Arrival

Even for a Wyoming boy who lived 60 miles from the nearest movie theater, I was wondering if Google Maps was taking me in the right direction as I entered a small dirt road flanked by October fall foliage in this northern area of Vermont. But Google was correct and after passing a parking area for an area of mountain bike trails, I advanced up a hill to a custom built, off-grid home and garage that is the home to Silo Skis. Having camped in the parking lot of the local ski area (Cochran’s) the night before, I arrived early and excited to start something I have been wanting to do since I was young: build my own skis.

The entrance to the barn and workshop

But the process began months before when I contacted Lars Whitman, the affable founder and owner, who immediately knew what I was looking for: an individualized, personal, and low-key workshop on ski building. I had searched other companies and organizations but none seem to fit these wishes. Silo Skis is a one man operation in a rural, humble setting. The entire operation is powered by solar energy (or a generator when the sun isn’t shining) and Lars uses, as much as possible, local woods for the core and the least environmentally damaging ski materials on the market. For me, this is the perfect setting to explore circumventing mass manufacturing and reclaiming a production process that is increasingly, literally, out of our hands.

The “why”

As we dive further and further into consumer culture and products continue to diversify, the question of why we need to learn to make our own bread, our own beer, or our own sports equipment all leads to the same answer: passive consumerism is not a learning process and leaves us susceptible to a company’s influence. Certainly, many labor intensive activities require too much dedication and time for many of us to partake in, but the learning of how a product is made (or programmed or designed) leads to an understanding that allows us to make informed and therefore, significantly better, decisions. My recent skis have all been from smaller, independent ski companies (Icelantic, Majesty) and I have enjoyed skiing their skis. But creating my own has given me insight into exactly what makes a ski tick for me that goes beyond reading reviews, product descriptions, or demo-ing.

The design

The original top sheet graphics design

The design of my skis was a two-step process: one functional and one aesthetic. Although I didn’t have control over the core (Lars had this pre-constructed out of Maple and Poplar), I knew I wanted a backcountry mid-fat ski for easy skinning and effortless turns in deeper conditions. So, I researched some skis that had recently piqued my interest and looked at their dimensions. From there, I knew I wanted a 109mm waist, and 130+ tip, and a 120+ tail on a 180+ length ski (I am a 6′ tall, 165 lb telemark skier). I also knew I wanted a subdued camber for skinning (to keep as much skin contact on the snow as possible when hiking up) and a fairly substantial tip rocker for shorter edge contact and keeping the tip up in powder conditions. I thought this was the making of one sick backcountry ski. Lars agreed.

After some deliberation and plugging the dimensions into Autodesk Fusion, we came up with these measurements: 184 length/136 tip/109 waist/ 123 tail. We settled on a 5mm camber, a 30cm tip rocker, and a 15cm tail rocker. The calculated turning radius came out to 29.9m, which is quite long but good for big powder turns.

For the graphics, Lars sent me a template (which we later found out was too narrow for my skis…ah, the East Coast and its skinny skis) on Illustrator. Although I appreciate the move to more complex graphics in recent years, I have always loved the fairly basic retro graphics from my youth. Thus, inspired by 1970s surf vans, roller rinks, and vertical alignment, I went with an old-school brown color palette with some neon-light typeface. I also love asymmetrical design in skis and made two skis that are distinct. Finally, I put my online “identity” on the ski and named it with the Castellano word “travesía” as part of “esquí de travesía” (ski touring).

I am not a graphic designer, and I didn’t know how to cut the top-layer stripes off the ski, but I thought they could be manually cut out (which was, of course, possible). Regardless, I thought that on my screen at least, these looked pretty damn cool.

The build

Day One: Template, Core, and Base

The Shaper Origin: a handheld CNC machine that saves a lot of time in ski building

We began by getting the bases ready (simply halving the base material for the two skis) and setting up the ski template by using a handheld CNC machine called the Shaper Origin. After plugging in the dimensions from Autodesk Fusion, I guided the router along the prescribed lines on the screen while the router bit self-adjusted for precision. Once I got used to feeling like I was playing an updated version of Tron, I thought this was a very smart, sophisticated tool that allowed us to develop a ski template on MDF board that was true to the original design. Key to this was also drilling three pilot holes that would allow us to consistently line up the layers of the ski for both cutting and the final epoxying of the skis.

With the template now formed, we traced out the design on both the bases and the wood cores. After a rough cutting of the cores, we used the template again to route the cores down to the exact edges of the design and then sanded the edges down to the lines we had marked. On the fly, we decided that the tails should be flat to better accommodate skins and so, with the belt sander, I carefully flattened out the tail about 2.5 cm back.

Sanding the core. As you can see, the tail has been flattened to accommodate skins

With the core sides sanded, we set the steel edges on the bases with super glue and clamps.

Edges set and clamped on the base

Our final task for the day was some major shaping of the core. This involved tapering down the tip and the tail on the top, routing out a channel for the edges on the bottom, and finally, rounding out the top edges with another router.

For the tapering, Lars has developed this inventive jig that allows you to gradually carve out the tip and tail to the center of the ski on a slope that you can set to various heights. The key here was to keep the ski secure while the router cut the core towards the center binding mounting area by degrees. To do so, Lars’ jig had a two PVC pipes with an attached vacuum to pull the ski core down. Ingenious.

With the ski cores roughly shaped and edges attached to the bases, we called it a day.

Day Two: Final shaping, materials, and pressing

Our ski building journey started early the second day with some final sanding and shaping of the core. Working with both power sanders and finally, just some plain old hand sanding, I was amazed at how much the core suddenly began to transform into what looked like a ski. In fact, the cores were beautiful on their own. See below:

The final, fully shaped and sanded core

With the cores and bases ready, we set ourselves to gathering the materials and forms for the final pressing of the skis. The layers of the ski (in order from bottom to top) included:

  • Base and edges
  • Fiberglass bi-axial mat
  • Wood Core
  • 6 oz S fiberglass
  • Graphics sheet
  • 2.5 oz S fiberglass
The workspace for the final pressing: wood core, fiberglass sheets, and graphics

For the final pressing, I learned about how we would join the layers together with epoxy and press them through a vacuum bag and a metal mold. After setting the metal mold for the camber and tip and tail rocker, we jumped right into epoxying the layers of the ski, placing them into a vacuum bag, sealing and depressurizing it, and finally, setting into the “oven” to bake for 3+ hours. Although in some ways the most nerve wracking, this is where I felt the ski was actually being made. The time-lapse below provides some great perspective on the process:

Day Two (extended): the reveal, cutting, and epoxy removal

Once the skis were in the heated box to “bake” and set the epoxy, Lars and I headed out for dinner in nearby Burlington. Knowing that we were a bit ahead of schedule, we decided to only have one beer and come back that evening and finish up.

The reveal of the ski was exciting, and I can honestly say they came out better than I expected. We used a jigsaw to cut away the excess fiberglass layers and a belt sander as a finisher for the edges and to shape the tip and tail. The final step was to take off all the excess epoxy off the base and after about an hour of work, the skis were finished!

The final product

Of course, having a pair of skis that looks good is different than their performance. The skis did come out a bit heavier than I would have liked (about 2050 grams per ski), but I am overall very happy with them and very happy with the process. I highly recommend a workshop with Lars, as he truly is a great guy to work with. I doubt you will find a more personable and attentive person to build a pair of sticks with.

Obviously, the next step is to mount this babies up and get them on the slopes. Stay tuned for an update this winter. I know I am excited to ski them!

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