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How to Build Your Own Skis

With Big Kam, Lil' Kam, and the Wu.
posted: 06/16/2008

It's work, but it ain't rocket science. Three industrious engineers show you how to take on a true ski-worthy project.

Imagine pulling up to the lifts on a homemade pair of boards, designed by you and custom-tweaked to your needs—and instead of "Atomic" or "Blizzard" etched across the top, there's your name in glittering script.

Possible? Absolutely. Easy? Not exactly. You'll need to fabricate specialized equipment, but luckily a team of hard-skiing engineers—Kam K. Leang (a.k.a. Big Kam), his cousin Kam S. Leang (Little Kam) and their friend Kelvin Wu—has done much of the heavy lifting for you.

"We started building our own skis just because we could, actually," Big Kam admits. "After doing some research, we figured it wasn't that difficult. Now we can build a pair in eight hours."

The group also found that they could build decent skis for a mere hundred bucks per pair. "The first pair will cost you, with the tooling and building the molds," says Big Kam, the group's unofficial spokesman. Initial setup cost the trio about $1,000. "But we've built maybe 30 or 40 pairs since then."

They've also put together skibuilders.com, an online construction guide and information clearinghouse that has become the go-to spot for alpine DIYers around the world. "I was exchanging pictures online with a guy in Europe," says Big Kam. "He had been building skis in his kitchen!"

Indeed, the setup doesn't take that much room; Little Kam builds his on one side of his two-car garage. While building your own skis is remarkably straightforward, small details, like choice of woods for the core, can make a big difference. Here, we break down the basics for all aspiring craftsmen (and -women), but head to skibuilders.com if you plan to get serious.

TOOLS

  • Router
  • Jigsaw
  • Sander
  • Blowtorch
  • Clamps 
  • Epoxy
  • Scale
  • Table saw
  • Plane
  • Air compressor
  • Superglue
  • Basic shop equipment: drill with a range of drill bits, utility knife, tape measure, screwdrivers, razor blades, etc.
  • Safety equipment: safety glasses, respirator, latex gloves

 

EQUIPMENT
Top and base molds: Made from glued- or bolted-together ribs of identically shaped 2x4s or planks of MDF (multiple density fiberboard), the molds form a ski's vertical profile—both the camber and the curvature of its tip and tail—when the raw materials are laid between them and pressed together.

Ski press: Basically, the press can be anything—clamps, bolts, ratchet tie-downs—that will evenly squeeze the raw materials between the top and baseolds until the epoxy cures. Little Kam created a pneumatic press, like the one pictured here, consisting of lengths of modified fire hose sandwiched between the molds and housed within a stiff steel frame. As the hoses are inflated with an air compressor, the molds are forced against the steel frame. "All you really need are some scavenged parts and a decent hardware store," Big Kam says.

Core profiler: The three Ks' core profiler—a set of rails designed to guide a router along a predetermined vertical profile—allows them to cut uniform profiles on multiple cores. More than anything, the vertical profile of a ski's wood core determines its flex. Typically, a thin, more flexible tip and tail (3–4 mm) should gradually slope to a thicker (15 mm) and stiffer platform under the binding area.

RAW MATERIALS
A word on where to buy materials: "You won't find many home ski-building outlets out there," says Big Kam, "but home-built snowboard kits have been around for a while." Check snowboardmaterials.com for edge, topsheet and base materials: "Build-wise, the only thing that's different between skis and boards is the dimensions."

Wood: Your first ski's core will be composed of several long strips of wood, one-quarter to one inch wide and at least an inch thick, laid side by side and bonded with epoxy. Use a mix of hardwoods like maple, birch and poplar—all good choices—available at your local lumberyard; buy boards that are about six inches longer than your ideal ski. Six-foot-long 2x6s are about right for a pair of 170-cm skis.

Composite fabrics: Fiberglass, carbon fiber or Kevlar will need to be laid above and below the core to give it extra strength; buy enough to overlap each ski by a few inches. Sheets of this stuff can be bought online or from marine supply stores.

Topsheet: The topsheet has two purposes: It protects the structure of the board and serves as a platform for graphics. Any thin, durable plastic like polyethylene or nylon that will bond well to epoxy can be used; snowboardmaterials.com will have what you need. Again, buy enough to overlap the two skis' combined width.

Base material: Two thin sheets of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, or UHMWPE; P-Tex is a familiar brand. Buy slightly larger than the dimension of your skis.

Metal edges: From snowboardmaterials.com

Graphics: Cloth, colored paper, printed photos of your dog, etc. that will be placed underneath the clear topsheet

Epoxy: The stuff that keeps it all together; 300 to 500 grams per ski. One liter of resin and one of hardener should suffice; you'll mix these in small batches using the scale.

Tip spacers (optional) and sidewall material (optional): Plastic tip spacers and sidewalls will help your boards endure abuse, but for simplicity's sake you'll want to start with wood versions.

Step 1: DESIGN
Unless you've got some highly revolutionary ideas on ski design, the best bet for a first pair is to take measurements from your favorite skis—or crib the dimensions off the manufacturer's website: camber, tip and tail curvatures, sidecut and overall ski shape. Use computer aided design (CAD) software to draw up vertical and horizontal profiles of your ski. (Many CAD applications are available free online; check download.com.)

Step 2: BASES & EDGES
To build your bases, first print out a full-size, horizontal outline of your design. (You can do this sheet by sheet, carefully taping the sheets in order.) Paste the outline onto a plank of one-quarter-inch thick wood or MDF, then cut around the shape using a jigsaw. Sand the edges. Firmly clamp this template to a sheet of base material, then carefully cut along the template's edge. Clean up the base outline with a razor blade and fine-grit sandpaper. Cut out another base for the second ski.

Using the blowtorch, heat the metal edges at the tips and tails until they're bright red. Allow them to slowly cool; the steel will then be malleable and easier to shape. Carefully bend the edges with pliers to match the bases, and attach with Superglue.

Step 3: CORE
Using the table saw, cut the boards lengthwise into uniform strips one-quarter to one inch wide. Narrower strips are torsionally stiffer, but you'll need more of them; more strips mean more epoxy, and thus more weight. "Epoxy is almost twice as dense as wood, and the increase adds more weight for the same volume," says Big Kam. You'll need enough strips to overlap the eventual ski—about an inch wider all around. (You'll trim the excess later.) Alternate strips of harder woods (like maple) with softer (poplar) to play with flex. "Harder strips can enhance stability at the edges, or increase power transfer under the binding area."

Apply a generous amount of high-quality epoxy between the strips, enough so that it seeps out at the seams. Clamp the strips together, letting the epoxy dry for at least 24 hours, to create the unfinished core "blank." After it dries, plane one side of the blank—just a few passes, enough to make that side level. Turn it over and use the router and core profiler to shave away the excess wood to make the finished core. Sand the core with rough sandpaper—too smooth a finish will resist epoxy.

Step 4: THE LAYUP
The layup process—sandwiching the materials from base to core to topsheet with layers of epoxy—is where it all comes together. That said, "with homemade skis, delamination is just part of the game," warns Big Kam. Make sure to dust off and clean all materials, especially the edges, with acetone or a similar solvent before laying up the skis. Any residue will inhibit your epoxy's strength.

Fix a large sheet of painter's plastic atop the base mold using thin, double-sided tape. This will be used as an envelope to capture the epoxy. Carefully align the base material along the mold's center and hold it in place with double-sided tape. Using the scale, measure out three approximately equal quantities of epoxy resin, then mix the first batch with an appropriate amount of hardener. (Epoxy can be a finicky goop; check the label for specific resin-to-hardener ratios.)

For each ski, place a small quantity of epoxy down the centerline of the base and spread evenly, making sure it seeps around and under the metal edges. Lay a sheet of composite fabric—carbon fiber, fiberglass or Kevlar—on top of the base, covering it with enough epoxy to make it semitransparent. Brush some epoxy onto the bottom of the core and place that on top of the fiberglass. Brush more epoxy on top of the core, place another layer of fiberglass on top and brush that with epoxy, then a layer of graphics, then the topsheet material.

Place a hard, flexible sheet of epoxy-resistant plastic on top of everything. Wrap it all up with the painter's plastic, creating an envelope. Fit the mold into the ski press and press for 8 to 14 hours. Pull the skis out of the press and trim around the edges with a jigsaw to remove any excess material, sand or bevel the sidewalls, let the skis cure for one week and voilà! Slap on some bindings, wax 'em up and hit the hills.

the template's edge. Clean up the base outline with a razor blade and fine-grit sandpaper. Cut out another base for the second ski.

Using the blowtorch, heat the metal edges at the tips and tails until they're bright red. Allow them to slowly cool; the steel will then be malleable and easier to shape. Carefully bend the edges with pliers to match the bases, and attach with Superglue.

Step 3: CORE
Using the table saw, cut the boards lengthwise into uniform strips one-quarter to one inch wide. Narrower strips are torsionally stiffer, but you'll need more of them; more strips mean more epoxy, and thus more weight. "Epoxy is almost twice as dense as wood, and the increase adds more weight for the same volume," says Big Kam. You'll need enough strips to overlap the eventual ski—about an inch wider all around. (You'll trim the excess later.) Alternate strips of harder woods (like maple) with softer (poplar) to play with flex. "Harder strips can enhance stability at the edges, or increase power transfer under the binding area."

Apply a generous amount of high-quality epoxy between the strips, enough so that it seeps out at the seams. Clamp the strips together, letting the epoxy dry for at least 24 hours, to create the unfinished core "blank." After it dries, plane one side of the blank—just a few passes, enough to make that side level. Turn it over and use the router and core profiler to shave away the excess wood to make the finished core. Sand the core with rough sandpaper—too smooth a finish will resist epoxy.

Step 4: THE LAYUP
The layup process—sandwiching the materials from base to core to topsheet with layers of epoxy—is where it all comes together. That said, "with homemade skis, delamination is just part of the game," warns Big Kam. Make sure to dust off and clean all materials, especially the edges, with acetone or a similar solvent before laying up the skis. Any residue will inhibit your epoxy's strength.

Fix a large sheet of painter's plastic atop the base mold using thin, double-sided tape. This will be used as an envelope to capture the epoxy. Carefully align the base material along the mold's center and hold it in place with double-sided tape. Using the scale, measure out three approximately equal quantities of epoxy resin, then mix the first batch with an appropriate amount of hardener. (Epoxy can be a finicky goop; check the label for specific resin-to-hardener ratios.)

For each ski, place a small quantity of epoxy down the centerline of the base and spread evenly, making sure it seeps around and under the metal edges. Lay a sheet of composite fabric—carbon fiber, fiberglass or Kevlar—on top of the base, covering it with enough epoxy to make it semitransparent. Brush some epoxy onto the bottom of the core and place that on top of the fiberglass. Brush more epoxy on top of the core, place another layer of fiberglass on top and brush that with epoxy, then a layer of graphics, then the topsheet material.

Place a hard, flexible sheet of epoxy-resistant plastic on top of everything. Wrap it all up with the painter's plastic, creating an envelope. Fit the mold into the ski press and press for 8 to 14 hours. Pull the skis out of the press and trim around the edges with a jigsaw to remove any excess material, sand or bevel the sidewalls, let the skis cure for one week and voilà! Slap on some bindings, wax 'em up and hit the hills.

(1)

cool article. Thanks for all the tips! I wish this mag had more stuff like this!

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