(Feature in Draft Magazine, January/February 2011, pgs. 68-71)
A 1937 Ford Slantback Sedan sits under a thin layer of sawdust inside an otherwise immaculate two-car garage in Loveland, Colo. Dustin Nere stands at a workbench, his back turned to the car, stroking an electric sander back and forth over a long, narrow strip of aircraft aluminum. More than twenty pairs of skis hang on the wall opposite the classic auto. Lined up by age and design, the skis grow shorter, wider, their curvatures changing over time—like a giant evolutionary chart.
At the most evolved end, half a dozen different pairs bear the same name: Hangfire Handcrafted Skis. Just beyond, in the future, wide core blanks of maple and poplar wood rest in a corner, awaiting their maker.
Nere couldn’t wait for natural selection to bring him what he wanted—so he decided to build his own skis instead.
“There was this old issue of Ski magazine that said on the cover, ‘Build your own skis in a weekend,’” Nere says. “I thought, there’s no way you can make a good ski in two days. The idea, though, it got stuck in my head. But I didn’t want to make skis to save money or make money—I just wanted to make something better than I could buy.”
Just like the beer industry, the ski industry has experienced a major transformation in the last twenty years. The largest manufacturers have gobbled up competitors, merged or assimilated brands, and moved their manufacturing facilities outside of the United States, mostly to Europe and China. Meanwhile, like microbreweries, smaller craft ski builders have emerged in North America to fill the void and sate the diverse tastes of snow sport enthusiasts.
These companies—Donek, Icelantic, Moment, Never Summer, ScottyBob, Venture, and Wagner Custom, just to name a few—manufacture their boards in small batches and sell at moderately higher prices. Some companies, like Icelantic Skis and Never Summer Boards, reduce their costs by sharing manufacturing facilities. To get our attention, most of these companies use unique marketing campaigns, experimental materials, and innovative aesthetic and functional designs.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: Innovation in business is nothing new. Talented individuals work for a company, develop their craft, and then strike out on their own. Idea-filled entrepreneurs design and patent their products, licensing their designs to larger manufacturers. The tastiest little fish are eaten by the bigger fish, which then spawn more little fish. Big deal.
What’s so different about today, you ask? The cycle of innovation no longer feeds upon itself—now anyone, anywhere, can invent the next big thing. Big companies have lost some of their ability to steer the market; the little fish are now driving innovation for the entire industry.
In 2011, if you have creative spirit, basic workshop skills, and an Internet connection, you can learn how to make your own skis or snowboard. Websites like SkiBuilders.com and GrafSnowboards.com serve as online centers for instruction, collaboration, and idea exchange. Ski building materials and tools, once only available to well-vested manufacturers, are now available to anyone via online retailers. SnowboardMaterials.com sells items at every price point: from a single metal ski edge for $4.25 to an entire turn-key ski or snowboard factory kit for $18,500. Videos on YouTube demonstrate the variety of individuals building snow gear, from shaggy teenagers screwing high-top shoes into snowboards of plywood and hot-glued Formica, to experts waxing poetic about die cut presses.
According to SnowSports Industries America, the top five ski manufacturers—Atomic, K2, Rossignol, Salomon, and Volkl—still control 71 percent of the total ski industry market share. But combine the new, fast and affordable prototype-to-production process, a barrier-free digital marketplace, and a young consumer market rabid for that which is different and new, and you have the perfect conditions for small craft and homebrewed ski and snowboard companies to succeed.
In his basement, Nere’s homemade ski press looks like the love child of a medieval torture device and a panini grill made for a party sub. Bizarre items lie around—a short section of fire hose, a squat air compressor in the closet. Nere explains what is called the layup process to me.
First, he sets out the base layer, metal edges already attached, and adds a coat of waterproof epoxy. He repeats the layer-and-epoxy step eight more times—adding pre-cured fiberglass with Kevlar stringers, Kevlar cloth, the wooden core and sidewalls, more Kevlar, a strip of aircraft aluminum to dampen chatter, more Kevlar, carbon fiber, and yes, more Kevlar. He tops it all with a thin sheet of polycarbonate. When Nere says his skis are “bulletproof,” I know he means it literally.
The firehose and 150-pound press are set on top of the skis. The air compressor fills the firehose to 40 p.s.i., squooshing everything together until the epoxy hardens. Nere removes the skis, trims excess from the edges with a bandsaw, seals and finishes the sidewall, then tunes the ski.
A nearby retailer in Denver, Confluence Kayak and Telemark, now sells Hangfire skis to the general public. “It’s an awkward feeling. This is the first time a total stranger has owned a pair of my skis,” Nere says. To handle this new demand, Nere’s getting rid of the antique car in the garage. “I sold it to a guy in Denmark,” says Nere. “I need to get the ski presses out of the basement. This car was my obsession for nine years, but restoring cars turned into my work. But I’m still having a hoot [making skis]. I don’t want that to change.”
Listening to Nere speak about his hobby, however, it’s hard to imagine his company staying small. His Wisconsin drawl and heavy-lidded eyes make him seem a little sleepy, and he’s prone to saying “I’m not sure how other folks do this,” but he flies through technical talk about torsional flex and wood core profiling faster than I can take it in.
His day job as a period-correct hot rod restoration expert requires extraordinary attention to detail; meticulousness is evident in his craftsmanship. His ski templates are created with CAD software and every measurement accounted for down to the millimeter. In just a few seasons of diligent practice, Nere has developed a ski as good as any large factory in the world can make.
He’s not alone. ExoticSkis.com, an unofficial directory of manufacturers, currently lists 267 independent ski and snowboard builders around the world. The actual number of folks building their own at home is likely many times more.
The late Shane McConkey, extreme skiing and base-jumping legend, is credited with inventing rockered skis—the latest craze in the snow sports world. “Rockered” is a shape in which the tips angle significantly upward like the rails of a rocking chair. As the myth goes, McConkey carried a sketch on a napkin for years, rejected by manufacturers until Volant created a ski model called the Spatula based on his concept in 2001. It was an odd-looking character for its time. Two years later, Atomic Skis acquired Volant and discontinued the line. McConkey took his design to K2 Sports, who in turn created the Pontoon in 2003.
Major manufacturers have been slow to react to the rockered ski trend, including K2, in spite of the Pontoon’s success. Craft ski builders quickly embraced the concept, however, launching it into popularity and gaining new customers along the way. Without them, this new design may have faded into history. Instead, the biggest companies now all offer rockered skis.
For the future, Nere and a handful of others are experimenting with hybrid designs that blend variations of sidecut, rocker and camber, seeking the holy grail—one ski or snowboard for all conditions. Will they find the perfect design? Not likely. But for the 2010-2011 season, K2 introduced their own hybrid-shaped models, showing that they’re on the hunt for the grail, too.
If and when they find it, we all win. And if they don’t? I guess we’ll have to build it ourselves.