Made to Order: Wagner Custom Skis
By Greg Fitzsimmons | March 28th, 2012
From the cold, dark, kelpy waters north of San Francisco down to the warm point breaks surrounding San Diego, salty surfboard shapers have been shaving fiberglass blanks into customized boards tailored to the local breaks and each customer’s style for decades. To have a Pearson Arrow under your arm in Santa Cruz, a Channel Islands board in Santa Barbara, a Hobie in the San Onofre lineup or to wax up a KG in the Windansea parking lot means a lot — it means your board was made specifically for your style and your local spot.
The shaping bay is a special place in the surfshops that are sprinkled along California’s coastline. Blanks are crammed into the corner waiting to be shaped into a board, fiberglass shavings cake the old posters, photos, and tattered covers of surf magazines on the wall, and the shaper is always telling stories of the old days when crowds were nonexistent and swells consistent. I missed this scene after moving to Colorado from California. The ski world felt a bit remiss without the custom shaper.
The Wagner Custom Ski shop in Placerville, Colorado, is solar powered. Photo by Brett Schreckengost.
Enter Wagner Custom, the Telluride-based company that makes skis specifically for each customer, based on their “Skier DNA.” From the second I pulled up to the trailer park in Placerville, Colorado, 10 miles outside of Telluride, and stepped into the solar-powered “factory,” the Wagner operation was reminiscent of the Santa Cruz shaping bays that I longed for.
In the front of the factory, a showroom displays gorgeous designs — powder skis with 1980s-style neon graphics, an artsy topsheet featuring a painting of Bob Dylan, wood veneer all-mountain carvers that your dad would freak about — and back in the factory, one-by-one the Wagner crew designs and presses pairs of skis with a thoughtful and meticulous approach.
Peter Wagner unpeels a new ski. Photo by William Woody.
“We’re a little different from surfboard shapers because we developed a scientific process for fitting people based on algorithms, data, analysis, and tests,” says Pete Wagner, founder of Wagner Custom Skis and Snowboards, who parlayed a previous life designing custom golf clubs in California into his current life in the San Juan Mountains. “It is a science because we collect real data and our design system is calibrated with the information we collect, just like the software I developed for swing analysis in the golf industry.”
Overseas, mega-brand ski factories produce upwards of 240,000 alpine setups annually. In Telluride, Wagner handcrafts around 900 custom ski designs a year; on a busy day, four or five skis will be completed. There’s a large discrepancy between the big guys and the small guys, but Wagner has carved a niche in the ski industry.
“It was intimidating to start a ski company in 2006. With my engineering, programming, and composites sports equipment design expertise, I saw an opportunity to create something new in the ski industry: A scientific method for determining and creating people’s perfect skis. I saw that the ‘canonized brands’ were pushing ski equipment into a commodity market. I thought that we could offer a clearly differentiated type of product and buying experience that makes a lot more sense. The ski industry is tough. The way we’ve found success is through working very hard to make every customer stoked.”
Herb Manning detonates a pillow. Photo by Brett Schreckengost.
Unlike most ski-buying experiences that originate with a ski wall, the custom design process begins by answering a series of questions geared toward establishing the customer’s “Skier DNA.” Likes, dislikes, preferences, style, and terrain all factor into a person’s on-snow double helix. From concept to completion, the custom ski process takes about 3 weeks.
One of my biggest questions (or worries) boiled down to warranty. Can a small, boutique operation that crafts a ski on-demand have the backing that the big ski brands offer?
“Our official warranty states two years on materials and manufacturing,” answered Wagner. “We’ll re-design your skis or give you your money back if customers are unhappy, because we guarantee you’ll love your custom setup.”
Everything about Wagner’s business is personal and hands-on. Every time a pair of skis literally comes hot off the press, Wagner sends an email with a photo of the recently finished sticks to the customer that says, “Your skis were born today.” And, Pete Wagner carries the office phone in his jeans pocket throughout the day, answering calls himself, chatting with customers on a first-name basis, and receiving snow reports from people in Utah, California, and Vermont that are shredding on Wagners.
“Our stuff isn’t cheap, mainly because it can’t be with of all of the people that personally touch each pair of skis we make and the materials that we use.” says Wagner. “Sometimes I worry that some of the people on our skis are living off of Ramen, but there’s value in getting a dialed-in product that is a perfect fit and lasts.”
The pricepoint for a pair of personal skis is fairly expensive, but you get what you pay for. Just ask the recently crowned Champion of the Snowbird stop on the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour, Silas Chickering-Ayers, who has earned a Sickbird belt buckle and place atop the podium on Wagners.
Silas Chickering-Ayers with a pair of Wagner Custom Skis.
For more, check out Wagner Custom Skis Website.
Location: Colorado Telluride CO Keywords: Featured Ski Feature Stories Company News