ski instruction
early winter 2008


ski tuning —how much? how often?

Among professional skiers it’s an accepted fact of daily life on snow that no matter how good your skis are, they just won’t perform right if they aren’t well tuned. Many of the skiers I admire the most spend long hours patiently bent over a tuning bench, filing, scraping, repairing bases, touching up this and that, and finally waxing their skis. But, frankly, maintaining your own skis requires too big a commitment of time for most skiers. Even pros, those who enjoy working on their own skis, and who are good at it, have their limits. When early season rocks in the snow have trashed their skis’ bases and edges, even pros take their skis in to the shop for major surgery. We all have our “guy,” a ski tuner and repairman that we trust absolutely, that we discuss skis and tuning and performance with, and who has an arsenal of specialized ski repair and tuning equipment and years of practice using it.

So your first task, I’d say, is to find your own “guy.” Ski repair technicians at ski areas are simply more experienced than their urban counterparts. So ask around at your favorite resort, find out whom the pros trust with their skis, and start building a relationship not with a ski shop, but with the shop’s best ski tuner. But you’ll also need to be pretty savvy about what needs to be done and how often in order to keep your skis in top shape.

Let’s start with the simplest aspects of ski maintenance and progress to the most complex. Waxed skis ski better. Not merely faster but better. And although I try to wax my skis every morning, I recommend that serious recreational skiers make a point of having their skis waxed at least once every ski trip. For example, once a weekend, or always at the beginning of a week-long ski vacation, and then again after a few days. Well-waxed skis are slippery enough to carry you swiftly across boring flats. And you’ll find that they perform better at slow speeds too. Waxing has changed considerably in recent decades. Ideally, wax should be applied hot to penetrate the ski bases, then scrapped thin, and polished, or “structured” (a curious bit of ski jargon that refers to brushing the waxed bases with nylon or brass bristle brushes that introduce microgrooves into the wax surface to help break up suction between ski and snow). Altogether hot-waxing can be a complicated and messy business. Probably better done in a ski shop, not on the kitchen counter of your snow-country condo.

After routine waxing comes “tuning.” Tuning is the mechanical part: flattening and truing up the bases, getting rid of any nicks in the edges, and lastly, filing to adjust the precise angles of your edges relative to the base of the ski. This edge tuning can and really should be done to a precision of about half a degree. Of course no one can see that precisely or has that steady a hand with a file, and so special tools are used to dial in the desired angles.

“Beveling” is the technical term for changing the angle of the metal edge from the obvious right-angled corner, perpendicular to the basic flat plane of the ski base. Beveling can drastically affect a ski’s performance. There is no magic formula. When you take a ski in to be tuned, start with the manufacturer’s recommended bevel angles. A knowledgeable ski tuner will know what that is for different brands and models of skis. I always like to take new skis out of the box and try them first with no bevel at all to establish a sort of baseline image of the neutral behavior of the ski before I start tweaking it.

You can probably get away with having your skis tuned every eight or ten days you spend on the slopes. But you will need to have them worked on more often if the snow is thin and you wind up scratching your bases and dinging your edges on half-hidden rocks. For just such thin conditions, which are all too common during the early weeks of the season, but which can sometimes persist through January in dry years, I carry a small sharpening stone in my parka pocket. At noon, I run my fingers along the edges of my skis to see if they feel rough to the touch or smooth. Sliding your fingers along the edges works better than visual inspection for rock damage. If the edge feels rough, I smooth it out by rubbing it with my small sharpening stone, held parallel to the base and then parallel to the side of the edge. (You don’t need an expensive diamond sharpening stone. A $2 stone from the local hardware store will do.) A small sharpening stone will remove and smooth out nicks that completely defeat a file. It will become your secret weapon for low-snow years.

And finally, if you really fall in love with a certain pair of skis—as I often do—it’s nice to know that almost any damage can be repaired. Did you tear out a section of edge? Did you gouge an enormous hole in your ski's base? A good ski tuner can put Humpty-Dumpty together again, overnight.

The basic idea, however, is incredibly simple: Take care of your skis and they’ll take care of you.

illustration above: why we ski. From an early poster.


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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.