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Make your own
Traditional Wooden Skis


I had never been skiing before or even held a pair of skis, but making a pair seemed like a fun idea! Even in England where snow may only be around for a few days of the year, the fun that can be had on those days makes the effort in making them well worth while! This article shows how I made mine.

My imagination was first sparked when watching a Swedish film about native Reindeer herders. For such people skis are not all about fun and high speed downward slopes, in northern climates skis provide a means of moving across the top of deep snow which can potentially be meters thick. Without such equipment as skis or snowshoes, travel across the landscape would be incredibly difficult.

Unlike most modern skis, traditional wooden skis like those which were made by our ancestors can vary hugely in size. It's wise to make skis according to how and where they'll be used. A large surface area is better suited for situations where snow is very deep and powdery. In Siberia the natives made skis which could exceed a width of 12 inches each! On well used ski runs where the snow is more compacted, narrow skis can be used for more speed.

One of the first things I learnt about skis is that generally they are not just flat pieces of wood with a bend at the end, they are also bent from one end to the other meaning that when not in use the centre of the ski will stand off the ground slightly. This bend serves to spread the weight of the user more evenly over thick snow; Instead of the centres dipping down the skis just become flat. 


picture showing an overall bend in the ski, see how it stands away from the ground slightly at the centre.


For my timber I was lucky enough to find a trunk of Ash wood left by loggers on a fire heap, as a bonus the log was also naturally bent along it's length, this was perfect, I could utilise this natural shape the achieve the overall bend as explained above.

Scandinavians generally used Hardwoods for skis, typically Ash or Birch, but also favoured pitch saturated Pine. In Norway it is apparently true that if you died whilst using skis made of Elm you were not to be buried on holy ground
since it was considered suicide because they were so slippery! Siberian tribes frequently used Softwoods like Spruce, Pine or Larch. It's worth noting that the Siberians nearly always lined the undersides of their skis with leg skins (of any large animals), this would prevent the softwoods from weaving out. Also, the flow of fur was aligned backwards to give excellent traction when moving uphill.

The timber you choose should have as few knots and side branches as possible. Also the grain needs to be straight and not twisted; you don't want to split the log in half and it look like a propeller... You can usually tell if the grain is twisted in a tree by studying the bark.

In a log of timber the sections of wood to be used will be different according to whether you are using hardwood or Softwood. For hardwoods have the growth rings aligned 'parallel' with the width of the ski (see fig 1). For a softwood have the growth rings vertically aligned (perpendicular) (fig 2).


fig 1


fig 2

  If the skis are to be made the traditional way the log should to be split into workable staves using wedges. The diameter of the log will determine how many times it can be split down to result in workable pieces. The log I used was fairly thick so I could afford to split it into quarters. Carefully inspect the wood beforehand to Plan where best to make the split to account for any natural quirks.

I Start with a felling axe, using a sledge hammer I tap it into the end of the log until the wood begins to split. Then I place a wedge into the split and hammer it. As the split opens further the axe will loosen and can be taken out. We now just use wedges to do the rest. Hammer a second wedge into the split slightly ahead of the first. The first wedge will then loosen and this can be moved ahead even further. The wedges are moved one after the other until the other end is reached and the log falls into two halves. If you're lucky this will have been as straight forward as it sounds and the split will have run in a straight line. If the split had run off to one side at any point the next wedge would need to be hammered in further ahead and off to one side to encourage the split back to the middle.


Shaping the wood

The following shows my strategy for reducing a quarter log of Ash wood into a ski. (red indicates wood to be be removed. Drawings not to scale)

This job will be a lot easier if completed while the wood is still green. Firstly the bark is stripped using a regular knife or draw knife. The rough stave then needs to be reduced to a regular plank with dimensions to accommodate the widest and thickest parts of the finished ski. At the beginning you'll need to remove large amounts of wood, this can be done by making a series of saw cuts a few inches apart along the stave, blocks of wood can then be split away with the axe, chopping through from one saw cut to the next... (Be careful not to make the initial saw cuts too deep otherwise you'll be left with wood only suitable for the fire!). The plank is then hewn with an axe to refine the shape and surface, a drawknife and shave horse would also work perfectly. A chalk plumb line is a handy piece of kit for marking straight lines to use as guides.

The profile of the ski front is now drawn on and shaped with a combination of axe and knife.

A middle section where your foot is to be placed remains a regular thickness and the wood tapered away either side down to either end.

A plane, farriers rasp and a cabinet scraper are also excellent tools for refining the shape down to final dimensions.

    It's up to you to decide on the dimensions of your own skis, but for reference here's how mine measure up.

(Notice how a small nodule of wood has been left at the front which can be carved into a decorative end piece later on.)





Skis now ready for steam bending the ends... (Notice how I also shaped the rear ends a little too; just to take the corners off.)


To create the overall bend in the skis (as explained earlier) the wood can be strapped to a straight plank and propped open at the centres. As the wood seasons the skis will take on this shape, this will only work if the wood is still green. You may consider propping the wood further out than is pictured as the wood will settle somewhat when unstrapped.

Note: It is best to steam bend the ski ends while the wood is still green, so you can return the skis to this form later after steaming, then leave until fully seasoned.


  Steam bending the ends  
To steam bend the ends I wrapped the wood in hessian material from an old sack, I then soaked this with water and wrapped the the lot with turkey aluminium foil. I then supported this over a hot fire for perhaps 45 minutes (note how a log shields the unprotected wood from the heat. The pieces of wood on top of the foil are just weighing a flap down).


Before steaming I had already rigged up some cord which would enable me to swiftly make the bends and hold them in shape. A small loop was tied to the tip and a separate long length secured at the centre of the ski. When the wood had been steamed for long enough, I could then quickly unwrap the wood, thread the long cord through the small loop at the end, then pull down with force to bend and hold the wood in shape.

Note: the hole drilled through the ski towards the front of the middle section (where the cord is tied) will later be chiselled out into a wider slot through which the foot bindings can be attached. It is important to note that this point is forward of the true centre so that in use the ski will be slightly back heavy, this is so that when your foot is lifted the front of the ski will rise first.



  Last stages to be completed:
  • Chiselling out a rectangular slot hole through which I could secure the bindings
  • Carving the decorative ends in a traditional Swedish style
  • All surfaces are given a coat of pure Pine tar to help prevent snow sticking to the wood. As the tar is brushed on it is heated with a blow torch to help it go into the wood. Excess tar is rubbed off with a rag. (Tar made by 'Bickmores', marketed as a horse hoof treatment. Purchased off the internet).
  • Applying Bees wax to the undersides to make the skis glide better, I simply rubbed it on like a crayon and whipped over it with the blowtorch to even it out. Special ski wax can be purchased which will last much longer. I found that without the wax snow would clog up the skis (in colder climates where the temperature is much lower and the snow more powdery, this problem would not occur, just the Pine tar treatment would likely be enough).
  • Finally I had to make the foot bindings. Again I decided to make these in the traditional way from withies, which are long thin shoots of fresh or soaked wood twisted lengthways until the fibres separate, creating flexible, strong rope-like strands. I used Willow, but Birch shoots were commonly used. I could not find any instructions on how to make/ assemble these so a little improvisation was needed. They had to be a tight fit so I formed them around my boot while fitting them.




Decorative carved ends


Willow 'withies' as bindings. Several strands wrapped together to make a strong rope-like structure.

  Put to the test...  


  This was my first time using any pair of skis, I'm a total beginner so with nothing to compare against I can't give a conclusive review of their performance. However they did seem to work pretty well and sure put a smile on my face! Since the snow was not very deep I could just use a couple of suitably straight sticks as ski poles.

After a fair few runs my Willow withy bindings have loosened, so I'll be replacing these with some thick leather straps complete with buckles to really get things secure. This will give better control of direction too.

I hope this article has inspired you to have a go at making your own... Stay safe and have fun!