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From a means of transport to cutting edge technology

Ski production

Skis have been made in one form or another since the beginning of time. At least, that’s what a rock carving found on the island of Rodoy in Norway would seem to indicate, as would the oldest fossil ski in the world found in Hoting in Sweden, and dating back some 4500 years. Historians have suggested that the first ski is even older, intimating that they were initially used in the Altai region between Mongolia and Siberia. What’s sure is that people have been skiing for a very long time, although we’ve come a long way since the first long planks were cut from ash to today’s remarkable creations!
A quick look back at the past
For thousands of years, skis were simply used as a means of getting around and there was no question of making elaborate carves or jumping down slopes! The skis were long, 2.5-metre planks with no edges. Around 1850, Sondre Norheim, a Norwegian carpenter, developed a technique to get down steep slopes, but his skis were not manoeuvrable enough. He then created the parabolic ski shape with a narrower waist. Technically, the leading leg had to be bent, and then vice versa when the weight was transferred to the other leg. Skis had at last become manoeuvrable, and Sondre called the technique the Telemark after his home region. Its success was immediate and the technique quickly spread across the whole of Scandinavia.
In 1878, a Frenchman, Henry Duhamel, discovered Telemark skis during the Universal Exhibition and brought them back to France. To adapt them to the steeper Alps, the skis were shortened and the bindings improved. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that alpine skiing really broke free from Telemark skiing and came into its own. The heel became fixed and the famous Christiana stem turn was invented by Hannes Schneider. Emile Allais developed the parallel turn (see the article on Cult ski runs) in 1937, which led to a definitive break with Sondre’s technique.
The manufacturing process: from DIY to cutting edge technology
As the years passed, fortuitous manufacturing techniques disappeared as the leading brands began to invest seriously in research, and skis became highly technical. At the beginning of the 1960s, Rossignol was still only using wood for virtually all of its skis. However, the company had just brought out its first metallic and composite ski (hollow-core fibreglass ski). Rossignol was already market leader in the 1940s with its Olympique 41 in particular. This really beautiful ski made from exotic wood was a global best seller in 1948, and is considered as the first truly modern ski. A few years ago, Rossignol brought out an anniversary replica of the vintage ski.
The first fibreglass ski, the Strato, was produced by Rossignol in 1964, and quickly became the world’s top seller. With a stratified wood core sandwiched between composite epoxy-reinforced fibreglass, all the components, including the edges, were assembled in just one complex gluing and moulding process using a press. The narrow-waisted ski wowed skiers, giving them the impression that it turned on its own, and paving the way for a brand new type of behaviour on the snow. Fibreglass looked set for a bright future. But with the plethora of new materials, the brands found themselves up against unexpected technical problems such as hardening of the glues, reaction to flexion, etc. Improvements were gradually made with each new model. By the end of the 1970s, huge sums were invested in research (10 million francs at Dynamic in 1984) and studying ski performance on the snow.
With the sudden popularity of the snowboard at the end of the 1980s, intrepid DIY enthusiasts frequently tried to make their own boards. Lacking available benchmark models, the results were rarely what they hoped for… Making a successful ski involves a series of factors that are not always easy to control. Viable plans are required, but at the same time there’s no magic formula or hard and fast rule. For a totally new creation, specific customized tools and moulds may be needed, while the many components (the edge, base, core, fibres, nose) are generally standard parts. A pre-series is then produced, which is first tested in the workshop and then ‘for real.” Following validation, and once the designers have decided on the artwork, mass production can begin.
Marc Ducourtil, shaper at Aluflex, explained to the main stages in ski production: “First of all,” Marc explained, “we put together the base, the edges, the fibre base and the wood core if the ski has one, which covers the whole length of the ski, otherwise we add some fibre (the core could be a strip of ash, spruce, pawlaunia, etc.). Then we put a layer over this wood or fibre core, and finally a protective layer that’s called the ‘transparent cape’, which protects the ski and also contains the graphics. Finally, everything is put into the hot press (at around 80°c). The ski then goes through the final ‘finishing’ stage of grinding, while the base and the edges are bevelled and polished.”

Some aspects are always valid, such as the link between the ski’s stiffness and the type of turns that it's designed for. Human parameters and snow quality are variables that science can’t control and no computer can measure. Nonetheless, two testers with more or less the same level of expertise, often have the same opinion about a ski they’re testing and the same ‘feel’. Which just goes to prove what we’ve always said, in other words, you should always read the latest ski reviews on before you buy your skis!
Of course, a lot of thought goes into making the ski and the many technical problems involved. However, the greatest unknown factor until the 1960s remained the ski’s performance on the snow. We knew that stiffness and camber had a direct impact on the ski’s performance, but things were still pretty vague when it came to the width! And where should the foot go? Should the reference point be in front of the boot at the ski’s point of balance as was common practice in the past and the strict rule for the Lapps? This old-fashioned way just wasn’t viable with smaller skis and the mounting of bindings was sometimes absurd. In 1973, an ISO standard defined a point on the ski that corresponded to the projection of the skier’s point of gravity. Ever since, the middle of the sole of the boot sits firmly on this point.
Behind the scenes at Dynastar

To find out more about the fascinating world of ski manufacturing, we went to the Dynastar factory in Sallanches. Surviving the sale of the Rossignol group, it rode out the wave that carried off the factory in Saint Etienne de Crossey near Grenoble, and later the one in Rumilly.
Julien Vigouroux, Sales Manager, raced ahead of us, providing us with enthusiastic and eloquent explanations: "Have you ever made lasagne? Well, it’s the same for skis… it’s no more complicated than that!” he told us enigmatically. We followed him between two machines, two workers, two security doors, the time to think about what lasagne and skis have in common. He went on: "a layer of paste, a layer of meat, a layer of béchamel sauce and cheese. That makes really good skis, we just have to heat it up and it all slides down all on its own!"
"The factory,” he went on, “can produce 200,000 pairs of skis a year, and uses the traditional sandwich and dynapreg manufacturing process. Dynapreg is also a sandwich technique, but the new process means we can use a wider range of materials like steel and fibre." He wouldn’t tell us anymore though…: hush, it’s an industrial secret!
"As for the wood core ski,” Julien went on, “we make it here in Sallanches, and its top of the range. We use different types of wood depending on the ski. Then it’s assembled with a very light, very dense foam, called Rohacel mousse. And this gives you a wood and foam sandwich (in short!)."
Dynastar: key figures
Over 50 million pairs of skis have been made since the company was first founded
Total ski production (Rossignol and Dynastar): 850,000 pairs
Traditional skis (wood core), top-of-the-range skis for the piste and injected skis: 200,000 pairs
Mass production skis, free-ride/freestyle skis and high-end cross-country skis including competition skis (cross country and biathlon): 400,000 pairs
Other types (outsourced): 250,000 pairs
Bindings (alpine, snowboard, cross-country): 850,000 pairs
Production of boots (Rossignol, Lange, Risport): 600,000 to 650,000 pairs
Aluflex: made-to-measure in aluminium
It’s impossible not to mention Aluflex when we’re talking about ski manufacturing. Today, this old French brand only produces top quality, handmade custom skis. We’re a long way from the frantic pace of the factory in Sallanches. The atmosphere in Aluflex workshops underscores the importance of the link between art and technology because what first catches your eye is the beauty of the sketches and the finished skis, which are real works of art. Anyone who was once an Alpine Hunter will remember the Aluflex brand, probably with nostalgia, as it supplied the alpine troops for many years. The brand was created in 1954 by Charles Dieupart. He made the first metallic skis partly for the army, and also fitted out Emile Allais, to whom we owe the parallel turn, among others.
In 1988, Daniel Serre, a joiner by profession and skateboard craftsman, decided to make snowboards for this new, fast-growing snow sport in collaboration with Aluflex. When Charles Dieupart died, Daniel Serre took over, but it wasn’t until 2004, with the skier and free-rider Denis Rey as ambassador, that Aluflex really took off again. The brand remains positioned as a high-end producer, making handcrafted skis in the Giffre workshop in Marignier. Aluflex produces a large, mainly freeride-oriented line of skis. Loyal to the brand’s image, Aluflex continues to make Titanal and wood sandwich skis (ash, spruce, bamboo, paulownia and birch).
What’s the advantage of this type of wood and aluminium sandwich construction with fibre reinforcement? Good torsional rigidity thanks to Titanium and good protection against wear and tear. In effect, minute cracks can appear when the fibre bends, damaging the ski. This doesn’t happen with the aluminium Titanium alloy.
The brand’s real advantage is that it produces virtually custom-made skis, at least in the technical configuration. “We adapt the structure to the weight of the person by adjusting the thickness of the core, the fibres and the reinforcements,” Daniel Serre explained. “Each ski is made for a specific person. Keen skiers who know exactly what they want can also choose their own edges, and we talk about the best possible compromise together. Of course, this all costs more, but the mould can be used again to make other skis.” Daniel, a passionate craftsman, encourages his customers to try out different skis and to analyse their sensations so as to come up with the ski that’s best for their particular needs. Which is why this producer interests us so much as its goal is to design by listening to what the skier feels. Isn’t that the ultimate art in ski manufacturing?
With varnish-covered wood skis, edges that are screwed and glued on, wood core sandwich structures, composite materials and epoxy resins, ski production is now a real technical challenge. The ski has to cope with huge challenges too in terms of flex as well as cold and damp. As we saw earlier, despite out technical know-how about structure and the experience we’ve acquired over the years, no producer is safe from an agreeable or disagreeable surprise in the hour of truth, in other words, the moment the ski hits the snow. Its performance in the snow is both immaterial and unpredictable, but of course that’s all part of the mystery…

The ski review by is now online. As every year, Dynastar is one of the brands we tested. Read the reviews to find out more!
Texte et photos: E. Beallet
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