For the past several years, debate has been brewing amongst cross-country skiers as to the merits of ski-waxing. Back when all skis had a wooden base, adding wax was essential in order to get them to glide across the snow. Many skiers still swear by waxing today, even though skis now have supposedly “no-wax” polyethylene gliding surfaces. Waxing can be a tricky process, though - if you use a wax with the wrong temperature rating, you can end up sticking to the snow, or slipping back and forth in one spot. It’s also time-consuming, and requires the skis to be periodically stripped of their built-up wax layers. Now, a researcher from Mid Sweden University (MSU) claims to have proof that modern skis work better without wax, and says that “those who claim otherwise are practicing voodoo and not science.”
Leonid Kuzmin is currently defending his doctoral thesis at MSU’s Department of Engineering and Sustainable Development. He made his initial claims about the evils of ski wax several years ago, and has since researched the topic farther for that thesis. He believes that the combination of high wear-resistance, low friction, and the ability to self-lubricate make ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) bases better without wax. He stated, “That’s why it makes no sense to destroy a fantastic product with a less suitable material like glide wax.”
But why are waxes allegedly inferior? Mainly, because dirt particles and other contaminants get stuck in wax. In a 2006 study, Kuzmin compared a number of waxed and unwaxed skis with a white gliding surface. After use in wet snow conditions, more dirt was visible on the waxed skis. He also found that the layer of water between ski and snow was more uniformly-spread with no wax. But what about cold, dry snow, where a hard wax is preferable to one that’s soft and sticky? In a 2008 study, he determined that the addition of hard wax could still not match the hardness of an unwaxed base.
It is Kuzmin’s belief that the practice of ski waxing persists for a number of reasons. They include promotion on the part of wax manufacturers, the difficulty of assessing glide on a surface as constantly-changing as snow, and a “strong and persistent wish to see the ski preparation as an art and magic, but not as a technological process and science.”
“It’s a myth that you need to use wax on skis,” he stated. “Modern ski bases provide better glide. It’s enough to treat the surface of the ski mechanically, using a steel scraper, for example, to achieve good glide. This also minimizes your cost as well as the time you spend.”