Custom Skis 101

Do a pair of expertly crafted custom skis pay out on the slopes, or is that extra money you spent just vanity underfoot?

The Final Custom Design

The Final Custom Design    Photo: Courtesy of Ski Logik

Custom Set

Until recently, the question of whether you should buy a pair of custom skis designed precisely for your weight, skiing style, and ideal slope conditions was primarily a financial one. Now, thanks to widely available computer design tools, there’s competition in the custom-ski market and fully customized pair of planks will set you back only around $1,300—just a few hundred bucks more than a pair off the shelf.

At that price, the experience may be worth the vanity alone—like wearing a bespoke suit or ordering off-menu. Still, there are a few practical reasons to order a custom pair of skis. The first is size and skiing style. If you’re an ogre of a man who tends to break equipment or a fast-and-light fanatic who needs a pair of carbon-fiber powder boards with telemark flex, the durability of custom skis may be worth the money. The second reason is that a well-designed custom set will probably help you ski better. If you aren’t fighting a ski that is too big, or with flex that’s too stiff, you’ll descend more effortlessly and experience less fatigue. Finally, custom skis are more durable. Boutique builders take pride in their craft and stand behind their product. The materials are carefully selected and constructed to fit tightly—without the flaws that typically lead to breakage. Where a pair of stock skis might be designed with a ten-days-a-year skier in mind, custom builders assume you’ll log 100 every season.

Last year, I decided to dive in to the custom-ski market with the sole intention of satisfying my own vanity. I ended up having a bit of a gear epiphany about their worth. While a good ski maker should steer you effortlessly through the process, here are the main things I learned that will put you ahead in the process.

1. Custom or stock?

2. Start early and save money

3. Know the lingo

4. Be honest

5. Tattoo you

6. Test them and speak up

Custom or Stock?

The first step in buying custom skis. Deciding whether you really need them.

Realistically, I thought I didn’t need a custom pair of skis. I weighed 165 in all my gear, did my time as a ski bum, and pretty much only hit the hill when there was eight inches or more of fresh snow. In other words, I was right in the sweet spot for every advanced powder board on the market. But I had some extra money and how often would I have the chance to spend a litle extra on something made specifically and perfectly for me? I wanted to know what that felt like, and one custom company in particular caught my eye for its incredible topsheet graphics. SkiLogik has been in operation since 2008, but is already known for it’s all-wooden topsheet designs depicting everything from mountain range profiles to scenes from Norse mythology. Like marquetry on fine-art furniture, each color is the natural shade of a different wood species. The wife of SkiLogik’s founder, Mariella Mazzerella, personally creates each design according to the whim of the customer. So yeah, this started off as an exercise in full vanity.

Start Early and Save Money

The second step in buying custom skis: give yourself a little more time to make decisions

Had I gotten it together during the summer, I could have saved five hundred bones. Some custom ski builders, notably Boulder, Colorado’s Folsom skis offers a semi-custom option during their slow months from May to August. For $800 you can pick from one of their 10 shapes (big mountain, park and pipe, carving, etc.), but dial the flex and camber in according to your weight and then pick from a generous slate of 20 topsheet graphic designs. It’s essentially as much customization as most people need, while also capturing the quality and warranty of a boutique builder. Alas, I was four months too late to get the semi-custom option.

Know the Lingo

A dictionary of terms you need to know before you buy custom skis

Uh, shape, flex, camber? You don’t need to know anything about grape varietals to get drunk on wine, but you might appreciate a good bottle even more if you do. The same goes for the elements of ski design, and the terms below should make your discussion with any ski maker more fruitful.

The waist of the ski refers to its width underfoot. A wide waist, anything from 100mm on up to 127mm, is best for floating through powder whereas a narrow waist like 80mm is found on a ski made for carving groomed snow or dancing around on moguls.

The turning radius of the ski is determined by the sidecut—the depth a ski is cut from the tip to the waist. The deeper the cut, the quicker the turn. If carving quick slalom turns or dicing through tight trees, look for a shorter turning radius like 18 meters. For big slalom turns or straightlining ahead of Alaskan avalanche sluff, ask for a bigger radius like 24 or 26.

Traditional camber gives a ski a little lift under the foot, which when pressed downward bites into the snow and gives you good edge control. Rockered skis feature ends that are bent upwards for better float in powder. Some skis use one or the other, and recently, many now feature both.

The flex of a ski is determined by the thickness and stiffness of the materials used to build it. Stiff skis carve better but can throw a skier around, while soft skis float better but can be alarmingly floppy on the hardpack.

Be Honest

The fourth step in buying custom skis: be honest about how you ski

In the shop
In the shop   Photo: Courtesy of Ski Logik

Folsom and Wagner start you off with a questionnaire (sample question: “What boots do you use and what flex are they?) On December 16, David Mazzerella at SkiLogik called me on Skype from his factory on the island of Hainan, China, where he and has family have lived since 2008. He basically wanted to know my size, my skiing background, and what I intended to use the skis for. I told him I’d had season passes at Jackson Hole, Steamboat, and at Hood Meadows, and that I’d primarily be using the boards he built me for lift serviced powder skiing in Oregon and Wyoming and an occasional backcountry lap off Teton Pass.

“Do you like to make bouncing powder turns or pro-style big mountain turns?” he asked.  I told him that I’d be racing other skiers for the fresh snow at the area, so the latter would be more appropriate for these skis.

“Do you ski backwards at all?” he asked. “Not on purpose,” I answered. Exaggerating your capabilities or the conditions you ski in will only get you skis that are less than perfect.

“Have you ever used a pair of skis wider than 100mm?” I told him I owned a pair of 184 mm-long Black Diamond Justice skis with alpine touring bindings and I loved them. They are 115 mm underfoot.

“Do you want your skis to be wider, narrower, or about the same?” he asked. “Or do you want me to decide?” “You are the maestro,” I answered.

“For sidecut, do you want something with carving capabilities?” I told him I would be on new snow about 75 percent of the time with these skis. Ideally 100 percent of the time, but I wanted to play it safe.

He asked about the weight of the skis and I decided to leave it up to him. We talked for about 30 minutes about my skiing experience and his design process. He said that he visualizes the skier and how they’d like to ski, “half the time with my eyes closed. Maybe it pops into my mind twenty times over the course of a few days, once or twice deeply.” Then he works with the engineer to create a CAD model, which goes through a few revisions before they cut materials and prepare tooling “to give birth to a new ski.” Cool, I thought, do whatever you need to do. Hell, light some candles throw on an Enya CD if you think that’ll get me a sweeter ski.

A day or so later, he emailed me: “Are you buttering turns in pow, feathering, doing spins or other new school tricks in pow. I'm thinking not, but need to make sure.” I replied that I didn’t even know what those questions meant, and was fine with that.

Then the next day he sent this email:

Alright. I've drawn up a design for you and done several revisions already and I'm happy with it. Yours is 120 underfoot with a 24 meter radius and 148 in the tip, 137 in the tail, 182 cm long, straight tail in the back with slight rise, and a 310 mm rockered tip. It'll be good for you in big mountain turns, and I'll give it a fairly stiff flex underfoot and through the tip with a longer radius rocker to float you over wind buffed and eat up crust. You're a pretty light guy and this will float you really well. I considered going wider, but at this width you'll really be able to pressure down on the forebody and ski the powder rather than just ride over it all. I'll use a lightweight construction, so although it's big, it won't feel heavy on your feet. I'm putting about 7 mm of camber underfoot - you won't have any problem grabbing an edge if you have to and that will also help when you're hitting crust in the tip. 

Reading the plan, I knew it wasn’t anything radical, but that it would fit perfectly.

 

Tattoo You

Pick a custom ski design that your willing to live with

The Final Custom Design
The Final Custom Design   Photo: Courtesy of Ski Logik

The first design
The first design
The Final Design
The Final Design

I agonized over the graphics for my new ski like an NBA player contemplating a neck tattoo. I enviously considered stealing some of the awesome designs Mariella had created for other SkiLogik clients, but realized it just wouldn’t be the same. What sort of image sent the message of what my skiing stands for? At first I thought of the wolves released in Yellowstone when I’d been living in Wyoming and asked her to design something around that. She sent back this sketch:

The First Design

A solid design that wasn’t too busy, but the wolves looked a little too much like a pack of friendly huskies escaped from doggie daycare. I probably could have asked her to make them a little more menacing, but decided to switch tracks.

I focused on Oregon, where I live, and what makes it unique. I asked Mariella to put a portrait of Mt. Hood on the left with a river flowing off of it into the ocean. There should be salmon in the river and waves in the sea, I said. Here was her take:

The Final Design

I liked that the skis would tell the hydrological cycle, and this rendering seemed just fine. I couldn’t wait to see it built out in wood.

Test Them and Speak Up

Take your custom skis out to the slopes and let the designer know what you think

Putting the new planks to the test
Putting the new planks to the test   Photo: Courtesy of Frederick Reimers

The finished product
The finished product

Somewhere in the middle of last year’s epic La Nina spring, a long thin, relatively light cardboard box arrived from China. I tore open the packaging to reveal my skis.

The finished product

Black locust sidewalls, maple clouds, and a little mother-of-pearl for the sun. I almost felt a little guilty. In fact, they were so pretty that I stood them up against the wall and gloated over them for a week, not wanting to mar them with bindings. Eventually, I did get them mounted up, though, and was lucky enough to take them for a spin on a helicopter ride in Whistler.

What were they like? Cheating. The extra cost paid out in performance. In about eight inches of new snow all I had to do was think about turning in a particular direction and it happened, the skis steering effortlessly from small direction corrections to big speed-shedding slashes. The float was incredible, and the skis were so light I kept finding myself hopping over rocks and shrubs.

“Wow, those are light,” remarked the guide as he handed them off the pile he’d unloaded from the helicopter’s cargo basket. The whupping of the chopper’s blades now rapidly receding as it rushed away downslope. “How do they ski?”

“As good as they look,” I said.

What if I hadn’t loved them? I’d have spoken up for sure. SkiLogik, like all the other custom outfits, are very small compared to their competitors. Word-of-mouth is critical for them and one bad review can send shock waves through their business. They know that, and so it’d be surprising if they didn’t bend over backwards to make you happy. That assurance alone is worth a few hundred bucks.

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