George Gaines was a three- or four-times-a-year skier when he decided to rethink the whole recipe of ski design.
A lot of sawdust, a Kickstarter campaign and awards from the University of Montana’s Blackstone LaunchPad program later, his Chilton Bitterroot Buttersticks now await their first winter of heavy use.
“The first pair of prototypes is my personal pair,” the UM doctoral student and woodworker said. “I’ve skied that first pair 80,000 vertical feet in five mountain ranges. They don’t look that much worse for wear. I think that was a pretty good endorsement for quality durability and ski-ability.”
Gaines’ interest in wood has spread in numerous directions. He worked for a fine furniture wood shop in California before moving to guitar building. In his hometown of Chicago, he worked as a tree trimmer until the work got too arduous and dangerous. But that inspired an interest in forestry, which brought him to UM’s Franke School of Forestry and Conservation. Then he started turning out custom-made skateboard decks. That led to ski construction.
“What I saw was the vast majority of skis available were cranked out by robots in factories overseas,” Gaines said. “I felt strongly I wanted to build my own skis. But I found it was a more costly engineering challenge than skateboards were.”
Gaines designed the Bitterroot Butterstick as a “one-ski quiver” — a single ski that could perform in backcountry powder and hardpacked groomed slopes equally well. Its core binds several slats of black poplar wood that get planed into a curved wave shape 2 mm thick at the tips and 12 mm thick in the center. That gets sandwiched between layers of fiberglass and carbon fiber, in turn covered by a base and a top sheet of shaved lodgepole pine silk-screened with the Chilton logo and protected by a transparent plastic film.
As noted in outdoorgearlab.com, wood-core skis store energy and dampen vibration as they flex around bumps and turns. While they tend to be heavier than less-expensive foam cores, they also retain their performance qualities longer.
The Chilton skis get their wood from Missoula-grown poplar trees and lodgepole from local timber projects. Gaines also has toyed with the possibility of using black cottonwood and Siberian elm wood for cores, if the project gets far enough along.
At the moment, each layer requires hand placing, and the whole thing must be ringed with a strip of steel edging that originally had to be crimped into shape with special pliers. Finding ways to speed up those steps without losing the human touch has been the chief challenge to production.
“It’s easier and cheaper if you can have a robot inject skis with foam,” Gaines said. “But we’re not doing things the cost-effective way. Our skis are to the rest of the industry as fine, handcrafted studio furniture is to Crate and Barrel. We’re banking on the idea that preferences for outdoor recreation equipment is trending toward companies with a demonstrated commitment to environmental sustainability.”
At this beginning stage, Gaines expects to have 25 pairs of his handmade skis available for sale this season. Assuming they perform as expected, he plans to be producing 200 pairs a year starting in 2018.
Gaines plans to price his Chilton Bitterroot Buttersticks at $1,100. That’s well above the all-terrain models at REI that cost around $600, but below the Wagner Custom Skis that promise hand-crafting from an algorithm incorporating the buyer’s height, weight and terrain choice for $1,750 a pair.
“There’s a lot of companies that started like that,” said Dave Stergar, an occasional member of Powder Magazine’s “Powder Union” of ski equipment reviewers. “They started small, but get a following of people who buy their skis. You want something like a core group that are skiing Snowbowl with your skis. It’s a niche market.”
Stergar, who teaches middle school in Helena between skiing adventures, said newcomers face heavy competition from big ski manufacturers with research-and-development labs and powerful marketing departments. But he added that those companies often put out mass-produced skis at the same price point that Gaines can hit with his handcrafted models.
The “Chilton” business name refers to Gaines’ own middle name.
“I think it sounds stately, like it might appear above some ornate family crest,” Gaines said. “But it would also look really rad in sea-foam green as some girl was hucking a backflip off a cliff on a pair of my skis.”