There are various materials that make up the composition of your skis. A good pair of skis feature a core, an assortment of structural layers, sidewalls, bases, edges and a topsheet. Here’s our complete guide to understanding ski materials, suggestions on what to look for, and the different options you might encounter when purchasing skis.
The center-most section of every ski features some sort of ski core. Typically, a core is wood, foam, or plastic (like honeycomb). The core of the ski is largely responsible for the way the ski feels under your foot. The core of the ski is usually sandwiched between other structural layers. The core, combined with the structural layers, creates the tip to tail torsional stiffness of a ski (basically its resistance to twisting). The various types of cores have different densities and stiffness properties. High density cores, like hardwoods (sugar maple) are heavy and durable which makes the ski drive better in variable conditions. Lower density cores, like poplar, foam, and plastics, have a lighter feel and allow the ski to be more nimble.
Wood cores are your best bet for longevity. Plus, they come in a variety of stiffness and weight profiles. Foam cores are lightweight but aren’t durable. Plastics cores (like honeycomb) consist of air, so they chatter skiing and have poor vibration dampening characteristics.
Above and below the core of a ski are the structural layers. Common types of structural layers include fiberglass, titanal (aluminum alloy), carbon fiber, airamid, and rubber. Skis that have heavier cores and structural layers have a more stable, smooth, and powerful feel. This is an important feature if you want your skis to ski fast on hard snow and cut through variable snow with precision. Skis that have lighter structural materials will produce a more light and nimble feeling on snow, including quicker turning in tight terrain features such as bumps, trees, and technical terrain. Ultralight structural materials like carbon fiber and foam are good for going uphill or skimo racing. These very lightweight materials are not confidence-inspiring in challenging snow conditions or at speed.
Generally, weight is not a bad thing for skis that are always pointed downhill. Having additional mass gives the skis the ability to hold an edge better and slice right through choppy snow. Medium weight skis are often popular because you can get skis that are light enough to be nimble in tight terrain, but heavy enough where they still have good performance in variable and hard snow conditions. Light skis are great for uphill performance for ski touring and skimo racing. Lightweight isn’t the best performing ski on the downhill. Lightweight skis tend to get deflected by terrain features such as bumps, hard snow, and chunder blocks.
Be sure to pick a structural material that is proper for the skiing you’ll be doing. If the ski is too light, they will bounce you around in most conditions. Be careful as lightweight gear is a trend in the ski industry right now, but it might not compliment your skiing.
The sidewall on a ski is the material that seals and protects the wood core and structural layers from the elements and moisture. A sidewall adds dampening and toughness to the skis. Some skis have a sidewall that runs from the tip to the tail, some skis have cap construction where there is no sidewall and the topsheet of the ski runs all the way down to the steel edges, and some skis have semi-sidewall construction which is a combination of the two described above.
Skis with sidewalls are known to ski with more power and better dampening (vibration absorption and lack of chatter). Skis with cap construction are known to be lighter. They also tend to have more durability in regards to the topsheet’s longevity.
Bases are the bottom layer of the ski that makes contact with the snow. Bases are typically made of P-Tex which is uhmwpe, an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene. There are various quality levels of P-Tex. Some bases are optimized to be fast and some to be durable. All black bases have a higher carbon and graphite content. This makes them easier to repair and allows them to be faster (than colored bases). While colored ski bases look cool, they don’t perform as well on the snow.
Steel edges wrap the base of the skis. Edges come in various thicknesses. Race skis are often made with thin edges to reduce drag (bases have a better glide speed than steel edges). Thicker edges will be more durable. Thick bases and edges will provide you with a tougher and more bomber ski. If you tend to just ski groomers and don’t get many scratches on your skis, thin edges will probably work fine for you. Dependent on the skier type you are and where you ski, durability might be a priority.
Ski topsheets are typically made from nylon. This is because it is scratch resistant, tough, and you can apply graphics to it. Skis can also have wood topsheets. These are real wood veneers that are finished with a clear coat material which gives the wood additional toughness and UV stability. Screen printing and dye sublimation are the typical ways graphics are applied to the nylon topsheet material. Overall, the topsheet seals in the structural layers, protects the ski core and materials from moisture and UV rays, and adds a fun aesthetic.
Ready to learn more about ski design and what to look for when purchasing skis? Take a look at these other buyer’s guide posts and related articles: