A Day at Voile

 

Considering the joy that a single pair of skis can bestow,
one must think these wooden planks are born from the intercourse of all things
awesome, like a byproduct of beer, snowflakes, and avalanche rescue dogs that
magically rises pre-molded and ready to ride from an embryonic goo that smells
like alpine wind, all set to a dubstep soundtrack of skier hollers recorded on
an over-the-head powder day. Turns out, skis are actually made in a stark
warehouse filled with noisy presser machines, nostril-burning adhesives, and
saws, lots of saws. Usually these cavernous factories are located in China,
where the majority of ski companies outsource their manufacturing to keep costs
low. But Utah is home to a major ski company that builds their skis and
splitboards right here in West Valley City. While there isn’t any immaculate
ski conceptions going on (supposedly) the two large buildings that make up
Voile headquarters are humming with activity, where planks are being hand-made
by skiers, for skiers.

 

That such a place can exist in this day and age is a miracle
in itself. To think there is a large, successful, local ski company still
manufacturing their products in the U.S. is amazing. But how does Voile do it
while staying competitive in an ever-growing backcountry ski market? The answer
lies beneath the rafters of their Utah headquarters.

 

Inside the nondescript buildings Voile calls home, a team of
designers and production staff churn out 30 pairs of skis a day, along with the
rest of their offerings. Within the shop, activity is everywhere. Giant
machinery stamps raw metal into shovels, binding plates and splitboard
hardware. Beneath faded Voile posters from the ‘80s tacked to a wall, workers
sit at well-worn tables, hand assembling Telemark bindings with precise care.
In the next room, wood cores for splitboards and skis are machine cut from
vertically laminated blanks and stacked onto racks. Base material is cut, metal
edges are sawed in a shower of glowing sparks then hand bent. Workers then do a
wet layup of the core, composite materials like carbon fiber, fiberglass and
resin, and the topsheet, which are all pressed into shape. The ski sandwich is
then cut with a band saw and fine-tuned by sanding and stone grinding into
finished skis ready for shipping. The best part is, these talented folks making
skis and splitboards are local skiers and riders you’ve probably once shared a
chairlift with.

 

Voile’s Sales and Marketing Manager, David Grissom, says
staying true to their roots as local company, and not outsourcing production to
China, allows them much more flexibility. “We can make changes on the fly if
there’s a manufacturing issue. We have the ability to prototype and innovate. I
think it takes a long time to get prototypes out of Asia, but if you look at
the way we’re prototyping skis, we can take a design to the snow in 36 hours.
It’s just sort of what we do. It’s in our blood because we’re kind-of gearheads
and tool geeks. We are always buying new machines and tooling to build better
products or refine the process.”  Plus,
it doesn’t hurt for a ski company to be headquartered between mountains that
average 600 inches of snowfall a year, and an international airport.

 

Voile began in 1980, when modern backcountry skiing was in
its infancy. It all started when the founder of the company, Mark “Wally”
Wariakos, invented an add-on to a Telemark binding called the Voile Plate. At
the time, bindings and leather boots were flimsy, so Wally cobbled together a
plastic plate made from old door springs and a recycled heel lever that went
beneath his three-pin binding. The plate added more performance by keeping the
boot locked onto the ski on the descent. The contraption worked so well that Voile
was suddenly in business.

 

Sales of the Voile Plate gave Wally the means to invent other
innovations that he built in his shop like a heavy-duty 3-pin binding, and an
avalanche rescue shovel Frankensteined from a shovel bought at Sears. He
rounded the corners, replaced the handle, and added pop buttons to make it
collapsible. Grissom says there was really nothing like it at the time, and the
shovel has basically remained unchanged to this day.

 

All the gear Voile was developing at the time was to make
backcountry ski touring easier, although Grissom says Wally was also making
beefier and heavier products for the ski down as well, including the first
plastic Telemark boot, called the A-boot. “Everything from the beginning was
geared to backcountry skiing,” Grissom said, adding, “it was a way to sort of
avoid the, even at the time, high cost of lift tickets and the crowds at local
ski areas.”

But it was the splitboard that really gave Voile a
super-competitive advantage in the backcountry industry. The story about how
the splitboard was invented is a legend in Utah’s ski and snowboard community.
In the early nineties, Brett “Cowboy” Kobernik, a forecaster with the Utah
Avalanche Center, built the world’s first prototype splitboard in his basement
with parts cobbled together from the hardware store. He took the idea to Voile,
where they let him tinker around and use their machinery. Over time, he and
Wally refined it, and created the first do-it-yourself kit where you saw your
board in half and use Voile’s hardware to put it back together.

 

From there, Voile started building their own splitboards
using the adjustable puck system that is now the industry standard. According
to Grissom, almost all splitboard brands are using Voile’s system and
hole-pattern through license agreements. And although it’s taken a long time,
splitboarding has exploded into the mainstream. “I get a couple emails a week
from small splitboard brands who want a license, and, you know, it’s cool. It’s
really growing fast, it’s exciting, and there’s a lot of momentum,” Grissom
said. “There are probably about 40 different models of splitboards being
offered right now amongst several brands. That’s crazy.”

But despite their success, Voile has a branding problem. Many
people still don’t know that they are a Utah company. I was once among the
ignorant. My first exposure to Voile happened in 1993, when I purchased an
avalanche rescue shovel at the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen. Holding the shiny,
black shovel in my hands, I thought Voile must be a French company. It sounded
European and conjured up images of spandex-clad Euros skinning up icy steeps in
Chamonix on skinny skis. In all the years since that day, when I left the shop
feeling badass for purchasing hardcore backcountry gear, that Voile shovel has
been in my pack on a plethora of ski tours. But it wasn’t until a move to Utah
that I discovered Voile wasn’t French at all, but a local company that is one
of the most respected and reliable backcountry gear manufacturers in the world.

 

It’s a story that Grissom hears time and again. He says many
backcountry skiers still associate the company’s name with a country that lies
over 5,000 miles across the Atlantic. “It’s a totally fabricated kind of word
and I think a lot of times it’s a bit of a misperception that we’re a French
company,” Grissom said. “At the time of Voile’s founding, the big brands were
European. So they wanted to create a name that had a little bit of a European
sound to it.” The word Voile is based on the word “vale,” which is French and
means “sailing.” According to Grissom, one of the early taglines was, “set
yourself free,” which fit in well with the idea of setting yourself free in the
backcountry.

To combat this branding problem, Voile is making efforts to
highlight their Utah history, and market themselves to appeal to more
mainstream consumers. “Obviously the core industry knows who we are, but we’ve
got a job to do to explain that,” Grissom said. They’re well on their way with
a new website that states, “We are not a French company. Since 1980, we have
been and continue to manufacture 98% of our gear here in Salt Lake City, Utah
USA.” With the Buy Local movement all the rage these days, it’s no wonder that
Voile is making it clear to their customers that their products are made in
Utah.

 

Another way Voile is changing public perception is through
their skis and splitboards. Throughout their history, Voile has been pegged as
a ski company that makes quality backcountry products, but is too “core” for
mainstream skiers. That’s about to change. Last year, Voile acquired Sentury
Snowboards out of Reno and hired their head engineer, Ben Harmon. He’s been
making lightweight composite snowboards for 10 years, and Grissom says he’s had
a lot of influence on Voile’s new product line, including their more mainstream
directional twin and true twin splitboards that appeal to younger riders.

 

Harmon, who is now Voile’s Director of Engineering, loves the
fact that the company has kept its manufacturing here in Utah. “There are huge
advantages to being so close to the mountains. Big companies, they have
engineers that have to fly to China to develop products. But for us, we’ll make
a board, go up to Brighton at night, ride it, tweak it the next day, then go up
and try it the next night,” Harmon said, adding, “Everybody here snowboards and
skis every day, so everybody’s putting a lot of love into the product. It’s a
very passion-driven company all the way around.”

Part of Harmon’s challenge has been to transition between two
different worlds, with Voile being the heart of the backcountry market, and
Sentury as a modern, image driven company. “Voile’s already such a solid
company, and they’re pioneers of splitboarding. At Sentury, we were making a
lot of snowboards for Rock Star and Red Bull pros,” Harmon said. “You’d see
them in a lot of videos, X-Games and stuff like that. So it’s a bit of a
transition to take mainstream skiing and snowboarding and apply it to
backcountry. But it’s kind of what everybody is doing right now.”

 

The new Voile Artisan splitboard is a good example of this
new direction. It’s a directional twin board with a rocker/camber profile and
flat center section for uphill touring. But what really makes the Artisan stand
out is the look. Voile’s meat-and-potatoes topsheet designs of old have been
tossed to the scrap pile and replaced with a beautiful, faux-painted wood-grain
design normally found on more mainstream snowboards. Harmon says it’s the new
Voile. “Cosmetically, I’d put them up against anything out there. We focused a lot
on the imagery of the products because Voile’s always been a very
product-driven company. We’re kind of keeping it soulful but modernizing it a
little bit.”

It’s not just the splitboards that are getting a facelift
either. Their new ski line is also the result of reinvention. The Drifter,
Voile’s popular hybrid rocker ski, was killed off and replaced with the Buster,
which won an Editor’s Choice Award in Backcountry Magazine. Grissom says it’s a
little more nimble than the Drifter, but is still a beefy ski. All of their
skis have also gone from cap to sidewall construction to keep everything
lighter, stronger and more appealing. Also, Harmon says he’s currently playing
with a sidecountry ski that’s more than just a straight-up backcountry or
Telemark ski. “They’re essentially inbounds boards that do really great in the
backcountry. We’re trying to make products that people want to ride. That’s the
ultimate goal.”

 

Despite Voile’s
evolution, Harmon promises to remain true to their history, and continue to
make the best backcountry products in the ski industry right here in Utah. “I
think we’re taking the right steps by focusing on the cutting-edge designs, new
rocker shapes, short radius skis with tapered shapes and winning editor’s
choice awards in the magazines. We really are a leader and I think we’re going
to stay ahead of the game.”

 

Grissom agrees and says
Voile’s future in Utah looks bright. “We are an innovator and always have been.
The product across the board is very backcountry centric. We’re just going to
keep making the best products under our core principles. We’ve got a lot of
ideas and we want to keep pushing them. There’s a lot of room for improvement
and refinement, and our work is never done.”

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