How to give your toboggan a tune up

What to do to keep our sled in top shape, plus a few safety tips

By Ray FordRay Ford


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Propose a sledding expedition as an antidote to cabin fever, and you’re a hero. But pull out last year’s winterbeaters, and your plans for fun can go downhill—fast. Avoid the shame of a hillside breakdown with a pre-flight tune-up:

  • Snug up loose fasteners and replace missing screws and nuts.
  • Check the brake and steering systems on steerable sleds, such as GT Sno Racers, and keep ’em rust-free with WD-40 or spray protectant.
  • Missing or frayed ropes can be replaced with the waterproof yellow cord that’s probably already hanging (somewhere) in the boathouse or shed.

A well-built toboggan “is like a wooden canoe: It’ll last forever if you don’t wreck it by running it into a tree or a rock,” says David Grinnell, whose company, Arrowhead Wood and Toboggan Co., makes old-fashioned toboggans and sleds near Duluth, Minnesota. But cheaper toboggans are made with thinner runners and crosspieces and held with long staples. As the toboggan flexes on its downhill run, the staples lose their grip and Old Faithful begins to disintegrate. Use needle-nose pliers to yank out loose staples, then drill a hole and countersink a woodscrew through the runner into the crosspiece. Grinnell uses 3⁄4″ or 1″ brass screws on his toboggans. More slightly built toboggans will require either shorter screws, augmented by a dollop of outdoor wood glue, or the use of a small nut-and-bolt assembly. (Just make sure the nut and bolt heads are countersunk to be flush with the wood surface.)

The faster water can slide across the bottom of the sled, the faster you can go.

Now it’s time to add some rocket fuel. Waxing your wooden or plastic sled not only coats the bottom (and therefore makes it go faster), it creates a “hydrophobic” layer that sheds the film of water formed as snow melts beneath a speeding sled. “The faster water can slide across the bottom of the sled, the faster you can go,” says Rodney Ruddock, who runs the on-line ski-wax supplier Wax sticks best to a surface that’s clean, warm, and dry, so bring the sled into the cottage and let it warm to room temperature. Wipe off dirt. If there’s old, dirty wax on the bottom, strip it with a car ice scraper, plastic putty knife, or a plastic cross-country ski scraper.

Ruddock recommends an easy-to-use liquid glide wax such as Ski-go Easy-Glide. Cover the running surface evenly, wait five to 10 minutes for the wax to dry, and then buff with a soft nylon nail brush or a nylon ski brush to create an even layer. A solid crayon-type glide wax, such as Toko Express Block, is a longer-lasting wax for unfinished wood. Clean the toboggan, then dry and warm it with a hair dryer, or just leave it for a few hours in the room with the woodstove. Then stroke the wax on evenly and work it into the wood with a brush or ski cork, or by warming it with the hair dryer. If you’re a cross-country skier, you may already have glide wax at the cottage. Just remember: You need glide wax, not the more common grip wax. Grip wax helps your skis grab onto the snow when you “kick” for uphill climbs – handy for skiing, not so good for sledding.

No ski wax? Try using the crayon technique with paraffin wax (used in many candles), or raid the cottage cleaning cupboard: “One of my friend’s secret weapons was to spray Pledge furniture polish on the bottom of the sled,” says Haliburton cottager Tim Irvin. In a pinch, Pam cooking spray on a cafeteria tray also makes a pretty fast sled.

Whatever you use, make a test run on the bunny hill before heading to the expert slope. “You could be sending your kid downhill on a rocket,” Ruddock warns. “Sometimes faster isn’t necessarily better.” (For a link to tobogganing safety tips, click here.)

Finally, stow sleds in a dry place away from direct sunlight. Putting a toboggan up in the rafters on a piece of plywood (lying flat on its running surface) will help keep it from warping.

Who knows – maybe you’ve even got a collectible in the top of the boathouse. Elaborately painted runner sleds from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s are popular with collectors, as are toboggans produced by famous canoe makers such as Peterborough Canoe Co. Depending on its shape, a toboggan from the turn of the last century could be worth anywhere from $50 to $500. So taking care of old Rosebud is worth your while. Your cottage sled may never make it onto Antiques Roadshow, but when it’s time to get out of the cottage and enjoy winter, a safe, speedy, working sled is priceless.

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