Hertel Wax: Innovating Wax Chemistry for Over 50 Years
Hertel Wax: Innovating Wax Chemistry for Over 50 Years
Two big advances in ski wax chemistry—the use of surfactants and fluorocarbons—initially took place out in the open and away from the alpine World Cup circuit.
Terry Hertel was a recreational skier from Northern California. He had made his investment money during Silicon Valley's computer boom and in 1972 created an electric waxing drum he called the Original HotWaxer for home use. To go with it, he embarked on a research program to create a line of all-temperature waxes. As a Lake Tahoe skier, Hertel was fascinated with the problem of glide in varying snow conditions. In 1974, on the advice of chemistry professor Dr. Tim Donnelly, he added a surfactant to his paraffin wax to produce a universal wax he called Super HotSauce. A surfactant is a wetting agent, commonly used in industrial and commercial products ranging from detergents to toothpaste super tankers and more. Suspended in wax, SDS changes the structure of the water under the ski by breaking the surface tension of the individual water droplets, decreasing resistance and improving lateral performance by over 50 percent. Because of its ability to allow much greater control, Super HotSauce earned an insiders' reputation for great glide in all snow, and racers liked it. However, as an independent producer in the early 1980’s, Hertel didn’t have the same opportunities that more established companies had as members of the official U.S. Ski Team supplier pool, but was still able to send some surfactant wax over to Europe with the team and is convinced it was an ingredient in the Diann Roffe and Eva Twardokens medals in the Giant Slalom at the 1985 Alpine World Championships in Bormio, Italy.
At around that time, Hertel started looking for a "Spring Solution," something that would work in very wet snow but repel what was thought to be sticky pine pollen, diesel exhaust particles, and other dirt that darkened the ski slope snow in April and May. Conducting his own research by gathering buckets of snow from various regions and sending them to a lab for analysis, Hertel found that despite what was previously thought, tractor grease and diesel exhaust did not appear in the samples at all. Instead, the contaminants were derived entirely from pollen deposited over the snow by nature overnight. He was even able to tell which location each sample was sourced from based on the specific tree pollen the analysis returned. Looking further into these pine pollens, he learned that every tree and plant coats itself for protection with a layer that is wax. When nature deposits the pollen over the ground and it collects on the bottom of the ski, this stickiness can cause jerkiness and make it difficult to maintain effective control. In order to overcome this problem, Hertel needed to find a solution that could convert the pollen from sticky to slick. Adding this new ingredient and surfactant to his wax allowed him to create a new product, Hertel SpringSolution, that allowed skiers the ability to utilize the same all-temperature performance of other Hertel Wax products even longer into the Spring months when others might put an end to their ski season.
He also talked to a chemist at 3M, who mentioned that the company sold a liquid fluorocarbon to the cosmetics and paint industries—it dried to a smooth, glossy surface. Hertel thought the liquid fluorocarbon would work well in a ski wax, but at $7,000 per pound, it was far too expensive. After seeing slickness tests that proved it to be faster than anything before, he wound up buying the 3M (PFPE) liquid. In 1986 introduced a hard block wax he called Racing FC 739 with its 158 Flex formula, as well as a high-end racing wax called WhiteGold. They were very hydrophobic and very fast. While other companies later developed racing waxes using a fluorocarbon known as PTFE, which isn’t water soluble, PFPE instead works in conjunction with melted snow water and fills in the tiny cracks in the surface of the ski to create a smooth surface with a very low coefficient of friction, as well as resists repeated wear to continue working much longer than other waxes. The introduction of these fluorocarbon racing waxes led Hertel Wax to become a key player in the ski wax industry, garnering interest from racers around the world.
Hertel Wax was the official supplier to the United States and Canadian Freestyle ski teams until 1988, and continued to support U.S. Ski Teams through the 2000’s. At the 1988 Calgary Olympics, Terry waxed all the skis with his friction HotWaxer in a trailer shared by every country bringing home Gold, Silver, and Bronze, including those of medalists Lane Spina, Jan Bauer, and Melony Polenić. Hertel Racing FC 739 was even used by the Cross Country team at those Games as well. Hertel Wax also had a significant presence at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, with requests for WhiteGold coming from the U.S. Women’s Ski Team, contributing to several medals won at those Games along with many other Olympic and World Cup winners throughout the years such as Tommy Moe, Jeff Hamilton, Jonny Moseley, and more. Many noticed that ski techs would often use a bar of Super HotSauce in conjunction with his official supplier. Why? “Because it made it work”.
The wax was winning worldwide, but complicated many situations in ski waxing. Hertel Wax faced its share of challenges as an outside producer challenging the status quo of the ski wax industry. When applying to the U.S. Ski Team supplier pool, Hertel was met with strong resistance from the higher-ups who refused his application. When snowboarding grew in popularity, Hertel Wax became the official supplier of Burton and Sims snowboards. However, he was later summoned to the Burton headquarters and was told that another European company who sold ski wax threatened to eliminate Burton from the European market unless they dropped Hertel products. Hertel Wax went on to be eliminated from a multitude of important retail accounts including REI, Sport Chalet, MC Sports, Herb Bauer, Herman’s Sporting Goods, and more. Furthermore, when Hertel came out with Racing FC 739, he purchased a quarter-page advertisement in a SkiTech introducing fluorocarbon waxes. The publisher of the magazine removed Hertel’s name from the ad and replaced it with a competing company who hadn’t even developed a similar line of products, thus losing Hertel Wax’s introduction to fluorocarbon waxes despite being the company who created it.
As time went on, fluorocarbon waxes became more and more problematic, however. Many European wax companies attempted to develop their own fluorocarbon waxes, but used an inert PTFE powder (also known as Teflon) which proved to be more harmful and less effective. Because fluorocarbon molecules do not break down in nature, more scrutiny was placed on the ski industry for its use of fluorocarbons that could accumulate in harmful levels in the groundwater. Despite skiing’s use of fluorocarbons having a relatively minor environmental impact compared with that of other industries such as commercial and recreational fishing, this increased scrutiny led the U.S. Congress to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016, leading the EPA to require all manufacturers of ski wax to test and report levels of specific chemicals in their products retroactively. Most wax companies couldn’t afford the testing and reporting procedures and quickly withdrew fluorocarbon waxes from the market. In the years since, the International Ski Federation has banned all fluorocarbon waxes for ski competitions. With these increased concerns about fluorocarbons, in recent years Hertel Wax has since adapted its Racing 739 formula to be 100% biodegradable, providing the same racing performance without risk of harming the environment.
So, why are Hertel waxes outperforming the old and anything new? It’s because Hertel uses wax as a vehicle to get the proper ingredients to the base–it’s a transfer process that works. His Super HotSauce lasts upwards of three days, while Racing 739 can last over seven days–more than three times longer than the competition. Hertel Wax displays an incredible temperature range as well, from 6°F to 52°F (-14°C to +11°C), and even up to as high as 68°F (20°C) with the SpringSolution. Furthermore, Hertel Wax offers the best value ski wax on the market. While some companies sell 180 gram bricks, Hertel Super HotSauce offers 340 grams for a similar price. And because Hertel Wax lasts three times longer than the competition, you get more bang for your buck. All this is to say that Terry Hertel’s 50 years of experience developing surfactant wax formulas means that Hertel Wax products are the best value, last longer, provide unmatched control and speed, and remain the only true All Temperature waxes, giving you the best possible skiing experience.