Engineer uses computer algorithms to pursue making the perfect skis

Nicole Laporte / New York Times News Service /

Can a computer algorithm create the perfect pair of skis?

Pete Wagner, a 37-year-old Ohio native, likes to think so. Since 2006, he has been applying his background in mechanical engineering and computer coding to make skis — and a few snowboards, too — that are individually designed to fit each owner.

How does he do it?

“Our computers crunch the numbers,” said Wagner, a self-professed “nerdy engineer” whose shop-factory, Wagner Custom Skis, is in Placerville, Colo., not far from the alpine paradise of Telluride. “We’ve created a scientific method of fitting people,” based on collecting data about other skis they have used, as well as personal information like height and weight, he said.

Wagner’s goal goes beyond creating an innovative product. He wants to retool the way people think about ski shopping. Rather than choosing a pair in a store or online, only to find that after a couple of runs down a mountain that they feel leaden, or don’t perform well in powder, he says, people can save time and money by having their skis designed much as they would a custom-made suit or a couture gown. And, yes, as with those luxury items, there is a cost: his skis start at $1,750.

Still, the idea seems to be catching on. Last year, Wagner sold more than 1,000 pairs of his skis, which are available on the Internet and in a dozen boutique ski shops around the country. He also made a few customized snowboards requested by “friends of friends.”

“It’s a little bit like getting custom clothing,” said Larry Houchon, the owner of Larry’s Bootfitting, a ski boot shop in Boulder, Colo., that has a kiosk where customers can order Wagner’s skis. “If you’re used to going to Nordstrom and buying clothing off the rack, but then you suddenly become more interested in your appearance, you’re going to go talk to a tailor.

“It’s the same with skiing. If you’re more committed to skiing better, and with less effort, the skis just make sense.”

Not everyone can justify the cost, however. Glenn Muxworthy, a ski buyer for the Ski Co. in Rochester, N.Y., said there wasn’t “a big calling” for custom-made skis because “in this day and age, price is a determining factor.” He said that for less than half the price of a pair of Wagner Custom skis, a shopper could buy a pair of Blizzard Cochise skis, a much-buzzed-about product this season.

In Wagner’s system, the process begins by filling out a “Skier DNA” questionnaire. Among other things, the form asks customers to list their sex and weight, the types of terrain where they like to ski — groomed runs, tree runs, backcountry powder, etc. — and the model of skis they’ve used in the past.

“Skiers can tell us, ‘You know, I’ve got a pair of skis that are 5 years old,’ so they might be a Volkl Mantra from 2007,” Wagner said. “Our design software will understand, OK, that person’s ski has these certain stiffness characteristics, this certain geometry, and is made from these types of materials. Based on that information, and their physical information, where they’re skiing, our algorithms will figure out what kind of design is going to be great for them.”

After a follow-up consultation with Wagner — by phone, email, Skype or in person — the design recipe goes to the factory, where computer numerical code machines mill the components of the skis, which are then assembled by hand.

“It’s a combination of 21st-century, computer-controlled milling and manufacturing equipment and old-world craftsmanship and attention to detail,” he said of the process.

Unlike other boutique ski makers, he added, he does not rely on precast molds. “We always go through the same steps when we create a ski, but every ski is different.”