Monday, March 5, 2012

Take care of your skates, you know you hate breaking in a new pair!

Do you like your skates?
Let’s face it, skates aren’t cheap. A good pair of hockey skates sells for up to $800 and a pair of competitive figure skates can easily top $1000. Even at these prices, skates that aren’t carefully maintained will deteriorate in a very short period of time. I have seen a pair of $450 skates last less than six months; that has to be a painful investment. Even if the cost of the skates doesn’t make you blink, breaking in a new pair in that period probably should.

So what can you do to make your skates last longer? Read on, the answers for both hockey players and figure skaters lie below. (For easy reference, figure skating info is in red, hockey in blue and info that applies to all skates is white).

Take care of your blades 
The cheapest hockey runners costs about $50 a pair with the most expensive topping $120 a pair these days. Some hockey skates entail replacing the carrier with the steel at $50 each plus installation. Even with broken holders featuring bonded steel, you will normally have to purchase them by the pair. Unless you break a blade after only a couple of sharpenings, they will be different heights.

For a figure skater,  a pair of inexpensive blades is over $100. The price can easily be $300 to $500 for a pair of blades and the most expensive blades on the market are close to $1000 these days.  

Clearly it's an expensive proposition replacing blades for either type of skate. 

So what can you do to keep your blades in prime condition?
First and most importantly, dry your blades. Any time you are done skating get the steel as dry as you can with a towel and put them in terrycloth blade guards (aka soakers). This is the only way you should ever store your skates, in terrycloth. Terrycloth soakers will wick the moisture away from the steel.

Plastic blade guards are for walking in, not storage. Any moisture left on the blade gets trapped by plastic guards further promoting rust. Even if your blades are dry, condensation can become trapped in the plastic later. While these are highly recommended for walking in, they should never be used for storing skates. Figure skaters should use plastic guards when walking to the ice and back in their skates. Anyone skating outdoors should use a pair of plastic guards to keep their blades from getting dinged up.

Once blades start to rust, there is often no stopping it until the steel resembles dirty, metallic Swiss cheese. No matter how many times you sharpen a blade permeated by rust, it will be rusty. This gives the blades a much slower glide and makes the edges rough no mater how many times they are sharpened. If you do get rust on your blades, you will need to have them sharpened and the sides of the blades stoned as soon as you can. Wiping your blades with a towel saturated with WD40 can help to stop the rusting process if you cannot get them sharpened promtly.

Keep your steel tight on hockey skates, but don’t over tighten it. Almost all types of hockey carriers are prone to stripping out if over-tightened. As a general rule on TUUKs, TUUK Light speeds, and Graf Cobras, tighten the blade until you feel it seat and then no more than one turn further. If the screw turns inside the carrier the blade can call out while skating. Further you might damage the holder to the extent it needs to be replaced. CCM and Easton carriers are not prone to this particular problem, however the screws will break if over tightened. 

Don’t over-sharpen your skates
I have some customers who get their blades sharpened every week even though they might only put an hour on them. I'm not complaining mind you, if it makes you happy to pay me weekly, please feel free. However, as a rule, most people don't need anywhere near this frequency. Of course if you lose an edge before that, get them sharpened. (If you aren't sure if your skates are dull, feel free to ask and I will give you my honest opinion).

As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to even think about sharpening hockey skates until you have skated for five to ten hours on indoor ice. Cut that in half for outdoor ice which will chew up your steel more quickly.

Figure skates generally use carbon steel blades which are softer than the stainless in most hockey skates. However with a wider blade, less sticks, goals and other skates to strike, most figure skaters will go 10 to 20 hours between sharpening on indoor ice. Once again, outdoor ice will make your skates dull in 3 to 6 hours of skating time.

Choose who sharpens your skates carefully 
This brings us to the next item on caring for your blades--choosing a good tech to sharpen them. It takes most people a year of consistent practice to become a mediocre skate sharpener. I've been doing it for 11 years and as far as I'm concerned there isn't anyone aside from myself and my employees qualified to touch my skates. The only way to figure out if a potential shop has the experience to sharpen your skates is to ask some questions.

Do they use an automatic or vertical sharpener? 
If so, RUN! Automatic sharpeners seem like a good idea as consistent pressure is an important aspect of a quality sharpening. However, automatic sharpeners are the quickest and most effective way to ruin a pair of blades. Pressure while sharpening needs to be varied carefully to avoid changing the rocker.  Automatic and vertical sharpeners use gravity to provide pressure which is consistent, actually ruining the contour by rounding off the blades. This method can destroy your steel in a matter of a dozen sharpenings. It's not a sharpener you should find outside of Dick's Sporting goods or Play it Again. Any competent sharpener is going to use a tabletop sharpener.
Blackstone table top. This along with the Blademaster (pictured below) comprise the best quality skate sharpener brands on the market today and are the preferred sharpeners of pros everywhere.

Do they cross grind skates? 
This is, at best, a questionable method which ruins skates quickly. Skates are ground nearly flat for a reference marker before putting the hollow on. The advantage to this method is that a mediocre tech can get the hollow centered (assuming things are calibrated properly). However, this is done at the cost of your blades. Cross grinding will take an average of ten time as much steel off the blade as conventional sharpening and drastically change your skate rocker very quickly. I would avoid shops that cross grind. Rocket Skate never cross grinds. Heck! We don't even own a cross grinder.

What other skate services do they offer?
A full service shop is often more likely to offer quality sharpening. Techs that are more experienced in other aspects of skate repair are generally a little more conscientious when sharpening. Look for a shop that can mount and align hockey and figure skate blades, repair boots, and offers custom-fitting services before you settle for one that only sharpens. We offer full skate fitting, alignment, mounting and repair services at Rocket Skate.

How many skates do they sharpen a day? 
Are lots of people bringing in skates to sharpen? A busy shop is going to have more sharpening experience than a slow one. The more practice a sharpener has, the better they get at sharpening. Doing a few pair of skates a week isn't enough practice to improve most people's skills no matter how long they sharpen. On the other hand, if they are so busy that they have to rush their work, it could be a problem. Sharpening skates should normally take about 5 minutes a pair at most. I typically sharpen an average of 120 pair of skates weekly, and can finish most skates in 3 minutes without rushing. Even my part time employees average at least fifty pair of skates a week, which is more than many small sharpeners will do in a month.

Maintain Your Mountings 
Loose rivets on hockey skates and loose screws on figure skates can wreak havoc on the rest of the boot and blade.

One or two loose rivets on a hockey skate might not seem like a major issue. However, the forces that one loose rivet normally takes have to be redistributed throughout the entire carrier and boot. Where there is one loose rivet, more will follow. With each successive loose one, the force on the others increases. Next thing you know, you're falling down and have no idea why.

Now I’ve never seen a carrier actually fall off, though I suspect it has happened on rare occasions. With a large number of loose rivets something eventually has to go. Most skaters will feel like their blades are not sharp when they have enough rivets loose that the carrier begins to tilt. Make sure to check your rivets regularly so this doesn't happen. Once a month, or more often, simply wiggle your carriers to make sure that they are firmly in place. If any movement is detected you will need some rivets replaced. Any rivets sticking out are bad. Rivets are about $1 or $2 apiece. You should also check for cracks in the plastic holder on a regular basis. If a holder is cracked, replace it.

On figure skates, screws will sometimes fall out. Most blades will have more screw holes than required to firmly attach them, so don’t panic if you have a few holes on your mount that don’t have a screw in them. Typically the toe plate will have 4 or 5 screws and the heel will have 3. (This is done to preserve the possibility of making blade adjustments in the future if needed). However, if there is a hole in the base of your boot with no screw, that is an indication that one is missing and should be replaced.

Just as in hockey skates, a missing screw will cause forces to be distributed to the remaining ones Increasing the possibility of more screws pulling out. With a leather sole, you’re also looking at increased issue with the sole rotting if you do not replace a screw in a timely manner. Further, if the blade is loose, it creates forces on the boot in directions that the boot isn’t designed to take stresses which can contribute to premature breakdown of the boots. If a screw is missing because the hole is stripped out, be sure to add another screw to a nearby empty hole on the mounting plate if possible. Taking it to your local skate professional so they can plug the hole is a good idea as well. (Make sure to pre-drill a small hole on Graf figure skates and other composite sole brands before putting a screw in). Be careful to never over-tighten the screws, they strip out fairly easily.

Care for your Boots 
Many competitive skaters in both hockey and figure skating don’t wear socks when skating. While I won’t try to talk anyone out of this, it is much harder on skates than wearing even a thin pair of socks is. Any type of sock will absorb some of the moisture from your feet and keep it from entering your boots. Moisture is the number one enemy of skates.

For anyone, but especially barefoot skaters, I recommend always removing the insoles from skates as soon as they are taken off after skating. In dry climates, leaving the skates out of the bag between uses will normally be enough to allow them to dry. In humid places or for skaters on the ice so often that boots do not dry out, I highly recommend the use of a boot dryer. Those without heat are best to keep your skates in top shape; heat will actually cause the boots to break down more quickly. This site has a half a dozen types ranging from $30 to $700 -

Drying your boots out will lower the stink factor and protect the materials from premature decomposition.

In hockey skates drying your boots will greatly lengthen the life of your rivets. It also keeps the inside of the boots including the liner and padding drier and in better shape. I have even seen cases in hockey skates were the amount of perspiration in the skates actually caused TUUK hardware to rust and seize.

Leather soles on figure skates should always be snow sealed to keep moisture out. If using a wax snow seal, this should be re-applied every 6 to 12 months. If you have a spar varnish or other marine grade finish, you should not need to re-coat your skates. However, make sure to put a dab of silicon caulk on any screws you replace so moisture doesn't sneak in from the screw hole.

Another good practice is to tape the toes of your skates. You can do this yourself with SK8tape. If you prefer a nicer finish, the skates can be taped with a special clear tape by many figure skate shops including Rocket Skate for a fee. Either type of tape will protect the leather from both scuffs and moisture.

On that note, it is good practice to wipe the outside of the boot after each session. Especially important for figure skates and the rare, real-leather hockey skate, this ensures that the moisture on the outside does not penetrate the boots. Leather that remains wet will eventually rot. Waterlogged leather can harden and even crack when it dies.

If you have a loose eyelet in hockey skates, get it fixed right away. Waiting to get a repair made will almost always make it worse. Eyelets that are not repaired quickly cause the hole to become enlarged to where they will not hold a new eyelet any longer. At about $3 an eyelet and two minutes to fix, there is no reason to wait. If you have to have your eyestay rebuilt because the hole is too big, you are looking at $30 or more and not having your skates for a couple days at least.

Tears in any pair of skates will continue to grow until repaired. I have seen people wait until the entire portion of their skate was ready to fall off before bringing it to the shop. What might have been $5, in stitching the initial tear, runs $60 to replace and re-stiffen part of the boot. Rocket Skate does boot repairs for both hockey and figure skates on our industrial shoe patching machine.

Most new hockey skates have a solid plastic toe. Some brands still use a fabric-covered toecap on their boots. This is one of the weakest links on the entire skate, prone to cutting and tearing from other people stepping on them. I highly recommend a toe paint (Protect Toe) to keep them looking nice.

Lastly, never ever wrap your laces around your ankles. This creates a pressure point on the boot that will cause a crease to form there. If you aren’t getting enough support from your skates, buy a new pair. If your laces are too long, buy a shorter pair. Wrapping the laces is a common cause for hockey tendon guards to break and will invariably shorten the life of any boot upper. Watch the pros some time - none of them wraps their laces.

Most hockey players will get at least a few years out of their skates if properly cared for. Figure skaters doing double jumps might only get six months to a year before a boot starts to break down, but blades should last for years. 

The most important thing for any skater wishing to keep their skates in top condition is to keep the them dry and don’t let them fall into any disrepair. With skates, one problem begets another. While it might be difficult to part with your skates for a few days for minor repairs, it is always easier than breaking in new skates and much cheaper as well. 

Experience counts . . . sharpening, mounting and aligning skates since 2001, owner of Rocket Skate since 2006, 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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