The ancient trees that used to cover the Pacific Northwest barely exist outside protected wilderness areas. The tight-grained lumber the behemoths produced, however, still stands on old buildings throughout the region.
When a job as a carpenter and construction worker in Squamish, B.C., gave Alex Turner a chance to harvest old-growth timber from renovation projects, he found a way to give the ancient wood new life.
In his one-car garage surrounded by the Coast Mountains, Turner and a friend crafted skis from planks of fir and spruce reclaimed from canneries, homes, barns and gym floors.
The skis turned out well. After a year and a half of experimenting and building about 30 skis for friends, 25-year-old Turner started selling his skis this winter under the name Sky Pilot Custom. To start the business, Turner, a recent graduate of Quest College in Squamish, moved back to his parents house outside Bellingham and turned their garage into a ski shop.
“If I was going to try to do it and make it into a business it just made sense to do it with as low overhead as I possibly could,” Turner said.
Before moving back to Bellingham, demand was building for Sky Pilot skis in Squamish, Turner said. But his work visa was temporary, the business was outgrowing his one-car garage and industrial space in Squamish was prohibitively expensive, he said.
Each ski is custom — when someone orders a pair of Sky Pilot skis, they choose the shape and size. Turner even makes custom snowboards.
Turner may not be the only person building custom skis in the Pacific Northwest, but his skis’ cores laminated from strips of reclaimed old-growth are unique.
The core, a layer of wood between the ski’s base and topsheet, gives the ski its strength and determines how it flexes. The old-growth wood Turner makes skis out of has tight grains and few knots, which makes for a strong ski, he said.
“The core is the heart and soul of the ski,” Turner said. “It’s one thing that I’m confident is some of the best that you can find.”
This year, Turner is selling his custom skis for $550. That’s Less than half the price of most custom skis on the market. At that price, he’s making money off the skis but not much more than a McDonald’s employee. They will be more expensive in the future, he said.
“Step one is to make the nicest ski I can possibly make, and I’m feeling pretty good about where the skis are at,” Turner said. “I’m at that jumping off point where this is going beyond something I’m just doing in my garage and selling to friends. I’m ready to put it out there and get more feedback on it.”
Turner’s confidence in the quality and durability of his skis is demonstrated by the way he rides them. Last fall, he took them to Patagonia, a region of glaciated mountains in Argentina and Chile, and skied tall peaks miles from remote trailheads, where a broken ski would be dangerous.
Oliver Snow, Turner’s former roommate who helped set up the first incarnation of Turner’s ski shop in their Squamish house, called the skis the best he has ridden in a lifetime of skiing.
“The skis I made and am riding right now were, I believe, the third or fourth pair we ever made, which means they were not without their flaws,” Snow said in an email. “I had previously been riding a pair of Salomon rocker 2s which had been the best skis I had ever ridden but my new homemade skis outperformed them.”
In the ski shop half of Turner’s garage, next to piles of drying maple, skis in various stages of completion, and wooden boats he helped his dad build as a kid, is a stack of wooden surfboards Turner built.
Turner is influenced by surfing’s culture of hand-shaped boards. In surfing, he said, building and shaping a board is more about artistry than engineering. That’s what Turner is going for with his custom skis. He studied film and ecology in college and has no formal engineering training.
“It’s not just some mundane household object, it’s something people are going to develop a relationship with and fall in love with,” said Keaton Brown, who is learning how to build skis from Turner.
Turner has used a variety of materials for his skis’ topsheets — the top layer in the sandwich of materials that are pressed together to make a ski. But most often, his skis get a wood veneer topsheet to match their wood cores.
The result is a simple looking ski that stands out in the ski resorts.
“It’s cool when you’re out on the hill and every chairlift ride someone is like, ‘What are those? Where did they come from? How do I get them?’” Turner said. “They kind of sell themselves.”
At first, Turner did almost every aspect of ski construction by hand. He built a pneumatic ski press, which squeezes the layers of plastic, wood, and metal together with an epoxy that he said isn’t exactly good for the environment, but “less bad” than what most of the ski industry uses. The press, like his skis, has a unique story, and includes parts of a firehose salvaged from the Squamish Fire Department.
Turner said his skis rode well from the beginning, but modifications along the way fine-tuned their performance and streamlined the manufacturing process. Building a computer numerical control machine for cutting ski material was one of the biggest time savers for the manufacturing process.
“Running the CNC(computer numerical control machine) for the first time was almost as exciting as riding the skis for the first time,” Turner said.
While building skis for Mount Baker’s deep snow and wearing a Boundary Bay Brewery sweatshirt, Turner said he’s glad to be back in Bellingham. He’s inspired by Bellingham’s locally focused culture and he plans to have local businesses mill his wood and tune finished skis.
Turner is working on finding sources for salvaged wood near Bellingham. For now, he’s making skis from a bigleaf maple he felled in his yard. Finding a source for more salvaged wood is a priority. In the meantime, he’s using as much of the tree as he can for skis, and the shavings that he doesn’t use become bedding for the chickens in his yard.
Turner isn’t making the jump to building skis full-time just yet. He plans to fish in Alaska next summer to support his skiing and ski building.
“I’d love for it to work out to where it could be a full-time job,” he said. “I’m going to make as many skis as people want me to make. If it means I have to hire another employee then I will. If eventually we need to grow out of my parents garage, so be it, but I just don’t want to jump the gun too much.”