Ski Tuning: What you May Know and What You Probably Don't

Ski Tuning: What you May Know and What You Probably Don't

By: Patrick Ross Comments: 0

We all know that guy who thinks he has the secret sauce to be able to magically tune skis better than anyone else, all you have to do is ask him.  Many times, these crusty DIY'ers actually have some great ideas and practices; little ways that they've personalized age-old tuning techniques to make them more efficient or maybe more effective.  On the other end of the DIY spectrum though, you have the guy who's skis smell alarmingly like his wife's yankee candle collection and he can't figure out why his skis feel like velcro on the snow.  

In all seriousness, ski tuning is not a magical, mystical enterprise. In essence, it's a mechanical practice that is pretty straight forward once you understand some basic principals; skis need sharp edges to turn, a flat base with a structure to break suction, and wax to glide over the snow.  Certainly, there are intricacies and a wealth of knowledge that assist ski techs and DIY'ers in varying levels of success when tuning equipment. We call that "ski tuning theory" and that is where ski tuning sort of fades into the mystical for some people.

The theory side of tuning can be intimidating for most average skiers, and many have no real interest in gaining any sort of understanding of the how and why of it all.  Unfortunately, for those who do actually want to gain that knowledge, it's not readily available. Yes, Youtube can be a resource, your local shop and the techs there will probably impart some knowledge in bits and pieces, but an in-depth over arching education on ski tuning can really only be gained through experience in a shop tuning hundreds/thousands of skis over time and being taught by someone who has (hopefully) been educated properly over years themselves. 

Some DIY'ers find themselves in the position of having been able to find just enough information on tuning theory to make themselves dangerous (to their equipment, mostly).  We have people come in with edge angle requests without knowing why they want them, or they want specific edge angles but aren't fully aware of the breadth of the consequences of grinding the requested angles once on the snow. 

For example, we once had a customer bring in his skis and wanted a zero degree base bevel and 3 degree side edge angle.  These angels aren't out of the possibility of ski techs, and in some cases are a great idea...if you're an FIS level slalom racer.  This customer, however, brought us a pair of Blizzard Brahmas with this request and was convinced that he'd have more control on ice. He was partially correct, but putting that hot of a tune on a recreational ski can be pretty dangerous, showing up in the form of the skier catching edges and being ill-prepared to handle the directness of a tune like that.  

Another issue with the above request, is that in almost all cases, recreational skis arrive from the factory with around a 1 degree base bevel. A ton of material would have to be removed from the base edge, and consequently the base itself, in order to drop the base bevel from 1 degree to zero, seriously shortening the life expectancy of the ski. 

Mr. zero degree base bevel is only one small example of the many, many options and consequences skiers/techs/DIY'ers face when tuning. Base structure can have an equally detrimental or advantageous effect on a successful tune as does edge angle.  Put no structure in a base and you'll have stiction/suction problems. Choose too shallow of a structure and the same can be true, depending on the temp of the snow. Choose too deep of a structure and you'll create a ton of unnecessary drag. Throw in the endless choice of structure shapes, edge feathering, tip and tail detuning options, wax variations, etc. and you can find yourself in a pile of info you just don't know what to do with.

I don't want to discourage anyone from strapping up and going after the process of learning how to tune their own equipment. For me, it's a cathartic practice that allows me to get into a nice rhythm and after having tuned thousands of skis over my life, it becomes a mindless task letting me live in my head for a while where I do my best problem solving.  Anyone wanting to get a good home tuning setup together can do so relatively easily. Most ski shops carry ready-made DIY tuning kits ranging in price from around $50, to a couple of hundred dollars for a decently equipped kit.  These types of kits will serve most people very well in being able to maintain the tunes on their equipment and keeping everything in good condition. Where they fail is when you need medium to extensive base repair, edges recut, structures ground, etc. That's where your favorite ski shop (hopefully us!) comes in.

I was lucky enough to have apprenticed under a pretty amazing ski tech/shop owner who had been in the industry for more than 30 years when I met him in my early 20's.  Later on, I became close friends, and worked, with a person who spent years on the world cup ski circuit tuning for world cup and olympic racers from more than 10 different countries. I learned an enormous amount from that friendship and have used all of the education I received over the years to develop comprehensive tuning processes that translate directly to our customers.

Using that info, we're a large enough ski shop to be able to afford literal world class tuning machines and gear, which in turn allows us to provide you a world class tune. I don't say that to boast or gloat, but to preface the next part of this article...the part you probably don't know about ski tuning.  

While the ski industry isn't necessarily small, it's certainly not large either. The market for large tuning operations is limited and there are only a handful manufacturers making equipment and tuning machines on that scale. By shear volume, hand tuning skis for us is not even a remote possibility. A great ski tech might be able to take a ski that needs base work from intake to completion in about 20 minutes...maybe knocking out 3-4 skis an hour. We guarantee over night tuning services and we consistently tune 30-60 pairs of skis each day during the week and 50-100 on weekend nights.  Because of that, we turn to robotic tuning machines in order to automate some of the tuning process and speed it up, while at the same time offering phenomenally consistent results.

There are three companies, essentially, that manufacture these large scale robotic tuning machines, along with the peripheral machines (waxers, edgers, binding testing equipment, mounting equipment, base repair, etc.) needed to adequately outfit an efficient and productive medium to large tuning program. These companies are Montana Sport International, Reichmann, and Wintersteiger. There are many smaller companies manufacturing smaller tuning tools and equipment, but these are the "big 3". 

In 2014 when opening our shop, the building came with a Wintersteiger MicroJet tuning robot dating back to 2003.  Surprisingly, even given its age at that point, it still put out a decent tune and was extremely consistent. There were definite issues with the program the machine ran on (it literally still used a 3.5 inch floppy disc drive), and it was very limited in it's ability to be manipulated to perform varying functions, but in essence, it worked.  Cautiously, as our business grew, I began researching a replacement.

My background is in education, I have 3 BA's and an MA in history, so research is sort of my jam.  I spent more than 3 years educating myself on the companies (Montana, Reichmann, Wintersteiger), familiarizing myself with the reps for each company, learning the advantages and shortcomings of the various machines from each company, and finally performing real world tests on machines from all 3 manufacturers.  While there were some aspects from all 3 that were attractive, for me a clear leader presented itself rather early in my research.

Reichmann, a German company that began in 1918, is the most tenured of the manufacturers.  Simply put, they've been doing it longer than anyone else. However, they aren't very well represented in the U.S.  They're represented mainly by Sun Valley Ski Tools, a great ski shop resource available to dealers only, but they have no real presence at any east coast trade shows, nor do they offer many options for testing really anywhere. My only option to "test" a Reichmann came in the form of a facetime session. Unfortunately, they left our radar rather quickly.

Wintersteiger and Montana are the 2 largest manufacturers.  Montana is a Swiss company that began in 1939 making it the 2nd oldest in the group with Wintersteiger, from Austria, being the newest beginning in 1953.  These two companies are extremely close competitors with both making machines in varying categories and build-outs for a wide array of needs in multiple shop sizes. Both Montana and Wintersteiger offered machines with the capabilities and options I needed in the shop.

My requirements included a machine that could tune a pair of skis at once, as opposed to only one ski at a time, the ability to tune snowboards, a comprehensive and reasonably priced service plan, a good re-sale and/or trade-in program, reliability, an ergonomic operating program for ease of training, a great relationship with the rep and company, and most importantly it had to put out a great tune consistently. Cost was definitely a factor as well (these machines run anywhere from $150,000 to well over $500k)

My first visit was to Wintersteiger's office in Waitsfield, VT.  I was surprised to see that the office was actually a couple of rooms in the back of an old house converted to a storage room and a room with one of their tuning machines, the Scout. Initially I was impressed with the machine and it's purported capabilities. Start-up was easy, loading was fast and efficient and the operation was extremely quiet.  On the other hand, the Scout only tuned one ski at a time. While at the time, this wouldn't have been a deal breaker, it wasn't exactly what I wanted.  This was, after all, just a demo of their machines and there was another machine option from Wintersteiger that could accommodate 2 skis at once, but as it turned out this wasn't the only short fall.

As the rep/tech was running the machine and performing the demonstration, the skis continually came out of the machine with marks on the bases from the ceramic discs used to tune the edges. This would result in the ski having to be sent back through the machine to have these marks removed by the base grinding process, then edged again, only to have the same thing occur (to further explain, the process of these machines is as follows, the ski(s) is/are picked up by a sled or carriage in the machine, taken and run over a spinning stone to grind the base flat and install a structure, then the ski is run through an edging system preferably side edges first, then finally base edges). The rep and the tech assured me it was set up error that was easily fixed, but they weren't able to do so while I was there, and subsequently weren't able to produce a customer ready ski during the demonstration. I was invited to view another machine at a local race school, but scheduling became an issue.

I visited Montana last at their office/warehouse/showroom in Groveland, MA near Ipswich.  Their facility is located in an industrial park and my initial impression of the office and facility as a whole was much more positive than Wintersteiger. Entering the Montana office brings you into a clean, efficiently laid out office, then into their warehouse where parts and items are neatly catalogued and accessible, and then in the rear of the building is a workshop/showroom, which at the time, housed 4 different models of their tuning machines, along with various waxers and base repair machines. In short, the Montana workshop/showroom appeared to be laboratory neat and clean.  Each machine had ample room and was set up to be used at a moment's notice, tools were stored, items had a place, simply put it was a much more professional presentation than Wintersteiger.

I was introduced to all 4 of the machines, but we spent the most time with the Montana Crystal Rock. This machine tuned a pair of skis at once, had the ability to set various edge angles, allowed for varying pressures to be used allowing for progressive edge tuning as well as infinitely adjustable structure depth, and finally, Montana's GripTech system that tuned the side edges in a way that made them sharper and more durable than any other system or machine on the market, but also did so while removing less material than other systems, resulting in a longer life for the ski. 

Each of the Montana machines worked as advertised and none of them had any issues or errors while the demonstrations took place.  I was extremely impressed with the operation as a whole.  I did have 2 concerns; first being that the service plan through Montana was very expensive, and secondly, the machine that suited my needs (the Crystal Rock) was about $100k more than the comparable Wintersteiger. For reference, the Wintersteiger ran around $155,000 - $200K while the Montana was priced at $260,000 - $300,000 depending on options. 

I spent a year weighing options and then the Montana rep offered to let me bring my rental fleet to the Montana facility during the summer and tune them all.  We operate a fleet of around 700-1000 skis depending on the season, and he assured me that we could knock them out in a day using all of the machines. So I did just that.  I loaded my entire fleet in my trailer and spend 12 hours running them through their machines.  The rep and two of their techs assisted running the machines and we finished that day. My cost? $500. I was sold.  After running the machines for that long, it became apparent that the Swiss manufacturing of the Montana machines was simply superior to Wintersteiger, even with a cost premium of $100k.  My best analogy would be the difference between a Macbook and an HP laptop...the Macbook does exactly what it's supposed to do every time you turn it on where the HP can't decide which virus it wants to allow in. So in 2019 I bought the Montana Crystal Rock.

Ultimately, the Montana rep convinced me to pass on the service plan and indicated that none of their customers actually buy it simply because there are so few issues with the machines, and he was correct. In the almost 5 years I've owned my Montana, I've only had one issue that required service outside of normal maintenance. It's an absolutely remarkable machine that allows us to tune around 35 skis an hour, putting out a truly world cup level tune on a consistent basis, while keeping an eye toward the longevity of your equipment. To be fair, shops across the world utilize Wintersteiger every day with success, but I feel that had I sought out the Wintersteiger machine at the lower price, I would have been "settling" and in turn putting out an inferior tune.

So there you have it, way more info than you needed, and probably wanted, about ski tuning. If you're around and want to see how our Montana Crystal Rock works, just ask, we'll be happy to take you back in the shop and give you a demo.




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