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Let’s talk chalk. Resin, also known as rosin, colophony, and colophonia, amongst other names, is present in many liquid chalks commonly used for climbing, gymnastics and weight training. It’s usually harvested from pine trees and under most circumstances is glassy and solid. So why are resins used in liquid chalk, and are they necessary?
Resins make producing liquid chalk easier and cheaper. Resin is used for its ability to dissolve in alcohol and hold the chalk in suspension with all the other ingredients and thickeners. Resin also creates a sensation of stickiness in liquid chalks and pastes. The addition of resin, however, results in several negative effects. Founder of U.K-based resin-free liquid chalk manufacturer Gekco, Ben Barker, explains:
“Added ingredients such as resins are detrimental to the product’s function in isolating sweat from the friction equation, and they can have negative implications on your performance – not to mention the environment”.
Once resins are warmed on your hands, they get transferred to the surfaces you touch throughout your climb. The resin then cools and returns to its solid, glassy state. Over time, repeated deposits lead to a significant build-up, filling in the pores and unique micro-features of the holds. The result is the perfect slip-and-slide surface. Brands have been quick to cash in on the rise of liquid chalk, but the addition of resins to such products is at odds with the “leave no trace” ethic that most climbers hold dear.
The French bouldering mecca Fontainebleau is an example of resin’s detrimental effect on rock. Notorious for its slick, sandbagged sandstone climbs, Fontainebleau is thought to be the birthplace of pof, a French invention and now lesser-used alternative to chalk. Pof is essentially pine resin wrapped in a rag, and it is used to add stickiness to the holds and hands. It works, that is, until the pof cools and solidifies, leaving behind a polished appearance and an unpleasant climbing experience to say the least, and resin doesn’t just brush away. Barker explains: “The only way to get good friction on resin-covered surfaces is basically to use more resin, and therefore adding more deposits to the problem”.
It’s not just rock that is negatively impacted. The resin content of most liquid chalk adheres itself to synthetic holds as well.
Mark English owns Rockcity, a climbing gym and hold distributor and manufacturer in the North of England and was one of the first gyms to remove resin-containing liquid chalks from sale instore, opting to stock only Gekco instead. As COVID-19 lockdown restrictions eased across the U.K. back in 2020 and the centre was able to reopen its doors, it quickly became apparent that the use of resin was having some serious ramifications.
“We’re in relatively new territory when it comes to liquid chalk,” English says.
Liquid chalk use rose last year, owing in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the product’s bacteria-killing alcohol content. As English explains, hygiene generally has improved in the gym with increased liquid chalk usage owing to a reduction in dust generated compared to traditional chalk, but as liquid chalk gained popularity, gym owners and route setters were left scratching their heads as once grippy holds became glassy at an alarming rate.
“Around this time last year, I walked into the climbing wall and it almost seemed like the holds were melting. My immediate thought was – ‘Is it the alcohol?’ But what we actually found was that it was just a horrible cocktail of pine sap resin and the other fillers and poor quality ingredients that were in the liquid chalks that we were selling in the gym,” English explains.
Route setters claimed that in as little as one to two weeks, V2 blocs would become anywhere up to V5 climbs simply because of the lack of friction. The introduction of resin-free alternatives has brought about a welcome reduction in the time and cost associated with the deep-cleaning methods that are required to remove resin.
Gekco now supplies a number of U.K. gyms with their resin-free liquid chalk, and wall owners have reported a marked change in hold quality and reduced cleaning times. As English explains:
“As a gym that resets every month, we were finding that two weeks down the line the holds would need to be taken down and cleaned again because of resin build-up. Since encouraging the use of resin-free chalk, the holds last longer on the walls between cleans, so there’s less cost involved in cleaning up”.
The presence of resin build-up on gym holds is indicative of something far more sinister that is happening outside on our real-life rock. Consider the implications when you pop off that polished hold at the gym; are you tired? Or weak? The answer might just be lurking in your liquid chalk.