Dear Straight Dope:
Can you tell me if you put the wax on the bottom of the surfboard or the top? A friend of mine and I have a dispute, and we have never surfed on surfboards. Thank you!
Lani & Texmex
It depends which side of the board you’re riding on. If you try surfing, I recommend standing on top (the deck) of the board. In learning to surf, this will prevent a lot of problems right off the bat. You’ll know you’re on top of the board if the fins (skag or skags) are underneath, in the water. Don’t mean to be condescending, but I don’t want to see you ridiculed.
The wax is for gription, which is a word I invented. You rub it on top of the board to keep your feet and hands from slipping off. There is a rumor that some Filipino surfers also rub it on the bottoms of their feet, but that isn’t the usual way to do it.
Wax only needs to be applied where your feet and hands come in contact with the board. You grip the rails of the board while sitting and when sinking the nose for a duck dive, so you wax the sides and the areas on the top of the board where you’ll stand (assuming you get to that point), back to the tail of the board. You don’t need to wax the very front of the board unless you intend to "hang ten." Better too much wax than not enough though, especially while you’re learning. Use circular motions to apply a thick coat of wax, then you can rough it up to improve gription even more, using a rubber comb designed for this purpose (this comb is also used for removing wax from the board, which you should do before you reapply a new coat, each time you surf).
Just like waxes for cross country skis, there are different surfboard waxes for different conditions/water temperatures: softer, tackier wax for cold water and harder base paraffin wax (melts at a higher temperature) for warm and tropical water. Wax is also used on body boards, skim boards and snowboards.
In the early 1900s, surfers used candle wax, and in the 30s/40s paraffin canning wax. It had to be melted onto the deck and became very hard, so surfers would add sand to improve the traction. Bet that skinned ’em up good. In the 1960s it was discovered that adding some oil and using soft pliable waxes like beeswax improved the application and texture. Soon afterwards, of course–this being the 60s–colors and fragrances were added.
Tip: if you produce and market a mundane product, give it a good name. Just ask Fredrick Herzog III who started making "Mr.Zog’s Sex Wax" ("the best for your stick") in the early 1970s. The logo became an instant hit on tee shirts and VW bus windows. It’s still the best selling surf wax on the market (though Mr. Zog discourages eating, chewing or using the wax for sexual purposes). I also remember a brand that advertised itself to be "sharkproof." Why take any chances?
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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