Editor’s note: We are excited to have well known gear writer Clyde Soles contributing here, and look forward to his thought provoking takes on a number of topics. This post is the first of a three-part Wildsnow.com exclusive from Clyde. Part one is about designing customs skis, Part Two is on the actual manufacturing, and Part Three is testing and comparison to production skis.
The emergence of handbuilt skis has been a notable trend in the past few seasons. There are now a couple dozen small companies in North America producing a few hundred pairs of skis per year for discriminating skiers. There is even an international trade show in the works for custom ski and snowboard builders to be held in Denver next fall. This growth hearkens back to the roots of skiing, when most skis were made in smaller woodworking factories or even built at home.
With the plethora of skis from the major brands (e.g. K2, Rossi, Salomon), the mid-size (BD, Dynafit, G3), and the small shops (ON3P, PM Gear, Voile), why would anyone bother with custom skis? After all, custom skis typically cost quite a bit more than mass-produced planks.
The first part of the answer boils down to one word: time. There are in fact so many skis on the market now that it can take quite a bit of time to narrow down your buying decision. Some people would rather ski than spend countless hours reading magazine reviews, scanning websites, and visiting stores. It’s even more time consuming to demo several models on-snow yet that’s the most reliable method of shopping.
With custom skis you avoid the endless shopping and demo trips. By simply filling out a questionnaire, spending a half hour on a follow-up phone call, and responding to a few emails, you can get skis ideally suited for your adventures, designed by someone who can truly create a plank to your exact purpose. (That’s the theory, anyhow, and we’ll know the answer in part three, when we ski the custom planks).
What is more, most custom skis can truly be built to your specifications. The flex is dialed into your weight and skiing style, the tip and tail rise are adjusted to the conditions, and you can specify the feature set such as flat or twintip tails and alpine or telemark flex. Of course, you also get to pick your own graphics instead of getting whatever some “artist” decides you should be looking at while you’re sliding.
Lastly, handbuilt ski makers claim a level of quality and durability that is rare in mass-produced planks. The small companies build for customers who ski hard for 100+ days each season, while the big companies build for the average consumer who seldom gets more out than 6 days and seldom wears out skis. Materials are carefully selected, cores are laminated so there are no gaps or finger joints, layups ensure no voids — the little details that mean stronger and more durable skis. Custom builders take great pride in their craftsmanship and stand behind their products with solid warranties.
All good in theory but I wanted to find out how the process actually works. So I contacted Jordan Grano at Folsom Skis, Pete Wagner at Wagner Skis, and Mike Parris at Igneous Skis. I went through their design process, giving them each the same parameters to see what they would suggest. In particular, I was looking for a ski that is equally suitable for backcountry, sidecountry, and resort days in the Rockies with an emphasis on handling powder and crud but still be fun after the goods had been skied off.
It’s actually pretty fun going through the process of designing your own skis. Folsom and Wagner both start you off with detailed online questions while Igneous prefers to talk design in person but also works over the phone. They all want to know a lot about your background, previous and current skis, favorite terrain, and other details that may affect the final design. Just talking with these guys is an education in itself and their passion for skiing and building skis really comes through.
Once they have your data, each company works up a design proposal. It may take a couple of iterations to narrow down the specifics, particularly if designing your own graphics. But by the time you sign off, there is no doubt that the skis will ideally suit your needs. Had I specified AT instead of telemark, the flex patterns would change a bit but other characteristics remain the same.
The shape we recommend for you is our 180cm Johnny C (135/107/125mm) with a 25m turn radius, an early-rise tip, and low camber underfoot. For touring and mountaineering, a ski that is stable and able to handle a variety of conditions is beneficial. We are suggesting an early rise tip that will rise 10mm over 25cm in the tip of the ski. This early rise tip will make turn initiation in powder and chopped up snow easier and counter tip dive in tele skiing. It will also shorten the skis overall effective edge and make the skis more maneuverable and nimble. Basically the ski will have the flotation and stability of a 180cm ski but it will turn like a ski that is around a 174cm. We also suggest building low camber underfoot, which will give you consistent edge pressure along the effective edge of the skis for performance on hardpack.
The flex pattern for this ski will have a stiffer more powerful flex underfoot and under your tele bindings mount point.
The tip will be softer in the area of the early rise and progressively get stiffer as it moves to the center of the ski. The tail will be overall slightly stiffer than the tip, and it will also get progressively stiffer as it moves toward the center of the ski. The overall result will be a firm, rounded flex that will inspire confidence in a wide variety of conditions. For torsional flex we will focus on keeping the flex stiffer underfoot and in the tail with the goal of giving you excellent edge hold with the effective edge of the ski. The tips torsional flex will be more moderate and progressively stiffen as it moves toward the skis center to allow for better tracking in powder and through variable snow.
Because you want to use these skis for touring we will create a lightweight build utilizing a mixture of carbon fiber and fiberglass. The skis should weigh in the 9 lb range for the pair. The skis will be built with a sight upturned tail with a flat area on the very end for skin attachment.
Length: 183cm; Tip-Waist-Tail: 136/99/122mm; Sidecut radius: 21m; Tip: All-mountain shape, medium rise for versatility; Tail: All-mountain, traditional shape, low rise for versatility and ease of skin use; Flex pattern: Balanced, tail slightly stiffer than tip; Overall stiffness: Medium+; Core: Maple/White Ash for a lively, yet smooth and stable ride; Structural layers: Fiberglass for durability and minimal swing weight; Camber: Traditional, medium height for versatility.
In summary, this design makes for a great one ski quiver Colorado/Utah/Idaho telemark ski. The geometry will provide you with a quick turning, but stable ride. We went for a traditional tail shape (rather than a round shape) to make it easier to attach skins and make them less susceptible to falling off. The All-mountain tip shape has enough upturn to float well in soft snow and bust through crud conditions, but no rocker in order to maximize skinning power and edge hold in firm snow and steep terrain. Traditional camber is a smart choice for you because it’s the most versatile – something important for people who are skiing a wide range of snow and terrain types. We didn’t go wider because there are diminishing returns when going bigger. Sure, they’d float better, but you’d lose more quickness and versatility than you’d gain in powder performance. Plus, you’re mainly skiing in Colorado.
The Sugar Maple/White Ash core is lively, but damp and incredibly durable. Fiberglass construction (as opposed to metal or carbon fiber) makes sense for you because of your past ski preferences.
A balanced, telemark flex pattern, with a slightly stiffer tail than tip, will help turn initiation and give you a little pop out of your turns. We calibrate the overall stiffness based on your height, weight, and skier preferences. The result is an incredibly versatile ski that will enable you to ski bumps, trees, and technical terrain with finesse, while having the power to handle the inevitable variable snow that you find when there isn’t fresh snow.
Although I did not get a written proposal from Igneous, Mike Parrish steered me towards their Double Wide (132/104/118) in a 185cm with an oval sidecut. He feels that skis in the 100mm underfoot range hit the sweet spot for all-around performance–going significantly over 110mm greatly limits versatility. Like Wagner, Igneous also uses maple/ash cores while Folsom prefers poplar/bamboo—all three mill the core specific to each skier.
There is no doubt that I would be happy with any of these custom skis. Though clearly different in some details, I am confident each would deliver the performance and versatility that I would expect of high-end models matched with NTN bindings and Garmont Prophets, or a full-on AT setup.
For now, I am going with the Folsom skis but I hope to try Wagner and Igneous in the future.
Depending on the particular features, a pair of semi-custom skis built using existing shapes will cost $1,200 to $1,600 from most custom ski companies (one intriguing exception being 333 Skis and their trailer contained ski factory, which Louie Dawson is in the process of reviewing). A full custom design with a unique shape will likely run $1,500 to $2,000.
I can hear the dirtbaggers and dumpster shoppers scoffing already. Whatever. This really isn’t a lot of money considering the amount of labor that goes in and the performance and quality that comes out, not to mention the time savings when one has to work for a living. While custom skis are not for everyone, my take so far is that those who can afford them will have no regrets.
Please stay tuned for Part Two, the build, and Part Three, when we find out if the former paragraph is correct, or if I end up eating my Ptex.
(Guest blogger Clyde Soles is a prolific writer who has covered backcountry sports gear for years. His writing is known for a thorough style that probably no one in the human powered sports world has ever equaled. He’s the author of several books, enjoys everything from fluffy powder to fine wine, and also spends quite a bit of time behind a camera. Check his website.)
Clyde Soles is a well known photographer and writer. Specializing in gear, his words have appeared in numerous publications over past decades. His most most recent book, the second edition of ‘Climbing: Training for Peak Performance,’ was published by The Mountaineers Books in September 2008. It is substantially updated from the first edition and contains cutting-edge advice.