Waxing Poetic

QandA logoHi Steve,
One of my young archers asked if they had to use special bow string wax. He wondered if he could, in a pinch, use Chap Stick, lip balm, bees wax or something more readily available on his bow string. He readily ruled out candle wax, it didn’t feel the same, but I didn’t have a good answer for him on his other suggestions … do you?

* * *

Okay, is he a recurve archer? Recurve archers do not generally wax their strings, unless they are expecting to have to shoot in the rain. Wax increases the weight of the string, slowing it and the arrows attached to it down. Water in the bowstring will do the same thing, so the wax is preferred over the water as being less variable. The amount of waxed used then becomes a variable, which …Chapstick

If he is a compound archer, well, they do wax their strings, maybe once a year. So, what kind of a pinch/emergency are we talking about? ;o)

I remember a young JOAD archer who was earnestly waxing the string and cables of his compound bow and I asked him why he was doing that. His response was that he was told to “keep his string and cables well-waxed.” The fact that he already had enough wax on his bow to polish a good sized gymnasium floor was not considered a sign of “oops, too much.”

Modern string materials are made out of stuff very similar to that used to make plastic garbage bags (high molecular weight linear polyethylene being one the first such materials). Wax is not needed, per se, as these materials do not absorb water. Some wax, though, keeps grit from getting between the individual strands of the string which keeps that grit from abrading the individual strands, thus preventing premature string failure. Any soft wax will do, which is why candle wax did not feel right (too hard). Beeswax has been used on bowstrings since prehistoric times, I believe. I suggest playing it safe and using a commercial product as the ingredients in lip glosses, for example, may soften the string material leading to string stretch which changes a whole bunch of bow parameters. If the commercial products had any such negative effect, the obsessive-compulsive archers would have pointed that out already.

Recurve bow stringIf any such substitute string “wax” is used in “a pinch” I would replace it with commercial bow wax at the earliest opportunity. Just wax over the area with the “good wax” and then loop a strand of serving material around the string, pull on both ends and slide it up and down. This will remove the excess wax. The “dewaxing” could be done before as well as after the correct waxing, first to remove the “bad wax” and the second to remove the excess. A couple of repetitions of this procedure will result in the “good wax” replacing the “substitute” almost completely.

Recurve archers can be obsessive about their strings up to weighing them to make sure they are identical in every way, down to the very small amounts of wax used on them.

Good question!



Filed under For All Coaches, Q & A

6 responses to “Waxing Poetic

  1. Al Eastman

    When do you wax the string? Only when frayed?


    • The idea is that a light waxing will prevent fraying. A waxing thereafter, may keep the frayed parts from being visible, but provides no improvement in string performance. Servings were invented to prevent string fraying. Waxing was to protect them from getting wet and losing their resilience. Modern bowstrings are much more durable and can go unwaxed, save for the role wax plays in keeping grit from between the individual strands of the string. If your program bows are in a “dusty” or “gritty” environment, a light waxing every six months or so may help them last a little longer than they ordinarily might.

      Do watch out for “old knowledge,” though. If you talk to old time traditional archers they will tell you to “burnish” in the wax by rubbing the string vigorously with a patch of felt or sueded leather. That was fine when the strings were made out of linen or cotton but modern strings are made out of materials closer to being plastic and a “vigorous burnishing” of a modern string can result in significant weakening of the string through melting (cotton and linen don’t melt)! Use the technique I mentioned in the post and all will be good. (I wish I had invented it, but I was taught that by Tom Dorigatti.)


  2. I think this adage of “keep your string waxed” is from the Dacron string days, when UV sunlight and humidity did bad things to strings. Kinda like a lot of the “rules” about displaying the American flag, when they were all made of cotton. Nowadays, with the new materials, wax isn’t necessary – unless you are still using a Dacron string. So I believe the answer to the question about how much wax to use is best answered with another question: what is your string made of?


    • Hi, Sue! As I think we have discussed, there is a lot of “common wisdom” that is either out of date or is passed back and forth between disconnected groups (trad archers to compound archers) and hence doesn’t apply.

      Back when strings were made out of hemp, and silk, and cotton, liberal waxing was absolutely necessary of you didn’t want a bowstring limp as a noodle. On war bows, those strings virtually never made it to double digits shots and any weakening of them could result in a broken bow.

      Dacron was the first “modern” bowstring material, but since it is a polyester, it still has quite an affinity for water. More modern materials (Fast Flight on forward are almost completely hydrophobic.


  3. Yes, but ………
    Traditional and Junior archery have both featured in issues of AF from time to time. Bows within these catagories often use Dacron® for strings either because the bow materials do not lend themselves to the less elastic modern strings or tradition or cost. As the number of Recreational Archers compared to Competitive Archers is substantial, and as some, if not many, are using Dacron® should the use of wax be lightly dismissed?
    When making Flemish strings the bundles of fibre are waxed to keep them together. Modern waxes with silicon are advoided in case they are too slippery allowing the ends to come apart under tension.
    Over time most strings become ‘hairy’. Is this internal friction between and within strands, individual fibres breaking under strain or something else? Will wax lubricate the strands or just disguise the effect by ‘sticking’ loose ends to the body of the string?
    While modern materials do not absorb moisture directly might this not be incorporated between the strands when shooting in the rain? Droplets of water can be seen being shed by strings on the loose so moisture will, at least, coat a string. Is the extra, variable, weight from rain going to make a difference, is a steady known weight from wax preventing water ingress more consistent?
    So many questions. Or am I over complicating issues too much (perhaps relying on received wisdom) when issues are perceived rather than real or signigant?


    • Good points, all. Our experience with youth programs shows that Dacron strings (the one’s provided with inexpensive bows because they are less expensive) are less cost effective than the next step up (Fast Flight). So, when strings were replaced we bought (or made) FF strings, No modern recreational program bows will be damaged by the use of such strings, so no problem there (all have reinforced limb tips). Also the light drawing bows used as program bows are not conducive to causing string failure. Strings on program bows degrade though rough handling (being hung on hooks, leaned against bales, being dropped on the ground, etc.). The servings go first. Center servings can be repaired/replaced but replacing end servings is beyond the skills of most youth program instructors, so the strings get tossed then.

      Flemish and other twisted strings have different issues from continuous loop strings. Because of their construction, twisted strings are springier and therefore create less shock at the limb tip than continuous loop strings. One of my traditional gurus, Dan Quillian, favored using modern materials in a Flemish twist string and got the best of both worlds with his bows.

      Regarding the weight of the water penetrating a string–will it make a difference. If you replace brass nock sets with tied on nock sets on a bow, the difference shows up on a chronograph, so yes, the weight of the water does make a difference. Strings that absorb water compound this effect as they generally stretch when wet also, a double whammy (a heavier string with a different brace height).

      Strings that become “hairy” may be unsightly but have little impact upon the string’s behavior. A 14-strand string of a modern material has about four of those strands needed to withstand the forces involved and the other ten to make the string large enough that the nocks fit. The tensile strengths of those strands are enormous. When a continuous loop string is made (especially if handmade) it is almost impossible to get all of the loops to be the exact same lengths. Consequently we twist the string, so that the longer strands wind around the shorter ones, effectively shortening the lengths of the too long strands, thus causing them to pick up a reasonable share of the tension in the string. If a strand breaks, it doesn’t make the whole string more likely to break, it makes the whole string lengthen with use, causing the brace hight to be lower and lower as the now broken loop stands slide along one another.

      Basically, one can shoot modern strings and or cables without any wax at all. The amount of lifetime loss due to abrasive grit getting between the strands will not be huge (unless you live in the desert …) as most of us change such things well before they might fail. (Rick McKinney was once credited with shooting 40,000 shots on a single Dacron string. It was so dirty toward the end, that people thought it was a brown string when it actually was white, or so the story goes.) Professional compound archers change their strings and cables annually if not more frequently. The concern is the cost of a failure during competition or a hunt. This drives people to be overly cautious. And since people used to *need *wax, they will tend to continue to use it even when it is no longer needed. Just like some people still change their oil every 3000 miles even when, with better technology, oil changes need only be every 5000-7000 miles now. The old practices tend to drag themselves along.

      On Mon, Feb 16, 2015 at 8:21 AM, A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.