Friday, November 29, 2013

Big Wood Ski builds boutique boards

For local manufacturer, hardwood skis are functional art

Express Staff Writer

Caleb Baukol fine-tunes a custom ski at his specialty shop in Ketchum.
Express photo by Roland Lane

    Boutique ski manufacturer Caleb Baukol is aiming for the top of the market in custom-built hardwood-topped skis. That means putting out a product that is in a class all of its own.
    Baukol’s Big Wood Ski company builds alpine and Nordic skis that are designed, cut and finished to individual specifications at an industrial shop in Ketchum where true skiing aficionados gather to talk shop.
    Baukol’s 5B Garage, a private ski-tuning club, is based at the same location as his ski-building shop. The club consists of about 60 dues-paying members, made up mostly of season-pass holders, ski instructors and ski patrol members. During ski season, 5B members go to the garage to get their skis and boards waxed, hang out and talk about the mountain, maybe have a beer.
    “I am making skis all the time,” Baukol said last week. He points to a fine example, the 75th Sun Valley Resort Anniversary edition ski he produced three years ago. He sold about a dozen pairs.
    “That was our first alpine racing ski,” he said.
    Today, Baukol is geared up to take the boutique ski industry by storm, producing skis with ultra-modern innards and a deck made of exotic, re-finishable hardwoods. After a good re-varnishing, they would look good hanging on the wall at a dinner party.
    At $2,500 a pop for the top-of-the-line “100 percent custom” alpine skis, you might think they are pieces of fine art—a fitting comparison, since Baukol and his partner, Bex Wilkinson, plan to reach potential customers at art gallery shows.
    “We build them one pair at a time, so there is no inventory to keep at shops,” Baukol said.
    Baukol learned to ski when he was 3 years old and began working in ski shops in Montana when he was 15, fitting customers from start to finish with boots, skis and poles, mounting bindings and tuning skis. He came to Ketchum to play hockey for the Sun Valley Suns, and to ski.

We build them one pair at a time.”
Caleb Baukol

    Many years ago he began cutting and shaping skis, studying designs and trying them out. Last March, he and Wilkinson launched Big Wood Ski with unabashed ambition.
    “We set out to make the most expensive custom ski in America,” he said.
    Beginning with an “on-slope analysis,” Baukol designs skis to specific height, weight and skier style. He also makes a production line of kids powder skis and classic cross-country skis, ranging in cost from $600 to $750.
    The custom alpine skis get an extra dose of expertise, starting with a computer-assisted design program to measure the amount of a skier’s specific needs in relation to longitudinal and torsional flex. They can also choose from four types of hardwoods, both domestic and exotic.
    A donation of 5 percent of domestic hardwood ski purchase costs goes to Camp Rainbow Gold, a nonprofit organization that helps kids with cancer. If a skier chooses African Buringa or Zebra Wood, the 5 percent will go to an orphanage in Africa.
    In keeping with his green business goals, Baukol has arranged with Idaho Power Co. to power his shop and factory with wind-power offsets, which increase the production of wind-generated electricity on the grid.
    A tour of the factory can provide a glimpse into the fabrication and design process, which utilizes plant-based resins, carbon fiber, bamboo and other “proprietary” ingredients that only a true ski geek would appreciate.
    The ski geeks that hang around 5B garage could help make Big Wood Ski a success, including Big Wood Ski-sponsored professional rider Will Burks. Baukol hopes to continue gauging the success of his designs over time, using a cadre of “R&D” skiers who frequent the 5B Garage, enlisting some of them to ride and test his skis.
    He will then debrief them as to the effectiveness of his design innovations, which most recently included an “early rise” tip and additional tapered tip and tail cuts that add two more dimensions than usually exist in a conventional ski.
    “These skiers will help me learn what is working and what is not,” he said.
Tony Evans:

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