New Ski Prep,” a bundle that includes dulling the tips and tails, a light edge polish to remove any burrs, waxing and buffing the base.
If this sounds like it covers all the necessities, well, it does and it doesn’t. If the bases in question have an appropriate factory structure (the pattern of tiny grooves in the base material) with no gaps in its application due to a rockered baseline and the waxing consists of more than just a pass over a grimy buffing wheel, then you’re good to go.
But chances are the bases aren’t as flat as one might hope, the edges may not be set at the optimum angles and the wax won’t penetrate the base enough to last more than a day. Getting all the details right takes time and skilled labor. The primary reason New Ski Prep tends to be perfunctory is the public’s reluctance to pay for add-on services for what they already (correctly) perceive as an expensive indulgence.
The deficiencies of rudimentary New Ski Prep will lead those who seek enlightenment to the next stage of awareness.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Note how this thumbprint pattern extends all the way to the edge, assuring that the ski will release laterally when so instructed.
Stage Three: Full Base and Edge Prep
Shops that cater to the race community and other elite, technical skiers habitually erase the factory finish and start over with a clean, blank slate. It’s important to realize that the top shops use machinery that is in most respects identical to what is used by most major manufacturers. They’re able to work more scrupulously on the tricky transition zones (where the camber pocket ends and the rocker line begins) than mass production allows.
In order to set the side edge angle, the rotating discs that perform this task have to tilt into the square ski sidewall. While it’s possible to use a machine to both set the edge angle and remove sidewall, shops who specialize in race tunes will often prefer to rout out the sidewall by hand before starting the machine process. That’s a lot of hand work, and still the ski hasn’t been tuned. But it’s ready to be.
A very expensive suite of tuning machines takes over from here. The base edge angle is set along with the side edge. (When techs refer to a “one-and-two,” it means a one-degree base bevel and two-degree side edge bevel.) A pattern is cut into the base material that can either be very specific or more suited to universal use. For all-mountain skiing, this pattern – aka, structure – shouldn’t be end-to-end micro-grooves but instead should have breaks in it.
We could spend a day down the rabbit hole of multi-angle edge sets and the merits of one pattern over another for different regions or applications, but I risk shedding what few readers I may have left, and I’m not done with this diatribe. Suffice it to say that after the machines are done, everything gets a touch up by hand.
Now all that’s left to do is wax the base. I apologize to ski tuners everywhere if I’ve made this sound like a simple exercise. Both the choice of wax and its means of application are subjects that could fill a small university library.
Stage Four: The World of Wax Loading
Consider your ski bases to be wax junkies. They cannot get enough in their veins and don’t consider it possible to OD. A daily fix would be nice, or a time-release formula that keeps the dosage coming.
In light of their insatiable thirst, bases in their infancy are best served by jamming as much hard wax as deep into their microscopic crannies as possible. Cooking the new skis in an insulated hot box designed for the purpose is one route; repeated hand-ironed applications is another. The final touch is the removal of all surface wax so the structure is revealed, then a high-sheen buffing.
The more time spent impregnating the base with wax, the less time and effort it will take to maintain all the benefits base and edge tuning provide.
Stage Five: Total Tuning Consciousness
When you attain the Fifth Stage of Awareness, you will understand why I’ve been hammering away on this topic as if your skiing life depended on it.
Because it does.
Only the quality of your bootfit matters more. A smooth and slippery base married to a crisp, accurate edge will take you anywhere you want to go. The point of this elaborate exercise isn’t to make you faster – although it can – but to make you more agile and effective with less effort.
If there’s one global concept I want you, Dear Reader, to take away from these moments we’ve shared together, it’s the importance of lateral lubricity. A well-tuned contact surface allows the skier to manipulate (or if you’ll permit, pedipulate) the ski in ways a rougher base won’t. To maintain total mastery over the ski in every phase of the turn, whether carved or smeared, in terrain both smooth and ruffled, the skier needs to micromanage the angle of the ski to the line of travel.
The value of lateral lubricity is multiplied on wide skis, which is all most Americans ski on. To change edges quickly on a ski 100mm wide at its narrowest point, the skier has to be able to push it out away from the body’s midline where it can tilt on edge. Skiing the whole mountain includes bumps; navigating today’s gruesome moguls demands the ability to swish sideways in a tight trough to maintain flow.
In short, how well you ski depends on how well your skis ski.
With a Little Help from My Friends
This piece, or at least its accurate parts, would not have been possible without the sage counsel of four of America’s most talented technicians. All are artists at their craft, which they’ve practiced at the highest level of the sport. That they continue to share their gifts with the general skiing public is a godsend for which we should all be grateful.
Jim Schaffner is owner of Start Haus in Truckee, California. He started his business by tuning skis for local racers in his garage. A Masterfit University instructor and Certified Pedorthist, he’s regarded as one of the best bootfitters in the world. Schaffner remains an active coach at the junior level.
Dana Sterling is the top tech at Sturtevant’s of Sun Valley. His meticulous methods may include skiing a ski before applying the final base grind and edge sets. Supremely knowledgeable, he eschews cookie-cutter solutions, adapting his approach to each individual skier’s needs.
Andy Buckley served long stints as a technician for both the US Ski and Snowboard Teams. He worked at Jan’s in Park City before being tapped for the national team and returned after retiring from the race circuit. He works out of Jan’s Rennstall Ski Tech Center at Deer Valley, UT.
Theron Lee was a racer chaser for Salomon and K2 for over a decade on the Europa Cup before returning to his roots as a shop tech. An artisan known for his talents as a custom insole craftsman, Lee is currently the head ski tech at Bobo’s in Reno, NV. Lee keeps his coaching credentials current, just in case.
If you want to take a deep dive into the real world of ski tuning, Jim Schaffner has created a 15-part series, Start Haus World Cup Tuning, that will give you a cram course in world-class ski preparation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2-JopEmqJ8.
In case you’re wondering if I practice what I preach, I blank out all my new skis, applying instead a modified-by-model thumbprint pattern co-created with Theron Lee, along with a 1-and-2 edge, with a stint in the hot box before mounting. I re-wax after every ski day.