Jan 26 2014

Making Skis

Published by at 5:56 pm under Expeditions and Experiences

At the end of last winter I made a pair of skis. I didn’t get hold of a camera before the snow disappeared so I waited with posting this until now. It’s only recently that I’ve really been able to test them much anyway.

The project was inspired by various sources, for instance the video “Skiing in the shadows of Genghis Khan” and various literature on Siberian skis. As the snow usually has been loose all the way to the ground through the winter for the last decade, I decided to go for a design resting in between the long, but relatively narrow Altai skis and the very wide northern Siberian skis.

The project started off with going off looking for a tree. We have some special places where the spruces grow limbless and straight grained. These were unfortunately not close by, so I decided on going for a tree that was slightly spirally grained, quite limbless and very big, probably in excess of 40 cm in width.

A little on the choice of using spruce. Spruce is frequently used in the Altai and I know from experience that it is quite strong for it’s very light weight. It would wear out very quickly without skins underneath. But the addition of them removes the wear on the skis themselves. The weight of the skins makes it even more important for the skis themselves to be light. It is also one of the most abundant trees in the area. Lowland spruce was chosen, since the trees higher up are very dense and heavy and have a lot of limbs.

As soon as I started felling the tree I was suspecting that this was a bad idea. It took a long time to fell, split and then hew down to size with an axe. I used a large felling axe for the felling and splitting, a tomahawk for hewing the logs into two large planks. This was done in January, while it was pretty cold on the site itself and I carried the planks inside a house to work them further. First one side was planed with the tomahawk to be fairly smooth and take out any natural twist in the grain. I didn’t have a planer and I had also decided to only use an axe, knife and bow drill for this project.

When one side was good I hewed the wood to nearly correct thickness on the other side, leaving a bit more wood in the middle. Then I planed that side fairly smooth, drew the outline of the skis and cut it to shape.

All this was done in the raw state and the I kept the planks buried in the snow whenever I was unable to work on them, like during my work periods.

Bending the skis

Next in line was bending the skis to skis. One of the reasons why I made the planks quite a bit thicker in the middle (nearly twice as thick) was that I didn’t want to have to bother with bending the middle to compensate for the weight of me standing on them during use.

I made two jigs that I saw in the Altai movie. I heated the tips as I had seen in another movie; “Tracking the white reindeer” and bent them carefully. The skis were probably a bit on the thick side, since I got a bit of compression fractures on the upper side. The jigs were left on the skis for nearly 4 weeks while the skis dried under roof. When the jigs were removed, there was no popping back, the bend was exactly the same as I’ve tensioned them up into originally.

The wood wasn’t totally dry though I found out when I put on the skins…

Bindings

For the bindings I drilled four holes and scored between the two semi-parallel holes to accommodate the softened moose rawhide for bindings. Rawhide is super strong and soaks up moisture more slowly than buckskin. Next time I’ll probably use buckskin or leather, since the rawhide is very difficult to knot well without wetting them first. During the first trial runs with my skis the bindings stretched a lot and came loose on my foot. Pre-stretch as much as possible before adding the bindings to the skis, otherwise you’ll be constantly adjusting them.

The skins

With the bindings in place it was time to add the skins underneath. I used four large leg skins of moose, skinned quite far up the body to cover most of the length, another piece was added for the remainder at the bottom and additional pieces been sewn on the sides where the width was not sufficient. The skins were soaked for a couple of days in the river and sewn together wet with reindeer rawhide strips. This was quite a job and I’d prefer to not have to add the side pieces when I’m to do this again. I drilled holes along the entire length of the skis and stitched on top and between the wood and the skins on the underside to avoid the rawhide strings being worn out under the skis in use. The tips are more delicate and I decided to stitch across them instead, a method that worked out fine.

Final seasoning

Although I couldn’t resist using the skins very shortly after they were made, I afterwards let them season in the sun to dry the hide. This happened to be a bad idea, since the spring sun caused the wood to dry faster on the upper side than on the exposed skin side. This caused a light boat shape on the skis. Doing it again, I’d drop my impatience and dry them out of the sun, under roof.

The seams underneath skis caused quite a bit of friction before the skins were properly dried. Now they’re just about right. I don’t want them too slippery.

Uphill they work amazingly well, the skins makes you able to walk straight up the steepest slopes. They ended up a bit on the heavy side, being both very long and very broad, so next time ‘ll make them thinner. Another great advantage is that the skins, being naturally smooth in the hair direction makes any imperfections in the woodwork underneath become practically irrelevant. Also, even if the snow is wet, it will not stick underneath the skis as there has a great tendency of doing on wooden skis.

On the downside the skis are difficult to use sideways because of the width. Also, the rawhide bindings stretches a lot and are difficult to tie properly to the foot, making for very tiring walking and very difficult downhill skiing. Snow will normally accumulate between the foot and the upper face of the ski, which can be a bit of a pain, but I added a sole of birch bark a few days ago, which removed the problem entirely. Now snow only sticks to the shoes which is equally problematic, but is easily remedied by making leg skin shoes with hair on the outside.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the skis. The rawhide bindings is the only real problematic feature. Them being so broad I float almost on top regardless of conditions. Having skins underneath is a marvelous invention. I think the reason why they stopped doing that in Scandinavia (relatively recently), was because of a lack of skins rather than practical aspects.

skis birchbarksole goingdownhill goinguphill standingstill

Regards
Torjus

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Making Skis”

  1. Scotton 16 Feb 2014 at 2:25 am

    Hi,
    What a terrific and instructive story! I saw a film – The Happy People – featuring a Russian trapper in the Taiga making his own skis following this method. I just went a cut down a spruce (only about 25 cm in diameter … hoping this is wide enough). I’ll try to follow your lead. A few questions: why a slight spiral in the wood? Why keep the wood frozen when you’re not working it?

  2. Matton 16 Feb 2014 at 2:31 am

    How do skis compare in usefulness to snowshoes, in your area? It is interesting that here in Canada, skis were never used or made, but in Siberia they are widely used, and snowshoes are totally absent(i believe). Perhaps it has something to do with vegetation density, although there are park-like pine forests in Canada. Metal tools could be another reason, but after contact at least, wide hardwood toboggans were made, but never skis.
    Either way, today snowmachines (and cutlines) replaced all that for people working in the bush(trappers). Most trappers do carry snowshoes along on their snowmachines for various uses. Although i have a feeling skis, the wide siberian ones, can be as good or better for same tasks, especially walking back to camp from a broken snow-go, in fresh soft trail.

  3. Torjus Gaarenon 16 Feb 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Scott

    The spiral in the wood is no advantage, but it can be difficult to find totally straight wood. I buried the wood in the snow when not working on it so it wouldn’t dry out before bending the skis.

    Matt

    Many Siberian skis are very broad and short. Functions pretty much as snowshoes. Snowshoes are not completely absent in Siberia either. In the far east of Siberia they exist alongside skis. Chukchee people uses snowshoes, although rather simple ones.

    In the highly forested valleys where I live snowshoes are more useful in general. Canadian snowshoes are more versatile than skis.

    Skis are much faster in relatively open areas. Such as in the higher mountains.

    You have a point about that skis are difficult to make with only stone tools. But it wouldn’t have been a huge problem. Harder to make a toboggan I’d say. Sectioning logs with fire and splitting down as much as possible with wedges makes it possible to almost avoid using stone axes and similar I think.

  4. Scotton 20 Feb 2014 at 4:01 am

    Thanks, Torjus
    I got a spiral too as I split the logs. I am planing them down now, trying to work with the spiral a bit to get the full strength of the grain. I’ll try to flatten them when I bend the tips and put them in a form.

    Matt: wide skis with skins are, I think, as versatile and useful in the deep woods as snowshoes. They are a bit safer too.

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