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Wax On, Wax Off

by Arlene Goldberg-Gist
February 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 8


Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

When my friend Sam, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, told me he was considering a 20-minute drive to Bellevue, Wash., to attend a ski-waxing clinic because "they are providing a 20% discount on any of the ski wax company's products to those in attendance," I was truly not thinking that he's a cheapskate. Nevertheless he added, "You wouldn't believe how expensive SKI WAX is."

Not being a skier myself, I thought back to how older kids would sit on wax paper while going down a rather steep, enclosed sliding board at the park where I took my son when he was young. That wax paper made the trip down surprisingly fast and, consequently, less safe for the unsuspecting sliders who followed.

According to a timeline on the International Ski Federation's website, the oldest skis known are dated between 6300 and 5000 B.C. and were found in what is now Russia; they were made of hardwood. More recently, during the 1860s California gold rush, miners apparently held impromptu downhill ski races and discovered that smearing the bottoms of skis with "dopes," which were brewed from vegetable and/or animal compounds, helped increase skiing speeds. Other miners, however, apparently turned to melting paraffin candle wax onto ski bases, which worked better in colder conditions.

Today, Olympic and recreational skiers alike expect to go fast but also to have controlled, smooth rides. They can thank Martin Johannes Matsbo, who won a bronze medal in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He won his medal for Sweden in the 4 x 10 cross-country ski relay.

Need for speed:
Credit: istock
All skiers benefit from a good ski waxing.
Credit: istock
All skiers benefit from a good ski waxing.

In 1942, a serendipitous series of events brought Matsbo together with Børje Gabrielsson, the head of Sweden's largest pharmaceutical company, AB Astra (today's AstraZeneca). Gabrielsson had the idea of scientifically testing ski waxes in order to develop mixtures for all types of snow conditions. Matsbo, who had been developing his own recipes and doing his own experiments, took a job working with Gabrielsson and Astra's chemists, as well as researchers from Kungliga Technical College in Stockholm.

From time to time, Matsbo would travel to the mountains to test the research team's latest concoction. Traditional ingredients such as tar, bicycle tires, beeswax, and animal fat were abandoned for synthetic resins and refined petroleum waxes, which proved much more reliable and predictable.

Adding green, blue, and red pigments to the colorless synthetic ingredients made the waxes more easily recognizable and resulted in something totally new in 1946. Astra announced a name competition for its new product and settled on Svix, which was later amended to Swix, presumably for its associations with Sweden and wax.

Current-day researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials, in Freiburg, Germany, use a special technique to analyze friction and gliding effects: They simulate the contact between a single snow crystal and the coating with the aid of a test rig and then measure the coefficient of friction in relation to temperature. In a press release, Matthias Scherge, head of the institute's new Microtribology Center in Karlsruhe, Germany, said: "The snow, the ski coating, and the wax that is applied all unite to form a single entity. We can't alter the snow, but we can adapt both the wax and the coating to suit particular snow conditions. It's the first 10 to 15 nm of the coating surface that determines the gliding effects."

So yes, Sam, a 40-g container of Swix Cera Nova HF Ski Wax-Green for $85 was worth the 20-minute drive for 20% off. Happy skiing to you and the Olympic athletes in Vancouver. May you choose the proper wax.


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