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Big vs. Small Ski Companies — Who’s Building Better Skis?

In our last Topic of the Week, there was a question about whether or not ski manufacturers stiffen up the flex or change the construction of their skis when they build longer lengths.

That prompted this question below from a Blister member:

Hi Jonathan,

“Last spring I was in a shop and I had a lengthy conversation with the owner. We talked a lot about skis, but the thing that stuck with me was his view on the use of high-tech design and manufacturing. Essentially, he was of the opinion that smaller companies just can’t compete in this regard with the big companies.

He used the Elan Amphibio (his shop carries Elan, Rossi, Armada, Salomon) as an example of a high-tech ski produced in a factory to match. On the low-tech end, he singled out J Skis, which he described as skis with nice top sheets produced in a factory that hasn’t changed in 20 years.

I can see his point, I’m guessing if you looked in the design rooms and factories of those brands, things probably would look different.

My question is, [1] How important are those resources and capabilities when it comes to actually making a really good ski? [2] Do the big brands have an edge? Is there an advantage to being the little guy? [3] Does it depend on what the end use of the ski is (for example a race ski vs a powder ski)?

Curious what some of the builders you talk to might think about this.”

These are good questions. They are also questions that tend to elicit very loud, extremely impassioned, and sometimes angry replies.

In many cases, those loud / passionate / angry answers are put forward by people who aren’t exactly objective — they either work for one of those big companies or one of those small companies, or they are (as in the case above) shop owners who carry — and are very much trying to sell you — skis from those big companies or those smaller companies.

And just as in other walks of life (e.g., every single debate in American politics), the original question or issue often quickly gets left behind, and the internet equivalent of a bar fight breaks out — it’s no longer about offering thoughtful replies, it’s about throwing haymakers and trying to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with you.

So my primary aim is to avoid that here.

But Nathan’s questions are quite valid, and he’s certainly not the first person to ask them.

And given that I suspect that our lead ski reviewers have probably spent more time on a broader range of skis than anyone else in the world (and then written more in-depth reviews of these skis than maybe anyone ever has), I think we are in a decent position to weigh in.

And so, to Nathan’s 3 questions:

[1] “How important are those resources and capabilities when it comes to actually making a really good ski?”

In terms of “high-tech” materials in particular, I would say, “Not very.”

Maybe you’ve picked up on this, but we spend a very small amount of time in our reviews talking about the fancy new tech in a given product. Those are talking points that marketing people love and that some shop owners love, but I personally could care less. Really, the only thing I care about is how — and how well — a given ski feels and performs on snow.

So you can shove all the latest, greatest materials into your ski, but if you then screw up the flex pattern or screw up the shape, then all that new tech doesn’t mean shit.

Case in point: one of my all-time favorite skis is still the 190 cm Moment Bibby / Blister Pro, a ski that has remained the same in terms of flex and shape for a long time now. Yes, Moment has made sidewall tweaks and added carbon stringers several years ago, but the first Bibby I skied 8 or 9 years ago is quite similar to the current version, and no “high-tech” ski from a bigger company has replaced it for me.

Jonathan Ellsworth on the Moment Bibby Pro, Taos Ski Valley, Blister Gear Review

Jonathan Ellsworth on the 10/11 Moment Bibby.

This is simply one of many examples I could cite, but hopefully it makes the point: I think getting rocker profiles and flex patterns and dimensions and sidecut ratios right are far more important than using cutting-edge new materials.

 

[2] “Do the big brands have an edge? Is there an advantage to being the little guy?”

The primary thing that I have learned over my years at Blister is that big brands are quite capable of screwing up a ski, and little brands are quite capable of screwing up a ski.

Conversely, some of the best skis we’ve ever been on were made by very small manufacturers, and we’ve been on any number of outstanding skis from larger manufacturers.

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Head Monster 98 for Blister Gear Review

Jonathan Ellsworth on the HEAD Monster 98.

Point is, generalizing about “big” vs. “small” is a stupid thing to do. And sorry, but with respect to the shop owner you were talking to, how many J Skis has he actually skied for a substantial amount of time? Or any time at all?

Too many people fling around empty generalizations and talk shit without having any knowledge of what they’re actually talking about. If you’ve ever spent more than two minutes on Facebook, then you know what I mean. And the same thing happens when hating on big companies or hating on little companies — people start generalizing.

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the J Skis Masterblaster for Blister Gear Review

Jonathan Ellsworth on the J Skis Masterblaster, Mt Bachelor.

I’ve said it before: just because you’re an indie doesn’t mean you’re awesome.

And simply being big is no guarantee of awesomeness, either.

Furthermore, let’s all remember that it is a false dichotomy to simply split the ski world into “big” or “small” — there is no dividing line, no agreed-upon number of total skis manufactured that separates “big” ski companies from “small” ski companies. “Big” and “Small” are relative terms. In our years testing, we have seen excellent work and attention to detail from some “small” companies, and we have seen really underwhelming work from other “small” companies.

There are, of course, both pros and cons to being big or small — “small” can result in an advantageous nimbleness, but it can also lead to sloppiness or corner-cutting. And “big” might mean that you have access to some very nice equipment, but “big” can also mean that a company has to sell a larger number of skis, and this is sometimes why we see so many outstanding skis get tweaked or discontinued — the ski might have been perfect, but the accountants don’t care. And the “unsuccessful” volume of a big company might represent for a small manufacturer an extremely successful number of skis sold.

So now who has the advantage?

 

[3] “Does it depend on what the end use of the ski is (for example a race ski vs a powder ski)?”

Probably. But note that my answer here to question #3 is my most speculative, so this is by no means an opinion I would cling to.

With that said, it does seem to me — at least in theory — that a larger manufacturer who could afford to work with expensive, new materials could have an advantage when it comes (specifically) to making really lightweight touring skis. At this point in time, I wouldn’t say that this is obviously true, but I could at least imagine it being true if materials continue to evolve, and new tech / materials are developed that are lighter, damper, and / or more durable than what we have now.

And as for race skis, maybe. We certainly don’t see many small companies making race skis, and that might be because there isn’t much of a market opportunity there — the larger companies are already making some very good on-piste carvers and race skis.

But it’s also possible — and I will defer to ski builders and engineers here — that the precision that goes into making true world-cup race skis — where hundredths of a second truly matter — is more easily accomplished in certain factories / factories of a certain size / factories with certain equipment. But even if that is true, I’d argue that this is not the end-all-be-all metric, and that for the vast majority of all-mountain skis being made, simply getting the rocker profile, flex pattern, and dimensions right is far, far more important.

Anyway, that’s my take. And I’m curious to hear how much of this resonates with the experience of those of you reading this.

But let’s remember that one bad experience on a ski from a smaller company or a bigger company isn’t enough evidence to generalize about whether smaller or bigger is better when it comes to skis. To reiterate: we’ve seen companies of all sizes screw up a ski, and we’ve seen companies of virtually every size make some really excellent skis.

And that’s why we focus on and assess particular skis rather than generalize about entire companies, regardless of size.

24 Comments

  1. Craig September 13, 2017 Reply

    As a raw material supplier to a lot of ski and snowboard builders in the intermountain west, as well as supplying a lot of other advanced composite industries, I don’t believe there is a material advantage with the bigger factories. I’d actually argue the smaller builder has an advantage in some ways. It’s easier for smaller manufacturer to experiment with new materials. The tooling that the small builders use (sandwich construction) is much more adaptable to changes in core and laminate design as well. I believe Pete Wagner made a comment about being approached by raw material companies to test products in one of your podcasts. As a raw material supplier, it’s a lot easier to bring something new first to a small shop to test whether making skis or a carbon fiber bike parts.

    The advantages of a big factory in my opinion would be manufacturing efficiencies both in the process of making skis and producing raw materials. These efficiencies can result in some pretty major cost savings. Also a big factory is going to have a lot more engineering resources, which can help in design but especially with fine tuning and automating processes, as well as lowering finish work.

    It really does come down to the capability of the ski builder to make a ski that feels good under your feet. The materials and equipment should not be a barrier.

    We’ve seen in a lot of industries that change comes from the small builders. Great example of this is in the surfing world and the shortboard revolution that started with the “backyard” surfboard builders. The same thing has happened in skis the last 10+ years. I’d say the small quality ski makers have really made the big companies a lot better. We need the small quality builders around to prevent ski design from stagnanting again.

    • Matt Sterbenz September 15, 2017 Reply

      Awesome comment Craig. The meat and potato market share holders in skiing is quite bland without the core brands salt.

  2. Matteo September 14, 2017 Reply

    I think big companies have an advantage on race skis because they have been doin’it for long time so they have a lot of data but more then that the race skis are almost done, there isn’t probably much more room to improve, so a brand that can do a lot of testing and work that way on small details has the advantage that a smaller one can’t have.

    • Matt Sterbenz September 15, 2017 Reply

      Yo Matteo, I echo your opinion. We just came out with the all new MSP with titanal construction, standard race ski material, and our prototyping process was a complete disaster. Knowing we had Elan to back us up once we finalized the shape was great reassurance. If you’ve been building skis for as long as the major Euro factories have, you’ve figured out the nuances that make a good ski great with tweaks of composites and laminates otherwise too obscure for the indi brand. In that, there’s real value in working with them. As for their branding department, well, I’m just happy to be a customer of their factory and we’ll leave it at that.

  3. Simen Stori September 14, 2017 Reply

    As for the general discussion, I appreciate the fact that you´re primarily concerned with the feel of the skis. This is what matters, not which materials go into the skis, the optics of the topsheet, the cosmetics of the cutouts or how complicated the manufaturing process is.

    In the end, the only things that matter are stiffness, flex pattern, dampening properties and weight, which in turn dictate its feel, through emergent properties such as natural frequency etc.

    Race skis are built in small factories/production lines, by companies with a lot of resources. A single racer needs a lot of skis for each discipline, each personally tuned to his/her skiing style, weight and preference as well as snow conditions. Not to mention discipline. Smaller companies will normally not have the resources to do this, nor will they be able to reap any financial rewards since they won´t afford to sponsor athletes that are capable of winning. Racers are marketed in order to sell primarily middle-of-the-range carving skis, a market totally dominated by big players with a long history of racing.

    That said, racing skis have more in common construction-wise with products from small companies than the big-number/”high tech” skis that the big companies mostly sell.

    Concerning lightweight skis, I don´t really think bigger-is-better would make any sense. Since what you´re looking for here is someone passionate about building a lightweight ski, it´s all about making the right moves in regards to construction (relatively simple, really it´s about mashing a bunch of materials together in a sandwich), and once you have a really lightweight construction you can apply that to a whole line of skis without much issue. Using the most advanced materials is easier for a smaller company/small run of skis, and especially if you´re talking very, very expensive materials where a large company quickly gets stopped by their accountants. Check out Moonlight skis as an example of the latter.

    I´d appreciate a discussion on the cost of skis, really… When you´re spending your cash, where does that money go? It´s most certainly not a direct function of the cost of your skis´ construction or materials.

    For full disclosure, I design skis for Down skis, and we´re a direct to customer company, hence the interest in a discussion of costs.

  4. Blister Member
    Lukas September 14, 2017 Reply

    What I also found interesting on one of the last podcasts is that the same ski company is making ski in different factories, depending on the model. If I understood right, one factory may be more suited for large numbers and the other more for special, small series production. Thus, there might be a differenct in product quality among ski models, even if they are from the same small or big Ski company.

    PS: What I’ve learnt on Pinkbike today is that if you want some traffic on you website, any website, say something about eBikes :-)) OK, I’ll show myself out.

    • Mike W September 14, 2017 Reply

      @Lukas

      More importantly though the ski may have a different feel from a different production line, and sometimes this is intended and that’s why the particular production method may be nominated to help discern that model/style.

      Yes, you may have different outputs from different lines… or get bad topsheets from IsoSport or have a bad batch of ink that can lead to a quality issue for a batch but that comes back to the point above about both big and small having the possibility of screwing things up.

  5. Blister Member
    Jonathan Dadourian September 14, 2017 Reply

    One other thing that you didn’t really touch upon which I always considered an advantage for smaller ski companies are the “regionality” of their ski design. As a west coast skier, I prefer to ski Moment and ON3P because they ski the same region, terrain and snow which I do, and it is reflected in their ski design. And in most cases they have skied the same mountains as me their entire lives, and essentially have years of R&D for their design and manufacturing. I think having that experience gives them a huge advantage than some foreign ski company that doesn’t entirely understand our style of skiing and specific terrain. In my mind, based on this their skis are better regardless of materials and manufacturing process. If lived on the East Coast I would most definitely ski Parlor etc…

    I’m sure Blizzard etc… makes great skis, but it’s not made by some rad dudes charging chutes in the Sierra or slashing pow in the PNW.

    • Matt Sterbenz September 15, 2017 Reply

      Yo Jonathan, I’ve always looked at ski shaping like a surfer. We shred frozen waves and no 2 waves are the same. The break here in the Wasatch is different than the Sierras, Cascades, Rockies and the Alps. If you are lucky enough to ski in a region where skiers are building and testing skis, most likely they will have the ski for you. We are spoiled rotten with the Wasatch here in SLC and so are our customers. The feeling when up skiing on the finish product that was developed in that exact condition and terrain, its an unreal experience, just like a locals surfboard shape reacts in the local point break. Great point, and glad to see we share a locals perspective.

      • Blister Member
        Jonathan September 15, 2017 Reply

        Great analogy Matt. I was born, raised, and still live in Socal. And grew up surfing amongst all of our local surfboard shapers like Harbour, Channel Islands, Stewart etc That sense of locality always came across into a excellent product for our application, and its something that has definitely transfered over into my approach to skiing. Never really realized all this until now!

    • Elliot September 19, 2017 Reply

      Jonathan I think you absolutely hit the nail on the head here with your comment. One of the main reasons I have been trending towards regional brands is this exact reason. PNW snow is completely different from Colorado/Utah. Snow is a lot heavier here that very much favors a stiffer/heavier resort powder ski like the Bibbys. The noodle skis just don’t work in the PNW like they do in Colorado/Utah.

  6. Blister Member
    Nathan September 14, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for posting this Jonathan, great answers, and a lot of interesting discussion in the comments. I have always had an affinity for the smaller builders and right now we have 4 pairs of Moments in the family quiver–we have skis from the big guys too, and I like them all. My personal experience would seem to resonate with the idea that both types of builders can make a good product.

    I think it’s interesting that the idea of cost and how the dollars are distributed was raised in a previous comment. I think you are right in suspecting the shop owner I was talking to hadn’t spent any significant time (and probably none) skiing J Skis, but he had definitely been mounting bindings on them in his shop, and I think if he had a beef with J Skis it had more to do with the internet only sales model than with the actual quality of the product. But maybe that’s a different topic again!

    • Matt Sterbenz September 15, 2017 Reply

      Yo Nate for sure it is. J Skis has been winning ski tests for the last several years so to think they suck because they aren’t at SIA selling to shops is a short sided biased perspective to carry forward. Way to keep you mind open and tips up! We need more people like you!

  7. AKBruin September 14, 2017 Reply

    IMO, I continually steer people to brands that produce race skis. The quality and “feel” is consistent in their all-mtn offerings 99% of the time. It’s very easy to produce a powder/soft snow ski that feels amazing in pow/untracked. It’s when the conditions and terrain turn to shit that a ski shows it’s true colors. In demoing lots of skis, the race brands always tend to produce the best products IMO, and always gets more consistent positive feedback from demo customers.

    • Matt Sterbenz September 15, 2017 Reply

      Yo Ak, I encourage you to take it one step further and promote origin, the actual factory, thats where the “feel” and “consistency” comes from. Brands pivot all the time but their factories operate in a fairly linear way and there’s a lot more brands than their are factories so you see a lot of crossover. I love the “feel” of our skis which we have Elan make for us. We even try to mimic the feel in our factory for the few skis we make ourselves. Go open up your Powders 2017 Buyers Guide and you’ll see on the first page 3 top skis of the year: 4FRNT, Black Crows and Elan, all made in the same factory with different shapes, flexes, laminates and weight, all award winning skis. When people test them, they say, I’ve always loved how Elan skis feel, so its best of both worlds – rad new shapes driven by skiers like you, with world class manufacturing. See you up at Alta!

  8. al mandell September 15, 2017 Reply

    The ski does not show it’s true colors the skier does. A good skier can quickly adapt to any ski.

  9. Blister Member
    Mallthus September 15, 2017 Reply

    The whole topic of race skis brings up the essential fallacy of this comparison.

    Even the largest manufacturers essentially “hand build” race skis, making the production lines used essentially the same as what small makers are using. There may be some bleed over of parts, equipment, or techniques, but it’s relatively insignificant. Older skiers may recall back, 25 years ago, when the consumer ski market had shifted nearly 100% to molded cap skis, while race skis continued to be traditional square sided laminates, thus highlighting my second point…

    Small makers not making race skis isn’t about their ability. Race skis, I’d argue, don’t, themselves, make money. Most new race skis are sold at or near cost, if they’re sold at all. Race skis, like motorsports, exist to sell consumer skis. Marketing people love race skis because they offer up the twin wins of “Ski the ski that wins Olympic Gold” and “race-proven technology”. And, of course, the fact that modern race skis have jack to do with the SKUs most people ski on, even so-called “race skis”, doesn’t make any difference to the marketers.

  10. Mike T September 15, 2017 Reply

    I think what most Blister readers forget is that none of us are really the “target market” for most major ski manufacturers.
    The people here are informed consumers; we want to find out how well, or poorly, products perform under a variety of conditions. We can then think about how we use the equipment and if the skis (boots, bikes, etc.) would be a good fit for our specific use case.
    The vast majority of people walking into a shop and paying full retail for a pair of skis don’t know much about flex/camber/taper or whatever. A cool top sheet design or some fancy new tech something a shop can sell.
    Personally, I feel like ski design has been “dumbed down” to an extent. It’s becoming harder to find truly high performance skis, especially in the all-mountain category. Powder skis are all over the map; you can definitely find some hard charging or fun/playful skis, but there’s also a lot of middle of the road junk for weekend warriors.

    End of rant! Keep up the good work, Blister! You guys destroy the competition. I just got the POWDER buyers guide and I think they outsourced the “reviews” to the manufacturers’ marketing department.

    • Blister Member
      mallthus September 15, 2017 Reply

      That’s always been Powder’s Buyers Guide. They used to make a big deal about the fact that they didn’t test and why they thought testing was bunk. And, to be fair, testing the way that Ski and Skiing have done it for years is pretty much bunk, given the huge test teams and the lack of depth in their reviews.

      What Blister does is a very different animal.

  11. Eric Edelstein September 15, 2017 Reply

    I agree that small and large ski companies alike can screw up a ski design, the materials used in that design, the finishing of the ski or all the above. Categorizing “big” and “small” companies hasn’t really advanced the discussion very much when you want to talk about how well a particular ski behaves for its rider. We have seen a ton of small and large builders over the years, and we try to keep track of the 380+ “smaller” ski companies throughout the World…and they come and go as any business entities do. The statement that larger corporations may have resources to try some more exotic or innovative designs or materials than “the little guys” seems to be valid on first blush, but with tiny companies like Renoun, SandwichTech, Cervi, Anton Dynamics and many others building skis with bleeding-edge technology are considered, the argument looses some steam. Head puts electronic chips and piezo-electric tech in some of its skis, so yes, the large companies can deploy high-tech designs, and many work just great. We have ridden some race skis built by one-man shops, and they are every bit as awesome as the race skis coming out of Head, Fischer, Rossignol, Dynastar…etc.

    Quality control is a tough subject since we have seen plenty of garage-brand and small-run ski company skis with QA/QC issues, or finish tuning issues that ruined what would otherwise be a great ski design. Something as simple as recommended binding mount position can completely mess up an otherwise excellent ski design. We have also seen some awful QA/QC issues with large ski company products, but they tend to appear in the low to mid-range models more than the premium line and race skis. In general, we find the finishing work of skis like Elan or Head is superb, and we hear it’s because they have invested in really nice, really expensive finish-line machines at their factories….and it shows up in the final product. We have also seen small ski companies outsource their production to facilities like Elan and the end product is equally superb in its fit and finish quality…so where does that leave us?

    Personally, I think large and small ski companies can make excellent skis. Any ski company should be held to a high standard of quality and customer support after the sale, and I’ve heard stories of skiers who bought defective skis from large companies and were told to take a hike when they asked for a replacement. I have also heard stories of skiers who bought skis from small companies and got the shaft for some reason or another after the sale. What is interesting is the number of small builders offering risk-free, try-em-for-x-days-or-your-money-back guarantees, as well as two year warranties against defects…and even some park ‘n pipe ski companies offering crush-proof warranties on their sidewalls. We have yet to see the major companies offer this kind of backing for their products.

    It all comes down to what ski makes you happy and who you want to give your money to. The fact we have so many ski choices now, and so many excellent designs to choose from, and so many companies to buy from is stunning when you think back 20 years.

    Kudos to Blister Gear Review for bringing up the subject for public discussion.
    Winter is coming….

  12. JayT September 15, 2017 Reply

    IMO a lot of ski shop owners have a negative bias towards indie brands because some of them are selling direct now and that’s a threat to their business. A lot of the salespeople will also dismiss brands they haven’t even skied on.

  13. Maciej Pike-Biegunski September 21, 2017 Reply

    This is kind of a silly argument, or debate or discussion. There are no large ski factories or companies. It’s a niche sport that requires specific topography, climate and infrastructure to engage in (even backcountry skiers need roads or a helipad or something to get where they want to be).

    I’m on a set of Volkl Nunataqs now-made in Germany in a small factory. Prior to that, I had two sets of Voiles-made in SLC in a small factory. Before that, a set of 4FRNT EHP’s made by Elan….in a pretty small factory as well. See the pattern?

    There are all sorts of debates the ski industry (and skiers) should be engaged in. Is pushing materials technology worth it if skis will double or triple in price? How can we attract new skiers? Is there any way to limit the oversaturation of product categories in the ski industry? How about the constant glut of below-cost stuff online? What are the boundaries of ethical ski construction (low impact)? How about the impact of ski areas and the surrounding development? Or the carbon footprint and disturbance of motorized access?

    ALL ski companies are small (or small parts of bigger companies). They all employ passionate skiers. Focus your energy on stuff that matters people, not on constructing your identity through your spending habits.

    • Author

      Hi, Maciej – when you say that “this” is kind of a silly argument or debate or discussion, I’m not sure which argument / debate / discussion you are referring to, since a number of topics and questions have been raised here.

      So forgive me if it is not the original question of the post that you are calling silly here. Because the original question is a legitimate and genuine question that a lot of skiers have (I know this for a fact, since I get asked it a lot).

      Furthermore, it appears that you might be making a false generalization of your own. You state that “there are no large ski factories or companies.” Relatively speaking, this is true, if our points of reference are Amazon.com, Toyota, or Starbucks. But you then go a step further and seem to suggest that, since “ALL ski companies” (and ski factories) are small, they are all therefore the *same*. And that is not true. Not all of the smaller ski companies and all of the larger ski companies are all using the exact same equipment. Not all of the smallest ski companies and all of the largest ski companies are using the exact same materials. Some are, some aren’t. And simply noting 3 particular skis that you’ve happened to own does not make your case or prove your point that the quality of all of these skis is the same (which was the original question).

      So it comes off as pretty silly to criticize some or all of the questions being raised here as wrongheaded when your own argument for this wrongheadedness is based on a false assumption. And it comes off as rather smug to want to dictate to everyone which topics are legitimate and which ones aren’t.

      That said, the questions you then go on to propose are all ones that I think are very good ones. And if someone decides to call them silly or tells you to focus on stuff that matters, I’d do my best to try to explain why I think you are right to raise them. I’m all for encouraging people to ask more questions, not fewer.

  14. Taylor September 22, 2017 Reply

    Great article, and even greater job of setting the tone of the comments and discussion towards “thoughtful” replies. I don’t really have much to add except that one thing to consider is that that large manufactures simply have more buying power. When it comes to expensive components a larger maker could buy in larger quantity and get a better price, and maybe have greater manufacturing efficiency, and maybe pass that savings on to the consumer. That said you can have the best components in the world and still put them together badly. Moreover there’s no reason (unless it’s proprietary) a little guy couldn’t pay a higher price for the same thing, make a better or as good ski as the big makers, and either sell it for a higher price or lower margin which I suspect happens all the time.

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