Gear Geek Spotlight: Wagner Custom

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Gear Geek Spotlight: Wagner Custom

Think about Wagner Custom as the ski-centric equivalent of online dating, an experience dedicated to finding your perfect partner for the slopes. Only this is no heady flirtation akin to renting a pair of demo skis for a few days. Founder Pete Wagner’s goal is to forge a years-long relationship between skier and skis, one that’ll last a lot longer than most romantic entanglements that clutter all our pasts.

It all starts by filling out the online Skier’s DNA form, questions that cover what type of skier you consider yourself, where you like to ski, how you like to ski, and a few other probing details that establish a baseline for Pete’s team. That’s followed up with a real-time conversation, over the phone or via Skype, where they will dive deeper to understand your version of the ideal ski—Pete worked on designing custom golf clubs before coming to skiing, and his background in computer science and mechanical engineering drives every step of the design. Wagner even has a database of the measurements and materials of pretty much every ski ever made in the last five-plus years to help him hone in on your perfect design. Like a pair Volkl Matra’s from 2014, but didn’t like how they handled in the crud? Prefer hard-charging European ski brands? All that data at his fingertips makes it easy to hone in on your ideal.

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After digesting all that info, the proposed design comes via email, where Pete outlines the shape, length, and width (at the tail, waist and tip) of that personalized ski, along with proposed materials (including wood and metal types as well as higher-tech upgrades like carbon fiber or durable Kevlar) and an almost-poetic description of how all those elements will come together and perform.

Here’s how he described my pair:
“This is a versatile ski design. The 184cm length, 98mm waist, and rockered tip will allow you to easily float in powder, broken and variable snow conditions. The 18.9m sidecut radius, balanced flex pattern, and stiffness that is calibrated to your size will enable you to get a wide array of turn shapes out of the skis. They’ll be forgiving with easy turn initiation and easy turn release in tight terrain such as trees, moguls and steeps. They’ll be predictable and stable at speed and on hard and groomed snow. This design will work well in a broad range of terrain types and snow conditions. This is an ideal “everyday” ski design for you.”

Then it’s onto the graphics. Choose design ‘em yourself, and expect to fall into a glorious wormhole of indecision, all guided by Wagner’s very patient on-staff graphic artist. Or simplify the matter by going with one of their stock graphics or choosing from a library of wood-grain patterns. Whichever, there’s no wrong answer; Pete’s seen skis with nacho graphics, Bob Dylan profiles, and college sport teams. One skier even asked that the ashes of his loyal dog be sprinkled between the layers of the ski when it was made, so that the skier’s best friend would always be with him on the slopes.

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After that final approval, the Wagner science lab—once housed a repurposed vintage gas station in Placerville, CO, and relocated this year to the base of Telluride Mountain Resort—goes to work. The process works much like assembling a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Custom computer-generated tools cut the ski components out of wood planks, using the remains to formulate the ski molds for the rest of the process before being discarded, meaning no two skis out of Wagner Custom are the same. Then all the material—the wood, metal, resin, edges, top sheet, and lots and lots of glue—are layered together before the product is shaped and sharpened to perfection.

The Wagner team stays in contact along the way, from the “birth announcement” email you receive when your top sheet graphic is printed to requests for the best music to listen to while they work on your skis (all the better to sync the vibrations, if you would indulge the hippy/hangout-speak of these Southern CO artisans).

The whole process, start to finish, takes about three weeks. And they’ll also help find the right bindings and mount them before shipping them off. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to visit their Telluride HQ, before you pick them up and hit the slopes.

With a base price of $1,750, Wagner’s skis are about twice as expensive as top-of-the-line mass-market skis, which isn’t cheap. So it often comes down to one question: Is it worth it?

For me, the answer is definitively yes. Unlike assembly-line skis, which perform well after you get used to the ski’s sweet spot (if you can find it, that is), my skis have always performed like a dream. Fast, nimble, powerful and playful. I’d call them Platonic, except that implies universal perfection, and my ideal might be someone else’s idea of a middling pair of skis, which is why the Wagner model leans into making the right ski specifically for the right person.

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And I’m not the only one who feels good about all things Wagner—he produces about 1,300 skis a season, and only three to four are returned (upon which a new ski is made, based on the feedback from the first pair).

Pete told me that it’s not common for one person to get a pair one season, and then to see a flood of orders from that same region the next season. The theory goes: One so-so skier in a group scores a pair of custom skis that rapidly elevates his skiing ability and suddenly all those friends that used to be able to out-ski that guy have to get their own pair, just to level the playing field.

The concept—an explosion of interest in a boutique product—brings to mind an image of a fever-inducing infection spreading across a map of North America, one incident exploding like a cluster bomb. But in a good way.

Because, as any skier will tell you, the perfect day on a pair of the perfect skis is downright contagious.

Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).

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