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Siping was invented and patented in 1923 under the name of John F. Sipe.  The story told on various websites is that, in the 1920s, Sipe worked in a slaughterhouse and grew tired of slipping on the wet floors. He found that cutting slits in the tread on the bottoms of his shoes provided better traction than the uncut tread. Another story is that he was a deckhand and wanted to avoid slipping on a wet deck.
John Sipe's invention was unsuccessful. It was applied to solid rubber tyres, rather than pneumatic tyres, and so the tyres had poor wet grip anyway, owing to their limited contact patch. It was his son, Harry E. Sipe, who popularised the use of sipes in the USA for the new low-pressure balloon tyres around 1939.
The process was not applied to vehicle tyres on a large scale until the 1950s, when superior tread compounds were developed that could stand up to the siping process. On roads covered with snow, ice, mud, and water, sipes usually increase traction. A US patent to Goodyear also claimed sipes improve tyre traction, and tend to close completely in the tyre "footprint" on the road. A 1978 study by the US National Safety Council found siping improved stopping distances by 22 percent, breakaway traction by 65 percent, and rolling traction by 28 percent on glare ice.
Tyre tread block shapes, groove configurations, and sipes affect tyre noise pattern and traction characteristics. Typically, wide, straight grooves have a low noise level and good water removal. More lateral grooves usually increase traction. Sipes are small grooves that are cut across larger tread elements. Up to a point, more sipes give more traction in snow or mud.
As is often the case, there are compromises. Winter tyres, and "mud and snow" tyres, may have thousands of sipes and give good traction. But, they may feel "squirmy" on a warm, dry road. Treadless racing "slicks" on dry roads give maximum traction. These have no sipes, no grooves, and no tread blocks. They also have very poor traction however on even slightly wet surfaces. Tyre manufacturers use different tread rubber compounds and tread designs for different tyres' usages.
Large sipes are usually built into the tread during manufacturing. Sipes may also be cut into the tread at a later date, called "microsiping". Bandag developed a machine for microsiping which places a curved knife blade at a slight angle on a rotating drum. The drum is placed so when it is pressed against the tread the tyre is pressed into an exaggerated hollow, as if driving down a rail. The drum is lubricated and rotated and the knife makes a series of diagonal cuts across the tread. For improved traction, the tyre may be siped twice, leaving diamond-shaped blocks. A significant problem with field siping is that the tread picks up rocks, glass, and other hard road debris in use, and even with thorough cleaning the knife service life is often poor.
Microsiping can dramatically improve tyre traction in rain and snow. However, microsiped tyres may also have increased road noise and tyre wear when operated on dry surfaces. ConsumerReports.org recommends against adding more than "the sipes that your tyres come with" because of longevity and dry performance. Some companies such as Les Schwab claim that microsiped tyres reduce tyre friction heat and tyre wear and extends the life of the tyre.
Both Bridgestone and Michelin sell snow tyres that are siped at the factory, while Saf-Tee Siping and Grooving sells machines that can sipe most standard vehicle tyres. Siping can also be done by hand. Siping tyres may void the manufacturer's warranty. Claims that extended life is achieved by siping may only apply to certain environments, operating temperatures, and rubber compound builds.