A bustling workshop in Placerville, Colorado, is handcrafting custom sets of high-performance skis based on complex algorithms and traditional design. Kate Siber takes a tour
From the outside, the Wagner Custom Skis shop doesn’t look like much. A renovated gas station in sleepy Placerville, Colorado, 16 miles down-valley from Telluride, it’s just a squat adobe box with peeling paint, blue trim and a solar array guarded by a pickup.
On a Wednesday afternoon, I open the creaky front door and find owner Pete Wagner himself, a wiry awkward-genius type with blue eyes and a five o’clock shadow, sitting at a small desk, surrounded by dozens of pairs of skis. In the back room, a saw buzzes, a ski press hisses and young men in aprons spread resin on snowboard materials. Armed with a set of custom-designed algorithms Wagner wrote himself, they are making one-of-a-kind skis and snowboards for the sports’ most devoted aficionados. In other words, it’s a ski bum’s dream.
Like many ski-town residents, Wagner moved to Telluride planning to stay only a winter. With a mechanical engineering degree and a background in computer science, he was writing software code for a San Diego-based golf company that analyzed swings and translated the data into custom club designs for golf pros. While struggling for a couple of months with a pair of skis he didn’t like on the steep slopes of Telluride, it occurred to him: Why not develop the same kind of software for custom skis?
After getting his MBA at the University of Colorado Boulder, Wagner moved back to Telluride and launched Wagner Custom Skis in 2006, offering money-back (or free-rebuild) guarantees on every kit. Over nine years, the company grew from churning out 40 sets per year to 1,400 — and last year, only four pairs were sent back.
“We’re basically the biggest nerds in the ski industry,” says Wagner, guiding me to the back of the room to show me the Tensile Testing Machine. He offers tours by appointment and, starting this winter, every week. “What we do in the fall is we borrow skis from the local shops — there’s something like 18 in Telluride, so pretty much every brand is represented,” he says. “Not to be too much of an engineering dork here, but we’ll actually measure the stiffness and flex pattern of skis using this machine.” All of the specs go into a massive database, so he can understand the exact properties of past skis that customers have liked or not liked — and improve upon them.
Customers fill out a questionnaire about themselves and their ski habits — height, gender, age and the terrain and conditions they like to ski — and chat with a designer, who helps imagine the perfect ski by improving upon their past models. The details are plugged into a set of algorithms that spit out a recipe for the skis, which take about three weeks to build.
For example, a powder-lover from Utah might get a ski with a wide tip, a lightweight aspen core and a carbon fiber torsion box, which would float and plow through deep snow but remain light enough for quick turns in trees and steeps. An all-mountain skier from Vermont would get a narrower ski with traditional camber, a harder sugar maple-white ash core, and Titanal structural layers for a smooth, responsive ride with stable edges.
Wagner ushers me into a hallway, past stacks of boards that will become the skis’ wood cores. On the main factory floor sit huge rolls of base materials, containers of metal edges, and stashes of fiberglass, carbon fiber and aluminum alloy. Chris Robison, a ponytailed mechanical engineer and former ski tuner with a backwards baseball cap, spreads resin on a snowboard in front of a ski press machine. In another room, a computer-guided saw whirrs away. Wagner, who has the air of a laid-back mad scientist, walks me through a process that seems like hundreds of steps, from cutting and pressing the materials to sanding metal edges and stone-grinding bases.
Who buys a $1,750 (or more, depending on the materials) pair of handcrafted skis? “A lot of them are the best skiers, they have their dream ski in mind, and we’re the people who can execute it,” says Wagner, leading past carbon-fiber ribbons and sheets of Kevlar. “Another example is a person who goes on two ski vacations a year and they don’t want to spend their precious time in the mountains trying to figure out their equipment.” The ultimate goal? Maximize fun, of course.
At the back of the shop, Wagner leads me up a narrow staircase to an airy room where Heather Baltzley, the company’s graphic designer, huddles over her computer, creating the skis’ piece de resistance: custom graphics. Nearby, a set of skis with a paisley motif sits on top of a pile. Another set with a personalized logo leans against the wall. Baltzley has fashioned skis adorned with Basquiats and Andy Warhols from private art collections, personalized photos, the blueprint for a knee surgery, and even a leopard and gemstones.
“That lady absolutely loved them,” says Baltzley, her face lighting up. “I like when people have a clear idea of a statement for their skis. The graphics may not sing to everyone, but it’s their gig. And that’s what it all comes down to: We want them to be incredibly stoked.”