The Science of Ski Wax: There's a lot more to it than melting a candle over the base of your favorite boards before heading out the door | Winter Adventure | Bend | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon
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The Science of Ski Wax: There's a lot more to it than melting a candle over the base of your favorite boards before heading out the door 

Wax serves a necessary role in skiing, acting as both a sealant and a lubricant for your skis.

You hear it all the time.

What kind of wax are you using? Or, I need to wax my skis.
Ski wax. We know we need it, plenty of people neglect it, while others pontificate about it ad nauseum. But why, exactly, does it matter and how does it work? Magic? More like science; chemistry and physics, more specifically.
In this case, science is packaged in the form of a petroleum-based product called hydrocarbon (CnH(2n+2)) or, in some cases fluorocarbon, a hydrophobic chemical compound.
Wax serves a necessary role in skiing, acting as both a sealant and a lubricant for your skis. Without it, your skis will slide on snow less readily, or not at all.
"It's all about glide. If you're not gliding, you're not skiing," says Bert Hinkley, local ski wax guru and sales and service tech at Webskis. Though Hinkley deals primarily with Nordic skis, the principles apply to alpine skis and snowboards, as well.

The base of most skis is made from polyethylene (CH2) and graphite, which is why most ski and board bases are black. Often referred to by the trade name p-tex, it's a strong and impact-resistant substance with a low friction coefficient. Because p-tex is porous, almost like a sponge, it can absorb wax time and time again. Alpine skis, which are denser, contain more graphite, which helps protect against the abrasiveness of snow at high speeds. What? Soft fluffy snow is abrasive?
Of course. Think about the image of a classic snowflake, with all of its micro points and edges. That's what a snowflake actually looks like under a microscope. Those points scrape, grab and poke at your skis, providing unwanted friction that will slow you down and could damage your skis.
"It's like skiing over a bladed surface," Hinkley says. "What we need to do is condition the base, if you want glide. Wax will do that."
"You do it for the same reason your car needs oil," says Scott Holmer, owner of the local alpine ski race shop Race Place. "It acts as a lubricant against the abrasive nature of snow. As you ski, you lay down a lubrication layer between your ski and the snow."
Hot Wax 101
To apply the wax, you need some basic elements: heat, wax, and a few scraping tools. Hot waxing, the most effective method for applying wax to skis, allows the substance to be absorbed by the base.
"Rolling on wax provides a coating, but doesn't penetrate the base. Heat is an important component in order for the wax to be absorbed," notes Holmer. Before waxing, however, first clean your bases with a brass or bronze brush, which will clean dirt from the ski's structure.
Although the base of most skis feels smooth and glassy, the surface actually contains many micro channels that allow moisture to dissipate and allows you to glide over the snow. Take a trip in your mind, back to seventh grade biology class. Remember how hard it was to pull apart two glass slides that had a few drops of water between them? That suction between snow and ski is exactly what you'd experience if your skis had no structure and no wax.
The process of waxing fills in the water channels. After scraping off the excess and brushing the base clean, your skis will be ready to lay down a fast, smooth layer over the snow, whether it is wet Cascade cement or dry champagne powder.
To prepare for different snow conditions and temperatures, use harder or softer waxes (harder for colder, more abrasive snow, softer for warmer, wetter snow), often referred to by colors because of the dye added to the wax. The color-coding makes the process somewhat universal and easy to understand at a glance. Yellows and reds are softer and warmer waxes. Blues, violets and greens are for cool to cold-as-hell conditions.
Hinkley says that if you don't care to carry a snow thermometer with you at all times, in these parts one should go with a mid-temperature wax that has red or pink dye. These mid-range types seem to work best for our snow temperatures, he adds.
And what does he say to people who still think waxing skis is an unnecessary frivolity?
"They should walk on snowshoes."
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