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Are Custom Skis Worth It?

The skis cost about twice as much as a retail set. They incorporate your height, weight, and ability in the construction. They even listen to the music you want them to hear. But at Wagner Custom, what you also get is a commitment to quality.

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The reason my $1,700 custom pair of skis failed the company’s quality control test had a little to do with science and everything to do with Pantera. The engineer was sure of it. Since it happens so infrequently—just two percent of his skis fail the quality control tests—the engineer seemed surprised. Embarrassed, even. So, when I showed up to his factory near Telluride to pick up my skis, they weren’t there. He refused to show them to me.

Pete Wagner, owner of Wagner Custom Skis, is meticulous. I got a sense of Pete’s attention to detail two months prior, when I begun the design process. It starts with a multiple-choice survey on his website. The survey asks the standard stuff like height and weight and ability. For ability, your answer choices are beginner, intermediate, advance, expert, and “immortal.” I was beginning to like this guy.

When you’ve finished the rest of the survey, Pete looks at the results and thinks about how he’ll design around the data. A few days later he calls you—he calls every customer—and asks exactly what you want. Several more days pass and then a design summary pops up in your inbox. It’ll explain the materials going into your ski (if it will contain metal or not, the kind of wood core he’ll use) the dimensions, the stiffness, and a PDF diagram of the ski shape.

My email looked like this: 195cm, aspen core to keep things light, two layers of metal for shock absorption, 151-119-140 pow-slaying dimensions, substantial tip rocker, and a slight tail rocker. A big-mountain charger for deep days. A dream ski. I also chose the topsheet, a ’70s inspired blue pattern on brown.

Then things got weird. Pete asked me for a soundtrack to play while the production team actually built the skis. Wagner has read the Hidden Messages in Water, the book that claims vibrations can be trapped, and therefore, things like ambient music can affect structural integrity of materials. Pete believes. And he exerts a calming influence on his product—a factory soundtrack of reggae and world beat. I told him he’d been living in Telluride too long, and, just to smite this new age bullshit, I sent him a playlist composed of early ’90s metal. All Pantera, all the time.

This would be a huge mistake. When Pete’s production team applied the virgin coat of wax to my skis, a small plastic bubble emerged from the base. Turns out the metal ski layers had been, in Pete’s words, “contaminated.” I was spooked. Was this Pantera’s fault?

It didn’t matter. I wasn’t getting the skis. Pete didn’t want to hand them over. He didn’t want me to know he was capable of mistakes. But he is. This two percent failure rate, while exceptionally low, is a beautiful thing to be aware of. No ski building process is perfect, even with the big manufacturers. Some flawed pairs—a very small number of them—make it to shop floors and get sold. Pete employs a quality control system to make sure that nothing short of perfection leaves his shop. And strangely, I wasn’t disappointed that my skis weren’t good enough. I was thrilled. This is a guy who wants to make sure you’re getting $1,700 worth of ski.

And since I’d driven seven hours to pick them up, I offered to try the messed-up skis. Pete, after some begging, agreed to let Herb Manning, one of his athletes and a veteran ski tech, try to fix them. Herb told me not to bother. “Those are fit for the dumpster,” he said.

I just had to pick them up at Telluride’s Paragon Sports, where Herb works. When I got there, I finally laid eyes on my skis. I felt the base and couldn’t find where the so-called damage was. As far as I could tell, the skis were flawless. Behind the heelpiece area of the right skis, the ski graphic included a few words, writ small:

Handcrafted for
Jake Bogoch

Seeing your name on your own ski that you helped design isn’t as uppity as it sounds. It’s an instant connection to your whips. The purpose for printing your name on your ski is simple is this: It lets Pete deflect his design knowledge, gleaned from creating computer-modeling software, and convince the customer that he, the guy paying for the skis, is the design brains in the builder-customer relationship.

It worked on me. I was a genius! I made these! All I had to do now was beg Pete to hand the bastards over. In the basement of the shop, while looking at the skis I couldn’t have, I called Pete and begged some more. He relented but on a few conditions. I had to break the skis in, thoroughly test them, and return them if there was even a hint of lesser performance. (In a few weeks you’ll see a detailed test report here to let you know how they ski and if custom skis are really worth it.)

When I hung up, I told Herb the plan. He would mount them with Dukes and release the hostages. He handed me a beer and fetched his drill. He laughed at the plan. “Clearly, you don’t know Pete,” he said. “You’re not supposed to know this…but he’s already building you a new pair.”