Ski Factory Dispatch: Black Diamond, Handmade in Austria

Post by blogger | January 12, 2018      

(Editor’s note: Our correspondent Alex is on a press trip in Austria checking out Black Diamond’s skis. We’re excited about this, as the BD ski story has been confusing for consumers due to a preponderance of models and manufacturing venus. Well, it’s all in the old country now, and here are the reports. Oh, and by the way, Alex apparently has yet to try the germknodel.)

Each layer of the Helio sits on the shelf, a recipe hangs overhead, and the ski mold gets filed with a base, edge, core, carbon, binding plate, and top sheet.

At the Blizzard factory, Austria, each layer of the Black Diamond Helio ski sits on the shelf, a recipe hangs overhead, and the ski mold gets filed with a base, edge, core, carbon, binding plate, and top sheet.

The Alps tower overhead as up to 900 skis a day are born under the watchful and precise eyes methodically buzzing about the Blizzard ski factory in Mittersill, Austria. Founded by a carpenter after the second World War, Blizzard now operates the fourth largest ski factory in the world, producing skis for a number of companies, including for the past three years, Black Diamond.

Walking from the supply racks to the production floor we left the smell of wood and metal, and we’re met by a sweet and sweaty industrial odor. A combination of new car, honey, and glue that made me excited about seeing just how they make the slabs of wood and plastic that give us so much joy.

All the fixings for a Helio 105 getting fit into a mold

Helio nearly ready for the molding press.

Over past decades Black Diamond has gone through several iterations of ski manufacturers, first farming out their production to Atomic, and later opening their own factory in China. After concerns over quality, consistency, and production, they have turned here.

After spending a day at the factory, I can say “Handmade in Austria,” is not taken lightly. Black Diamond and Blizzard are now collaborating to make what are clearly some very nice skis.

BD has a big team of folks behind ski product development, but Pete Gompert is the engineer at BD HQ in Utah ultimately responsible for ski design. Pete is a lifelong skier who left work designing turbine parts for jet engines to work for Black Diamond. Pete is both an engineer and a skier through and through. Walking the factory floor, Pete said several times something like, “everything here is just cut perfect!” Pete also skis fast.

Pete Gompert, Black Diamond ski designer.

Pete Gompert, Black Diamond ski designer.

Folks like Pete at BD have put a ton of work into their current line of skis – a utilitarian and streamlined response to their older ski lines. The Helio line of ultra-light skis offers something for the ski mountaineer, big days, heavy packs, and long approaches; the Route series is a daily driving mid-weight touring ski; and the Boundary series is a beefier and heavier free ride ski. BD is tweaking the Helio and adding some very cool additions to make their new line a bit more complete for 2018 – more on that soon.

An Austrian mountain guide named Manfred, an engineer named Jorg, at least two Stefans, and a great team of people/skiers at Blizzard connect Pete’s and the BD’s design to the factory floor.

The Blizzard factory office is quiet. Austrian precision lends an austerity to the place — cable knit sweaters, deliberate marches across the room in straight lines, and firm handshakes abound — good old fashion ski stoke still shines through. Skis are everywhere. Manfred’s desk has a full beer stein on it when we walk by and his computer screen is open to a live feed camera at the top of the Kitzbuhel ski area a few miles away. Everyone working in the office is clearly passionate about snow.

Unlike when making skis in Asia, Black Diamond now has local on-the-ground skiers at their production site who can hop on the snow the day after a ski is made. This is not trivial. The caliber of skiers that get out on the boards at each design and production iteration are nothing less than the strongest and best you can imagine: ex World Cuppers and committed free riders, most on planks from the time they took their first steps, all immersed in Austrian ski culture. Yep, there’s a reason good skis are Austrian skis.

Blizzard has more than 60 years of experience making skis.

Blizzard has been making skis for more than sixty years, display of older models has palpable spirit.

Grains and variety may change, but we are still skiing on wood. This board will turn into the core of a Helio ski.

Grains and variety may change, but most often we are still skiing on wood — when we call skis “boards” we are on the mark. This board will become the core of a Helio ski.

Manfred told us that at Blizzard they want to, “give feeling,” to their skis. He and the Blizzard team make sure all the right stuff gets stewed together in the right way for BD, oversee production, and give feedback on issues that show up at the factory.

While big, clean, loud, precise machines guide the process on the factory floor, many hands guide the process. Edges are bent, cores boards are shaped, bases, carbon, and fiber glass are cut. Top sheets are screen printed (or sublimated in some cases).

You’ve heard of raw honey and raw sugar, well here is a raw ski! Fresh out of the press, they will be cleaned tunes, inspected, tested, inspected again, paired up and packaged before they hit the snow.

You’ve heard of raw honey and raw sugar, well here is a raw ski! Fresh out of the press, they will be cleaned tunes, inspected, tested, inspected again, paired up and packaged before they hit the snow.

At each step of the process quality control seems really important to Blizzard. In part this protects their bottom line – if they have to reprint a top sheet they lose a couple of bucks, but if they have to remake a whole ski they might lose a couple hundred. Even so, it feels nice to know that so many watchful eyes are looking over the various incubating ski appendages.

A logo insert waiting for a base

Logo insert waiting for a ski base.

BD used to do their own ski durability tests, but by moving to Blizzard, a slew of tests now happen at the factory as part of production. Skis are pressed, slapped, chilled, and worked over to find how they will stand-up to us skiers. One such process oscillates a ski 20,000 times in two hours while the plank is in a cooler – supposedly replicating a two-year life cycle of a ski in just two hours. Thus, the Blizzard built skis appear to really raise the bar on BD quality. While Black Diamond is still an American company designing skis at home, they have infused a little bit of the Alps into their boards.

Black Diamond’s lightest ski, the Helio, has a balsa wood core with alternating horizontal and vertical grains and flax strips, overlaid in construction with carbon fiber and fiber glass, all buttressed by a two-part sidewall — far more high tech and complicated then I would have thought.

The imperfect grain running down the top of next year’s Helio is the actual carbon in the ski. Real carbon fiber isn’t perfectly strait or symmetrical. Often company’s put a piece of faux carbon on their top-sheet to market the carbon inside, but the imperfections here are like the ski's fingerprint, each being unique.

The imperfect grain running down the top of next year’s Helio is the actual carbon in the ski. Real carbon fiber isn’t perfectly straight or symmetrical. Companies often place faux carbon on their top-sheet to market the carbon inside, but the imperfections here are like the ski’s fingerprint, each is unique. I like this.

BD is adding a bit of rubber to the 2018 Helio to help damp the carbon chatter. They are also adding a new ski to the line: Helio 76. I am excited about this ski. It is not a race dimension, but rather a full on spring corn/ski mountaineering/fitness freak/expedition-weight ski (to be offered at 161 and 171 lengths). It will be the same Helio construction, but have a notch for tip skin attachment skis.

Only once the skis are finished at the factory are they paired up — each one married to another that’s as similar as possible. While some margin of error is part of manufacturing, a narrower margin of error allowed within any given pair ensures that each skier’s foot slides the same. Blizzard tests the flex, dimensions, and weight of each ski to find it perfect match.

Black Diamond seems to have found a terrific production match in Blizzard. The factory isn’t in a heartless industrial park in the flatlands, or some smog filled city, but in the Alps – giving their skis a proper mountain birthplace. After visiting the factory, I went skiing – hard to beat. The dumplings might be better in China, but the skis are better in Austria.

I will be writing up some posts soon on what BD has in store for next season! Here is a preview: the 2018 Helio Skis!

I will be writing up some posts soon on what BD has in store for next season! Here is a preview: the 2018 Helio skis!

Austria, need we say more?

Austria, need we say more?


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


26 Responses to “Ski Factory Dispatch: Black Diamond, Handmade in Austria”

  1. Generall January 12th, 2018 1:58 pm

    I am very sorry, but Blizzard Skies were and are qualitywise the bottom line in Austria – cheapest Produkts which last for one week!

  2. Aaron January 12th, 2018 1:59 pm

    Hey, Thanks for using the correct term “damp” to describe a decrease in vibration. I have a pet peeve about the sports industry using the term “dampen” to describe this. I know my skis get wet, I never figured it was an added feature.

  3. Kristian January 12th, 2018 2:05 pm

    Hurray! Very exciting!

  4. See January 12th, 2018 2:54 pm

    I really like the Wildsnow factory tour posts, and this one is no exception. Thanks. I was particularly interested to learn that Blizzard is matching skis according to flex, dimensions and weight. I have seen too many pairs of skis that weren’t even close in weight/flex and it really makes you wonder about some manufacturer’s quality control. But I’m not really surprised. Blizzard makes excellent skis in my experience. (Also, I suspect the balsa in the cores isn’t from Swiss and Slovenian forests. Maybe Ecuador?)

  5. Cody January 12th, 2018 3:36 pm

    Got to ski the Helio 116 last weekend in heavy sloppy snow…do want one now. Are the ones shown just graphic changes?

  6. Lisa Dawson January 12th, 2018 4:34 pm

    Good catch, See. Poplar in some other cores is from Switzerland and Slovenia, and some of the core boards come from Switzerland. Alex is checking where the balsa wood comes from.

  7. Alex January 13th, 2018 12:10 pm

    Thanks See, the balsa in the Helio core comes from Ecuador, the core boards are made by a swiss company.

    …Also Manfred told me today that the beer stein on his desk was full of tea…. I guess they have light caramel colored malty Austrian tea?….. 😉

  8. Henrik Westling January 13th, 2018 3:13 pm

    The Helio 76 is a dream ski! So far the best sub 80mm ski mountaineering ski I´we skied. Not the lightest one in its class but worth every gram. I’we skied it in Swedish rock hard and windblown snow and in deep powder, for being a 76 mm ski it floats surprisingly good! The tip is a little bit higher than this years Helio, and is finally possible to use with your race skins! I will use this ski on missions where I usually use race skis, cause its light and narrow (to keep the skin drag down)enough. And I will use it on days I previously would have chosen the 88, cause it skis so good 🙂

  9. See January 13th, 2018 8:26 pm

    Anyone interested in balsa/flax cores and such might want to check out playnaturallysmart.

  10. TMS HAWAII January 14th, 2018 12:12 am

    ENVIOUS!! I’ve driven past that factory, but unfortunately haven’t been inside it. As you wrote, though, just a few minutes drive from Blizzard to the WIldkogelbahn, then a quick ride up the Braunkogellift, out the gate, and you’re at the top of one of the best alpentouring valleys in AUT.

    It’s a great setup. It’s the backcountry version of the ATOMIC factory near Altenmarkt, where the techs slap together prototype race skis then drive 5 minutes down the road to test them on the Hermann Maier WeltcupStrecke at Flachau.

  11. Jim Milstein January 14th, 2018 11:53 am

    “Damp”, yes! Agree with Aaron. However, this post is littered with typos, as if to compensate.

  12. Lou 2 January 14th, 2018 7:30 pm

    Hi Jim, thanks for pointing that out, combination of jet lag and myself being in too much of a hurry probably. Lou

  13. Tim January 15th, 2018 8:09 am

    Alex, great article. Hope to see you back here soon

  14. Wojtek January 16th, 2018 5:23 pm

    BD claims the skis are made from pre-preg. I see dry fiber. Sounds like BD needs to adjust their product description. Pre-preg carbon if laid down well is perfectly straight and symmetrical.

  15. Alex January 16th, 2018 6:31 pm

    Hi Wojtek, BD is definitely using pre-preg carbon in the layup. There were a few layers with different weaves added to the mold without any resin. I will look into what’s going on with the layer in the photo. -Alex

  16. Cody January 16th, 2018 6:33 pm

    Wojtek, there are prepregs that look dry before cure, and prepreg carbon is only “perfectly straight and symmetrical” if it weaved perfectly, handled perfectly, and laid down perfectly. But just going off that photo…that fabric is at least biaxial if not triaxial, and those edges look pretty damn clean for a textile that loves to shift around/ fray in a dry/non prepreg version. They could have a backing/ stabilizing coating, but I’d guess those heavy duty gloves are to reduce human oils on the resin of the prepreg.

  17. Wojtek January 17th, 2018 12:04 pm

    Alex:That’s interesting. Putting the non woven, stitched, dry fiber over the prepreg would explain the voids I have seen in their layups (3rd picture from bottom: light spots near the white stitching).

    Cody: You are right , it is a probably a tri axial (+/-45,0) non woven. The stitching holds it together from moving. When you cut it you get a very clean edge. It looks exactly like the stuff we use at the shop.

  18. Wojtek January 17th, 2018 12:22 pm

    I might have misunderstood your explanation: “There were a few layers with different weaves added to the mold without any resin”. If you mean that the layers were prepreg hence no resin than please disregard my previous comment. Sorry if I came off as a jerk in the initial comment. Sometimes I get too excited about composites. Thanks!

  19. Lou Dawson 2 January 17th, 2018 12:35 pm

    It’s impossible to talk about composites and be a jerk at the same time (smile). Lou

  20. Willis Richardson January 17th, 2018 1:13 pm

    I skied the Helio last year. My complaint was the flat tip and speed limit. The tip issue was supposed to be corrected this year but was not. I ate it on several occassions in the backcountry so I made a pass this year. The ski simply does not rise up in vaiable snow. Hopefully BD will make the change for 2018-2019. Just be aware the Helio series is not balls to the wall skiing even in mellow terrain. High quality skis.

  21. Rob Means January 18th, 2018 7:55 pm

    Real nice reading. Still rocking my Converts but when the time comes Helios are looking like short-listers.

  22. Dave H January 24th, 2019 1:07 pm

    Regarding the wiggles in the photo with the ski with white trim: the wiggles you see are the binding threads that hold the strands of carbon together that are going in different directions like +45 and -45 degrees. This is a stronger fabric than a weave, particularly on the top of the ski where the fiber experiences compression in flexing. The carbon fibers look exceptionally straight as they typically are in this kind of stitched multi-axial fabric. The binding string wiggles as it connects the top layer of strands to the bottom layer going a different direction if that is clear.

    The fabric the guy is laying in with yellow gloves could certainly be prepreg since is is cut exactly for the mold. Prepreg is not necessarily better, just easier because you don’t have to wet it out and then remove the excess (messy) and perhaps lighter with better quality control due to the more accurate resin/fiber balance.

    I reckon a factory like this can make the best equipment and churn out truckloads of rental-level gear also. Just depends on material choices and how fast they want to move each ski through each stage.

  23. Dave H January 24th, 2019 1:12 pm

    It is a stunning location and seems way more fitting than gear from Asia or Dubai in my mind. I would think the folks involved in the manufacture would feel more integrated in the product and the process since they are surrounded by snow slide culture 🙂 Cool story, cool place.

  24. Kristian January 24th, 2019 1:16 pm

    RE: flat tip comment

    It turns out that the Inuit ocean going kayak design is still vastly better than modern commercial design offerings. That comes from literally thousands of years of experience. Subtle important differences.

    I have to wonder if after thousands of years of having high rising pointed skis, if there was not some sort of important tracking function that we are now missing.

    And yes, vintage designs did have early rising rocker, etc.

  25. Kristian January 24th, 2019 6:47 pm

    Internet surfing shows that there are many that believe that broad blunt tip skis are more detrimentally deflected in crud/chop/wet snow.

  26. Andrew January 24th, 2019 10:03 pm

    RE: Flat tip

    Tip-less skis: save weight AND ski switch (neither end has a tip), Seriously, just fine on firm consistent snow and perfectly smooth approach/de-proaches. Otherwise a tip is a very nice accessory which still does not seem to be included in the 2019 models.

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