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Home / Articles / Adventure / Adventure /  Knock on wood
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Thursday, January 6,2011

Knock on wood

Two Colorado ski manufacturers lead a global revolution

By Tom Winter

 

Wood One of the most basic building materials known to humans, wood is the foundation of skis and snowboards. This versatile, beautiful material was used for the first skis. The legendary Austrian pioneer of downhill skiing, Arnold Lund, perfected the first alpine turns with skis made of wood. The first snowboard — the Snurfer — developed by Sherman Poppen in 1966, was made of wood, and Jake Burton used wood prototypes to refine his snowboard designs, designs that would eventually give birth to one of the largest brands in action sports, Burton Snowboards.

Today, wood remains an integral part of modern ski and snowboard construction. The best skis and boards use a laminated “sandwich” construction, where vertically laminated wood is sandwiched between layers of fiberglass, epoxy and other materials, such as the plastic topsheet and bottom p-tex layer, to build the end product. And, despite experiments with manufactured materials such as foam to replace wood cores for skis and snowboards, wood remains the industry standard.

But while wood has a long and illustrious history in skiing, the material has been largely abandoned for us in the most visible part — the top — of a ski or snowboard. Modern plastics have proven extremely durable and, perhaps most importantly, inexpensive, and the vast majority of commercially available skis or snowboards feature that technology. However, over the past 10 years this has started to change as a new generation of boutique snowboard and ski manufacturers have rediscovered both the beauty and versatility of wood and have begun to incorporate the material into the topsheet of their products, creating skis and snowboards that have the rich historical patina of the skis of yesterday but perform like the modern tools that they are.

Two of the leaders of this revolution are Colorado-based brands ScottyBob and Ski Logiks. Another Colorado company, Wagner (featured in the Oct. 22, 2009, issue of Boulder Weekly), doesn’t use wood for its topsheets normally, but because the company only makes custom skis, it’s possible to order this material as an option. These brands are part of a growing trend that’s gone global. Igneous Skis, located in Jackson Hole, Wyo., has been creating custom skis (and snowboards), many of which have wood topsheets, for a rabid local following for more than 15 years. Igneous is joined by Arbor Snowboards, which has focused exclusively on wood topsheets since the brand’s inception in 1995, and Rabbit On The Roof, an obscure French company which makes both skis and snowboards and is the brainchild of Peter Steltzner, an American cabinetmaker and woodworker who loved skiing and decided to see if he could create skis and snowboards (and monoskis, too!), as well as custom cabinetry.

Rabbit On The Roof is emblematic of the new movement towards creating wood masterpieces that also stand up to abuse on the mountain. Steltzner handcrafts fewer than 100 skis per year. But while his topsheets are wood, they hide high-tech guts underneath, including Kevlar, fiberglass and carbon. And the company’s name? Steltzner says it comes from a rabbit that lived in the rafters of his French workshop, inspiring and irritating the California transplant.

Launched in 1995, Arbor Snowboards also focuses on wood. The company was an early adopter of green construction, using koa, maple and bolivar woods, as well as bamboo, in its board construction. Their award-winning snowboards sparked diversification, with the company now building wood skateboards as well. These “longboards” are available, as are the brand’s snowboards, in Boulder at Satellite Boardshop.

Against this backdrop, the success of Colorado brands ScottyBob and Ski Logiks shouldn’t be surprising. Only one year old, Ski Logik is based out of Breckenridge and is quickly gaining a reputation for manufacturing high-quality products that perform well and look fantastic, with the brand’s Howitzer model winning accolades from Freeskier Magazine.

“We were fortunate to get some really strong reviews that helped us,” says Jeb Marsh concedes that it’s tempting for some to dismiss the brand, due to the fact that all of the company’s seven models for 2010 look like pieces of art that would best be hanging above the fireplace in a ritzy ski lodge.

“The artistic top brings people in,” concedes Marsh. “But once they see the reviews and ski the ski, they realize that it’s not just a pretty face.”

Marsh and Ski Logik co-founder David Mazzarella have deep Colorado roots. Both have lived here for decades, and the design and construction of the skis they make is directly influenced by the mountains. There are no skinny race skis or carvers. All models are versatile and, like Rabbit on The Roof, the brand uses high-tech construction and materials under its lush wood topsheets.

“There is more labor going into our skis than any others on the market,” says Mazzarella. “I wanted to pursue the art of ski-making as far as possible. There are no stains or inks on the topsheets. We hand-bend the edges out of single pieces of steel, and we’ve also found in testing that we have a damper ski with wood on top, so putting the wood on top creates something magical.”

Mazzarella admits, though, that “if the skis just looked nice and didn’t perform, then we’d have nothing.”

Performance is also at the center of the ScottyBob brand. With a focus on asymmetrical telemark skis, ScottyBob is based in Silverton, a town that is becoming a touchstone of Colorado ski culture in part because of Silverton Mountain, an untamed ski area with one chairlift, no grooming or beginner runs and some of the steepest skiing in North America. While the company does make three different models of alpine skis, it’s the brand’s funky telemark skis that have served ScottyBob well. It doesn’t hurt that the skis look different, and we’re not just talking about the rich patina of a Koa wood topsheet (which is beautiful), but also the wild shape of ScottyBob’s asymmetrical designs.

But do they work? Customers who have bought them rave about the design and performance of the skis, developed by ScottyBob Carlson in the late ’90s.

“A mind-blowing ski,” “a revelation” and “light and nimble underfoot and easy to turn” are a few of the accolades that have been bestowed on the product. And, like many of the manufacturers featured here, ScottyBob hand-crafts the skis, doing much of the work himself.

While you have to make the trip to Silverton to try a pair of ScottyBobs (or trust in faith and order some directly from the company via its website), you can check out Ski Logik’s offerings locally at Golden’s Bent Gate Mountaineering or at Boulder’s Christy Sports on 30th Street. For brands like Igneous, you’ll have to look harder. And to try some of Peter Steltzner’s creations, it’s best to show up in La Grave, France, the first week of April, when Rabbit On The Roof hosts demos in conjunction with that ski area’s legendary Derby de la Meije ski race.

But regardless of what you end up skiing on, it’s worth listening to Ski Logik’s Mazzarella. A veteran skier and ski designer, he has a simple take on the new generation of skis that feature wood as the most visible material.

“Skis were invented thousands of years ago,” says Mazzarella. “And they have always been carved from wood. Yeah, there are different processes and special woods, and there’s always been a lot of hand work in the better skis. Wood is part of the tradition, and putting wood on the top is merely carrying on this tradition.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com


Details, details

Arbor Snowboards — arborcollective.com. Available at Satellite Board Shop, 1538 28th St., Boulder.

Igneous — igneousskis.com

ScottyBob — scottybob.com

Ski Logik — skilogik.com.

Available at Bent Gate Mountaineering, 1313 Washington Ave., Golden. and Christy Sports, 2000 30th St., Boulder, christysports.com

Rabbit On The Roof — rabbitontheroof.com Marsh, Ski Logik’s vice president of distribution.

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