Buying Guide for Ski Waxing Irons, Tables, and Vises
By Steve Kopitz
For this guide we are going to start from the ground up. The right table, vise, and iron will determine how enjoyable your tuning experience can be. Many people start tuning without a proper foundation and quickly stop maintaining their equipment. Without a solid table and a ski/snowboard specific vise it is incredibly difficult to apply wax, and even more challenging to remove wax or maintain edges. Likewise a good iron sets the stage for a clean and clean gilding base.
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Whether equipping yourself with a home tuning setup or an on the go race setup a solid table will make everything easier and more efficient. A thick level surface that can easily accept tuning vises will make all the difference. Tuners are often asked if saw horses or woodworking benches can serve the same purpose, and the answer is always no. Having a stable platform that does not allow your vises to sit unlevel or shift during the scraping, brushing, and filing that occurs during regular ski maintenance not only makes the processes easier, but will also keep hands and knuckles scrape and cut free. Saw horses will shift far too much and have nothing to support the center of the ski. This allows the ski to flex and wander especially during scraping and brushing. There are many table sizes available, and the best choice will depend on what types of equipment you will be tuning and the space you have to do it in. When tuning longer length skis, especially cross country and giant slalom skis a longer profile table is a must, having more room to space your vises makes for a more stable ski and easier use. For snowboards or when space is limited shorter tables are also available.
An easy to use and adjustable waxing vise is a tuner’s best friend. A good set of vises provide the ideal platform for all ski and snowboard service. Vises will come in many arrangements and levels of quality, but the two musts for any vise are the ability to hold equipment base up and on edge while not allowing the ski or snowboard to move. The most noticeable differences between vises are material, number of pieces, and edge holders.
Plastic is typically used in entry level vises. It is inexpensive and lightweight, but is prone to twisting under force. This means the skis or snowboard have a good chance of wandering especially when scraping and brushing. Most plastic vises will have a groove or channel to hold the ski or snowboard on one edge for easy access to the other for edge sharpening and honing. One distinct advantage to plastic vises is that they are lightweight, therefore easy to transport or take on vacation.
Metal is the common material used in mid and higher level vises. The clear advantage to metal is that structurally it is much stiffer, and because of this the ski or snowboard will be set firm, and unlikely to wander. Metal vises are also commonly equipped with thumb set screws to hold the ski or snowboard into the edge channel, which is incredibly handy while setting new edge bevels, re-sharpening, and planing sidewalls. Metal vises are also far more durable over time.
Two-piece vises are exactly as they sound, simply a stand for both the tip and tail of the ski or snowboard. Most entry level vises will be two piece, as the few pieces the lower the price. Most two piece vises will be plastic and have some type of rubber to help hold the ski or snowboard in place, as well as channels to hold the equipment on edge. The biggest disadvantage with two piece vises comes when tuning skis. Without support in the waist of the ski it can flex too easily, making ironing, scraping, and brushing difficult. This lack of support becomes far less important in junior skis and snowboards due to the shorter lengths.
Three-piece vises come in plastic and metal versions and include the tip and tail stands that two-piece vises use, but also offer a third vise or band restraint for the center. While support in the center is more important for skis than snowboards it is helpful for both. Most band type three piece vises will still let the ski flex slightly but they are very practical in that they hold the ski brake flush and out of the way. Vise style center pieces require the brake to be strapped in place, but they hold the ski or snowboard firm in the center no room for movement is allowed. To take full advantage of three piece vises having enough room to space stands apart is important, so if your tuning area is small or confined a two piece vise might be a better fit.
Edge Holders - The quality of the edge hold system correlates directly to the quality of the vise. Most entry level vises will use a simple channel system to hold the ski or snowboard upright. This allows access to the edge for sharpening and honing, but makes it difficult to treat the side and base edges from this position. For snowboarders this is often the only option, as snowboards need a deep channel to hold the board still. The next step up in edge holding systems is a slant channel by angling the ski both side and base edges are easy to access and work on. As with the upright channels, slant channels will still allow the ski to move around. Premium vises will have a channel system that uses rubberized thumb screws to fix the ski into position preventing any movement. Most will also have a release on the vise that lets the ski sit vertical or at an angle depending on the preference of the tuner.
Different waxing irons can produce drastically different results, and no you’re mom’s old iron, or the one you found at a thrift store do not work here. Clothing irons are responsible for more tuning mistakes and ski damage than just about anything else. These irons usually contain pores that hold dirt and dust and work from 140 degrees Celsius to 240 degrees Celsius, where most waxes need to be melted between 100 degrees Celsius to 150 degrees Celsius. So not only will these waxing irons contaminate a ski base, but are nowhere near sensitive enough properly wax a ski. When looking at a tuning iron the two important features are the temperature control system and overall thickness and shape of the plate.
Plate Thickness directly corresponds to the quality of an iron. As the plate gets thicker the better the iron will be. The thicker the plate the longer the iron will take to heat, but will also hold a much more consistent temperature. This allows the wax to melt evenly and more precise than thinner plates. For most recreational tuners an 8 millimeter thick plate will do the job very well. As the need for a fast ski increases, and pure fluorocarbon waxes are going to be ironed into the ski 12 to 25 millimeter plates allow the unchanging heat levels needed. Most of the thicker plates will also have a hard angled area for the application of powdered waxes.
Temperature Controls and their adjustability will also fluctuate greatly with the quality of the iron. The most basic irons will simply have an on/off setting, usually keeping the iron around 125 degrees Celsius, with an indicator light for when the iron reaches maximum temperature. The next level of sensitivity incorporates an adjustable dial to roughly adjust iron temperature, usually between 100 to 150 degrees Celsius, with a light indicator for when the iron has reached the intended temperature. Most recreational tuners uses a dial adjust iron for the temperature flexibility at a very reasonable price. The controls most often found in tune shops and on the race benches are digital readout adjustable irons. These irons will have the same indicator light as lesser quality irons, but are micro-processor controlled in either five or single degree increments depending on how specific they need to be. Most five degree adjustable irons work from 100 to 160 degrees Celsius while one degree adjustable irons will go up to 180 degrees Celsius for pure fluorocarbon waxes and are crucial for racers in need of that extra edge on the course.
Waxing Corks can be very handy problem solvers as well as inexpensive iron alternatives. In emergency situations (i.e. forgetting to wax, or missing the temperature all together) corks can buff a quick layer of wax onto a ski or snowboard base. The friction between the ski and cork will heat most waxes to a point that they can be absorbed into the p-tex material. This style of application works well in the short term but given a half to a full day of skiing the coat corked into the base will no longer exist. Corks are also commonly seen on the race hill for last minute application of pure fluorocarbon powders that only last a few runs and need to be applied right before a race run. The convenience of cork material often makes entry level tuners gravitate towards using cork instead of an iron. The down side to using a waxing cork is the increased amount of effort to actually apply wax, and that ironed on wax will last anywhere from seven to ten days, making it far more affective. Also, ironing wax into a ski or snowboard base helps condition the base with every coat, which protects the base in the long term.