Wagner Custom Skis start at $1,750, but for a small boutique brand doing battle against the industry's giants, business is booming. Wagner estimates that he and his nine-person crew will make about 1,000 pairs of skis this year.
To stay on top of his game, each season Wagner and his crew take the best-reviewed skis from each of their competitors and put them to the test. "We test a lot of skis on the slopes, and we've also got a machine in our factory where we measure the mechanical properties of the skis, the flex characteristics, the torsional rigidity, the geometry — sidecut, waist width, tip width, tail width, camber, rocker, mounting positions — and we put it all into this really extensive database. Then we have these design algorithms where you give some basic information about yourself, where you ski, your terrain type preferences, what kind of snow conditions the ski should be optimized for, feedback about your existing equipment and what you've skied in the past...and because we have this extensive database of the properties of everybody else's skis, your answers are calibrated with our design software and our design algorithms actually create the optimal design for you. So, for example, we can match the tail stiffness of those 2007 Völkl Katanas you loved, but make the ski wider and with a lighter construction to better suit your needs. We can build you just about any ski your heart could possibly desire."
The basics of ski construction are so simple that you could probably do it yourself, too, with the right materials and a little bit of gumption. In December, Breckenridge-based ski maker Rocky Mountain Underground held a clinic at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder to help take some of the mystery out of the process, educate their customers, and help inspire some new DIY builders.
"We started out of a garage in Summit County ourselves, and that's where our roots are," explains RMU co-founder Mike Waesche. "In our clinics, we go over the basic materials and how all those components go together. We talk about shapes and camber profiles so people understand what all the geometry is about, and then we show them how to lay up a ski properly. We think that understanding the process and the materials, and everything that can and does go wrong when you aren't being careful about it, makes you a better consumer and maybe even a better skier."
A ski company that goes out of its way to teach its customers how to build their own skis? Waesche says he isn't afraid of a little competition. "If you're a good skier with some basic understanding of ski construction, the right materials, some basic tools and access to a press, you actually could build a ski in your garage," he says. "It might take you about 24 hours and end up costing you a lot of money, but you could do it. It's when you try to mass-produce them that it becomes a big problem."
When RMU outgrew its garage, Waesche and his business partners were determined to keep production in Colorado and moved their manufacturing operation to the Never Summer factory. Never Summer is celebrating its twentieth anniversary in the snowboard business this season, and has expanded in recent years to help keep other Colorado companies from taking their manufacturing needs overseas. In addition to making RMU's skis — which won nods this year in Powder's Skier's Choice 2012, the 2012 Telemark Skier Awards, and the Freeskier 2011-2012 Editor's Pick Awards — Never Summer now manufactures skis for Colorado brands Icelantic, Fat-ypus, and High Society Freeride.
"I don't even see the other brands here in Colorado as competition," says Waesche, a sentiment echoed by each of the local ski builders in this story. "Hell, a lot of us share resources, especially those of us manufacturing with Never Summer. The way I see it, we're all in it together."
That culture of collaboration is very much on Sullivan's mind as he makes his final preparations for the Something Independent 2012 Business Forum, which will feature panelists including POC Sports founder Stefan Ytterborn, Teton Gravity Research co-founder Steve Jones, Silverton Mountain co-owner Jen Brill, AEG Live CEO Chuck Morris, and Ken Gart, co-owner of Powderhorn Resort.
"Our belief is that collaboration over competition is the future of work and the future of business, and that each of these companies can and should be sharing resources, information and know-how quickly and transparently," Sullivan says, and he's walking the walk: Something Independent is one of a dozen companies — including Icelantic and ski-clothing giant Spyder — housed at Battery 621, the shared space at 621 Kalamath Street that has become a model for such collaboration. "To be working behind closed doors in the 21st century is to find yourself chasing the pack."