Why Custom Skis are Right for You
Walk into any coffee shop or bar in Telluride, Colo., or in any of the towns that neighbor it for that matter, and you’ll see half the folks wearing baseball caps that say Wagner Custom Skis.
Out on the hill, you see the skis themselves everywhere, which makes sense considering this is the brand’s hometown. But venture to resorts like Aspen, A-Basin, Jackson Hole, and even Whistler—not to mention backcountry lodges all over the world—and you’ll find the trend continues, especially among serious skiers. How did this brand, started by a guy named Pete Wagner in 2006, grow to have such cachet?
For starters, it’s one of the only brands making truly custom skis in the United States. Other brands may customize the topsheet or materials, but Wagner customizes everything—sidecut, profile, mounting point, etc. And, evidenced by Wagner’s followers and their results in every ski test they’ve ever participated in, the strategy of building skis perfect for their skier works, well, perfectly.
Pete Wagner poses with a pair of wood veneer skis.
Pete, on first glance, is the opposite of what you’d expect for a guy who started a ski company in his garage. He’s more mechanical engineer and computer scientist than he is ski bum, and while he’s certainly not short on passion for the sport, he’s just refreshingly devoid of the typical bro-ego. But then, once you understand how he actually makes the skis, it all makes sense.
When Pete moved to Telluride, he was working remotely writing software for enhanced-performance golf clubs, using a swing monitor to collect information about how players were hitting the ball to design the perfect custom equipment for them. Meanwhile, the skis he bought for himself when he arrived turned out to be absolutely wrong for him, which he realized after a few days on the hill.
“I was creating all this tech about how to fit people with their perfect golf clubs, and I didn’t see anyone doing that in the ski industry,” he said. “I noticed the golf world seemed to be operating on a much higher level than the ski world.”
So, instead of just buying a different pair of skis, Pete did what a mechanical engineer and computer scientist would do: he wrote an algorithm and software for designing custom skis. Because he didn’t have the capability to measure someone’s turns like he did a golf swing, he created a questionnaire and used predictive engineering to determine stiffness based on weight, terrain preference, and ability level. He also catalogued the materials, flex index, shape, and other characteristics of the mainstream skis so that he could incorporate similar characteristics to skis customers have liked in the past.
“With that info, we can figure out how stiff, what kind of materials, and what the flex pattern and shape should be,” he said. Then, he tried to sell his idea to big manufacturers who wanted to improve their process, “but no one even wanted to talk to me about it,” he said.
Dave Chew finishes a pair of skis on the CNC floor at the factory.
So he decided to make them himself, and got to work programming milling machines that cut cores to the specifications of his algorithms. He then built customizable ski presses, built supply lines for more than 200 top-shelf materials, and decided to launch his own business. He made every part of the process customized—right down to the vacuum in the shop that sucks up the sawdust. “There wasn’t really anybody else doing what we were doing,” Pete said.
A lot of his success is due to that algorithm and the superior materials he uses (the cheap foam that comprises the cores of the meat-of-the-market skis is not even an option with Wagner Skis). But there’s something else, too. “Mainstream brands build maybe six to 10 prototypes a year,” Pete said. “We do that on a Tuesday.”
Trial and error has been an interesting process for Wagner, Pete said. They fully guarantee every ski they make, so if a customer isn’t happy, they’ll go back to the drawing board and make it right. The first year they were in business, Pete thought he would have to re-build 20% of their skis. In actuality, that number was only 7%. “It was proof that the algorithm was working really well,” he said. And every year since, that number has gone down. Now, the number of skis that aren’t perfect from the get-go are only a fraction of a percent. “We’re not afraid to make a unique ski for everybody. Because we’re really good at this. It works, and people love it.”
Pete Wagner and Graphics Guru Heather Baltzley work out some designs in the factory.
It shouldn’t take an engineering and computer science degree to understand that manufacturers who mass-produce skis in China and Eastern Europe are not listening to your specific needs. “Who doesn’t want skiing to be easier and more fun?” Pete asks. “If you can buy a pair of skis from us, a team of people who are dedicated to making sure you’re going to be on something you love, why wouldn’t you want that?”
That, we think, makes perfect sense.
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Steamboat, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.