With the advent and evolution of camber and shape technologies over the last decade, skis resemble their predecessors less and less each year. Manufacturers are constantly jockeying for the "next big thing" in ski design, enabling both novices and mad rippers to ski where they want, how they want. Top riders are now schussing through terrain that wasn't thought accessible just a few years ago. A pair of perfectly good Salomon GS skis from the 1990s are now as obsolete as a homing pigeon.
Contrary to several corporate market trends, a handful of custom, handmade ski builders--or boutique builders--have, in many ways, trumped the big manufacturers by fusing some old-school techniques with new-school technologies. They have found a manufacturing balance that isn't likely to get too big or complex--after all, many of these guys operate out of a garage or small warehouse. They're happy to create build-to-order skis, but they also offer their customers a design template and the opportunity to participate in the creation of their customized skis. Customers can be involved in every design element--shape, tip-to-tail stiffness, etc.--to help make the skis of their dreams.
One factor in building boutique skis is using traditional or old-school wood materials, including core and top-sheet options. These give the skis a vintage look and feel. The new-school elements include utilizing the most advanced designs available from the most reputable ski makers in the world. With a chainsaw, router, sander, some hand tools, and core, base, edge and veneer materials, these boutique manufacturers have created a market that is both flexible and cost conscious.
Named after the Norse ski god, Ullr Skis out of McCall is pushing the aforementioned trend and finding regional success doing it. Ullr Skis owner Matt Neuman says his garage-based business is focused on "building a community of skismiths," most of whom live in the McCall area, with a handful of custom orders coming in from California, Canada and Washington.
Neuman got into building his own skis after many years of tuning skis professionally and a six-week apprenticeship with 333 Skis in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
According to Neuman, both Ullr and 333 share the common goal "to promote open-source manufacturing in the ski industry." Neuman hopes to start his own apprentice program soon and he always encourages customers to participate in the construction of their skis.
"If people want to drive up to McCall and get their hands dirty, we're into that," says Neuman.
While Ullr Skis uses the same design technologies that large manufacturers do, they also enjoy the flexibility of implementing virtually any new design trend in real time--no more waiting around for next year's highly anticipated ski widget. Customers design what they want, and Ullr builds it for them. And if they don't know what they want, Neuman and his crew will help them identify the type, style and size of ski that will work best for them.
Ullr uses the same base, core and edge materials as top manufacturers, like Kevlar, fiberglass, VDS foil and bamboo, which Neuman says give Ullr's skis comparable durability to anything from a large manufacturer.
The surprise is in the price.
Ullr's custom handmade skis start at around $350--half as much as a pair of comparable name-brand skis. Ullr skis don't come with particularly fancy graphics or a matching wardrobe but that's kind of the point. Boutique skis are meant to appeal to purists who just want the right ski for what they do.
On the other hand, custom skis aren't for everyone. Former U.S. Ski Team freestyle mogul guru Holt Haga says that custom handmade skis "are generally for the 10 percent or so of skiers who know exactly what they want out of a ski and will test the full capabilities of that ski ... Most people who purchase a pair of high-end Rossignols or Dynastars from a retailer do so strictly based on what the manufacturer claims and [the] trends in skiing at the time.
"If a ski is both cool and functional, it will generally do well in this market," Haga says.
And the market itself seems to be doing well--Ullr and 333 are not alone. Bluehouse skis in Salt Lake City also makes affordable limited-production skis at the local level. Not necessarily dedicated to wood technology, Bluehouse focuses more on rider feedback in their production line from year to year. Igneous Skis in Jackson, Wyo., makes a similar product to Ullr, with extensive emphasis on wood core and wood top-sheet designs.
Whatever your poison on the slopes--park, big mountain, groomers--the boutique custom ski industry has taken aim at the standard for how people ski and even how they get their skis.
They may not be for everybody, but it may not be long before an old class of weekend warriors joins forces with these mom-and-pop ski builders to create that illusive "next big thing." They have introduced information and technology to a market that will directly react to community feedback. It roughly translates to having an infinite number of ski designers working on your behalf from Thanksgiving to late April every single year.