From pine pitch to perfluorocarbons, ski waxing has come a long way since the days of Scandinavian ski-sport and Sierra longboard racing.
By Seth Masia
During the Vancouver Olympics in February, skiers contended alternately with slush and bumpy ice—basically, refrozen slush. The shifting weather was especially brutal during the men’s 20 kilometer biathlon on February 18, when skiers starting midfield, during a snow squall, had no chance to ski fast or shoot accurately, and during the first run of the women’s giant slalom on February 24, when late starters got soft, wet snow and limited visibility.
Rapidly changing snow conditions have always been the bane of ski waxers. Very warm and very cold weather provokes a kind of silent panic among the ski-tech reps, the people who wax the skis. When the weather can’t be predicted, reps go nuts. They pore over old notebooks, looking for a similar combination of humidity, temperature and elevation, hoping to find a combination of wax and base structure that works. For downhill and Super G, they need a solution that can accelerate out of the start and slide quickly across a flat section 2,000 vertical feet down. For a long cross-country race, they need a combination of kick and glide that will work over a two-hour weather change and resist picking up dirt along the course. At Vancouver, even the freestyle events required a specific wax solution: the snow at Cypress was so soggy that puddles formed in the troughs before the kicker ramps, and skiers needed to splash through the wet spots without slowing down, which could throw off their timing in the air.
I saw this wax panic up close during the 1989 World Championships in Vail. In the week before the downhill, temperatures dropped to minus 40 overnight. No one had ever seen a ski race run in that kind of cold, which gripped the 11,000-foot elevation of Beaver Creek’s summit. No one knew how to wax for it. Alpine waxers resorted to superhard “polar” nordic waxes, and some even used hardwood floor wax. In the end, the weather moderated for the race and the medalists – Hans-Georg Tauscher, Peter Muller and Karl Alpiger – apparently used “conventional” waxes.
We’ll never know, really, because at the World Cup level, wax gurus don’t give away their secrets. Outside the locked waxing rooms, where snooping reporters are decidedly unwelcome, we had no way of knowing that the tuners were already experimenting with fluorinated waxes, which would hit the market a year later. Waxing had become a sophisticated pseudo-science, practiced with the secrecy of classified weapons development.
Ski waxing long predates the development of alpine skiing. It arose naturally, in the early days of Scandinavian ski-sport, from the happy coincidence that waterproofing wood also helps it to glide on snow.
Wood is designed by nature to soak up water. Trees transport water from soil to leaves, through the cellular structure visible to us as wood grain. Any wooden structure exposed to water needs to be protected from drenching. Whether you’re building a ship, a roof or a ski, you need to apply a preservative to wood to keep it from absorbing water. The earliest known preservative was pine tar, often called pitch. There’s no way to tell when the practice began, but God Himself told Noah to use it in Genesis 6:14: So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. The Phoenicians certainly used it for sealing amphorae, among other things. The stuff was produced by distilling scraps from the lumber trade—often the roots—in a pit covered with peat, or in a funnel-shaped kiln. A ton of wood, burned slowly in a nearly oxygen-free container, produced about 250 pounds of charcoal and about 50 gallons of mixed turpentine, pitch and rosin. The pitch was pine tar.
The earliest literary reference to ski preparation found by the Norwegian historian Jakob Vaage was a history of Lapland written in Latin by Johannes Scheffer and published in English translation in 1674. Scheffer reported that Sami skiers used pine pitch and rosin.
That recipe is pretty good for running on the flat. For good glide, the important issue is that the wood repel water. The technical term for water repellency is “hydrophobic” (the opposite is hydrophilic, or perhaps wettable). Pine tar glides on snow because it’s insoluble in water. Water beads on it nicely, forming droplets instead of sheets. This means that at a microscopic level, the ski glides not on a sheet of water, nor on hard-point snow crystals, but on the equivalent of tiny liquid ball bearings, mixed with a lot of air. That’s good because air is about 99 percent less viscous, and therefore a lot faster, than water.
At the same time, pine tar on wood isn’t perfectly smooth, so when you kick back the surface links up mechanically with the snow surface to provide traction.
It’s this combination of qualities—durable wood preservative, with good kick and decent glide—that made pine tar the standard choice as a permanent base treatment for several centuries. One of the first skills you learned as a new skier was to boil pine tar without burning it, and to paint it onto a hickory base. As a running surface, pine tar was supplanted only in the 1940s, with the development of cellulose surfaces, and then in the 1950s by polyethylene. As late as the 1960s, when I started skiing, a good ski shop still reeked pleasantly with the sharp resinous scent of boiled pine tar, because we were still using it on the wood cross-country skis of the era.
If all you were interested in was glide, pine tar could be improved with a temporary coat of some waxy substance. California’s longboard racers, who invented a form of straight-line downhill racing during the 1850s to pass the time during long snowbound winters in Sierra gold camps, didn’t need kick. They sought faster glide, and that meant improving the water-repellency of their pine-tar bases. By 1868, they were trying anything they could find that seemed slick: glycerin, whale oil, kerosene, candle wax and, famously, spermaceti, the waxy goop harvested from the heads of sperm whales. They mixed these into fragrant combinations called “dope.” Each ski club had its own continually-evolving formula, and some were packaged and sold under brands like Greased Lightning, Skedaddle and Breakneck.
Until around 1890, ski meets held in Norway and elsewhere in Europe required a competitor to jump on the same skis that he used for cross-country. Then, as jumps became longer and cross country skiing faster, skimakers began building narrower, lighter running skis, while jumping skis grew straighter, wider and heavier. Looking for higher take-off speeds, jumpers began painting their bases with a variety of hard water-repellent shellacs, and in wet conditions might paint on a thin layer of paraffin.
Peter Østbye, born near Lillehammer in 1888, was a pretty good cross country racer. In 1913 he patented Østbyes Klister. The word is of German origin and means glue or adhesive; it was a mix of paraffin, pine resin, venetian turpentine and shellac, packaged in tubes and meant specifically to improve kick in wet snow. With his klister, Østbye beat favorite Lauritz Bergendahl to win the 18-kilometer race at Holmenkollen in 1914.
Klister was a sensation. Østbye sold it for 2 kroner per tube, roughly 30 cents at the contemporary exchange rate, but it looked like a fortune in those hard times. Gunnar Kagge, writing in Aftenposten in 2003, recalls that during the Depression he and his friends cooked up their own klisters using beeswax, resin, melted phonograph records and bicycle innertubes, and occasionally blew up a kitchen.
On the alpine side, in 1922 a new wax factory in Stuttgart introduced candles and shoe polish products under the brand Loba. At the same time it introduced a durable ski-base coating labeled Holmenkol-Mix—it was a season-long varnish rather than what we would recognize as a daily wax. In 1933, a competing leather-wax company in Attsätten, Switzerland, launched its own Ski-Gliss base varnish, followed in 1940 by a rub-on alpine wax called 1-3-5. The brand name was Toko.
By World War II, North American firms had begun packaging rub-on ski waxes, usually put up in metallic tubes. The 10th Mountain Division was issued waxes for three or four temperature ranges, each imprinted with the warning that they should not be applied with heat. The waxes were clearly the byproducts of industrial processes: One of the manufacturers had, as its main business, the production of torpedo fuses.
A breakthrough in ski wax technology came in 1943, when the Swedish chemical firm Astra AB hired Martin Matsbo, 1937 winner of the Holmenkollen 18-kilometer race and bronze medalist in the 1936 Winter Olympic Games and 1935 and 1938 World Ski Championships 4×10 relay, to develop a commercial ski wax based entirely on controlled, synthetic waxes.
By that time synthetic waxes were predictable, stable, plentiful and cheap byproducts of petroleum refining. Paraffin sold for pennies the pound, and was widely used in hundreds of consumer products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and even baked goods (it was used in place of pricey butter to make baking pans slippery). By mixing paraffin with microcrystalline waxes to make harder and more flexible formulas, Matsbo produced a series of three hard waxes and two klisters designed to provide a good combination of kick and glide across the entire range of cross-country snow conditions. A new company was founded in 1946 by Börje Gabrielsen and began producing waxes in Skåne county in Sweden and at Fjellhamar, near Oslo, under the brand name Swix, a blend of the words ski and wax.
Because synthetic waxes were colorless, tasteless and odorless, Swix added pigments, with warm reddish colors for warm wet snow and cool blue-green colors for cold dry snow. The principle was simple enough: soft waxes, with low melting temperature around 110°C, were very hydrophobic and worked well for wet snow, especially when the snow crystals had gone soft and round; hard waxes, with melting temperatures around 140°C, were less hydrophobic but resisted penetration by the hard sharp corners of cold snow crystals. You could blend the soft and hard waxes to cover intermediate conditions. The brand quickly grew popular and inspired competition; in time for the Helsinki winter games in 1952, a group of young Finnish chemists established the Rex brand and gained wide acceptance.
The concept caught on quickly amongst alpine skiers, too. Both Holmenkol and Toko produced their own color-coded synthetic alpine waxes beginning in 1948. Because the materials were cheap and available worldwide, the new color-coded waxes inspired worldwide competition. In North America, dozens of skiers who had taken high school chemistry were able to brew their own wax lines. Naturally, every major distributor wanted its own brand of wax, too. Thus were brightly-colored boxes of paraffin, and even spray bottles, marketed under the labels A&T Blue Streak, Austro, Fall Line, Faski, Fastex, Hoffer, International, Jack Rabbit, Poly-Fin, Merix, Northland, Quick, Scia, Skee, Ski Spree, Ski-Z, Sohm’s, Speed Ski, St. Lawrence and Tip-Top.
By 1955, most alpine skis were sold with polyethylene bases branded as Kofix, P-tex or something similar. By one scientific measure (droplet surface angle), high-density polyethylene (PE) was roughly 40 percent more hydrophobic than pine-tarred wood, and in fact a good-quality paraffin based wax couldn’t improve its repellency very much. Racers continued to wax because even a two or three percent improvement could be the margin of victory—one percent on a two-minute course means 1.2 seconds.
In 1964 Swix moved its entire production to Norway, and in 1978 it was fully acquired by Ferd AS, a Norwegian company.
Waxing for alpine glide speed was still a black art. As late as 1964, despite the advent of polyethylene bases, slalom racers often applied melted wax with a paintbrush, the better to fill up the screw holes on their segmented edges. Over the next couple of decades, the European ski factories and alpine ski teams embarked on expensive research projects to improve glide speed. For instance, it was theorized, and possibly proven, that at downhill racing speeds the heat of friction under the base created more water. A downhill racer might therefore need a slightly softer wax than, say, a GS racer in the same snow conditions.
Waxroom progress wasn’t a strictly scientific, peer-reviewed process, because even small improvements were kept secret. It cost millions of schillings, francs and kroner to send vanloads of waxing technicians scurrying about the World Cup venues every winter, on top of the pool fees required by the national teams—an alpine supplier of skis, boots, poles, goggles, helmets, clothing or waxes typically paid more than $50,000 per national team per winter just to have access to the racers. This level of investment made incremental knowledge very valuable. It could produce victory, which produced sales not only of skis and boots but of wax, too. Despite the universal adoption of “no-wax” polyethylene bases, ski wax remained a viable consumer product. Figures from Snowsports Industries America show that in recent years, retail sales of ski wax in the U.S. alone averaged about $5 million annually. A rule-of-thumb projection suggests that the worldwide market is about $25 million.
In search of improved glide speed, World Cup waxing technicians experimented with additives derived from more modern chemistry: graphite powder, silicon liquid, various metal powders for lubricity, and “plasticizer” additives like ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) to produce “polar” waxes useful in temperatures down to minus 20°F. These materials provided small but important performance improvements, especially as track-setting by increasingly heavy machines hardened the surfaces of cross-country racecourses. There were many experiments with miracle ingredients like Teflon (a solid fluoride plastic called polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE), but the stuff has such a high melting temperature —more than 200° C—that ironing it in often destroyed the ski base. Graphite additives seemed to work, but no one knew why: They didn’t really improve hydrophobic performance, and scientists scoffed at the idea that carbon’s electric conductivity could have any effect on glide speed.
By 1974 fiberglass construction and plastic bases had arrived at the top of cross country racing, thanks largely to Kneissl and Fischer. The Austrian factories successfully promoted fiberglass race skis to top competitors, among them Thomas Magnusson, who won the 30k race at the Falun World Championships that year. The design engineers in Austria had learned their craft in alpine racing, and they naturally tested their skis with alpine glider waxes at the tip and tail, resorting to a softer kick wax —even a klister —in the camber “pocket.”
Because World Cup technicians don’t share their secrets to success, much waxing lore has the apocryphal character of folktale. I got a glimpse of the secrecy-shrouded world of alpine ski waxing during the lead-up to the Olympic downhill in 1984. American Billy Johnson had an astonishing run of victories on soft-snow and “glider” courses that season, thanks in large part to a few pairs of blazing-fast Atomic skis prepared by tuner Blake Lewis. Lewis protected those skis from tampering and even inspection by stashing them under his bed when he slept. Like his competitor tuners, he refused to discuss what might be in his wax mixtures. He once showed me his collection of waxes: a tray of small pots, each filled with a plain white wax and each labeled with a numerical code. “There you go,” he said. “Know any more now than you did five minutes ago?”
However, two big advances in ski wax chemistry—surfactants and fluorocarbons—took place more or less out in the open, and well away from the alpine World Cup circus.
Terry Hertel was a recreational skier from the San Francisco area. He had made some money during Silicon Valley’s computer boom and in 1972 introduced a cute little electric waxing drum for home use. To go with it he created a line of waxes. As a Lake Tahoe skier, Hertel was fascinated with the problem of glide in very wet snow. In 1974 he added a surfactant to his paraffin wax to produce a universal wax he called Hot Sauce. A surfactant is a wetting agent, the exact opposite of a hydrophobic agent. It shouldn’t have worked. But the stuff Hertel used, sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), is an odd columnar molecule with a hydrophobic end. Suspended in wax, SDS molecules tended to clump into spheres with the hydrophobic end out, each sphere acting as a water-repellent ball bearing. Hertel said his surfactant ingredient was “encapsulated.” Super Hot Sauce earned an insiders’ reputation for great glide in heavy snow. Town racers liked it. Hertel could never afford the fees to join the U.S. Ski Team supplier pool, let along send a technician to Europe, but he says he sent some surfactant wax to Europe with the team and is convinced it was an ingredient in the Diann Roffe and Eva Twardokens medals in GS at the Bormio World Championships in 1985.
At around that time, Hertel started looking for a “Spring Solution,” something that would work in very wet snow but repel the pine pollen, diesel exhaust particles and other dirt that darkened the ski slope snow in April and May. He tried polypropylene glycol, a food-grade antifreeze used to keep ice cream from melting, and it worked. But he also talked to Rob Hunter, a chemist at 3M, who mentioned that the company sold a liquid fluorocarbon to the cosmetics and paint industries—it dried to a smooth, glossy surface. Hunter thought the liquid fluorocarbon would work well in a ski wax, but warned that at $1,000 per pound, it was far too expensive.
Hertel wound up buying the 3M perfluorocarbon liquid in five-gallon drums, mixed it into a high-strength candle wax called Paraflint, and in 1986 introduced a hard block wax he called Racing 739. It was very hydrophobic, and very fast. (Perfluoro means that all the lateral links in the polymer chain, not just some of them, are capped with fluorine atoms.)
Meanwhile, at Swix, chief chemist Leif Torgersen was also looking for something to repel dirt. A hard glide wax was essential to last throughout a 50 km race or a ski marathon, but the softer kick wax picked up pine pollen and other dirt, slowing the ski progressively through the course of the race. So he sought a form of fluorocarbon that could be ironed into the base. In Italy, he found it: Enrico Traverso at Enichem SpA, a state-owned industrial giant, had a fluorocarbon powder with a melting temperature of about 155°C. High-density polyethylene typically melts at about 130°C, but if you had a really good sintered base and kept the iron moving, you could apply the powder without destroying the ski base. Enichem had no other commercial customers for the material, but were willing to produce small, expensive lots for use in ski waxes. Swix began experimenting with the stuff on both cross country and alpine race courses and found that it improved glide by about 2 percent over the best non-fluorocarbon waxes. In 1990 the company introduced a commercial version called Cera F (cera is Italian for wax). The price: $100 for 30 grams. The parents of young racers screamed in agony: Apparently you couldn’t win without it. Fortunately, a little went a long way. Speed skier C.J. Mueller remembers waxing his skis with the scrapings from another competitor’s skis.
In the meantime, in 1988, Swix had been contacted by engineers at Salomon. The French company was developing its first alpine ski, and had spent a great deal of money to improve the quality of the base and edge grind. It wanted a broad-temperature wax that could be applied without heat in the factory or on the hill. Swix proposed a liquid form of fluorocarbon diluted into a thin paste. It could be applied with a paintbrush or with a sponge applicator. Named F4 for the Salomon ski, it was introduced to the market by Salomon and grew widely popular.
Belatedly, it occurred to the various parties in this technology race to patent their products. On March 2, 1990, Enichem applied for an Italian patent on a “ski lubricant comprising paraffinic wax and hydrocarbon compounds containing a perfluorocarbon segment.” On the same day, Hertel filed for a U.S. patent on a “ski wax for use with sintered-base snow skis,” containing paraffin, a hardener wax, roughly 1% perfluoroether diol, and 2% SDS surfactant. “That’s not the full formula,” Hertel cautioned me. “I’ll never tell anyone what else is in there.”
These are the two earliest patents for fluorocarbon ski waxes. Later patents have been granted to Dupont and to a New York chemist named Athanasios Karydas.
Hertel claims his perfluorocarbon Racing 739 product quickly found its way into the waxing kits of World Cup technicians, and has been used in a number of medal-winning performances. However, because he’s never joined the national team pools, he’s never been able to publicize his involvement. Swix, Toko, Holmenkol, Briko, Maplus and Dominator, the large European wax companies who comprise the supplier pools for ski wax, don’t talk about the advanced technology they may be using on World Cup skis.
But now there are rumors of a “nano wax.” Maybe it’s marketing horse-hockey. It’s fun to think it might contain those submicroscopic carbon spheres called buckyballs. I have my own concept for a quantum wax: its antimatter particles would repel both ice crystals and air molecules. The ski would therefore levitate into its own micron-thin and entirely frictionless vacuum. Investors should write to me directly.
Thanks to Mike Brady, David Lampert, C.J. Mueller and Terry Hertel for help with this article. Some technical data was derived from an academic thesis by Leonid Kuzmin.
Pine tar: Skis, ships and sailors
Viking shipwrights and house builders used oakum soaked in pine tar to seal the joints between planks. They mixed pine tar, linseed oil and turpentine to make a preservative. Shipwrights applied the stuff liberally on the inside of a new hull and watched to see how it infused through to the outside. That told them where the planks needed better sealing. Then the outside could be stained. Scandinavian stave churches built of wood last for centuries because they’re stained black with pine tar.
In different parts of the world, different species of pine produced pine tar of varying qualities. The shipbuilders of Northern Europe considered that the world’s best pine tar came from the forests of Scandinavia, and specifically from northern Sweden. Beginning in 1648, the Wood Tar Company of Northern Sweden had a royal monopoly to export pitch, and its biggest customer was the British Royal Navy. When a Russian invasion of Sweden cut off the source of supply around 1705, the Admiralty turned to the American Colonies, and by 1730 pine forests in Georgia and the Carolinas provided about 80 percent of the pitch used to waterproof His Majesty’s warships. Hence the term Tarheel for North Carolinians, not to mention the reference to any British sailor as a Tar.