Get a Grip- an Attempt at Summarizing the Different Kinds of Classic Skis and Care for Them

December 15, 2022 2 Comments

Get a Grip- an Attempt at Summarizing the Different Kinds of Classic Skis and Care for Them

Get a Grip- Fishscales, Crowns, Zeros, Skins. And always, wax

The following article is in response to questions our team receives regarding Jason's condition and wax recommendations on Instagram and also in response to widespread icing that we noticed and experienced at Teacup during a recent snow storm.  Understanding the mechanics of different classic skis and and practicing some maintenance will improve your experience in a variety of conditions.

My first day cross country skiing I was handed something not unlike a large blue crayon and informed to rub it on to the base of the wood skis. Brilliant sunshine and cold squeeky snow beckoned as I strapped my hiking boots into a cable type contraption, and then set shuffling off on a tour to Glacier Point. Falling down frequently was easy to accept, but when the sun turned the snow more melted and slushy, the real challenge came- there was no more grip!.  A wax change was made and something out of a tube that had a consistency like honey mixed with petroleum jelly (Klister!) was applied instead of the hard wax. It worked, got me back, but also seemed to want to creep onto my boots, my gloves, and clothing. I was hooked.

Using grip wax or klister to get “kick” was the only option then, but very soon after, some bright orange skis with blue bottoms appeared in the US. It wasn’t the blue that caught the eye, it was the texture. Running the entire length of the ski embossed into the blue plastic was something that looked like scales from a large fish or reptile. “Trak” was the name of this upstart ski company, and they promised no more klister on one’s car upholstery. Just slap them on the snow, clip in, and go skiing. It was great!

Eventually I went back to using grip waxes. Those bright orange monstrosities buzzed every step of the way and the diminished glide was more work and less fun. But the revolution had begun. Wax, or “waxable” classic skis are still enjoyed by cross country skiing enthusiasts for providing uphill traction yet also allowing every step forward to be an enjoyable glide, when they work, they can’t be
equaled. Problematic is “when”. When new snow is falling at about the freezing point – 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or Zero Centigrade, there just isn’t a wax that will work. In some climates after new snow has fallen and waxing starts out easy the day can warm quickly enough that a skier must stop and re-wax frequently. And although skiing on klister can be some of the best skiing for speed and grip, for some klister is deviltry in a tube. For casual use, the need to apply a grip wax for the day’s conditions is simply a burdensome task that delays going skiing.

Fish Scales or Snake scales, or a royal Crown

For all those reasons the fishscale skis made cross country skiing far more accessible. Soon afterwards the other ski companies started making “waxless” skis – skis that no longer needed grip waxes applied to provide traction. Trak had a patent on the fishscale base which forced competitors to try all sorts of patterns. Some looked like an inverted staircase, and while they would provide traction they would have a delay in securing grip and the buzzing of fishscales was pleasant compared that bumpy ride. Late in the 1970’s Fischer delivered their “Crown” waxless skis, which was the first pattern to compete with the fishscale concepts. An overall advantage of grip patterns is that they are made from same, very slippery Polyethylene base material as the gliding tips and tails of the skis; this allows pattern lengths to be long or short depending on the target use. Longer length patterns are used on skis intended for off-track loose and deep snow (where there is less glide anyway) and shorter patterns matched to a ski’s camber design are better for compacted or groomed snow. Whether it be fish or snake scales, or Crowns, the best term for these types of skis is “pattern base” skis.

No animals were harmed in the production of these skis

Meaning- “skin” skis. Skins – animal skins – were some of the first technology used to provide traction and some glide for skis, and dates back centuries. Just a few years ago Atomic re-introduced cross country skis using climbing skin inserts to provide grip and the results were good enough that other manufacturers followed. Nothing new, skis with mohair strips were experimented with back in the 1970’s but gave way to the pattern base skis. I’m quite familiar with the reason why, as I owned a pair of Fischer racing skis with a mohair inserts and my initial hurrah at the promise of no more klister gave way to frustration as they would frequently ice up and become slower than snowshoes.  The difference that is making modern skin skis very popular and fun is in the new and developing technology of the skin material, with various blends of nylon and real mohair, and anti-icing treatments.

The advantage of skin skis over pattern based skis are many. They’re quiet! No pattern base ski can avoid making noise in some conditions. And when pattern base skis get damaged by rocks or wear out the solution is to get new skis. The skin inserts on skin skis is easily replaced often needing no other tools than a pair of pliers. Skin material can provide more grip than pattern base skis, especially in harder snow conditions. But skin material will not glide as well as the slick plastic of a pattern base ski and this requires careful sizing of the ski to skier and engineering of the skin length and ski flex. This seems to improve year after year as companies improve their designs. For high performance track-oriented skin skis can offer a high degree of athletic satisfaction but can also be a bit more demanding of skier technique.  In some conditions, such as very wet and soft snow, a pattern base ski can still perform as well or better than a skin ski. But for most groomed conditions a properly fitted skin ski can feel closer in performance to a waxable classic ski than any pattern base ski.

32 degree Fahrenheit is 0 degree Centigrade

None of the designs for “waxless” skis have been competitive at top levels. There have been citizen level races where skiers with Crowns ruled due to challenging waxing conditions – especially in new 32 degree snow - but if grip waxing was possible anyone using pattern base or skin skis was relegated to the back
of the pack. Experimentation let to a discovery of using a wood working abrader to roughen up the base into a fuzz to create what we called “hairy” skis for use in that problematic new wet snow condition. There are stories of a ski coach lying on the snow during a 1982 World Cup race while trying to get a look at what was on the base of the skis of American skiers Bill Koch and Dan Simoneau, who walloped the field in a 1-2 finish during those difficult conditions. For some years many racers had one special pair of skis set aside prepared as “Hairies” for those days where no grip wax would work. Ski companies took note and developed inserts in the kick zone of material that would create a superior nap when abraded and these skis are still in use at the World Cup level. When they work, they are stunning for both speed and grip where nothing else – grip wax, skins, or pattern base – will be competitive. The name for these skis also implies their weakness – “Zeros”. They are great in wet fallen or falling snow around Zero centigrade but poor performers in much else. 

Kick zones of different styles of classic skis

From left to right- Waxable (zone is taped off), Pattern base, Zero, Skin

Wax on, but not wax off

The term “waxless” for skis eventually created problems. During the early development of skis to do away with grip waxing everyone understood that “waxless” meant that one didn’t need to use grip waxes anymore. But as these “waxless” skis – fishscales, crowns, mohair made cross country skiing more accessible, a lot of skiers got involved without knowing that such a thing as grip waxes existed. Leading to confusion when, after experiencing their pattern based skis either icing up or becoming very sluggish, they were informed that using glide wax would improve performance (“but I thought they were waxless skis!”). Regarding the performance enhancement of glide wax applications, almost no cross country ski should be considered waxless. Pattern base, skin, zero…and wax (or waxable) is all about the manner of achieving traction. Glide is what makes us skiers, not snowshoers.

Glide is important but relatively easy when just skiing for fun.  When Jason makes wax recommendations on Instagram, in general, they are in reference to grip.  

Keeping the fun factor high- Treatment and Maintenance 

Zeros, Skins, and Pattern base skis will all have superior glide and be less work if the glide zones are treated, see these two past articles regarding glide waxing.

Addressing using liquid paraffin- ( 

Addressing using hot wax paraffin- 

There is another maintenance issue that is of value, particularly in our area. Certain snow conditions such as damp new snow, upon compaction will immediately make a snowball. OK to smack your friend with but not fun when it forms on the gripping portion of the skis. The icing up of the grip section is sometimes more than just frustrating, it can make skiing impossible. These are the sort of conditions that occurred in a recent storm and that we often have on Mt Hood.  As discussed, grip waxing for these conditions is really tough so pattern, skin, or zero skis are a good option.  However if not treated or cared for these will ice up as well.  Let's discuss the best treatments to prevent this.

Universally the first treatment that makes a huge difference is starting off with a clean ski.  Dirt can be visible to the naked eye or not see, but it all collects snow and then icing occurs.  For pattern based skis, cleaning with a general base cleaner works great.  However it is important to know that for skins and zeros, there are special cleaning agents that clean the grip zones but don't dissolve the adhesive that holds everything together. Here is a link to an another article that discusses the importance of clean skis.  It is in reference to spring storage but good to practice this often throughout the season too.

After cleaning, for pattern base skis, the liquid glide zone treatments are superb when applied to the pattern. Just brush or buff the excess wax out of that zone- too much wax, like dirt, will attract snow and cause icing even worse.  

Modern skin skis all have factory anti-icing treatments that are effective, but eventually wear out. Keeping pattern base skis clean is even more important for skin skis, there is more surface area for dirt to attach.  After market skin cleaners and skin anti-ice treatments are available, and it isn’t marketing to say that they are specific to skin skis! The solvents used in many ski product to enhance glide, or to clean the bases, will damage the glue that holds the skin onto the ski, so it is critical to only use treatments specific to skin skis.

As for Zeros, the very best anti-ice treatments are disappearing as they all used fluorocarbons, but even without fluoros, cleaning and treatment of some kind is necessary, otherwise Zeros will definitely ice up. Skin anti-ice treatments products especially for zero's are on the market and worth trying.  I’ll admit that after finding out that a key ingredient in one wax brand’s top non-fluoro glide waxes is the same as what makes Rain-X work on car windshields, I’ve found it works rather well on Zeros. More experimentation lies ahead!

Oh, and to my friends who have been perplexed when their Zeros are icing up but mine are not – clean your skis!  And your skin skis.  And your pattern base skis. And your skate skis. The most important part of ski maintenance is starting with clean skis. Dirt don’t glide.

Thanks for reading and we would love to hear about further questions. 

See you out there,

Coach Karl 

2 Responses


December 16, 2022

If there’s anything like klister or pine pitch on the Zero portion, best to use any of the available glide zone cleaners (Rex, Vauhti, Swix all make good ones). A stronger solvent like grip wax cleaner will work better if there’s a lot of sticky goo contamination. But if it is just rather dirty but not sticky, hot water and some dish detergent will be fine. That is also true of pattern base skis.
I do strongly suggest using a brush dedicated only for use with base cleaners, preferably a soft metal bristle type. If using a nylon brush it should have bristles that are stiff.


December 16, 2022

Karl – thanks for your excellent advice. What’s the best way to clean zeros?

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in Coaches Corner

Gear Round-Up- Part 2 Bindings and Boots
Gear Round-Up- Part 2 Bindings and Boots

November 02, 2023

Continue Reading

Gear Roundup- Part One: Poles
Gear Roundup- Part One: Poles

October 20, 2023

Part One of our gear round up- summarizing needed info to get the right kind and size of pole to fully enjoy Nordic skiing.

Continue Reading

Lending a Hand- The role of hand applied structure to enhance ski glide
Lending a Hand- The role of hand applied structure to enhance ski glide

March 22, 2023

Continue Reading