In Good Shape


Snowboarding has returned to its soulful roots

The author in his laboratory at Franco Snowshapes. (Ian Haney)

Ours is a rich legacy, young grasshopper. From the original crude, organic materials of the past to the aerospace materials of today, the act of hand-shaping snowboards is steeped in history, culture and imagination. It started with skis and surfboards more than 4,000 years ago. Relics found on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) depicting surfers date back to 2400 BC. Skis found in a peat bog in Sweden tell the tale of people thousands of years ago who used two wooden planks for everyday life, trade and warfare. The offspring of skiing, surfing and skateboarding, snowboarding’s handcrafted roots are soulful and scattered.

The WRKSHRT film Foothills: The Unlinked Heritage of Snowboarding explains that roughly 300 years ago, the people of the small village of Petran in Turkey’s Kaçar mountains invented petranboarding—one of the earliest forms of snowboarding, essentially plywood with a rope handle. It is still alive today in these remote Turkish peaks and villages. Although petranboarding did not evolve into snowboarding’s modern iteration, it is a reminder that the sport transcends country and culture.

Now spin the globe to the United States: in 1965, Sherman Poppin inadvertently invented the Snurfer. Desperate to entertain his two daughters while his pregnant wife lay in bed, he nailed a pair of children’s skis together on a cold Christmas morning in Michigan. His creation—a surfboard for the snow, sans bindings—was popular with the Poppin kids and beyond. One year after Poppin invented the Snurfer, he licensed the design to the Brunswick Corporation, which began mass producing the newfangled board. This is widely regarded as the true birth of snowboarding as we know it today.

From 1972 to 1979, Winterstick, Sims, Gnu and Burton would progress the sport of snowsurfing to a new level, stitching the passion and design of surfing and skateboarding into snowboarding. During this time, most boards were pressed by hand in rudimentary shops with little production capacity.

As manufacturers built snowboards en masse in the 1980s, the art of hand-shaping boards fizzled. By 1990, ski factories were producing boards for snow brands and the boom began in earnest. The small batch, hand-made snowboard disappeared as the skateboard-drenched 90s furthered snowboarding’s popularity.

“The boards of the 70s and early 80s, we discovered, had it right all along.”

Today, the revival of hand-shaping boards is what some hail as a return to our roots. Others, meanwhile, say it’s a fad. But no matter how you see it, hand-shaping snowboards of all shapes and sizes gives the rider unfettered control over design. It also cuts out the middle man, building a relationship between the shaper and the snowboarder. From wooden, edgeless powder-specific boards to carbon, Titanal, urethane and Kevlar high-tech split-boards, makers are building any shape the mind can conceive.

(Mikey Franco)

When we look at the world of surfboard shapers, we see boards shaped for the local break and its wave form. From beach break to point break, onshore winds to offshore winds, ground swell and wind swell, conditions are always changing. Because of this, surfers typically amass an arsenal of boards. Snowboarding, from the 90s until about 2010, was the complete opposite. All we needed (and could afford) was a twin tip, maybe even a directional twin. We didn’t have the money to do it any other way.

As snowboarding and its riders matured, got better jobs, made more money and, finally, could afford to have more than one board, we discovered the value in a quiver—that taper, long shovels, set-back stances and variations in camber allowed us to effortlessly float in pow and carve perfect lines. The boards of the 70s and early 80s, we discovered, had it right all along. The only difference was that those boards were really meant for powder, as virtually no resorts allowed snowboarding. Today, we can ride everywhere in the world (except for three resorts not worth mentioning).

By combining the effortless float of a 1975 Winterstick with a modern flex pattern and the finest materials available to us today, we have entered a new phase of snowboard shaping. Because of this movement and the history that surfboard shaping has lent us, we now have permission to make these boards for our very own “breaks.” We can build boards shaped for the perfect day in Jackson Hole, Niseko, AK or Vermont. We don’t have to wait for the big brands to miss the mark, designing generic shapes for the masses.

For me, this is what the shaper movement is about. It requires reading your home mountain, listening to the wind and snow. It’s about feeling the contours of your local hill and crafting a board for the perfect fit—knowing that perfect fit will change just as sure as the temperature will rise or drop, the snow will melt and freeze and the terrain will look completely different tomorrow. This also gives us the chance to really listen to the riders, to craft a board after their wishes, desires and skills.

Mikey Franco is the founder of Franco Snowshapes.

@francosnowshapes