Surf Science: The Art Of Wax

The Art Of Wax
How does that sticky stuff on the deck of your board really work?

Words: Chris Towery
Photo: John King

You may not realize it, but modern surfing, with its ultra high-performance maneuvers, owes a big debt to how your great-grandparents canned fruits and vegetables. Throughout the early decades of the 1930s, housewives everywhere used paraffin wax to seal cans and jars. In 1935, a young surfer named Alfred Gallant applied it to his board, and it quickly became the traction of choice, although it wasn’t until the late 1960s that paraffin was mixed with other ingredients specifically to make surf wax. Even today, it’s still the main ingredient in modern surf wax.

“The base of all surf wax is paraffin, which is from hydrocarbon, or oil,” says John Dahl, president of Wax Research, which makes Sticky Bumps. “Part of the base is also resins and synthetic rubber. Then flexible waxes, similar to beeswax, go into it to make it softer, while other softeners like whipped oil are added, too.”

These days surf wax is a fairly exact science, with different formulas for specific ranges of water temperatures. But does it really matter if you use warm-water wax in cold water? We’ll spare you what would be a disastrous experiment—it totally matters. “In tropical water, you want to increase the melt temperature,” says Dahl, “so you’d use hard wax with a high melt temperature. In cold conditions, you go the opposite way, so you’re using a softer wax with a low melt temperature.”

Basecoat is a hard wax that’s primarily used as a first coat, but also works in warm and tropical water. The idea with basecoat is that it adheres and beads up better than cold-water waxes, and provides a durable anchor for the topcoat. But is it really necessary? “I recommend a base coat,” says Sex Wax Founder Charles Herzog III, a.k.a. Mr. Zog. “The stickier formulas will move around unless there’s something to lock them in place. A base coat is nothing more than a harder wax. It’s really just the same as our tropical and warm water wax.”

But get out there and try some different formulas and applications. After all, wax only runs about a dollar a bar, so you can afford to experiment.

Waxing Tips:

-When applying basecoat, if you apply less pressure, you’ll create taller, smaller-circumference beads that are super grippy. Pushing harder makes beads that are flatter and bigger around. It’s really a matter of preference, just experiment a bit.
-Wax is messy as hell, and it seems to get everywhere. If you get it on carpet, one trick to get it up is to heat up an iron, put a paper grocery bag over the spot, and put the heated iron over the bag. It’ll heat up the wax and soak it up out of the carpet and into the paper bag. Make sure and be super careful with the iron. Wax on the carpet sucks, but it’s better than overcooked carpet.
Originally published in the August, 2006 issue of Transworld SURF.