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SUMMER: THE BACKSTORY One in a series of occasional
stories about the rituals of the season.

Surfers get a grip

For serious boarders, the right surf wax is an essential.

August 02, 2003|Matt Warshaw | Special to The Times

Surf wax used to be just surf wax: a necessary but forgettable little petroleum-based product rubbed on the deck of a surfboard for improved traction. Then California artist Rick Griffin, while making the poster for 1972's surf movie classic "Five Summer Stories," held up a fresh bar of Waxmate -- 3 ounces of paraffin cut with 30-weight motor oil and purple dye -- and detected the greater meaning.

Griffin's poster shows a bronzed bikini girl posed behind a bare-chested surfer; nestled in his extended left hand, held out as the key to the entire waves-and-babes beach fantasy, is a glowing bar of surf wax. The poster became a surf-world icon, and surf wax continues to hold a gently romantic glow.

Surfers understand why. Wax fits comfortably in the palm, almost like a baseball, and the rasp it makes when applied is nothing less than a call to freedom and escape. But mostly it's the scent: a sticky-sweet bouquet, usually strawberry, coconut, grape or bubblegum, that can bring a sentimental rush to even the gruffest old surf buster.

Rubbing on the wax -- usually in a rushed minute just before paddling out -- is both automatic and sanctified. "We wax because we've always waxed," says San Diego surfer Steve Barilotti. "The traction is necessary, sure, but there are other ways, cleaner and easier ways, to get traction. Waxing is our ritual, our heritage.... Surfing is kind of a religion, really, and surf wax is like our communion wafer."

Even the longer and messier process of stripping the wax off, usually done once or twice a year, can elicit tender emotions. "Wax stripping is a chore, but I love it anyway," Surfer magazine editor Sam George says. "It's like you're giving something back to your board."

And, George notes, wax is one of the few true essentials of the sport. "You don't really need a wetsuit or a surf leash or even trunks. All you really need is a surfboard and wax."

Surfboard traction presents a tough little design problem. Absolute grip doesn't work because the surfer also needs to be able to move quickly across the board. The texture should be smooth enough to allow for rash-free paddling and sitting. And, obviously, a grip product used in the water must be nonabsorbent.

Surfers in the early decades of the 20th century often sandpapered their decks; while real traction die-hards mixed sand right into the final coat of the board's varnish, hit the water and grimly accepted the resulting raw knees, chest and feet.

In 1935, Palos Verdes teenager Alfred Gallant came home from a day of surfing, stepped onto his mother's freshly waxed hardwood floor and realized that the tacky hold beneath his feet might be transferred to a surfboard. He tried liquid floor wax, then switched to bar-shaped Parawax paraffin, a pantry staple used for canning. It was a small ordeal to get a decent coat of wax onto the board, but it was such an improvement over sandy varnish that it would be the surfers' choice for nearly 30 years.

Repackaged paraffin was marketed in the early 1960s, but specially formulated surf wax didn't arrive until the middle of the decade. Waxmate, from an Encinitas company, Surf Research, was first to hit it big. Surfers already knew that a softer wax allowed for an easier application to the board, and Waxmate's top-secret softening agent -- not revealed until years later -- was Pennzoil 30-weight motor oil. Purple dye and bayberry scent were also added, and the drum-melted blend was poured into sheet-metal molds to cool. Each fragrant bar was wrapped in cellophane, along with a Waxmate label stamped on the back with a kind of Early New Age fortune. ("Look at the moon, you may live there.")

Santa Barbara-area surfboard maker Fred "Zog" Herzog broke the surf wax mold in the '70s with his round, tropically scented, provocatively named Mr. Zog's Sex Wax. Herzog's product became a surf-world bestseller, helped by a hugely popular line of Sex Wax T-shirts. "Schools everywhere banned the shirt," remembers Herzog, 58, who still runs the company. "And if you showed up at Disneyland with a Sex Wax shirt they wouldn't let you in the park until you turned it inside out."

The company name, Herzog says, was suggested by local artist Hank Pitcher, who designed the logo. "He just loved the way it sounded and kept saying it slowly, over and over, 'Sex ... Wax ... Sex ... Wax.' And I thought, 'Why not? It's just surf wax." Creative and sometimes destructive new uses for surf wax were found: It was molded Bondo-like into small surfboard cracks and dings, used as a graffiti marker (wax messages on asphalt or concrete are legible for years) and rubbed by territorial locals across the windows of unwelcome interlopers. When teenagers began biting chunks of wax as a kind of petrochemical chaw, Herzog had to put a disclaimer on the label: "Do not eat or chew."

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