Is making skis an art? Certainly, the top sheets are these days, with more and more creative designs emerging. But what about the rest of the construction? It might seem more like manufacturing, but at Bigbend Skis, with the ability to design your ski from tip to tail – certainly you can get creative.
Bigbend Skis is a Revelstoke-based custom ski manufacturer started by Darryl Ross. His workshop is located at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre, hence me wondering about the artistic element.
I met Ross late one morning at the centre. He was just getting started on a new production run after some time recovering from sickness. Punk music was streaming over Internet radio as I entered his pristine shop.
The process of making a pair of skis starts with someone filling out a build form on the Bigbend Skis website. That entails entering your height, weight, skiing style and more. You can specify the exact measurement of your skis, or you can ask Ross for advice.
Once he gets your build form, he’ll come up with a couple of possible designs for you to choose from. Then you can choose the graphics – either use a wood veneer, one of the stock graphics, or create your own. You can even take part in the Graphics that Give program – proceeds from sales of two designs go to support the Revelstoke Museum & Archives or Canadian Avalanche Centre.
“Really, anything the individual wants, I can get printed on a top sheet for them,” Ross said.
Once that’s done, he’ll crunch the design through AutoCAD to come out with a template that includes the width at various points along the ski, the amount of rocker in the tip and tail, the camber, and any other measurements needed to cut the ski.
Then, the manufacturing starts. First, the wood core is milled. Ross uses a cross-laminated Baltic birch product for his skis; it’s used for skateboards and more, is readily available, and helps make for a more reliable end product. “It takes a lot of the unpredictability out of the milling process,” he said.
Up next, he’ll cut the base, which is made from DuraSurf – the same material used for most skis and snowboards. The edges then get attached to the base.
A fiberglass layer is placed over the core and varying amounts of carbon and kevlar are added to dial in the stiffness of the ski. A specialized rubber helps the various materials bond and reduces internal shear stress within the skis.
Then, everything is laid out and put together using an epoxy and the ski is placed in a long plastic bag, which is vacuumed sealed. The pressure created by the vacuum presses everything together.
Next, the skis are placed in a heat-controlled machine Ross calls the hotbox. They’re placed in a series of clamps that can be adjusted to create the rocker and camber in the skis. He’ll let them cook for three hours under pressure, and “at that point they’re essentially done,” he said. All that’s left is shaping the tip and tail and removing any extra material.
“It’s been interesting the last two years, I’m still finding efficiencies in the process,” said Ross. “For this production year, I think probably 10 pairs a month is the goal. The plan is to hit 100 pairs per year, per season.”
Ross learned how to make skis during an apprenticeship with Matt Neumann of Idaho-based Ullr Skis. The process he learned was developed by Michael Lish, who created an open-source manufacturing system that encouraged other builders to adopt his systems and, in turn, teach others how to make his skis.
Since launching in the spring of 2011, Ross has seen his business grow, creating skis for many locals and entering into partnerships with several cat, heli and backcountry skiing operations, including Selkirk-Tangiers Heli Skiing, for whom he’s creating custom skis for long-time clients.
“There’s been a steady increase in interest,” he said. “The proof is always in sales realized but I can track the number of individuals that are accessing the website and the build form and there’s definitely been a marked and steady increase, especially this year.”
Ross said he’s looking to introduce some stock models for next year for people who aren’t looking for full customization but still want to buy local. He also said to expect the price on custom skis to go up for next year – so get your orders in soon.
“I think I’ve done a really good job of maintaining some of the core philosophies that got me into this in the first place,” he said. “It was really important for me to offer a customized product at an affordable price.”
For more information and to place an order, visit www.bigbendskis.com.