Duo manufacturing wooden skis
When Ian Seward picked up a hitchhiker on Mud Bay Road more than a year ago, the conversation drifted toward skiing.
Graham Kraft, who was bumming a ride into town from a piece of property he had purchased out Mud Bay, had been skiing all his life. Kraft had also fashioned his own makeshift ski press while attending school in Anchorage.
Seward, also an avid backcountry skier, had an 1,080-square-foot woodworking shop.
By the time the short ride to town was over, the two had planted the seed for what has become Fairweather Ski Works, a business producing one-of-a-kind, handcrafted wooden downhill skis and snowboards made with locally-sourced materials.
“It was like, ‘You wanna make skis? I know how to make skis. You got a shop?’ It just kind of worked out,” Kraft said.
Now, with Seward’s woodworking knowledge and Kraft’s ski-building experience, the two have made and sold about 35 pairs of custom skis to individuals and businesses across Alaska and the Lower 48.
Fairweather Ski Works started to take shape in the fall when Kraft and Seward built a wooden ski press in Seward’s shop and started holding ski-building workshops with friends and neighbors.
The device – made with a few parts salvaged from Kraft’s old metal press – compresses the five-layer skis with 60,000 pounds of pressure.
Most wooden ski presses tend to break or deform, which is why they’re usually made of steel, Seward said. Kraft and Seward’s design, though, is defying that trend.
“This might be the only wooden ski press out there that is successful... You won’t see a press like this anywhere else,” Seward said.
The skis start with a plastic base followed by a layer of heavy fiberglass. Next comes the core of the ski, which is made with spruce and birch harvested around Haines. The sidewall is made from purpleheart, a dense and water-resistant wood native to regions of Central and South America.
“I think (our skis) are pretty competitive with any ski out there, really,” Kraft said. “The wood is really better quality than what other companies are using, because not everybody has access to really awesome birch and spruce in their backyard.”
After the wooden core comes another layer of fiberglass or carbon fiber, depending on how light a ski a customer needs. The fifth and final layer is a paper-thin wooden veneer, which can be overlaid with customized designs drawn on rice paper and transferred to the skis before they’re sealed with polyurethane.
Designs so far have ranged from mountain peaks to a Kraken devouring a tall ship, and the business is working to recruit local artists to give some skis even more unique Haines flair.
The veneer, which has no structural value and is purely aesthetic, is primarily made from local spalted birch, though Kraft and Seward also use red and yellow cedar and tropical hardwoods like Australian walnut.
“We’re just making these things one of a kind. We’re doing what we want every day. They’re all individuals,” Seward said of their creations.
Local business owners are taking note of Kraft and Seward’s burgeoning business, including Dan Egolf of Alaska Backcountry Outfitter. Egolf will be selling Fairweather skis in his sporting goods shop and also has two demo pairs for rent that prospective customers can try out before making a purchase.
“We’re jazzed that there is a boutique ski industry in Haines,” Egolf said.
Kraft’s connections forged through years of skiing around the world have also given the business a toe-hold in the Lower 48. Dave McCoy, who owns a hostel and ski shop at the base of Mount Whitney in Lone Pine, Calif., recently traveled to Haines and made four pairs of skis in Seward’s shop. He also ordered another 10 pairs for his store.
McCoy and Kraft met three years ago while skiing the Andes in Argentina. The two hit it off and kept in touch through Facebook, which is how McCoy found out Kraft and Seward were starting to take their ski-building business seriously.
“The whole thing just kind of evolved into this circle of people coming together that have this mutual love for the mountains and love for building skis,” McCoy said.
McCoy called Fairweather skis “solid” and “absolutely beautiful,” reporting they handle particularly well on hard snow. “The wood core and the way it is built allows an even flex all the way through,” he said.
The market for handcrafted, one-of-a-kind skis is growing due to disillusionment with mass-produced merchandise, McCoy said. And though Seward and Kraft maintain their skis are more geared toward backcountry users, McCoy is confident Fairweather skis will appeal just as much to wealthy suburbanites at high-end resorts as to ski junkies living out of the back of their cars.
Aside from the “wonderful testimonials” Seward and Kraft have received from customers so far, Kraft has extensively tested the skis himself, including on Mount Logan and Mount Fairweather.
“He’s really put them to the test all over Alaska,” Seward said.
Though the business is still in its infancy, Seward and Kraft are looking toward how it might evolve and grow. They’ve applied for Made in Alaska status, and plan to start making cross-country skis this year. (Waxless cross-country skis will come next year, Seward said).
“So far, so good. Everything is looking very promising,” Seward said. “We have as many orders as we can keep up with right now. At least seasonally, this is going to be a full-time thing for us. We’ll just see how successful it gets.”
Fairweather skis start at around $600. They can also make splitboards, which are skis that can be connected and used as a snowboard.
Contact Fairweather Ski Works at 766-3540.