This story first appeared in Issue Five of Gear Patrol Magazine.
Before multimillion-dollar corporations and factories spanning acres, there were unyielding makers and dim workshops. Production and design were guided by how a ski or snowboard felt cutting through fresh snow, not how well a carefully formatted spreadsheet could expand a bottom line. As with craft beer, ski and snowboard manufacturing is going back to its small-batch roots. Small is better. Small means wide noses and swallow tails, artist-drawn graphics and wood veneers. Small means the people building the boards also ride them. The trend isn’t unique to one place; cottage makers from Japan to the Rocky Mountains to New England are proving that hands are just as deft as machines.
Igneous Raglefant 114
Before designing and building custom skis in Jackson, Wyoming, Mike Parris worked to develop extraplanetary rover technology as a robotics engineer. Prototype testing stints in Antarctica and the Atacama Desert left Parris craving mountains, and he was constantly drawn to the Tetons, where longtime friend Adam Sherman had founded Igneous in the early 90s. When Parris signed on, his instinct was to automate ski production — until he got back to working with his hands. Every pair of fully custom, wood-veneer, handmade skis that comes out of the Igneous shop is designed in a highly personalized process that, if he has his way, involves making fresh turns with Parris.
At the core of Pete Wagner’s award-winning custom skis is a mathematical formula: one that balances a skier’s physical dimensions with their subjective skiing preferences, resulting in a never-repeated one-off ski design. Machines precision mill twin ski cores from a single raw block of wood, but it’s Wagner’s hands that do the real building in a workshop just steps away from the ski lift in Telluride, Colorado. The intensive process — from questionnaire, to one-on-one interview, to ski build — takes only three weeks.
Despite famously unfavorable conditions, New England has been a focal point in the development of skiing in North America, and it’s the region’s largest city that Parlor calls home. Founded in a funeral parlor (hence the name) in Boston’s East Cambridge neighborhood by a cohort of diehard ski racers, Parlor applies the construction of high-end race skis to progressive, all-mountain geometries to develop its fully custom line. The small operation allows the team to continuously experiment with new shapes and materials, work individually with clients on every pair and connect them with designers to create unique one-off graphics.
PowderJet Snowboards Custom
PowderJet is the brainchild of Jesse Loomis, who builds snowboards in his southern Vermont workshop not far from the barn where the modern snowboard was conceived by Jake Carpenter back in the 1970s. After a fruitless search for a snowboard with a classic surf-inspired shape that could float in deep snow and navigate the thick New England trees, Loomis took it upon himself to build the perfect New England sidecountry board. Thus, PowderJet was born. That was in 2009, and since then, Loomis has expanded the woodshop brand with more than 24,000 custom snowboard possibilities (each built from poplar and maple) and a build-your-own workshop series.
James Nicol was raised in Oregon, but it took a ten-year hiatus in San Diego, along with a headfirst dive into surfing and surfboard shaping, to inspire the creation of SnoPlanks — the company he now operates in the mountains of his home state. Nicol and his co-founder, Ryan Holmes, spent five years tinkering and testing before finally settling on the bamboo, carbon fiber and fiberglass layup that the brand launched with in 2014. SnoPlanks’ surf-inspired shapes, with their signature bamboo veneer topsheets, are always handmade; the process is as valued as the final product that comes out of the press.
Taro Tamai witnessed the homogenization of snowboarding as the sport gained popularity in the 1990s, and he did something about it. He looked back to classic shapes; he looked to his other passion, surfing, to glean inspiration; then, he took to the circular saw to build his own boards. Tamai’s boards are meant to flow with the mountain, not dominate it. And they’re truly unique; a Gentemstick is more likely to have a square tip and a halfmoon tail or a wide nose with swallowtail fins than anything rounded or symmetrical. They’re shapes that foster a more creative approach to what Tamai refers to as snowsurfing.