GORHAM -- Kevin St. Gelais had an epiphany driving to work one day several years ago. He was living in the Coos County town of Milan back then and working at Wildcat Mountain, where he's still a full-time ski patroller. His morning commute took him past the shuttered mills in Berlin.
"My daughter and I were talking about how America doesn't really make anything anymore," St. Gelais said. "I look up, and there's the northern Presidentials shining white in the sun. And I thought, 'We've got to make skis!' Being a ski bum, it seemed like a good idea."
So was born Saint Custom Skis and Snowboards.
Through trial and error - and lots of product testing - St. Gelais has learned a lot about building skis since he started his company in 2010. And while there are other custom ski makers around New England, Saint Skis is the only such endeavor in New Hampshire.
Building skis is both a labor of love and a way to supplement his income for St. Gelais, who works at Wildcat through the winter, then heads across Route 16 to spend summers as a ranger at Mount Washington State Park. St. Gelais grew up in the Bedford area and worked as a computer programmer before heading north to the mountains a dozen years ago.
"The mountains and this cabin and my skiing every day - it's all in these skis," he said.
St. Gelais builds about 25 pairs of skis in a year, and this ski-making enterprise permeates his home, a cozy place tucked into a quiet residential area in Gorham. His loft holds the core-building workshop. The main shop occupies a small side room off the living area. His wood shop is under the deck. And the press he uses to finish the skis moonlights as a pillow-covered bench in the living room.
True to his impetus for getting into the ski-building business, St. Gelais said every component that goes into a pair of his custom skis is American-made, and as much as possible comes from the Granite State.
"The wood cores [used in the skis] are boards that were cut and milled right here in Gorham," he said. "It's about more than just skiing; it's supporting the local economy."
It's also about meeting specific client requests.
While St. Gelais allows clients to select the length, sidecut, and flex of their skis, he said the thing they're typically most concerned about is how the skis will look - and they can have just about any look that can fit on a ski. He's done skis that are entirely one color, skis with princesses and superheroes, skis with stripes or squiggles, and even one pair of skis with a one-of-a-kind painting created by the customer.
"They're totally conversation starters," St. Gelais said.
To capitalize on those conversations, St. Gelais has come up with skiing's equivalent of the business world's elevator pitch: the chairlift pitch. He's whittled his ski-making story and sales pitch down to the length of a time it takes to get from base area to summit and has spread the word of Saint Skis one chairlift ride at a time.
From the start, Wildcat has been an integral part of Saint Skis. St. Gelais enlisted ski patrollers to do early product testing, and many of his customers are locals who ski "the Cat."
"I feel like the skis are just part of the mountain," said Stephanie Indeck-Myers, a longtime Wildcat skier who was one of Saint's first customers and now has three pair of St. Gelais' custom-built skis in her fleet. "Kevin knows me and how I ski. These skis were handmade just for me."
Indeck-Myers has ordered a pair of Saint Skis for her 13-year-old son, and St. Gelais recently restored her first pair of Saints, which were showing a bit of wear and tear after years of use. The graphics on her original Saint Skis are a tribute to Wildcat, with images of the mountain, a painting of the old gondola, and various Wildcat logos.
Saint skis start at about $800, in line with higher-end skis found in retail shops.
Before he gets to the art, though, St. Gelais uses the "sandwich" method for building skis - layering the components - then places everything in the press to complete the process.
It all starts with the core. Sometimes a customer will ask for specific type of wood core, although St. Gelais typically uses poplar or maple - that wood milled in Gorham. That combination offers the right flex and feel for a ski, he says. For snowboards, St. Gelais often uses just poplar, which provides a softer flex.
The core comprises thin strips of wood painstakingly cut, matched, and glued together - all in the pitched-roof loft of St. Gelais' cabin. Then that core is planed and ready to be layered into a ski sandwich.
The layers of the sandwich go like this: the polyethylene base (commonly known by skiers as P-tex) with metal edges epoxied on, dampening strips, more epoxy, a fiberglass or carbon fiber sheet, the wood core, another layer of fiberglass, and the top sheet - complete with customized graphics, which St. Gelais' son, KJ, designs.
Then the skis (or board) go into the press, where they'll stay for about a week.
When he started in the ski-making business, St. Gelais turned to the internet for guidance on how to build skis. Through trial and error, he's learned a few tricks for perfecting the flex of a ski or board, the timing and pressure needed to press that sandwich together, and how to apply various components to make his skis not only look good but ski well, too.
"I'm not reinventing the wheel," he said. "I'm just copying the best skis that are out there and making them custom."
All from the comfort of home.
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul writes Winter Notes, which appears in the New Hampshire Union Leader's Friday editions during the ski season.