When college buddies Mike McCabe and Ryan Prentice took over Folsom Custom Skis in 2011, the Colorado-based company was producing 180 pairs of skis a year. Today, that number is up to 300. A 67 percent increase in business by a two-person operation in four years is nothing to sneeze at, yet 300 still doesn’t exactly jump off the page, especially when you consider a company like Atomic makes over 500,000 pairs of skis a year.
Welcome to the world of custom ski-making, where it’s not about creating skis — it’s about creating your skis. Prerequisites go far beyond just measuring an individual’s height and weight. Folsom designs skis based on ability and terrain preferences, even going as far to match skis to a specific mountain. As you might imagine, that takes a bit of time.
McCabe compares custom ski-making to craft beer: the history of production here in the States isn’t as long as in other parts of the world, but the industry is certainly doing its best to catch up. And just as craft brewers have emerged to battle the big boys abroad and at home, so too have custom skis.
And yet unlike the relatively transparent process of making beer, making skis is a mysterious process for most consumers. From the client evaluation to the material selection to the tedious labor, one thing’s clear: McCabe and Prentice are patient, patient men. Together, they recently walked us through a pair’s laborious creation process.
1 The first step is a conversation with the customer. What sort of skier are they? What type of terrain do they usually ski? The answer will determine the ski’s shape, flexibility, and makeup.
The type of wood used depends on the type of ski. Maple, a heavy wood, is used for extreme, sturdy builds, for example. For every 100 boards of wood McCabe inspects, he will select only 10. They are the backbone of the ski, and they can’t have knots or imperfections. Individual wood sheets are stacked and secured on top of one other, with a sheet of bamboo in the center. Think of it as a sandwich, with the maple as the bread on either side of the bamboo. This “sandwich” is then sliced, so to speak, by a CNC machine to create the core of the ski.
2 While the core is machine sliced and trimmed into the appropriate specs (which are different for each ski), McCabe uses a mold to punch out a design in the plastic base. In this example, the design is the company’s logo.
3 With the Folsom logo cut out from the base, McCabe sets it into the press mold.
4A layer of fiberglass is added to cover the plastic base. Next, the wood core is placed on top.
5 With the wood core secured on top of the base, McCabe creates the ski’s tips and side walls using sheets of plastic (these are the black sheets attached to the ends and sides of the wood core). Carbon fiber stringers (small strips) are then used on the top and bottom of the core to add rigidity and secure the plastic tips to the core.
6 Next, all of the laminates that make up the ski are saturated with epoxy. In an extremely tedious process, each layer of fiberglass is hand saturated and applied. The number of layers depends on the custom specs of the ski.
7 McCabe applies an additional layer of fiberglass to add thickness and thus strengthen the ski.
8 As McCabe works on the ski, Prentice creates the top sheet using a printout made from a digital design. The design is transferred from the printout onto a blank top sheet by pressing it for 10 minutes at 285 degrees, which turns the the ink from a solid into a gas and transfers its imprint to the top sheet.
9 The newly created top sheet design is placed on top of the final layer of fiberglass, and all the ingredients are again saturated with epoxy. The ski is then placed into a homemade press, built and maintained by McCabe, to be pressed for 30 minutes at 180 degrees.
10 Three things influence the ski’s performance: The thickness of the core, the length and placement of the stringers of carbon fiber, and the weight, length, and placement of the fiberglass sheets. To illustrate how sensitive this ratio is, consider this: A 0.5 millimeter change in the core’s thickness can affect rigidity by 15 to 20 percent.
11 After 30 minutes, the ski is removed from the press. At this point, it is still a rectangle and needs to be shaped.
12 Prentice dons a headset and prepares to finish the ski.
13 Prentice uses an electric saw to cut off the excess fiberglass. For the first time, the ski begins to look like the final product.
14 An electric sander is used to smooth out the edges of the ski. A series of sanding wheels removes excess epoxy and flattens and finishes the base.
15 The final step (before a final waxing and polishing) is to pull off the thin plastic covering that protects the top sheet design.
From start to finish, one ski takes approximately 10 hours to complete. This does not include the time it takes to design the top sheet, for which McCabe and Prentice accommodate all types of requests, from their stock set of imagery to customer photos to custom hand-drawn designs. In total, Folsom Custom Skis makes 300 pairs of skis per year that range in price from $800 to $1,200.