Custom Skis Part 2 – Construction

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Assembling a pair of custom skis is labor intensive — they truly are handbuilt. Though each company has its own techniques, the basics are similar. Mainly, custom builders tend to prefer sandwich construction because it allows greater fine-tuning than cap or torsion box designs.

Custom skis for backcountry skiing.

Milling core material, precision is key.

The heart of any sandwich construction ski is the core; to a great extent this determines the feel of the skis. Companies like Folsom will hand select the wood for their cores to ensure proper grain orientation without knots. Whether using poplar and bamboo (Folsom) or ash and maple (Igneous and Wagner), blocks of wood are vertically laminated and then cut in half (called bookmatching) so that a pair of skis has identical characteristics.

The core blanks are then shaped on a CNC milling machine to get the desired flex. This is where small changes in thickness can make big differences in how a ski performs for the type of snow conditions we like here at WildSnow.com. Even when using a standard ski shape for a backcountry or resort ski, variations in the core are what determines a custom ski flex.

After the core has been shaped, it is preassembled with sidewalls, tip and tail spacers. If aramid or carbon layers are part of the design, they will be tacked down to the core with heat glue at this stage.

Hot glue is used to attach some materials so they retain their position during the layup.

Hot glue is used to attach some materials so they retain their position during the layup.

Skiing the backcountry.

A pinch of carbon fiber and a smidgen of aramid. Result, a tasty ride.

While there are few suppliers of base material and ski edges in the world, they do offer a range of quality and custom builders don’t skimp. Bases must be cut to the precise shape of the ski then logos are die cut and taped in place. Then the edges are carefully bent to fit the base and glued in place. This is an important step for strong edges that won’t rip out.

Skiing the backcountry.

Getting that logo in there.

Skiing the backcountry on custom planks.

Bending and attaching edges.

Hand made skis.

Getting a good edge starts here.

Since I had the option, I designed my own ski graphics using the photograph of a peak from one of my expeditions. I submitted a high-res file and we tweaked a few things (adding a full moon to the Folsom logo, etc.). The final design is output by a printer onto a transfer sheet, which is then sublimated onto the polyamide top sheet material.

Custom skis for backcountry skiing.

Custom graphics for custom skis.

While the core is what largely determines the ride, the fiberglass/epoxy matrix is what holds the camber, gives torsional rigidity and provides strength. The specific layup will vary with each ski design but typically consists of triaxial glass with biaxial reinforcements.

Once the hardener is added to the epoxy, it takes Folsom 18-20 minutes to assemble each ski. This is a longer assembly time than many mass-production skis, which among other advantages may give the resin more time to completely saturate the cloth. By ensuring no resin voids exist in the ski, you get a stronger, more durable product.

Skiing the backcountry.

Epoxy is mixed, and the clock begins to tick.

Skiing the backcountry on custom made skis.

The question is, has WildSnow ever had this much epoxy mixed up at one time?

Making skis.

The resin is carefully squeegeed to again insure there are no voids.

Epoxy for custom made backcountry skis.

That hand built touch.

With the epoxy clock literally ticking, each layer is placed into the cassette and the resin is massaged into the cloth. Rubber strips go over the edges to help dampen the ski. The final layer, of course, is the top sheet, which is carefully centered and taped down to prevent shifting (inaccurate boot center marks are all too common in mass-produced skis).

Hand made skis for backcountry skiing.

Tip area, rubber edge strips are obvious.

Laying in the layers with the epoxy.

Laying in the layers with the epoxy.

Care with the build is the hallmark of custom skis.

Care with the build is the hallmark of custom skis.

The top of the cassette goes on and the entire assembly slides into the heated press. With even pressure (45 PSI) and temperature (185°F), the resin cures in about 20 minutes. The ski is removed from the cassette and allowed to rest for 24 hours to completely cure. Then the flash is trimmed away, sidewalls are beveled, base stone ground, edges beveled, and hot wax applied.

Into the press they go.

Into the press they go.

No shortage of resin in this build.

No shortage of resin in this build.

The finished skis look great! Jordan at Folsom custom skis had predicted the pair would weigh 9 lbs and they came in at 2027 g + 2048g = 4075 g = 8.9 lbs. Comparing the flex and camber, the skis are very evenly matched. Now the proof will come in the skiing! Stay tuned for a follow up review.

Hand made backcountry skis.

Hand made backcountry skis! Next, we get to test them.

Part One — Design

(WildSnow.com guest blogger Clyde Soles is a prolific writer who has covered backcountry sports gear for years. His writing is known for a thorough style that probably no one in the human powered sports world has ever equaled. He’s the author of several books, enjoys everything from fluffy powder to fine wine, and also spends quite a bit of time behind a camera. Check his website.)

Comments

27 Responses to “Custom Skis Part 2 – Construction”

  1. Andrew November 30th, 2009 11:56 am

    Great write-up, photos and description Clyde. Those look like beautiful skis.

    I don’t wear a helmet when I ski, but I definitely wear a respirator when I’m mixing resin. Was it something special? If you did that in a boat yard you’d be dead by the time you were 40.

  2. David Butler November 30th, 2009 12:37 pm

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks for all the detail.

  3. dean November 30th, 2009 1:40 pm

    Kinda makes me feel bad for the 333skis guy. spam question about warmer weather summer or winter. …hmm, here in estes it gets confusing.

  4. Clyde November 30th, 2009 2:05 pm

    Andrew, the epoxy resin Folsom uses is a custom formulation that has no odors or noxious gases. Aside from caring about their own health, you can believe the Enviro Police of the People’s Republic of Boulder would be swarming if there were toxic emissions.

  5. Lou November 30th, 2009 2:57 pm

    Indeed! One can be assured that a ski made in Boulder, Colorado would be the ultimate in green. But then, there is 333, and he might even beat Boulder in how green he is.

    Speaking of which, Louie is getting a set of 333 skis he’ll be reviewing soon. Both a first-look and on-snow after he’s been out on them a while. No intention of ignoring 333.

  6. David Butler November 30th, 2009 3:01 pm

    Lou, you might want to check out the latest developments on the 333 website if you haven’t already. All is not well. Louie might want to make sure his order has not been cancelled. It would be a shame to see this endeavor fail. It’s a great concept.

  7. Lou November 30th, 2009 4:08 pm

    David, I checked out 333 and it indeed looks like some changes. I’ll let Louie take it from here. If he ends up with review skis, great. If not, then no worries and we wish 333 the best with their effort.

  8. dean November 30th, 2009 4:45 pm

    I actually meant feeling bad in light of what David mentions, in that he seemed to have some bad methods. TGR had some pictures of some really bad construction. Very cool to see the equipment and skill involved in the folsum and other similar companies. We’ve been following the progress on ON3P’s website which is a fun read as well. Buddy has a pair coming hopefully soon.

  9. Chris November 30th, 2009 8:49 pm

    A few technical questions:

    1. How do they set/adjust the camber ?
    2. Are the white edges in the second picture the sidewall?
    3. How do they get the ski to follow the contour of the mold when doing the layup That is, how do they get the tip/tail to bend up – and stay that way – instead of lie flat?
    4. Are there male/female parts to the mold or are they just flat?

  10. Mark W November 30th, 2009 11:08 pm

    Nice looking skis, Clyde. Custom graphics are great. Hope you like the way they ski.

  11. David Aldous November 30th, 2009 11:25 pm

    Chris
    1. The camber is set by the shape of the bottom part of the mold. You can see under the metal plate on the bottom there is a wooden mold. The ski will be bent to the shape of the bottom mold. To change the camber you either have to have an adjustable mold or make a new mold.
    2. That white does look like sidewall material.
    3. In the second to last picture you can see a yellowish part of the mold just above the square tubes that is an air bladder that is inflated. In the previous picture it hasn’t been inflated yet. This bladder pushes the ski materials down onto the lower mold and holds it in place while the epoxy sets.
    4. The mold does have a upper and lower part. The upper part doesn’t need to be as accurate because the ski gets its shape from the bottom mold and the upper mold just has to get the air bladder close enough to the bottom mold so it can apply even pressure.

    There is a pretty good explanation of the ski building process on http://www.skibuilders.com

  12. Ben C December 1st, 2009 12:48 am

    Great article- very interesting stuff. Great pics too.

  13. Euro Rob December 1st, 2009 4:46 am

    Those skis look fabulicious in both shape and (graphical) design. Care to share the tech specs?

  14. ScottP December 1st, 2009 8:01 am

    Very cool, especially with pictures. It’s neat to see how they’re built.

  15. Clyde December 1st, 2009 9:52 am

    David has it pretty much correct. Rob, go to Part 1 for the specs and reasoning.

    1. See the photo on Part 1 for a view of the open press. That shot shows the top sheet being taped in place, then the aluminum plate goes over that. Folsom has a mold for their standard shapes and they can adjust the press to create an early rise or rocker (NOT the same thing) tip or add a rocker to the tail. The 3rd photo shows the bottom of the core with a long, wide carbon layer that helps hold the camber (among other things). On the top side, a shorter, narrower carbon layer balances that bottom piece (4th from last photo). Biaxial glass also goes in at the binding area (shorter for tele, longer for alpine). All of that is encased in triaxial fiberglass.

    2. It’s an HMPE edge material, which is more durable than ABS, that is milled to shape. Same material is used on the tips and tails.

    3 – 4. Look closely at the 5th to last shot (Laying in the layers with the epoxy). It shows the milled out cassette with a bent up tail; the tip is also pre-shaped. You can see where the ski would have extended had I specified a full twin tip (didn’t because they suck for backcountry). The top of the cassette is smooth, though they can also emboss a logo at the tip.

  16. Lou December 1st, 2009 10:02 am

    Thanks for the details Clyde!

  17. KDog December 1st, 2009 6:42 pm

    Clyde,

    Awesome photo sequence of the build process. It seems that they were able to do a flat tail for you (backcountry friendly), but are they able to change the shape/profile of that big round tip? Maybe something a little more directional (pointed) that would hold a skin loop better or is that not possible.

    I’m a directional (old school) ski shape fan and owned a pair of Seth Pistols/Hippy Stinx. I hated that big round front tip with studs that kept the tip loops from holding well.

    I am really interested in some Folsom’s and can’t wait for your review!

    Kevin

  18. Clyde December 2nd, 2009 10:11 am

    Didn’t ask about tip shape since it’s a non-issue with G3 Alpinist skins (best on the market). Shoot an email to Jordan to confirm but my guess would be they can create a pointier tip for old-school skins with tip loops.

    Last night I mounted up the K2 Sidestash with an NTN second ski kit for comparison. Colorado has been in a dry spell for awhile but we have 8 inches here today so hopefully testing will commence soon!

  19. essays land December 3rd, 2009 9:14 am

    wow so that how ski’s are made so what type of ski is the best to buy for beginners like me thanks great site great post good job

  20. Portable Storage December 3rd, 2009 7:59 pm

    Seems pretty interesting article,pics and skii’s.Wish I could have one pair of them but as I am beginners would these ski will be suitable for me.

    Thanks,
    Portable Storage,
    http://www.moveablecubicle.com

  21. Chris Ferraro March 30th, 2010 7:29 pm

    Clyde / Lou

    Did these skis ever get used this year? I would love to hear the results, and if they measured up to all your hopes!

    Thanks

    Chris

  22. Rob April 14th, 2010 10:53 am

    Just wanted to ask about the results/performance of Louie’s 333′s that were mentioned earlier in the season – did he ever get them? are they worth the cost? Was interested in an actual, performance/experience based review of the product, since there seemed to be many skeptics of the 333′s, and WildSnow does an excellent job of breaking things down into understandable, informative chunks. Good luck on Denali – I’m jealous!
    -Rob

  23. haraldb November 18th, 2010 12:11 pm

    Any update?

  24. Skiing Holidays France December 26th, 2010 3:22 am

    Excellent insight into the making of these custom skis, I doubt many people are in fact aware of the time, effort and skill that goes into the making of these custom built skis.

  25. nursing shoes February 8th, 2011 9:56 am

    Hi,
    I really enjoyed visiting your site and reading the interesting articles and comments that are posted here. Nice job, keep up the good work.
    :-)
    VJ-Global

  26. naginalf March 30th, 2011 2:22 pm

    This may come a year late, but are we going to get that promised part 3 of this series. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results.

  27. Lou March 30th, 2011 2:46 pm

    I vaguely recall something from Clyde about skiing on these? Clyde?

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