Idaho’s makers of custom skis carve niche market

An industry leader says most aren’t in it to make a living: “It’s because ‘I love skiing’ or ‘I love snowboarding.’ ”

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWJanuary 15, 2014 

Chris Burnham of Substance Skis talks about his business at his home in Coeur d'Alene. He still has his day job as a banker.

KATHY PLONKA — The Spokesman-Review

  • IDAHO CUSTOM SKI MAKERS

    7B Skis, Sandpoint, makes three models of downhill, backcountry and touring skis, including the GOAT, which is popular with telemarkers. All are hand-crafted by David Marx; they start at $699. 7B is the county identifier on car license plates in Bonner County, home of the company. Demos are available on the hill at Schweitzer Mountain Resort. 7BSkis.com

    Substance Skis, Coeur d’Alene, makes three models of hard-driving skis, including the Abuser and the 208 — Idaho’s area code. They’re hand-crafted by Cris Burnham and sell for $750. substanceskis.com

    Ullr Skis, Sandpoint, makes fully customized skis hand-crafted by Matt Neuman. Customers fill out a lengthy questionnaire about where and how they ski, then have multiple conversations with the maker to determine the right size, shape and characteristics of their skis, which start at $500. ullrskis.com

    Big Wood Ski, Sun Valley, makes fully customized hardwood skis for $2,500, plus children’s powder skis and classic Nordic skis that start at $600. Caleb Baukol, a former pro gelande jumper and longtime ski industry veteran, crafts the skis. bigwoodski.com

David Marx wanted skis that would work in the “side-country” terrain around Northern Idaho’s 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 says. “We have real skiers here that just rip.”

Both are small ski manufacturers that are part of the craft ski movement, a segment of the industry that’s gained such allure that for the first time this year, a portion of the industry’s annual trade show in Denver will be set aside for the small businesses that produce skis and snowboards.

“We’re not trying to take over the ski industry or anything like that,” says Matt Neuman, owner of Ullr Skis, which recently relocated from McCall 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 says.

He also focuses on regionally produced, environmentally friendly materials.

Cris Burnham, owner of Coeur d’Alene’s Substance Skis, grew up racing on 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 says.

So he started building his own beefy, hard-driving skis for serious skiers.

“They’re for people that really demand a lot and expect a lot from a ski,” he says.

David Ingemie, president of SnowSports Industry America, says the ski makers’ passion impresses him.

“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,” he says.

The small manufacturers make up only about 5 percent of the industry, but they’re known for their tendency to pioneer trends.

“... Their influence is felt throughout the industry as they’re willing to innovate and customize their products based on customer feedback,” says Kelly Davis, research director for SnowSports Industry America.

Like craft beers, some of the 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 producers in the Inland Northwest, Sneva MFG in Spokane is the biggest player. The others 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,” says 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 crafters will put the customer’s own graphics on them, 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 says.

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 has multiple uses.

“I don’t press a lot of stock,” Marx says. “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,” says Neuman, 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 333 Skis of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., before launching his own venture four years ago. Lately he has been training his own apprentice, who plans to start crafting skis in Vermont.

“I think people that are doing this are really passionate,” Neuman says. “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.”

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betsyr@spokesman.com, 336-2854

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