• Weird science: custom powder boards

  • By Mike Horn | March 19, 2012 5:21:46 PM PDT

They say that you can ride a wooden door in powder and it would still be fun. But why would you want to do that when there are so many snowboards out there specially designed to make riding powder extra fun?

As the first and second generation of snowboarders is starting to move on in years, they are also moving out of resorts and into the backcountry (where things are softer, and the pace is a little slower). Recently a new breed of powder-board connoisseurs who are looking for craft over mass production, custom shapes, styles, board materials and the option to support rider-owned and operated manufacturers has started to crop up. And with it a new movement in board design is rapidly evolving into something that could be called a viable boutique industry.

Hand-crafted powder board shapes range from ultra artistic boards such as Corey Smith's Spring Break line, featuring alien-like swallowtails for maximum float, to eco-savvy wood decks such as Jesse Loomis Powder Jets, to surf-skate inspired snow-surf decks from Utah, Colorado, Washington and beyond. More often than not they are built in garages and basements that have been converted into shop space. Even in the larger scale factories, mass production isn't part of the lexicon.

Smith started Spring Break Snowboards to blend art and design into what he calls, "handmade abstract wooden boards. My snowboards are an extension of my artwork," says Smith. "I even showed them in a gallery this past summer along with a show I had. They are no different than a painting or a sculpture. Each board is a unique piece of functional artwork."

But they're not built to just look pretty (or demonic). "Building your own snowboards allows you infinite freedom and possibilities," explains Smith. "Many of the boards I build are large powder floaters. I've built several experimental shapes, some of which are purely conceptual like my spider web swallowtail board called 'Witch Hat.' All of my boards are designed for riding deep powder on mellow terrain."

Loomis builds his wooden Powder Jets in Vermont, and he believes creating and riding handcrafted boards is about seeing snowboarding in a new light. "I'm 38 and have been riding for nearly 30 years," says Loomis. "There are a lot of riders my age, and we all grew up within the snowboard culture. Companies are still focused on young riders in their early 20s -- which is fine because they probably buy a lot of product. The vast majority of older riders, though, might be past our tabletop jump days, but we still want to continue to find new ways to shred. It's so in our blood, so much so that we're able to see that all the crazy technology and hectic graphics may not be what makes a board fun to ride."

Nobody thinks these unique shapes are going to overtake the mainstream snowboard market. Sure it's a trend that's on the upswing, but that's not the point. As perhaps the most famous bindingless pow surfer and custom boardmaker Wolle Nyvelt said in a previous ESPN interview: "I don't care about the future really. Riding snow is a great thing, like riding waves. We have all the freedom, so ride whatever board."

"Rediscovering" powder is another driver in these boutique board developments. According to Grassroots Powdersurfing's founder Jeremy Jensen, whose bindingless boards have a hybrid skate/surf design, "the reason for the surge in handcrafted snowboards and unique shapes is due to snowboarders realizing and accepting the fact that riding powder is what it's all about. This is where the soul of snowboarding lies -- this is where it all started."

Venture Snowboards' Euphoria pow surfer created in conjunction with Johan Olofsson is part of a new program dedicated to outside-the-box board shapes. "The concept is called the Shape Shack," Venture co-owner Klem Branner explains. "It is an experimental division of the company that has the sole purpose of imagining, building and testing unique and innovative board shapes. This small batch approach is ideal -- it allows us to get our customers involved, do market research, and create new shapes all at once."

Lib Tech's surf-shaped Chewgash isn't available to the public but might be in the future. Mervin co-founder Pete Saari explains the design concept: "It has tip-to-tail rocker for float, surf-inspired shape for maximum 'I surf the snow' style, a narrow tail to sink and provide pow control, a wide nose to enhance float and slash ability. People are digging the funky shapes because they have a unique feel and riding personality."

All in all, these boutique boards are largely built for powder -- the deeper the better -- so don't give up your resort board just yet.

"I still think it's a pretty niche thing in snowboarding and probably will remain that way," says Smith. "People doing it will continue to do it regardless of any rise or fall in popularity. It's a complete different outlook than the macho extreme sports mentality. It's about deconstructing snowboarding into its most primitive form, which is making beautiful powder turns and that's it. No hype, no competition, no attitudes -- just a piece of wood and deep powder."

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