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Not so easy-bake

Running a ski factory in your garage rates double black



Atop a welded steel ski press in a northeast Bozeman garage sits an Easy-Bake Oven. The classic toy stove lightly browns cakes with an extra-hot lightbulb. The ski press, meanwhile, is capable of delivering 85,000 pounds of pressure and 180 degrees—hot enough to bond wood, carbon fiber, fiberglass, steel, and the same plastic used to make kitchen cutting boards. That’s how you cook a ski.

This is NorthSide Customs, a small ski manufacturer that’s pressed about 60 pairs in the last 18 months. The Easy-Bake Oven is a kind of mechanical mascot. Rob Morgan and Matthew L. Sebren launched the company in Morgan’s basement. They are now aboveground at Sebren’s place, in a garage lined on the inside with skis from the 1980s and ’90s.

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  • Northside Skis

Those straight, skinny dinosaur bones look nothing like the modern custom skis emerging from NorthSide’s press. And the company takes pride in never producing the same pair of skis twice. They even try to ski with every client—just to make sure the selected materials match up with the customer’s style and ability.

“There’s an infinite amount of variables. You can try new things,” says Morgan, a 33-year-old who works at a local manufacturing plant and doesn’t think NorthSide will ever mirror the large-scale production of his day job.

“We’re not trying to do that,” he says. “We’re doing a personal custom product that’s not going to be reproduced in some giant factory in China.”

China comes up a lot in conversations among DIY ski builders. They conjure images of robots injecting hot foam into mass-produced, brand-name skis. Such facilities, and others in Slovenia and Tunisia, offer manufacturers low labor and material costs.

Of course, not all mass-produced boards use foam cores. Wood, which maintains its spring and strength longer than foam, is found inside all kinds of skis.

“There’s a little bit of wood renaissance going on,” says Sebren, 36, a woodworker and cabinetmaker. Sorting through his inventory, Sebren ticks off his favorite ingredients: “beech, poplar, ash, soft maple, hard maple; we considered ipe (a dense Brazilian wood) for a while, but it was too hard for sidewalls.”

Sebren and Morgan experiment with different compositions of wood cores, then lay up each ski for pressing. That’s when “Old Yeller” goes to work. The section of fiberglass-reinforced fire hose inflates with air and generates just the right amount of pressure to sandwich the materials, while heat blankets the top and bottom to bake it all together.

Asked how he got started, Morgan sighs and says, “It wasn’t easy.” But with the help of a growing online community, NorthSide is able to troubleshoot technical problems and acquire materials that were once difficult to find.

Some of those materials go into what Sebren calls “fake skis,” which are destined for a life of abuse.

“This is a fake ski,” says Sebren, pulling a long skinny sample from a line of prototypes. “We make these, and then we beat it down with a two-pound sledge for a while to see how it holds up structurally. No, really—a full-on, two-pound sledgehammer.”

Morgan explains: “You have a 250-pound guy dropping off a 20-foot cliff and he hits a rock. You don’t want that ski to explode.”

So far, no combination of materials has failed the sledge test. But NorthSide still faces an uphill climb in convincing customers of their product’s durability, at least at first.

Sebren recalls a backcountry trip where his ski buddies worried about him riding on unproven equipment. “I said, ‘I made these skis for this trip,’” he says.

They worked great, but if a company presses fewer than 100 pairs a year, how can it build a name for itself?

Sebren offers one plan, and it involves stalking a ski legend with Montana roots: The godfather of “extreme,” Scot Schmidt.

“Scot Schmidt will get a pair of skis at his door because I know where it is,” Sebren insists. “I’m literally going to deliver a pair of skis to his door. How else am I going to get Scot to ride a pair?”

So it goes for bootstrapping ski builders. Asked if making turns is the only easy thing about producing custom skis, Morgan laughs and says, “Yeah, that’s it. I mean, the materials that go into making skis do not want to come together naturally. So it’s all about getting the layers of the cake to bond.”

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