COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Cris Burnham grew up skiing on hills of Sun Valley Resort. The sport became a passion.
But after nearly three decades of cutting through fresh powder and slashing through downhill runs, he decided something about this sport. It was a simple decision, and it was this:
He could build a better ski.
Not just that he could. He would.
And he did.
“It’s really, really fun to be able to build something, then go out there and slide on the snow with it,” the Coeur d’Alene man said. “It just makes people smile, so it’s a really good feeling.”
He learned by doing. He experimented, figured and refigured. He chopped up old skis, studied manufacturing and visited ski factories, read reviews and of course, talked with skiers to see what they liked. There was trial and error, fine-tuning and tweaking, too.
“I slowly started reverse engineering them, figuring out what’s involved, what to do,” he said.
Bottom line, it worked. And it’s still working.
“My very first pair is probably still my favorite pair,” he said. “I still use it today.”
Since launching Substance Skis two years ago, Burnham estimates he has created about 100 pair — sold about 60 pair, with the others being prototypes — which he made in his garage. It’s there a ski press sits, with the words, “Not made in China,” because Burnham made that himself, too.
“That’s my baby,” said the banker by day, ski maker by night.
Burnham custom made seven pairs of his skis for North Idaho College that he presented in January to the Regional Recreation Management Outdoor Leadership Program and the Outdoor Pursuits program. The skis, specifically made for the two NIC programs, are smaller and easier to handle than standard skis.
“What they were looking for was something that all skill levels could handle,” Burnham said. “That’s what this should do here.”
The leadership program led by instructor Paul Chivvis will use them during a field trip to Lookout Pass. Students added the bindings to the skis this week.
He said the new skis will expand their equipment, which includes telemark gear and split snowboards. The Substance Skis will be used in mountaineering classes, backcountry skiing and avalanche education.
Previously, about half the students would use snowshoes for some class trips into the outdoors.
“Now we can take people that have alpine ski background and get them out into the backcountry without any learning curve,” he said. “We didn’t have the ability to give that to the students until now.”
Chivvis said the NIC outdoors programs were in the market for skis and heard about Substance Skies through Ski Shack in Hayden. A local guy making great skis appealed to Chivvis. Plus, Burnham gave NIC a great deal.
“They’re probably the prettiest looking skis I’ve ever seen, too,” Chivvis said.
“If they perform half as well as they look, they’re going to be awesome,” he said.
Appearance isn’t everything, as the name Substance Ski suggests.
“I was always looking for skis I couldn’t find, or if I could find a nice handmade product it was out of my price range,” Burnham said.
So he began making skis three years ago, and started the company two years ago. He likes the finished product, and while feedback has been good, he’ll always be seeking a better way to build a ski.
“It took a while to figure it out. There’s a lot of parts involved, a lot of steps in the process to do it,” he said.
There’s no hurrying a superior ski.
“There’s a little tweaking going on there to get it where it needs to be,” he said.
There’s a secret to his success and he gladly shares it: Find the best material you can find. Burnham lists some of the materials he uses — massanranduba, triaxial fiberglass, carbon fiber, epoxy, and Isosport 8210 nylon topsheet. Most important, bamboo.
“What we’re finding in the ski industry today is the best material is bamboo,” he said. “We source only FSC certified bamboo to use as the heart and soul of every Substance Ski. Bamboo is highly renewable and provides a flex, pop, and strength that is not found in the typically inferior wood cores of the industry today.”
“That’s the core,” he says. “Ninety percent of how a ski is going to behave is based on the core, that wood core that’s inside. Everything else is aesthetics, built around it that encapsulates that core, keeps any moisture out and keeps it in good shape.”
And when it’s done, it looks good, which does matter.
“A lot of people buy these for the aesthetics,” he said. “You try and create a good-looking product that works as well as it looks.”
It’s far from a quick process. It’s labor intensive, with eight hours into each ski.
The entire process is even longer, allowing for the overnight curing.
He works most nights following a full day in the mortgage business.
Substance Skies are offered for $550 a pair, which Burnham notes brings them in at a lower price than most. As demand increases, so might the price.
But money isn’t what it’s about. Not now. It’s about creating something in a garage, and heading to the ski hill to test it.
This is about making that perfect run, on the perfect day, on the perfect ski.