The Ultimate Guide to Surf Wax

by Oct 9, 20200 comments

One of the critical skills a beginner surfer needs to learn, aside from actually riding the waves, is prepping and maintaining your board. Cleaning, checking for damage, and storing it properly are as important as your skills in the water. As a surfer, your board is your life so keeping it in tip-top shape is paramount.

One of these tasks is waxing the board. Unsurprisingly, this is something that most newbies⁠—and even a few seasoned surfers⁠—struggle with. From choosing the right wax to use, to properly applying wax to the board, which can be quite intimidating for starters.

In this article The Ultimate Guide to Surf Wax, we lay out everything there is to know about surf wax. From knowing which wax to buy, application techniques, and surf wax maintenance and cleanup. If you’re ready, read on. 

WHAT IS SURF WAX?

Surf wax or Surfboard wax can be either natural or synthetic, and is applied to the surfboard to prevent surfers from slipping and falling. The specific material and the texture of the wax are designed to help add traction. Because of its usefulness, it has also seen wider adoption in other watersports like kayaking, boogie boarding, and skimboarding.

Back in the early days, surfers used candle wax as it was readily available at the time. Later on, waxes made out of paraffin sometimes mixed with sand to give a bit of a texture came about. Another innovation came when essential oils were added to the mix, making the waxes softer and easier to apply. This had a welcome side effect of small grains of solid wax sticking to the surface adding small bumps. The bumps help with traction as there is more surface area for your skin to make contact and grab on to. 

These days, there are hundreds of waxes to choose from. Although there have been tweaks made to the formulation, paraffin is still a common base material. There are even scents and colors depending on your style. Eco-friendly options are also becoming a huge thing as surfers become more aware of their impact on the environment.

WHY USE SURF WAX?

The main duty of surf wax is to make your skin (or wetsuit) grip onto the board more. And that is it! Any surfer⁠—whether a beginner or a veteran⁠—will tell you, slipping off your board makes for a really bad time. Forget standing up on your feet when you can’t even paddle properly because your body keeps slipping. Ever ridden a totally brand new board with no wax? Well, even a top pro surfer probably couldn’t do it! 

Slipping not only ruins your surf session, but it also poses a few dangers. Your surfboard is your lifeline out in the water so you want to be on it at all times. Using every bit of your energy just to keep yourself from falling off will tire you easily and leave you vulnerable especially for first-time surfers.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SURF WAX?

Surf wax is divided into two layers: the basecoat and the topcoat. The base coat is super hard and is applied directly to the board while the softer topcoat is applied over the top. Some would argue that basecoat is not necessary (just a ploy by the wax companies to make you buy more wax) but if you want your perfect wax job to last longer, we would advise using a basecoat and topcoat together. Typically, your bar of basecoat wax will last loads longer than your topcoat, as you only use it on a fresh, clean surfboard. 

BASECOAT

As the name suggests, the basecoat or base wax⁠—as it is sometimes called⁠—is meant to serve as the foundation of the wax layers. The wax itself is meant to help the topcoat stick to it easily as well as to maintain the lifespan of your topcoat as much as possible – Kinda like an anchor that holds the topcoat in place. Because the basecoat is hard, it can be tedious to apply if you do not know the proper technique. Water temperature and other parameters do not affect it as much, unlike the topcoat.

TOPCOAT

Topcoat, on the other hand, is the layer that makes contact with your skin, feet and body. This is what most people refer to when they say surf wax. It is softer⁠—some even have a putty-like consistency⁠—and “grippier” than the basecoat. Because of this, it’s a lot easier to apply, unlike the basecoat. The topcoat is also further broken down into smaller categories based on water temperature: Cold, Cool, Warm, and Tropical

NON-TOXIC SURF WAX

For years, surfboard wax has been made out of paraffin, a by-product of refining petroleum. Other chemicals are also mixed in during the process before eventually hitting the shelves. These chemicals are not only potentially harmful to you but also to the marine environment in which you are surfing all the time. Hopefully the day will come when these paraffin based waxes are phased out production and the only options are the non-toxic versions. 

Thankfully, there are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives currently in the market. Many of these waxes are made with organic all-natural ingredients that not only are effective but also safe for you and the environment. This lets you enjoy the sport without fear of upsetting the ecosystems nearby. Some of the popular organic wax ingredients include coconut oil, tree resin, and beeswax.

THE IMPORTANCE OF WAX TEMPERATURE

Surf wax is only as good as long as it’s on the board. Making it last as long as possible without losing its “sticky-ness” is key and one thing that affects this is water temperature. If the water is too warm the wax melts away quickly and slides off the board. If the water is too cold, the wax hardens completely and becomes slippery. We want the wax to be sticky enough for the longest amount of time possible – which is why you need to figure out the water temperature where you are gonna surf first, and then make sure your wax is ‘compatible’ with that water temp. If you need to check out the water temperature at your local spot, any surf forecasting site like Surfline or Magicseaweed should do the job. 

Topcoat surf wax is grouped into four (sometimes five) sectors which all overlap in terms of temperature, so don’t be too scientific in your approach. Almost all of the major surf brands use some sort of colour coded scale for wax temperature, making it simple to choose the right one for your session. 

COLD WATER WAX

This wax is designed for temperatures from around 8°C to 15°C (45°F~70°F). Some variations of wax exist for friggen extra cold, but these are only used by die-hard freaks who surf in Northern Europe, and those crazy cats on the East Coast of the US and parts of Canada.  Cold wax (and extra cold) are the softest topcoat options on the market. They can perform well under frigid conditions perfect for surfing during in Winter in most temperate climates. They should be stored carefully as they easily melt in higher temperatures or if left in the sun in your surf wagon, so be warned! 

COOL WATER WAX

The cool rating means the wax is designed for temperatures between around 12°C (~54°F) to about 20°C (~68°F). These are slightly more tolerant than cold waxes but it is still best to store them away from heat. These are the second softest wax next to cold waxes – basically the go-to for much of the year for most of Europe, and central parts of the USA. 

WARM WATER SURF WAX

Warm wax is best suited for waters with temperatures between 16°C (~62°F) to 25°C (~78°F). These waxes are a lot harder than the first two and as a result are a bit more difficult to apply to your surfboard. If you are in say France in high Summer you’d probably go for this option. To give you a rough idea, you would need this sort of wax if you were wearing trunks and a wetsuit top, or maybe a short-sleeved wetsuit. 

TROPICAL SURF WAX
This is the hardest of all the rating made to withstand higher temperatures. They are suited to be used at 25°C (~75°F) or above. These are less likely to melt in storage but can get too stiff and even slippery when exposed to cold waters. Primarily used, you guessed it, in the Tropics, this wax is super hard, and slightly longer lasting as a result. 

These ratings are generally accepted as general guidelines rather than standards per-se. Most manufacturers rate their waxes pretty similarly though. Others even make waxes that span up to two ratings (i.e warm-tropical etc.) which are great choices too.

HOW TO WAX A SURFBOARD

There are 3 Ts to consider when applying surf wax to your board: Type of wax, Technique, and Timing. Knowing these three will have a significant impact on your experience as well as keep your board in Tip-Top condition (see what I did there).

TYPE OF WAX

We’ve already discussed the types of wax and their classification above so all that’s left is picking which ones are right for your needs. 

First, determine what the water conditions are in the location you wish to surf especially if it’s somewhere you are unfamiliar with. Note that the seasons also affect water temperatures the further away you are from the equator. Pick a topcoat that fits the conditions. Luckily, most local surf shops in your area will stock up on the right wax suited for the local beaches. You can also ask around online forums and groups to get recommendations.

Using a basecoat is totally optional but it will improve your experience significantly. It helps the topcoat adhere to the board better as well as make your wax job last longer. The only downside is the extra time and elbow grease you have to put in.

TECHNIQUE

To put it simply there is no one right way of wax application. There isn’t really an “industry standard” of sorts. But you can absolutely botch it if you are not careful. For maximum results, here’s how you do it:

First, make sure to thoroughly clean your board first! Dirt, debris, and old wax (if this isn’t the first time you’re waxing) can interfere with how the wax bonds with the board. This will also make your board look dirty (and may make you feel like your board is going slower, true story).

Next, apply a good layer of basecoat to serve as the foundation. How you apply it depends on you, but the simplest way is to apply using the corner of the bar of wax in a criss cross pattern, lengthwise and then crosswise. This lets the wax form small bumps on the board which adds to the “grip”. The trick is to apply just enough pressure. Going gently and fairly slowly prevents the wax from getting too hot and smearing. You should end up with good coverage across your board.

Then, apply the top coat of your choice (as discussed earlier).

Top Tip: What I really like to do, is break your bar of topcoat wax in half (most bars have a crease to help you do this). Then use the crumbly edge of the wax to start your topcoat layer.

You really only need it in places where your body and feet would generally be, but feel free to wax the entire board if you want – You will notice red hot pro surfers now wax all the way to the nose of their board to enable them to pull off radical airs, and high-performance moves. Hold the wax across the bar and drag firmly and slowly down and then across your board. You should see small bumps start to appear. Keep going applying the same crosshatching pattern as the basecoat. You should start to get something like this. 

Top Tip Two: Heat plus wax equals mess. Do not apply wax under direct sunlight or near hot surfaces. Even those with tropical ratings will melt pretty quickly when not in the water.

Last thing, and please tell my kids this – Try to NOT get sand on your nice new bar of surf wax. Once your wax is covered in sand, you will not want to use it as you will end up with a lovely (not) sandy surfboard, which is no fun if you’re surfing in boardies or a bikini. 

TIMING

The when is just as important as the how when applying wax. A common misconception is that you need complete rewax work every time you hit the waves. However, when done correctly the first time, all you need is a quick refresh of the topcoat and you’re good to go. I tend to do a quick 30 second all-over wax before every surf. 

HOW TO REMOVE SURFBOARD WAX

When the wax becomes slippery, or dirty beyond dirty, it’s time to completely redo the wax job. Fortunately, this is easier to do these days and requires minimal effort. Here are a few methods to try:

As mentioned above, heat melts surfboard wax. You can leave out your board out in the sun to melt the wax. Put it somewhere away from dirt and sand or put an old towel or dust sheet underneath. This makes the whole cleanup mess-free.

DO NOT LEAVE YOUR BOARD IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT FOR HOURS! 

Just put your board in the sun for a few minutes – you don’t need to turn the wax to liquid. Once the wax is soft, use a wax comb to scrape off the wax. This handy little device about the size of a credit card has one straight edge and one toothed one⁠—hence the name. If you haven’t got a wax comb raid your wallet/purse/bag for an old credit card to scrape off the now softened wax.

If it’s not sunny, you can use a wax comb to remove wax entirely. Prep the waxed board by using a hair-dryer to speed things up a bit. As above, don’t melt the wax into a liquid state, just soften it to make it easier to remove.  With your straight edge, gently scrape off the wax carefully so as to not damage the board. 

An old school method some surfers adopt, is to use sand to remove wax on their boards. Cover the whole length of the board with copious amounts of sand and let it sit in the sun for a few minutes. After that, you then gently wipe off the sand-wax mixture with a cloth. The sand reacts with the wax and makes it easier to remove. 

After most of the wax is removed, do a once-over and look for the remaining wax residue on the board. You can either use a small scraping tool or use what’s called a Pickle. This is essentially a small cloth bag filled with fiberglass dust or foam. This helps remove stubborn wax spots and make the board squeaky clean. 

There are now other non-toxic wax removers that work really well for this final part, take a look at the Sticky Bumps Wax Remover for an easy fix. 

Top Tip: Now, while the board is wax-free, is the best time to inspect your stick for any damage or scratches. Look for dings or cracks that may worsen over time or cause any water ingress. It’s better to deal with them now instead of risking permanent damage to a good board. If you have any dings which take on water, the water will eventually harm the foam beneath the fibreglass layer, ultimately affecting the performance of your surfboard. 

WAX ON WAX OFF DANIEL-SAN

Here are some other things to remember when applying and maintaining surf wax on your boards:

PICK A PATTERN

The pattern to use when applying surf wax varies from person to person. The most common ones include crosshatch, diagonal crosshatch, circular, or even random. You can even combine patterns if you like. Just make sure to apply it evenly. This all boils down to personal preference and what works for you. Try out a few to see which one suits you the most.

DON’T STOP UNTIL YOU SEE SMALL BUMPS

Waxing isn’t done until there are enough wax bumps on your board. Beginners often make the mistake of stopping too soon making the wax job not as effective as it should be. This will need a bit of elbow grease and patience to pull off but the benefits are totally worth it. 

Alternatively, if you see the bumps start to form elongated mounds, one way to fix this is to use the toothed edge of the comb to score the wax. This breaks the wax into smaller chunks saving you from rewaxing all over again. Also doing this every session before putting topcoat helps it stick more but totally optional.

DON’T GET WAX ON THE BOTTOM OF YOUR SURFBOARD

While you need the friction to not slip off the board, you want the underside to be as smooth as possible. The wax actually creates drag that can affect how your board glides over the water. Make sure to scrape off any wax residue before and after hitting the waves.

BASECOAT ONLY? WTF!

In a pinch, basecoat wax can be used in warm to tropical waters. It already is a hard wax with a high melting point. If you plan to frequent mostly warm or tropical waters and want to save a few bucks on wax, this is a totally viable option.

STORE YOUR WAX PROPERLY

You do NOT want wax anywhere except your board. Storing them in a nice resealable bag or container helps keep the wax from messing up your clothes, upholstery in the car, or worse⁠—your electronics. Keep them in cool and dry places especially cold wax as they are especially sensitive to heat.

YOU DON’T NEED A NEW WAX JOB FOR EVERY SURF

A good wax job can last you a tonne of sessions before you need to scrape it all off and re-wax. You only need to apply a thin layer of topcoat enough to make it tacky again and you’re good to go. A general rule of thumb is to rewax only if it gets too slippery or too dirty.

STORE YOUR BOARDS CAREFULLY

As much as possible, do not stack your waxed boards one on top of the other – This is a classic kook mistake. This seems like a is a no-brainer, but a lot of surfers forget this small detail. Try to avoid getting wax all over the underside of your boards as well as ruining a perfectly good wax job you spent a few minutes on. If you’re stacking boards in the car or truck, bung a towel or wettie in between the boards to prevent a waxy bottom! 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Surf wax may seem intimidating, especially for beginners because of all the choices out there. But, essentially, all you need is to find the right surf wax that suits you and your needs. Keep experimenting⁠—be it a new application technique, a new pattern, or even a new brand⁠ of wax—until you find what’s perfect for you. It’s all a matter of getting into the habit and keeping at it in the long run. It’s all part of the fun, and oh yeah… surf wax smells AWESOME.

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