Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Figure Skate sharpening myths

As a skate sharpener since 2001, I’m often surprised by the criteria skaters use to gauge the quality of a sharpening. In this article I’m going to focus specifically on figure skaters. Why? two reasons:
         First, figure skaters generally have higher expectations for their sharpening, and rightly so. A pair of figure skate blades alone can easily cost as much as a really nice pair of hockey skates. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to be a little squeamish about a stranger putting your $400 blades on a grinding wheel. Also figure skaters spend their time on the ice focusing exclusively on skating. Hockey players have the distraction of team strategy, stick handling and hitting one another (sometimes for no particular reason). All of this waters down the hockey player’s focus on skating practice. Any thoughts on who is more aware of their edges? (If you guessed the hockey player, give yourself a big, red F for your grade on that question).
         Second, figure skaters seem to have a greater level of confusion when it comes to the sharpening process, which is rather contrary to the fact they are generally more aware of their edges on the ice. I don’t mean that as a jibe. Strange as it seems, it’s more common for a hockey player to have an entire conversation about their depth of hollow and whether they should adjust it for the current ice conditions than it is for a figure skater to even know what depth of hollow they prefer. This is very much at odds with the fact that a figure skater is far more likely to notice an imperfection in their sharpening than a hockey player. Perhaps it’s just hockey players grasping for an excuse, I don’t know.
        Regardless, below are some of the common misconceptions I’ve run across in my years. Hopefully they will help.

The Myths

         1. If the chrome relief section of your blade isn’t consistent, the rocker is ruined.
I’m not sure where the idea came from that de-chromed portion (that less shiny part) on a figure skate blade is there to gauge the rocker. Not only is this NOT the reason for the lack of gleaming silver close to the ice, it’s also a terrible gauge of your rocker. To understand why it doesn’t work you need to know why it’s there and the process used to put it there.
         All but a very few figure skate blades (such as Paramount and Ultima Matrix) are made from carbon steel. Because carbon steel is rather ugly, blade makers chrome plate them to make them, well . . . pretty. One problem with this beautification process is that chrome is prone to chipping when placed under the rigors of things such as sharpening and skating. In order to minimize chipping, blade makers remove approximately ¼-inch of chrome from the bottom of the blade. This helps to protect the finish on the rest of the blade.
         It’s very important to realize that with the exception of Eclipse brand blades, the de-chroming process is completed by hand on a belt sander. This means that you’re judging your skate rocker by a mark that was placed on your blade freehand using a tool about as precise as a chainsaw. In fact if you look at many pair of brand new MK, Wilson, Graf or Ultima blades you can see that chrome relief is significantly inconsistent even from one side of a blade to the other.
         So, clearly, this is not a good way to gauge your rocker. Unfortunately, there isn’t a really solid way to do this short of measuring your blades with a micrometer every time you have them sharpened and keeping the measurements a detailed log book (that’s not a recommendation, it’s an illustration). The most important thing is finding a highly experienced sharpener. A less experienced sharpener is going to take significantly more material off your blades and apply less consistent pressure while doing so.
         It typically takes me three to five passes to sharpen a pair of figure skates (unless you’ve been walking on gravel or pond skating). Four passes is going to take about 2 to 3 thousands of an inch of material from your blade. To put that into perspective, it would take me nearly 100 sharpenings to go through the quarter inch of chrome relief on a typical figure blade.

         2. It is possible to sharpen figure blades all the way to the toe pick
This one isn’t as simple as yes or no, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t simple. Yes, it is possible. NO, you don’t ever want it to happen. The only way to sharpen all the way to the toe-pick of a figure skate is to use a cross grinder, which is a vertical wheel of 6-inches in diameter. The use of a cross grinder can completely alter the rocker of a pair of blades in even a single sharpening. Cross-grinding before sharpening takes off 10 to 20 thousands, giving your blade a life expectancy of about 20 sharpenings even if you aren’t particularly concerned about your rocker being destroyed.
         I don’t even own a cross grinder nor do I understand why some shops use them for every sharpening. The only reason that comes to mind is that they’d like to sell you a new set of blades as soon as possible. I use only a finish wheel for all sharpening. With a finish wheel, it isn’t possible to get all the way to the toe-pick on a figure skating blade because the toe-pick is in the way. While removing the toe pick would remedy this situation, I think we’re all in agreement—this is a pretty bad idea. Nonetheless, the finish wheel sharpens much closer to the toe pick than the ice ever can reach.
        Here are a couple examples: The toe pick on a Coronation Ace allows the sharpener to get to within approximately 3/8-inch and the Pattern 99 allows the sharpener to get to within about 1/2-inch of the toe pick. Comparatively, a flat surface, such as say ice, cannot touch this un-sharpened section at all. In fact, on the Coronation Ace there is a full inch behind the toe pick which you cannot skate on without the toe pick hitting the ice. On the Pattern 99 there is an inch and a half of unusable space behind the toe pick.

         3. Sharpening figure skates is more difficult than sharpening hockey skates
Both types of skates offer their own challenges. However the primary goals of sharpening remain the same:
    • Ensure the sharpening is square and parallel
    • Create a mirror smooth finish
    • Preserve the rocker
    • Select the proper hollow
           While these goals are the same and the sharpening techniques are essentially the same, the challenges are different. Hockey skates are generally stainless steel while figure skates are generally carbon steel. As carbon steel is softer than stainless, creating a mirror smooth finish on a pair of figure skates is much easier than it is on hockey skates. Also somewhat more challenging is protecting the rocker on a pair of hockey skates. The challenge here lies in the rounded hockey toe and heel. It requires a significantly more pronounced twisting motion to sharpen hockey skates. Inexperienced sharpeners will round off the toe and heel of hockey skates more quickly, dramatically changing the rocker of the blade. It takes a lot more practice to maintain proper pressure on hockey skates.
             Of course the toe-pick on figure skates creates its own challenge as an obstacle to sharpening and a small challenge to the front of the rocker. These issues are easily addressed with a toe pick guard and the same techniques used to avoid destroying a hockey skate rocker. A toe pick guard literally makes it impossible to accidentally nick a toe pick while also allowing the technician to keep proper speed and pressure from tip to toe on the skates.
             Bottom line: it takes skill and loads of practice to sharpen any skate, but figure skates are actually slightly easier to sharpen once the skills are honed and the sharpener understands the variables involved.

            4. The thumbnail test is a good way to tell if you have a sharp edge
    Ah, the age-old tradition of rubbing a thumbnail across the skate blade—the theory is that if the blade is sharp enough to scrape off a little bit of your thumbnail it’s sharp enough to skate on. As great as that sounds, you can do this with a skate blade that has NO hollow on it. Granted, this is a test more often used by hockey players than figure skaters (yes, we hockey players are too dumb to tell if our skates are dull by actually using them) . . . but once in a while I see a figure skater attempting this trick.The only way to gauge sharpness, other than by skating, is to use the other side of your thumb to check them. This takes practice.

            5. Someone with a $500 sharpener can do the best job sharpening skates
    It’s true, sharpening is more about practice and skill than it is about the equipment. So is skating. Just as a sharpener on a $500 piece of equipment won’t do well, a great skater in a pair of fifty dollar skates isn’t going to perform at their peak. The converse is true as well. They don't make a pair of skates that will allow a novice to go out and land double axels. Nor do they make a sharpener which will make a novice sharpener as capable as one who has years of practice and thousands of pair sharpened under his belt.
            Taking your skates to a novice sharpener or someone who sharpens two or three pair of skates a week is about as wise as believing you can make nationals by practicing your axel a couple times week. An experienced sharpener with quality equipment who sharpens regularly is going to do a much better job on your skates than someone sharpening 10 pair of skates a month. I sharpen at least twice that number of skates in a slow day. Heck, my trainees get more practice in their first month (long before they’re allowed to touch any customer skates) than a most people sharpening at home likely do in a year.

    The Fleming Gray B-2 (above), a 1960's design, is a common sharpener found in home based businesses. These are commonly sold for $200 to $500 and used by at least one local sharpener focusing on the figure skate market.

             Let’s put this into perspective. At Rocket Skate we use a Blackstone turbo, the state of the art skate sharpener. It’s a $10,000 piece of equipment, perfectly balanced with a 10% higher RPM compared to other machines. I match the machine with the best sharpening wheels on the market. Sharpening is the most important product we offer. It only makes sense to use the best technology on the market.
             I also use a $600 dedicated figure skate holder (yes, I paid more for the device that clamps your skates during sharpening than your typical off the grid guy paid for all of his equipment). A dedicated figure skate holder is important because it is calibrated precisely to the wider blades on figure skates. Some shops use their hockey holder on figure skates; this will require more passes in order to adjust the sharpening. It’s also a more expensive single pitch adjustment holder which is significantly better than the dual adjustment holders. This type of holder ensures that your skate sharpening will be not only square, but will be square from toe to heel.
            A couple other important items of note are the toe pick guard and the skate gauge. A good sharpener should use both of these on every pair of figure skates. The toe pick guard enables the tech to sharpen as close to the pick as possible without striking it. The gauge ensures that every pair of skates is sharpened square. Most shops don’t use either of these tools.
            It’s important to know what sort of sharpener your skates are being sharpened on. A bad machine is like a pair of broken down pair of boots. A good skater could probably still land doubles on worn out boots. But they will not perform at their peak or be consistent. Likewise, a good sharpener will do a better job with bad equipment than a novice, but the results are always best when the machine and the skill are both at high levels.
           Blackstone or Blademaster are the premium brands on the market right now. Fleming Gray makes some good machines, as well. The floor model machines from these three brands are all capable of delivering excellent results. There are some archaic Fleming Gray models being used still that I wouldn’t let touch my hockey skates. Likewise, Blackstone and Blademaster make portable machines that aren't meant for serious sharpening. Look for a free standing machine with a hood and dust collection system.
           Wisota and EZ Sharp are hobbyist machines that only give mediocre results. These as well as the portable machines offered by other brands with no hood or dust collector are meant for personal use. They make perfect sense if you live in Alaska and want to sharpen your own. The don't make much sense at all if you're going to charge people.
           On the other side of the spectrum, there are a few brands that should NEVER EVER touch your figure skates. The worst of these is the Dupliskate machine. This is a top loading machine designed for use in stores were there is no plan to ever have a skilled sharpening technician. The Dupliskate ruins the rocker on figure skates in a matter of just a few sharpenings due to it's constant pressure on the blade. It will destroy the bulge (the area behind the toe pick where you spin) and round off the heel very quickly and there is no way to prevent this.
            Some other poor machines for figure skates are the Incredible Edger and Blackstone X series machines which use a very small sharpening stone. When using a smaller stone the linear feet per second is much lower. This is one huge advantage of the 10% higher RPM rate and larger stone on Rocket Skate's Blackstone Turbo. Without a high linear feet per second rate, it's impossible to attain the proper finish on a skate. Your figure skates should always have a polished finish that is practically mirror smooth. You won't get this with a small wheel machine. 
            The Incredible Edger  is oddly popular with figure skate shops despite its horrible design. I can only guess this is because it is very inexpensive. It features a rack design, that like the Dupliskate, doesn't allow the tech to properly pivot the skate to protect the rocker of your blade. One of the selling points the company makes is the actually smaller wheel, what?! They claim their small wheel allows you to sharpen closer to the toe pick (true, but pointless). If you've forgotten how irrelevant this is go, re-read point #2 in this article. Sacrificing your rocker and a quality finish for a good hollow on the un-skateable portion of your blade doesn't make sense. 
            How about a few questions you should ask: Does your tech allow you to watch when they sharpen your skates? If not, what are they hiding? How long have they been sharpening skates? How many skate do they sharpen in a week? What sharpener are they using? How many passes does it take? (more than 12 is pretty much always too many, Most skates take me four or five passes). Do they use a pick guard and a gauge to make sure your skates are perfect? I love to talk to people about sharpening and always encourage anyone interested to watch. There’s a reason I don’t have a curtain or a wall between my customers and my sharpener.

               6. You have to pay more to make sure you’re getting a good sharpening
      Hogwash! (That might well be the first time, I’ve ever used that term!) There’s also a term for charging extra to sharpen figure skates. It’s, “gouging.” Charging more doesn’t make anyone better at sharpening. It makes them greedy.
              There’s absolutely no reason to charge more for figure skate sharpening. Those who do are propagating the myth that it’s harder to sharpen figure skates. If it makes you feel better to pay more, rest assured, I’m happy to take your $12 and donate half of it to charity, but it will always be the same price to sharpen figure or hockey skates at Rocket Skate. Anything else is just stupid. Why punish figure skaters by charging them double for the same work?


      Experience counts . . . sharpening, mounting and aligning figure and hockey skates since 2001, Rocket Skate owner, Scott Noble, has worked with and learned from several highly regarded skate sharpeners. These include the assistant equipment manager for the Colorado Avalanche on the hockey front. On the figure skating side he worked with the Technical Sales Representative of GAM skates and the lead technician for Fleming Gray Skate Sharpeners (who sharpened for several Canadian Olympic skaters). Two of Scott’s articles on skate sharpening are part of the permanent collection in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

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      © 2012 Scott Noble
      All Rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in whole or part is strictly prohibited without the author's prior express written permission.