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Hand-Tune Your Skis

Fall Line

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To get the most out of your skis, you need edges so sharp they can score blue ice like a diamond on a Monte Carlo hotel mirror, so smooth they can slice through obstinate hardpack like it’s Alta fluff. In short, you need Brian Burnett, service director for the U.S. Ski Team, to show you how to tune your skis.

Burnett, who’s worked as a race technician for Atomic and run his own Sun Valley, Idaho, ski shop, is a little busy these days. He spent last season keeping U.S. alpine sensation Bode Miller’s skis race-ready, and he maintains equipment for two to four racers at a time, each of whom uses as many as 16 pairs of skis and spends as many as 150 days a year on snow.

Consider that every pair of skis requires at least a touch-up-sometimes much more-after each day on snow, and you can appreciate the value of Burnett’s time. Recently, though, he spared some time to share his tip-to-tail method and philosophy for hand-tuning skis. For the price of a few shop tunes, you can fill a toolbox with everything you’ll need to keep your skis like new season after season. Not only that, you’ll be more in tune with your gear-and a better skier for it.

Step 1 Gear Up “The first thing to do is get a tool kit together,” says Burnett. “Everything you need is easily obtained at any good ski shop.” He suggests these basics:

>Ski vise (A, B) Your most costly investment ($125-$250); also the most essential. Burnett recommends a center-grab model with pillars that support the ski’s tip and tail. Avoid cheap plastic components.

>8-inch mill bastard file (C) “Don’t get some file from your local hardware store,” Burnett warns. Cheap files often aren’t hard enough to bite on ski-edge steel.

>Side-edge file guide (D) Holds your file (and stones) securely at the proper angle. Most skis come with a 1-degree side-edge bevel. That is, the sides of their edges are angled 1 degree inward from perpendicular. If you want a more acute edge, try a 2- or 3-degree file guide.

Burnett notes that today’s shorter, shaped skis benefit from higher (more acute) side-edge beveling.

>Diamond stones (E) Also called diamond files. Burnett recommends a set of three: 100-, 200- and 400-grit. The aggressive 100-grit is good for prep work: knocking down case-hardened dings and softening the steel for filing. The 200- and 400-grit stones are used after filing to smooth and reharden the edge. Ceramic and natural stones are acceptable alternatives.

>Clamp (F) A common hardware-store variety spring clamp, for affixing tools to the file guide.

>Gummi stone (G) Optional. A rubbery, abrasive block for final burr removal.

>Rubber bands For holding up ski brakes. Short, stout ones (like those that secure broccoli bundles in the supermarket) are best.

Step 2 Prepare to File…
Secure ski brakes in the retracted position using a rubber band, then clamp the ski in the vise, side-edge up. Run a finger along the corner of the edge to assess how dull it is, and inspect it visually, noting its color and patina. When you’re finished tuning, the edge should be sharp enough to shave a thin layer off your fingernail, and any oxidized steel should be shiny and smooth. Clamp the 100-grit diamond file in your side-edge tool and make a few light passes, tip to tail, until rough spots feel smooth.

Step 3 File!
Clamp the file to the side-edge tool so that it lays across the side-edge at about a 30-degree angle, with the tang (handle end of the file) oriented toward the tip of the ski. Remember, the side-edge tool will hold the file in such a way that it cuts the edge at exactly the proper angle. All you have to do is pull it down the edge, from tip to tail, in long, slightly overlapping strokes. Brush out the file frequently to remove filings, and don’t press too hard, or you’ll remove too much edge. Knowing when to quit comes with experience, Burnett says, but here’s a trick: Color the edge with a Magic Marker, and whhen you’ve filed the ink off, stop.

Step 4 Polish, Polish, Polish
Newly filed edges bear microscopic striations made by the file and are relatively soft. Polishing with diamond stones smooths the steel to a mirror-like finish, which makes it faster in the snow, and hardens it, which makes your tune more durable. Place your 100-grit stone in the file guide and make a few light passes; then repeat with your 200- and 400-grit stones. For downhill skis, Burnett makes successive passes with stones up to 1,500-grit, but that might be excessive for town-league races. When you’re through polishing, it’s necessary to remove the burr-an invisible flap of metal hanging like a cornice from the corner of the edge. Make a light pass with your 400-grit stone held flat against the base edge, or use a gummi stone held at angle, as shown. This can be done freehand, without a file guide.

Step 5 Hit the Slopes
Now you’re ready to wax up and go skiing on fast, precise edges that will hold an arc on the hardest ice. To maintain optimum performance, Burnett recommends a touch-up (quick passes with the diamond stones) after every day on snow and a complete filing every five days. Once you get the hang of it, a pair of skis takes just 15 minutes to tune-time well spent.