The TSR chalet has the benefit of a lot of donated equipment so that members can tune their skis at the hill when they have the chance. Of course, donations are welcomed (wax and the equipment is worth many hundreds of dollars) to help keep up the supplies.
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE respect the room and the equipment - put things back where you find them and clean up after yourself. We all benefit from this resource and would hate to have to put restrictions on it.
TSR Ski Tuning Primer
Race ski tuning is a fine art form. The basic approach can be learned in a short time but you will also quickly learn there is a huge array of subtleties that affect the end result. Keep in mind there is no absolute right approach to tuning. Everyone will tell you something slightly different and there is a lot of good tips that will add to your tuning skills. This happens over many seasons and with time you will become very adept at tuning a ski effectively. It is possible to spend several hours prepping a single set of race skis for an event but in general a set of skis can be tuned in under 30-60 minutes, depending on the shape they are in at the start.
There are a few basic concepts regarding ski structure that will help you understand what we are doing and why. The important structural components we are interested in are the edges and the base.
The base is simply the flat part of the bottom of the ski that glides on the snow. The base is the part that holds the wax. Bases are produced in the factory and are designed to be flat and true to the edges. Because the production process is not perfect, a new set of skis should ideally be stone ground to produce a perfectly flat base. If you have ever looked closely at the bottoms of your skis you will notice there is a ‘pattern’ on them. This is referred to as the base structure. When skis are on snow they create friction which in turn produces a fine layer of water between the ski and the frozen snow. The base structure allows channels for this film of water to move along the ski preventing the suction that occurs with perfectly smooth surfaces. The exact base structure doesn’t matter to us at this level, just understand that it is present.
Once you have your base structure, the wax helps the structure to repel the water layer and fills the channels according to the snow conditions (wax is chosen based on snow temperature). At a microscopic level, it is best to think of the ski base as a sponge. There are ‘pores’ between the molecules of the base structure and this is where we are putting the wax. Heating and applying the wax allows the pores to open and the wax to penetrate deeper into the ski (remember at the molecular level wax is still penetrating only a fraction of a millimeter into the structure of the ski) . The friction of skiing ‘heats’ the ski base and draws the wax out meaning we have to treat them again and again to maintain performance.
Cold weather wax is harder and brushes out to reveal less of the base structure allowing for a smoother surface against the snow.
Warmer snow waxes are softer and reveal more base structure allowing more channels to form.
The wax works with the base structure to make the ski able to move fast regardless of the snow conditions. Wax is drawn out of the ski quickly and so needs to be replaced often. While training can occur without optimum wax, if the ski gets a lot of use without sufficient wax, the base structure will dry out. The wax helps to protect the ski from wear and drying. A well waxed ski is more resistant to base damage. Once the base is damaged, it will not take wax well in the future meaning it’s life as a race ski is done. This is why regular ski maintenance is required.
The ski edges are the metal strips that grip the snow when a ski is turned. They are the parts of the ski needed to initiate and maintain a turn. From a maintenance perspective, the edges can be broken down to the base edge and the side edge.
Both are tuned to give them an angle and to smooth them out. This process is essentially sharpening a knife and creates an angle that should be consistently sharp and even along the entire length of the ski.
At the junior race levels, we tend to use the same angles at all times with a 1 degree angle on the base edge and a 3 degree angle on the side edge creating an 88 degree angle that is cutting through the snow. Lesser angles (89, 90 degree) may be fine for recreational skiing but do not grip the turns as well. Sharper angles (87, 86 degrees) are used by advanced skiers but they grip much harder and therefore make the skis harder to correct so should only be used by skiers ready to handle them.
We are typically using a 88 degree acute edge angle as discussed above.
Edges need to be tuned or sharpened when they are dull, damaged or before each race to give racers the best grip on the snow to make their turns.
Basic Tuning Kit
There is a tremendous range of tuning equipment available from various suppliers. I will not try to promote specific companies but will talk in more generic terms. As a starting point, the basic kit should contain the following:
A. bench or table - someplace that can get dirty!
B. alpine ski vises; allow skis to be fixed flat or on edge
C. iron; needed to apply wax to skis; always treat carefully since a scratched iron can damage the base
D. files; multiple possibilities but best to start with a single medium file
E. diamond stones; as above, a single medium stone will start the kit
F. base file guide; generally a 1 degree angle is fine to start
G. side edge file guide; for early training/racing a 3 degree angle is good
H. elastics to secure bindings
I. scraper to remove excess wax; these are cheap and you should have more than one; generally made of plexiglass; be careful with them to protect the edges since nicks will show in when scraping the wax
J. brushes- start with a brass brush (for prepping the base) and a nylon brush (finishing)
K. wax - it’s easy to spend hundreds of $$$ on wax - start with a basic prep wax to learn with and the TSR will apply race waxes at events
L. Straps- once you spend all this time tuning skis, good ski straps protect the edges and bases for travel. If your kids are like mine, extra pairs of straps are essential as they tend to get lost regularly
M. Gloves - some kind of gloves are useful; edges are sharp and you will cut yourself
I won’t go into base repair equipment here though it is something that junior racers will require at times due to skiing in the bush and over rocks. This can be done with a few extra pieces of equipment that the seasoned parents would be happy to show you.
Once you have your basic kit the sky’s the limit. There are a wide variety of upgraded files, diamond stones, brushes and waxes available. Some of the high end race waxes run $100 for a 30gram block and once applied, it is really good for only one run. Advanced skiers will require different edge angles for different events. Don’t worry about the advanced equipment yet. Learn the basics and then add to your kit as your racer improves. Thankfully, beginner racers are affected much more by technique and skills than by ski tuning so there are many seasons to learn from before tuning really plays into race outcomes.
The summary of tuning/waxing steps can be organized as follows:
- Tune the base edge
- Tune the side edge
- Preparing the base
- Apply the wax
- Scrape the base
1. Tune the Base Edge
Base edge tuning not always required each time you tune. As time goes by you will start to learn when it should be done but initially you should consider it if there is base edge damage or before races. If there are nicks or burrs on the base edge, it will damage the iron base and make waxing more difficult.
Always start with elastics applied to the brakes to hold them up out of the way. Secure the ski in the vises with the flat surface facing up. A quick scraping at this time will remove any excess old wax. There are commercial wax removers available but they can dry the base structure so aren’t generally recommended.
To sharpen the base edge, start with your file in the base edge guide. You can tell the file’s ‘orientation’ by running your fingers along the surface. Be sure the file is oriented to grind material off the edge. Starting on the far edge and working tip to tail, work the file in overlapping strokes along the edge. A few full passes should sharpen the edge. Pay attention as you file that the tools are passing smoothly over the surface. If it feels rough, there are likely little bits of damage to the edge and it therefore requires more passes. If you see filings on the base, wipe them off between passes to avoid pressing them into the base.
Reverse the ski in the vise and repeat the process on the other base edge. You will be working from tail to tip this time.
Switch to the diamond stone in the same edge guide. The diamond stone can be wet slightly to prevent it clogging up. The diamond stone is passed the same way on both edges and will further smooth out the surface.
Do the other ski!
FOR BEGINNERS learning this process, if you use a black marker to darken the entire base edge before starting, you can see when the entire edge has been sharpened.
2. Tune the Side Edge
The side edge sharpening is done each time you tune the ski. It produces the knife sharp edge for the ski.
Start with the ski in the vise on it’s edge, with the base facing away from you. Using the file in the edge guide, again, work from tip to base in overlapping passes, being sure to keep the guide pressed firmly against the base of the ski. Again, as you develop experience, you can feel as the edge surface becomes more smooth. As the edge itself sharpens, you should be able to easily scrape off curls of your nail if run against the edge.
As with the base, reverse the ski and repeat the process with the other edge.
Once again, switch to the diamond stone to put a finer finish on the edge and repeat the process on both edges with several full passes, or until the edge ‘feels’ smooth and sharp.
Do the other ski. Because some tuning equipment requires more work to switch the files/stones, I will do the filing of both edges on both skis, then switch to the diamond stone and repeat the process.
Remember to wipe the base intermittently during filing to prevent any particles getting pressed into the base.
FOR BOTH BASE AND SIDE EDGES - if there is no significant damage to the edge, the whole process can be done with only the diamond stone. This restores the sharp edge without taking off material from the metal edge. Over time, if too much filing occurs, you will start to file into the base itself. Once this occurs, the ski base needs to be professionally reground.
3. Preparing the Base
This is a fairly simple but important step that cleans off the surface of the ski and ‘opens’ the pores to accept the wax.
Your brass brush is used to prepare the base. When you first buy your brush, you should label it with a sharpie. Put an arrow facing one end of the brush so that it is always used in the same orientation. Always remember to stroke your brush in the same direction!
With the ski fixed base up in the vise, brush the base with long, overlapping strokes from tip to tail. This process should bring up flecks of old wax. Wipe the base and continue for 3 full passes of the ski, more if there is a lot of old wax.
For most of our purposes, this is all we need to do. Some, at this point, will do a hot wax clean to remove further debris and to clean the microscopic ‘hairs’ that are brought up by the brushing. For this, a cheap, warm weather wax is used. It is dripped on and ironed in just like in waxing (see below) but rather than letting it cool, it is scraped immediately. This process can be repeated to further prepare the base for the final waxing. The ski will be brushed again with the brass brush after hot wax clean.
4. Applying the Wax
A few basic principles here:
- wax after the edges are done - you don’t want to wreck your wax job by grinding in filings
- we are heating the wax to allow it to soak ‘into the sponge’ of the base. Wax is applied then scraped off again to get the wax in then re-expose the base structure of the ski while leaving the wax molecules in the structural pores of the ski
- overheating the base will lead to burning of the base
Make sure you start with a clean iron. If the base of the iron is damaged or dirty, it can be cleaned with fine sandpaper then when warm coated with a cheap wax and rubbed out on a fiberlene paper on a flat surface. Fibrelene paper rolls were not listed in the basic waxing kit but are used to protect the iron and the base at times, especially when applying colder weather waxes that require higher iron temperatures.
Heat the iron up. Most starter irons have dial gauges, not digital. Practice will help you learn what setting is best for a given wax. If the wax starts to smoke, the iron is too hot! This is important to learn since smoking of the fluoronated (advanced race waxes) releases chemical compounds that are unhealthy to breath in. Learn to gauge the temperature of your iron and use the right heat for your wax.
Remember, warmer weather waxes are typically softer to allow more base structure to ‘show’ so they tend to melt easily. Cold weather waxes tend to be harder and require higher heat to melt.
With the base up, touch the wax to the iron and as it starts to melt and drip, move the iron over the base of the ski, allowing a zig-zig line of drips to fall onto the base. More is better at first since you don’t want to heat the ski without sufficient wax but as you gain experience, you will learn to judge the right amount.
Now go back over the surface of the ski tip to tail, to melt the drops into a layer that coats the whole surface edge to edge. If the iron is sticking or holding up, you probably need more wax at that spot.
With the surface coated, now you want to make a few full passes tip to tail with the iron. The goal is to uniformly heat the base to allow the wax to penetrate. A guideline is to have a trail of melted wax 8 to 12 inches long after the iron has passed, though this will vary with the wax you are using. Ideally, we are trying to keep the base heated for about 3 minutes so this is why we do several passes.
Put the ski aside and do the other one.
5. Scrape the Base
There is some debate amongst the experts about the whole scraping thing. Some feel a short cooling period is sufficient (5-10 minutes) while others maintain that a longer, controlled cooling at room temperature is important before scraping. If you know you will have time, you can leave the skis and scrape them in the morning at the hill but it is harder to scrape without the stability of vises and it is less pleasant when it’s -30C and blowing. Either way, the process is the same.
It is easiest to scrape with elastic binding straps in place. Using your plexiglass scraper, first use the notched corner to take the wax off the edges. Then, holding your scraper about 45 degrees to the surface of the ski base, run the scraper down the ski in repeated passes. You should be generating flakes and curls of wax and a fair mess. Repeat the process until there is no more significant amount of wax coming off.
If your scraper is leaving visible marks in the base surface it probably needs to be cleaned, sharpened or replaced.
After scraping, use your nylon finishing brush. Again, use this brush in the same orientation (mark your new brush!) from tip to tail with overlapping strokes for several passes.
Once again, always protect the bases and edges with proper ski straps. You will see the value in this much more after you have spent hours tuning!