February 12, 2012

Josh Christie: Entrepreneur discovers his niche, building skis in Maine

Walking into the Volition Ski workshop in Bangor, I was struck by how much it felt like the ski tuning room we used in college. Loud music was blasting, skis were everywhere, and Chris Bagley and his fiancee were hunched over a pair of skis, hard at work.

But Bagley isn't tuning skis -- he's building them by hand, and from scratch.

Volition Ski Company, conceived by Bagley in 2009 as the capstone project for his new media degree, has grown into a full business. At only 23, the young entrepreneur is part of a movement to bring the buy local ethos to the ski business.

"You go to a ski shop and there's no local option," said Bagley. "And as far as I know, there's no other Maine-based ski company. I wanted to answer that calling."

Though Bagley hadn't built skis before starting his senior project, he grew up working with his hands and loving to build things. He researched how to build skis in high school and college, and knew the basics when he started. He built a wooden ski press by hand and ran the first 20 or so pairs through it.

Making these first pairs wasn't easy. Bagley endured making skis in a barn with a kerosene heater, which he estimates warmed the room to about 40 degrees in the winter. It took days to build each pair, then six or more hours in the ski press for things to cure and harden, always hoping the resin wouldn't freeze.

It became apparent that to build at the speed and consistency he wanted for Volition, he needed a bigger press. With the help of a small business grant, Volition got a snazzy brand new ski press -- the centerpiece of the workshop in Bangor.

It used to take about 16 hours for each pair, but the new space and press -- and plenty of practice -- cut it to a quarter of that. With more practice, Bagley should get the time down to about two hours per pair.

Which isn't to say he has loads of free time. Bagley works a 9-to-5 job, so Volition eats up nights and weekends. As his fiancee put it, they "work, get food, come (to the shop), study and work, go home, sleep and do it all over again."

Volition is committed to not only serving a Maine market, but locally sourcing as many of the skis' components as possible. Most everything in Volition skis comes from the United States, if not New England.

The core of a pair of Bagley's skis is bamboo, one of the strongest and fastest-growing woods on the market. The resin used in the skis, which binds the top, bottom and that bamboo core together, is a mix that's somewhere between 60 and 70 percent pine sap. That makes it more environmentally friendly than the mix of chemicals that hold together a commercially built pair of skis, and it's "a lot less volatile" Bagley said.

In the last year, Volition has gone through what the ski-maker is characterizing as a "soft" release. Most of the initial sales have been to friends, family, and a cadre of skiers from the Sunday River message board. It has allowed for focused feedback, and the small nature of the company means that skis can be tinkered with from pair to pair.

Volition has two models on the market -- the powder-hungry Drift Wood measuring 150mm-120mm-150mm tip to tail, and the Knotty Wood (120-91-120), which Bagley characterizes as a ski geared to East Coast conditions. Though the Knotty has a turned-up tail, the twin-tip isn't meant to be only a park ski. With a torsional toughness that helps it hold an edge and a light, poppy build for bumps and trees, it's built for the whole mountain.

Of course, the skis needed some vigorous quality testing. The first few trials were billed by Bagley as a lot of trail and error. "If you go skiing and they come apart, well, it's 'I need to fix this' and back to the drawing board."

Volition Skis will be making a hard push to market next season, which includes getting the skis into shops around Maine. They may be headed to shops in the midcoast, and I can't think of a better testing ground for a edge-holding, crud-busting ski than the Camden Snow Bowl.

This season the skis are available through Volition's web site, volitionskico.com. The company is also hoping to set up demo days around the state this winter and spring, so skiers can test the handmade local skis for themselves.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

joshua.j.christie@gmail.com

 

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