PHILLIPS — Two Franklin County craftsmen are celebrating two parts of Maine culture — forestry and skiing — by selling handcrafted skis made of Maine wood from their Phillips workshop.
The state was once a major manufacturer of skis until the 1960s, and while mass production has died down or migrated elsewhere, the co-owner of Lucid Skis is bringing back manufacturing on a small scale through a custom ski business based out of his home.
For the past three years, Nick Mukai and his business partner, Ian Reinholt, have designed skis that showcase the core made of Maine wood, displayed through the fiberglass casing — a style that they say is finding market value in not just Maine but across New England and with some skiers out west.
“We’re showcasing the wood and not covering it with some silly graphic,” Mukai said. “They appeal to people who are maybe a little older and don’t want fluorescence or to anyone who wants to ski on something that reflects the environment. I love that they’re made of the same trees that you’re skiing past on the trail.”
Mukai and Reinholt started the business in the winter of 2010 and 2011, turning a lifelong love of ski into a fledgling business venture.
“I mean, that’s the dream, to keep bringing ski into your life. It probably would have been cheaper to just buy a few pairs of skis,” he said.
Mukai, 33, said skiing has been a part of his life since childhood, and 10 years ago, at the urging of his high school classmate and now business partner Reinholt, he went ski bumming around the country and into Canada. The two men, along with a group of friends, traveled in a refurbished school bus painted blue that now sits under a pile of snow on his property.
“I remember one time they all got pulled over in British Columbia and the cops were like, â€˜Hey, do you mind if we look around? This is pretty cool,'” he said.
His ski bum years came to an end while living in Vancouver when the Olympics came, which threatened to drive up the cost of living and sent him back to the region.
“I missed Maine,” Mukai said. “You don’t get community like this quite anywhere else, where you pull over on the side of the road and five people stop to see if you need help. It’s a nice feeling.”
After Mukai and Reinholt had both settled back in the area, Reinholt approached Mukai with the idea of manufacturing custom skis. Mukai said during that winter they brainstormed until late in the evening to the point that both men started having lucid dreams about ski design, giving the business its name.
Reinholt, a furniture designer by trade, had some knowledge of ski design from taking classes on the ski industry at the University of Maine at Farmington, and the two also had woodshop knowledge. Most of their technique, however, came through trial and error as they tested and tweaked prototypes throughout the winter on nearby Saddleback Mountain.
“We’re now at the point where we really can just about dial by eyeball to one-sixty-fourth of an inch,” he said. “Where a larger manufacturer might have an engineer doing the calculations by computer, we just bust out the old trig calculator and draw it out.”
The next year they started selling skis by pre-order only and sold about 30 pairs, and by the winter of 2012 to 2013, they were selling the skis retail around New England. By the end of this winter, Mukai said they hope to sell about 100 pairs.
Robert Burns, 48, of Cushing, said he was impressed by the way his harvester skis, one of three models made by Lucid, responded to powder conditions.
“They’re pretty unusual skis. The wood construction gives them that flexibility and a softness in powder conditions. They just have a responsiveness and a subtlety that’s really quite delightful to experience,” he said.
Burns said he first learned about the business two years ago when he met Saskia Reinholt, Ian’s wife, on a chairlift at Saddleback.
“She started explaining what they’re trying to accomplish by starting this ski production, and I was pretty moved by it. Everyone wants to live a little more locally,” he said.
Burns said that after he took a test run on a pair of demo skis, he and Reinholt went to a bar and drew up a contract on a cocktail napkin for the skis.
“I’m a professional mariner by trade, and the next four months I would open the drawer on the boat where I kept it (the napkin) and think about what I had to look forward to,” he said. “The whole organic experience suited my concept of what skiing in Maine should be about anyway.”
The state was once a major manufacturer of skis, though the earliest skis were just primitive wood planks with toe loops, said Bruce Miles, executive director of Maine Ski Museum in Kingfield.
He said the skis were brought to the area by Scandinavian immigrants in northern Maine in the late 1800s and were used as a practical tool for transportation made from a shaped block of wood. In the early 1900s, the skis began to evolve from a tool into something for recreation, and manufacturers tried to create higher performing models. Ski makers began to strengthen the ski by taking three or four pieces of wood with different grain directions and gluing them together.
“And then in the mid 1960s, a lot switched from just wood to having fiberglass and metal skis,” Miles said.
Around that time, major area manufacturers, such as Paris Manufacturing Company, ceased making skis. “Maine was a wood mill state, not a metal and fiberglass state,” he said.
Mukai said Lucid Skis uses technological advances such as fiberglass, but he and Reinholt’s marketing pitch is that the core of their business philosophy and the core of the physical skis is Maine wood.
The skis are made in a workshop attached to Mukai’s Maple Lane home, filled with half finished skis, raw material and tools.
Mukai said the wood core is what gives the skis their performance, and about a third of the manufacturing process is sourcing local wood for the business.
“These Maine species are some of the best in the world for performance,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in the wood components of Maine. It makes me really happy to think about all the other logging and lumber mill business that we work hand in hand with.”
Lightweight basswood is half the core, and Mukai said it is similar to spruce but resists glue saturation that can weigh skis down. The rest of the core is made from ash, which he said has a springy strength, and the sidewalls are made from hornbean, hickory, black locust or maple.
The core is then sandwiched between two layers of fiberglass, a top sheet of veneer and a coat of epoxy. The whole process takes a total of about six hours, though Mukai said it’s hard to measure because they aren’t made in one continuous process.
While they hope eventually to have the money to hire a few more helping hands, Mukai said they don’t have ambitions of mass production, which would undermine their niche of customized skis.
“These skis are made by hand,” he said. “They get to feel like the skis are made specifically for them.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 [email protected]