There are times when modern ski culture and the multi-billion dollar ski industry can feel like an uptight bourgeois country club run by blue-haired corporate goons. There are, however, pockets of resistance— strongholds of mountain culture and people who haven’t forgotten that Smith goggles were once handmade by a Sun Valley dentist named Bob, or that Powder Magazine was started by a couple of brothers in the same town. That the entire ski industry—resorts, skis, boots, poles, goggles, outerwear—is built on the shoulders of pioneering ski bums who weren’t satisfied with what was available and decided to do it differently—to do it their way and do it better.
This inspiring, do-it-yourself Sun Valley history was running through my mind on a crisp and clear July morning last summer as I pulled into a back alley of Ketchum’s industrial area to meet Caleb Baukol, founder of the custom ski company, Big Wood Ski, to try my hand at designing, shaping, and building my very own pair of skis.
Walking through Big Wood Ski’s front door is like entering the pearly gates of ski bum Shangri La. Equal parts ski history museum, workshop, design studio, tuning workspace, party pad, and clubhouse, Baukol’s Big Wood Ski and his adjoining tuning club, 5B Garage, are meticulously crafted testaments to his passion and dedication to the beauty, art, and free-spirited culture of the ski.
In the front room of the 5B Garage part of the pad, a foosball table and kegerator stand next to multiple tuning benches. A coffee table covered in ski magazines sits next to a comfortable, if slightly well-worn, couch that looks perfect for sleeping on. The cement floor is dotted with hardened wax droplets and autographed ski posters from the last four decades cover the walls. In the back, skis and boots are stacked neatly in racks, mountain bikes hang from the walls, and there are a few lockers along with a couple of random hockey sticks and skates.
Connected and right next door to the 5B Garage, the White Room of Big Wood Ski holds a professional grade vacuum bag spread on top of a large white table. Wooden custom ski-presses line the walls along with shelves holding jugs of plant-based resin and rolls of fiberglass cloth. The loft has a large humidor where the bamboo cores and veneers of beautiful local and exotic hardwoods like maple, cherry, African bubinga, and zebrawood are stored. A small office displays some of the finished skis and a few hats and t-shirts with the Big Wood Ski sheriff star logo. On Caleb’s desk, the famous woodworker’s book Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima is displayed prominently.
Two large garage doors at the rear of the building join a high-ceilinged workspace with an outdoor patio area, where a broken-down pink limo is parked next to a big bar-b-q next to wood pallets that serve as a fence. The large open workspace has a wood-burning stove in one corner, more ski posters and a few vintage skis on the walls. An early 2000s-era large-screen TV is constantly playing ski movies and a Ping-Pong table that doubles as a display table is next to an ultra-high-grade automated tuning machine. Reggae is playing through speakers rigged throughout the space.
I find Caleb, dressed in a grey mechanic’s jumpsuit with an embroidered name patch that says “Ski Shaper,” hunched over a 2×4 outline that vaguely resembles a ski, applying strips of weatherproofing tape to the top of it. He looks up and smiles at me. “This where it all begins,” he says. Then he hands me the tape.
Caleb, a youthful looking 45-year-old with a full head of brown hair, bright eyes, and a prominent nose wearing wire-rim glasses, started skiing when he was three years old at Red Lodge, Montana. His first job was at the Ski Hut, a highend, full-service ski shop in his hometown of Great Falls, Montana, owned by a local ski legend named Jim Hasterlik. It’s been all about skiing ever since. A professional Gelande ski jumper for four years in the early ‘90s, Caleb would jump off traditional Nordic ski jumps on his alpine gear, using 225cm downhill race skis to fly 275 feet in the air at 65mph. He moved to Sun Valley permanently in 1998 and started building skis shortly after at the fledgling 5B Ski Factory, started by Brandon Doan—who worked for 10 years with Sun Valley ski legend Bobbie Burns at The Ski, Bobbie’s custom ski factory. Wanting to continue the tradition of building custom skis in Sun Valley but forgo the toxic chemicals, costly molds, and plastic-based materials, Caleb began experimenting with wooden skis and Big Wood Ski was born.
Like all creative types, Caleb studies the art of others, and he took his inspiration from the tools and techniques of a large variety of craftsmen—from cabinet makers and furniture builders to surfboard shapers, boat builders, and guitar makers. His workshop and building process is an amalgamation of them all. He uses a contraption that includes a hanging fish scale along with a wax scraper, a straightedge ruler, and a vice grip to test, measure, and regulate a ski’s flexion stiffness. The fiberglassing process echoes what surfboard shapers and boat builders do, and his perfectly tapered bamboo cores rely heavily on skilled woodworking. The veneers incorporate techniques that guitar builders have taught him. The sum total of all this is a unique process that he has developed over time and perfected through trial and error. There is no prepackaged “wood ski-building” equipment that you can buy. It’s a labor that Caleb has developed over time, with wide-ranging influences, and the experience is a little like learning to speak Cajun. It’s an artful patois.
After I finish putting the weather tape around the outline and a few strips down the center of the 2×4 ski template, Caleb grabs a power drill and screws the template into the table to secure it. Then he bores a couple of 1-inch diameter holes up through the table and ski template and sticks vacuum tubes into the holes. We place a rectangular piece of black carbon base material over the template and turn on the vacuums, which suck the base material tightly to the template. This free-form improvisation using readily available tools and materials is typical of Caleb’s style and ingenuity.
With the base material suction-cupped to the template, we break out a router with a bearing bit to follow the template and begin to cut out the bases. “The base is the foundation of the ski’s final shape,” Caleb explains. “Everything from this point on will match up with the bases you’re cutting now… so no pressure.” Indeed. Screw this part up and the skis won’t match, but there’s something deeply satisfying about cutting out a perfectly matched set and the template and router make the whole process fairly idiot-proof.
Once the bases are cut and matched, it’s time to set the edges. It’s definitely a two-man job as both edges of the ski need to be set simultaneously. Caleb helps me cut the German-made steel, glue it in down and hold it in place with dozens of clamps. Then we take a break and let the adhesive do its thing. At this point, Caleb breaks out the various thin strips of hardwoods and lays them on the ping pong table for me to check out. I study them and eventually decide to go with the deep swirling grain and rich brown colors of African bubinga.
While we wait for the glue to dry, we busy ourselves cutting fiberglass sheets to the right dimensions—a little over 6 feet for my skis as their finished length will be 5’11” (approximately 180cm). Eschewing the European style of measurement with centimeters, Caleb prefers the feet and inches notation that surfboard shapers use. And just like a chef getting ready to cook, Caleb makes sure everything for the next step of “laying in” the ski is in place. We measure the resin and the catalyst—precision is key— and mix. Timing is critical at this stage of the process because there is limited time before the fiberglass and resin harden. Caleb places the pre-cut fiberglass sheets next to four smaller patches of Kevlar cloth and the veneer of bubinga wood. He puts all the items in the proper order alongside the custom wooden ski press, which will serve as the mold for the skis.
I carefully set the bases on the ski press. After I lay the first piece of fiberglass cloth on top of the bases, Caleb shows me how to saturate the cloth with resin or how to “wet out” the ski; not too much and not too little. “The trick is in spreading it evenly,” he says. The bamboo core is next, along with a little more resin and then another sheet of fiberglass and the Kevlar patches “to increase the torsional stability of the ski.” The bubinga veneer goes on last with one more oat of resin. We make some tiny adjustments, making sure everything is centered and flush, before placing the entire press inside the vacuum bag and sealing it. As the industrial vacuum pulls all the air out of the bag, the skis receive consistent and even pressure which helps bond them together. They’ll stay in the vacuum bag overnight before we take them out and cut them apart. “Think of the ski press as the bread pan,” Caleb explains. “It’s what gives the ski its shape. And the vacuum bag is the oven, where all the different ingredients come together.”
It will takeanother couple of days to cut apart the skis (they come out of the bag in a single sheet), sand and varnish the veneer top sheet, and grind out the epoxy from the bases and edges while letting the resin cure. The entire process is done by hand and slowly but surely a beautiful pair of skis emerges, filled with the magic and love that only making something from scratch can bestow.
The skis themselves are built to last. There are no graphics to go out of style, no plastic or foam that breaks down eventually and renders them disposable. They are not perfect, there’s a light spot where I sanded through the veneer top sheet and the beveled edges on top of the ski aren’t exactly symmetrical, but their imperfections are unapologetically my own and give the skis a unique character that I cherish. It is a deceivingly simple, rhythmic, and rewarding process. Down time is spent drinking beer from the kegerator and discussing the intricacies and nuances of different materials and different shapes, how they function together and what that might mean for the performance of the ski. It’s an intimate experience. One that only grows with the telling as each day spent on the snow with my skis offers new insights, frustrations, and excitement. “They are one-of-a-kind pieces of art created with minimal waste that you get to ride!” Caleb says, allowing his enthusiasm and passion to rise. “I just can’t think of anything else in the world I would rather make.”
Pulling out of that unassuming back alley looking out at views of Baldy and my new boards in the back of the truck, I feel like I was part of something undeniably special and cool. Something timeless. It was skiing of course. The same ski-stoked feeling that led Bob Smith to build ski goggles in his garage, or the Moe brothers to start a new magazine about skiing powder.
The idea of skiing’s soul being lost gets bandied about fairly often nowadays, but I challenge anyone to go and build a pair of skis from scratch at Big Wood Ski and not come away feeling like you’ve communed with a part of that old soul. Because while that old soul of skiing may be harder to find than it once was, thanks to people like Caleb Baukol and places like the 5B Garage and Big Wood Ski to celebrate the beauty, magic, art, culture, and life of the ski, it will never be lost.