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How to Make Skis
Made is a series of simple, gorgeous short films that demonstrate how everyday luxury objects are made, and honor the process and craftsmen behind them.
Pete Wagner wasn’t stuck. The mechanical engineer and programmer, now in his early 40s, had a successful career in the San Diego area writing software that optimized the performance of golf clubs. He did miss the mountains, though, and wondered if he could apply his skill at interpreting the physics and kinesiology of golf to another of his passions—skiing. Today, his proprietary code translates a skier’s height, weight, skill level, and preferred terrain into the right specifications for a pair of custom planks, each hand-built in a former gas station a few miles outside Telluride, Colo. Over the past nine years, Wagner Skis has grown to 13 year-round employees.
“Most made-to-order skis are built from stock models,” Wagner says. “We use our recipe to cut a pair from a single sheet of wood, and to create a pair that’s right for your ability.” When completed, they’re the only pair like them on earth.
Though he begins with a high-tech set of plans, much of the Wagner process is high-touch. The recipe includes the precise dimensions for a milling machine that scores a single sheet of wood, known as the raw block. Wagner uses one of six woods—including sugar maple, aspen, and poplar, and vertical laminate combos therein—depending on the desired density and stiffnesses, power and maneuverability of the finished ski. Each wood edge is then lined with steel that’s first bent in a machine with spools that resemble an old movie projector.
After the ski bases have been treated with P-Tex (a black-pigmented plastic), Wagner’s artisans apply a logo and begin the hourlong process of shaving the steel trim until it’s snug. Next comes the wet layup—the layering of epoxy and fiberglass and wood, which Wagner likens to “completing a 3D jigsaw puzzle.” Then it all goes into an oven. After the resin is cured, workers use a band saw to cut the individual skis from the raw block.
At this point, it’s five hours into the process, and they’re not quite halfway there.
It’s time now to use a pneumatic press to bend the skis. A slight bow in the middle, known as camber, can add to a ski’s speed and versatility; a rise in the tips, the tails, or both, known as a rocker, can help a skier float on fresh powder. Then comes the deflashing—shaving all the rough edges—followed by a skilled technician tweaking the bevel, or angle of the edge. A single degree of bevel has a profound effect on performance: 88 to 89 degrees, for example, provides more bite and is better for icy conditions. Workers check the bevel on a workbench before an hour of waxing, primed to the conditions of the snow where the skis will first be used.
After all that, they’re ready to ship. The whole process, start to finish, can take 12 working hours over the course of two weeks.
“Our first year”—2006—“we budgeted for about 10 percent returns,” says Wagner, who figured that getting the skis dialed for each user would take practice. It did, but they learned quickly. “It turned out to be more like 3 percent. It’s been down to 1 percent the last five years.”
Some expert and price-is-no-object skiers may always favor a quiver approach—one ski for each kind of terrain. In his experience, though, and based on feedback he’s gotten from his customers, Wagner's one-of-a-kind skis, if well-fitted, have a larger sweet spot, and can be skied at a high level 80 percent or 90 percent of the time.
“Maybe for the freshest, deepest powder you want a different ski, for Cat or heli-skiing,” Wagner says. His skis, he says, satisfy experts, but are even better for those who only get out a handful of times each winter and want a ski that fits them so well, it gives them an advantage anywhere on the mountain.