Behind the scenes at Salter’s Ski Shop, Jay Bailey turns battered and bruised skis and snowboards into like-new razor-sharp carving instruments.
Jay Bailey can’t be interrupted right now. He’s moving with swift confidence between a series of big lime green machines that spin and whirl. The ski in his hands glides across an abrasive surface while throwing off a trail of sparks. After a quick visual check of the results, it’s on to the next machine which will precisely set and polish the side edge. These represent just two of what is usually a six step process perfected by Salter’s to bring well used skis and snowboards back to life.
Bailey, the lead ski tech at Salter’s, is responsible for tuning and repairing skis and snowboards for the weekend enthusiasts and the competitive athletes who patronize the shop. On a busy day, he can get through over 30 pairs of skis. On average, Bailey estimates, he probably works on 10 to 15 pairs of skis and at least seven snowboards.
Many enthusiasts that are new to the sport assume that tuning your skis is akin to changing the oil in your car: a necessary element of maintenance that yields no perceptible change. This, as it turns out, isn’t entirely true. Having the right angle on the side edge of the skis, the right pattern imprinted on the bottom of the skis (commonly called the base grind or the “structure”), and the right amount of wax applied to the bottom— these things all add up to create a pair that performs perfectly. While competitive racers know this better than anyone, it’s a formula that affects recreational skiers, too.
“For the average skier, we make sure the skis have some edge hold but not too much,” explains Bailey. “We don’t want them to feel like they’re on razors.” Lifting a pair of skis that he just finished up to the light, one can just make out a slight slope on the metal side edge. These skis have a one-degree bevel. On a racer’s skis, which are typically set with a higher bevel at three degrees, the slope is a little easier to spot. A higher-angle bevel allows for sharper turns and works well on hard-packed snow or ice. A lower angle feels more stable (and is preferable for beginners), yet it doesn’t allow for the same quick handling.
Another important element has to do with the faint patterns imprinted on the bottom of each ski. Salter’s recently invested in a specialized Wintersteiger ski service machine that can be programed to imprint different patterns for different conditions onto the base of a ski or snowboard. As to why one needs to put a pattern on the bottom of a ski, Jay launches into a scientific—yet easy to follow— explanation. “Even as cold as the snow is, when a ski glides over its surface, it creates friction, which creates heat,” he says. “It melts the snow and creates a microscopic layer of water between the surface of the snow and the base of the ski. The structure of the ski breaks up the surface tension of the water, so you don’t get stuck to the snow.” Imagine two pieces of glass. Pour water on a single plane of glass, and place the second on top. Then, try to pull them apart. It’s almost impossible. The surface tension of the water acts like glue. “But if you score one of the pieces, they’ll come right apart,” he says. “That’s why we imprint them—there’s nothing worse than a ski that won’t glide.”
Once the edges are beveled and the structure is imprinted on the bottom, the ski must be waxed. “The bases of your skis need to be impregnated with wax, both for protection and to further reduce friction” says Baily as he turns to the Wintersteiger waxing machine. The machine hums as Baily talks. “While racers wax their skis daily, most recreational skiers should wax after every 5 or 6 days on the slopes. If you keep your skis in good condition, they’ll last almost forever.”
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