Inland Northwest’s custom ski-makers carve a niche market
TJ Sneva wanted skis that would accommodate the kinds of tricks he and his friends liked to pull on the slopes, and major manufacturers weren’t making them – so he started building them himself.
David Marx wanted skis that would work in the “side-country” terrain around Schweitzer Mountain – skis that could handle low-angle backcountry touring and uphills, but still float through powder turns on the downhills and inside the resort. Now his 7B Skis has a full line of models, with demos available on the slopes at Schweitzer.
Caleb Baukol of Big Wood Ski wanted to build elegant, fully customized skis out of hardwoods that could stay stable on the slopes of Sun Valley. “This mountain is so steep and so fast and so demanding,” he said. “We have real skiers here that just rip.”
All are small ski manufacturers that are part of the craft ski movement, a segment of the ski industry that’s gained such allure that for the first time this year, a portion of the ski industry’s annual trade show in Denver will be set aside for the small ski- and snowboard-makers.
“We’re not trying to take over the ski industry or anything like that,” said Matt Neuman, owner of Ullr Skis, which recently relocated from McCall, Idaho, to Sandpoint. “We can’t compete. But more people are becoming conscious of who they’re buying stuff from and where it’s coming from.”
Neuman produces 40 to 50 pairs of skis a year, all fully customized for the buyer. “I can do pretty much anything you want, as far as length and flex and graphics go,” he said. He also focuses on regionally produced, environmentally friendly materials.
Cris Burnham, owner of Coeur d’Alene’s Substance Skis, grew up ski-racing and tuning skis. “I’d been skiing for 30-something years, and you get to a point where most of the stuff out there is not made for you, it’s made for the masses,” he said. So he started building his own beefy, hard-driving skis for serious skiers, while keeping his day job as a banker. “They’re for people that really demand a lot and expect a lot from a ski,” he said. His most popular model: the Abuser.
David Ingemie, president of SnowSports Industry America, said he’s impressed with the passion of the small ski-makers. “It’s kind of heart-warming to sit there and talk to them about what they think about the industry and why they’re doing it.” Most, he said, aren’t in it to make a living. Instead, “It’s because ‘I love skiing’ or ‘I love snowboarding.’ It’s terrific.”
Though the small manufacturers make up only about 5 percent of the industry, they’re known for their innovation and tendency to pioneer trends that bigger ski-makers may pick up.
“These brands are a small percentage, but their influence is felt throughout the industry as they’re willing to innovate and customize their products based on customer feedback,” said Kelly Davis, research director for SnowSports Industry America.
Like craft beers, some of the small-maker skis cost the same as mass-produced brands, while others cost much more. Ullr skis, for example, start at about $500, while the custom hardwood models made by Big Wood Ski cost $2,500.
Among the craft or indie ski-makers in the Inland Northwest, Sneva Mfg is the biggest player. TJ Sneva, who comes from the famous Spokane auto racing family, started building skis in 1994, in search of twin-tip skis that would work for tricks and terrain-park use. He moved back home to Spokane five years ago, and is now making about 900 pairs of skis a year, including snowskates and wake-skis, some of which he produces for other companies.
“I think it’s great that there are so many different little startups, because it makes everyone else’s skis have to be that much better,” said Sneva, who now has 30 models of skis in his line. “And the really cool thing is, unlike the big companies, we can really sit down and talk about what you ski, where you ski, what you like to ski, and then build the cores and everything to fit your style.”
The others in the region are much smaller, with most making only about 50 pairs of skis a year – and ambitions to grow to only 100 pairs a year, no more.
“I like building ’em myself,” said Burnham, of Substance Skis. “I want my stamp on every pair.”
The look of the custom skis can be much different than that of major brands; some of the crafters will put the customer’s own graphics on them, whether it’s to advertise a business or feature unique artwork or photography.
But many of the skis have the simple look of natural wood, either with a clear topsheet that highlights the natural grain of the ski’s wooden core, or, in the case of Big Wood Ski, with a re-finishable hardwood topsheet. Baukol likens his high-end custom skis to violins.
Burnham’s skis are designed “definitely for an expert-level skier,” he said.
Marx’s 7B skis appeal to serious skiers who “are done worrying about trying to keep up with the Joneses,” but want a simple, classic ski that’s lightweight and backcountry-worthy, as well as skiable within the resort.
“I don’t press a lot of stock,” Marx said. “I tend to build things to order. Once people order a pair of skis, I quote people about two weeks.”
Most of the region’s craft ski-makers still have other jobs, too. “My daughter likes to say that I build skis and climb trees,” said Neuman, of Ullr Skis, who does hazard tree-falling and similar work in his offseason.
His skis are targeted toward “somebody who’s been on the hill or skiing for a long time, or people who just are just getting kind of fed up with buying stuff that’s made in China, and want to talk to the person who makes it.”
Neuman served an apprenticeship with Mammoth Lakes, Calif., ski-maker 333 Skis before launching his own venture four years ago; this fall, he’s training an apprentice of his own, who plans to start crafting skis in Vermont.
“I think people that are doing this are really passionate,” Neuman said. “I’ll be up at night thinking about my last ski day and how awesome it was, and how much better it would be if I just did this with my ski. I’m going to go out to my shop, build it, and a day later go ski it.”