That bit about the best skis in the world being made in Colorado isn't just hyperbole; several local brands have been holding their own in the annual ski tests, gear guides and editor's-choice lists published by magazines like Powder, Freeskier, Telemark Skier and Backcountry, and business is growing across the board, recession and weak snow season be damned. In the ski industry, Brand Colorado is catching on.

"The boutique ski companies are so important to the industry from a passion and innovation standpoint and because they're really going after that top tier of the skiing market," says Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, noting that one in six pairs of skis sold in America now comes from a boutique brand.

"What's happening in Colorado is special, and the entire industry is paying attention," she adds. "It's just been a tremendous success story all around."

Ryan Prentice takes it one ski at a time at Folsom Custom Skis.
Eric Magnussen
Ryan Prentice takes it one ski at a time at Folsom Custom Skis.
David Liechty operates out of his living room and a shop.
Eric Magnussen
David Liechty operates out of his living room and a shop.

*****

High-end, handcrafted skis probably won't make much of a difference for the typical skier who gets on the hill just a few days a year — but many Colorado skiers are anything but typical. Mike McCabe, master builder at the worker-owned Folsom Custom Skis shop in Boulder, points out that skiing is a way of life for many Coloradans and that when you're skiing like your life depends on it, you need skis you can depend on.

"I'm 6' 2" and weigh 230 pounds, and I ski hard," says McCabe. "Mass-produced skis just don't cut it for me, at all. When I first got involved in working with Folsom, I was competing in the IFSA [International Freeskiers Association] big-mountain ski tour, doing a lot of those freeskiing world tour stops that are just big, crazy skiing, and I needed a ski I could trust. I was skiing on some other shall-remain-nameless brands and just couldn't get the skis to perform the way I needed them to. I had some catastrophic equipment failures in situations that were really bad, and it really started to shake me up. When you can't rely on your equipment, you start second-guessing everything you do."

When he examined those broken skis, he would invariably find sloppy manufacturing defects like uneven applications of epoxy and fiberglass. Now that he knows more about ski construction, McCabe blames those defects on lazy, outsourced manufacturing, a sad side effect of overseas mass production. He and his Folsom co-owners have decided that the answer to the problem is in completely customizing the process of buying a ski for their customers (and for themselves), and in personally taking complete control over every aspect of the design and manufacturing of those skis.

Unlike Grace and some of the other garage brands, Folsom got into the game with a big initial investment in a CNC (computer numerical code) machine for the precision milling of its wood cores and to make its own ski molds. The company also bought a dye sublimation printer to print its own custom top sheets.

"Not to bash the garage builders, but we're not a garage brand," says McCabe, even if his factory occupies a mere 1,500 square feet behind a garage door in a Boulder warehouse. "Our product is precisely designed and built, and we take great pride in that."

The 250 pairs of skis being crafted in the Folsom shop this year won't put much more of a dent in the ski industry than the twelve pairs Liechty is building. Sales of skis, boots, bindings and poles totaled $533 million in the United States last season, according to SIA's 2011 Intelligence Report. A total of 639,098 pairs of alpine skis were sold. Roughly 90 percent of that market is dominated by the top ten companies, including Atomic, Blizzard, Dynastar, Elan, K2, Line, Nordica, Rossignol, Salomon and Völkl.

But Folsom has been making a name for itself all the same by giving lifestyle skiers exactly what they want and building skis that last up to three times longer than comparable mass-produced skis. The ski industry is taking notice: This year Folsom won two Skier Choice awards in Powder's 2012 Buyer's Guide.

"We've taken out all those variables that a consumer staring at a wall of skis in a shop is faced with," McCabe says. Customers are offered the option to choose from one of ten pre-tooled shapes online or create a completely custom shape. They then fill out a basic Skier Profile questionnaire and are contacted by Folsom within 72 hours for a follow-up phone chat to discuss the ski design. "We wanted to take that whole side of buying a pair of skis out of the equation," he adds, "and just set up shop to say, 'Hey, you can come to us and we'll take care of you start to finish.' You come to us and let us know who you are as a skier, what you want and what you've liked and disliked in the past, and we'll build the right ski, the first time, just for you."

McCabe, who is 28, and his business partners have three customer types in mind: The Gear Junkie, who stays on top of all the latest trends and knows exactly what he or she wants, right down to the precise dimensions of a ski's geometry; The Aesthetic, who wants the skis to look good and may want a custom graphic; and The Patriot or Locavore, who adamantly wants a ski made in America, or, better yet, in Colorado. Increasingly, they're finding that most of their customers are all three.

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6 comments
MichaelJacksonsforgottoncat
MichaelJacksonsforgottoncat

ummmmm .... Volant? Went from 150 pair in 1989 to 52,000 pair and tied with Volkl at #4 in the industry 11 years later - every pair was 100% hand made. Cost per unit in the US was simply too much compared to the over seas manufacturing (165.00 per pair compared to 52.00 per pair). Even with the lowest warranty rate/highest quality in the industry (and very very deep investor pockets), there was no way to win/be viable long term. I am sure the folks who used to take the ferry to Vashon, and the Boulderites that rode their bikes to Howards place in Gunbarrel would also agree....

Matt Egan
Matt Egan

Let's hear it for small business and American manufacturing. America needs more garage companies that will grow and HIRE! Corporate America ain't doin' shit.

R. Randall Halton
R. Randall Halton

Thats wonderful this this person has his own construction techniques!!!!! Better get WIPO.com.

____________________ =^= (-----) ' ' HELI SKI dropouts

Jake Miller
Jake Miller

I think I'll get a Grace custom ski if David is making them.... hot!

everybody
everybody

Volants were doomed from day one for their weight, and the fact that you could bend one in half and it would stay that way. Junk. Worth nothing.

 
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