Anatomy of a Snow-Sliding Device:
Behind the K2 Factory Doors
In 1961, on tiny Vashon Island in Washington's Puget Sound, two brothers named Kirschner decided to make a pair of fiberglass skis. (You always thought K2 was named after that little mountain over in the Karakoram, didn't you? So did I.) Their original workshop still stands annexed a number of times and far exceeding its original square footage and it's one of the buildings into which MountainZone.com was recently allowed a sneak peek during a rare tour of the K2 factory.
With a list of sponsored athletes that includes the sweetheart of freestyle, Jonny Moseley, as well as some of the greatest skiers of both the new guard and the old, like Seth Morrison, Glen Plake, and Kim Reichhelm - not to mention its innovative backcountry gear and snowboard lines K2 is one of the strongest forces in ski and snowboard technology and culture. But despite its big-time status, the company stays connected to its island roots and to the vision of the two brothers who started it all two people who simply love to ski.
As we entered the main factory, donning the required safety glasses, all heads turned toward our group - they're not used to seeing press hounds sniffing around the plant. It was pushing noon so we scrambled around making sure we saw as much action as possible before the lunch whistle blew. We cruised through the finishing room, where every ski and board is given the final once-over before being shrink-wrapped and put on the ferry to Seattle and all points beyond.
The tour brought me back to those awesome episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, in which we learned just how hula hoops, or dollhouses, or Hostess Cup Cakes came to be. In fact, the factory had such a generic-industrial look, the board graphics were the only visual reminders that we had not timewarped back to 1975. The factory workers looked oddly timeless, as well. Word is there are families of multi-generation K2 factory workers on Vashon. These are the people at the core literally, at the core of K2 skis and snowboards.
At our first stop, we watched the base sheets for different snowboards being cut to size and learned how the full metal edge is adhered to the base sheet. Without getting too technical, let's just call it a big staple gun. This place got me thinking: why don't students get to work in these factories instead of in their high school metal shops? They could relate so much more to snowboards than they could to welding big metal spoons, or making carburetors, or whatever they do in those classes. They'd work for credit too, I bet. Or maybe for a free board.
After the staple machine, we headed over to what is definitely the coolest part of the tour: the triaxiale braiding machine. K2 patented this ski technology in the 1980s and still uses it today. The machine churns out a braided sleeve of fiberglass fabric, which is wrapped around the ski core to provide support and absorb shock. Like a weaving machine gone mad, the arms of the braiders whiz around at breakneck speeds and produce a perfect sock of fiberglass.
"In my skis, the strands are braided at a 38° angle, which is perfect for me," explained Glen Plake, yelling over the din of the machines going full force. (Did I forget to mention that he was there?) Whenever Plake stood too close to the braiding machine, it made me a little nervous. What would happen if he bent over and it grabbed his foot-and-a-half-high fin? I guess these are the risks that a punk rock skier takes.
Safely out of the reach of the machine, we sped over to the graphics room and learned about the process. From the pen of the artist to the bottom (or top) of the final product, K2 goes to impressive lengths to make sure its graphics are top notch. Everything happens right there in the factory, from shooting film of the images to a painstakingly thorough screen-printing process. It might seem a little overboard, but the fact is, the graphic sells the board. What did you care most about when you were 13: the colors of your bike/skateboard/scooter (whatever you rode around the neighborhood) or the type of dampening technology it employed? That's what I thought.
But that's not to say that K2 isn't concerned with the technology behind its products. Considering its techno-savvy neighbors in Seattle, perhaps it's no big surprise that K2 puts mini-computers into some skis and boards. After working with Boeing engineers and Active Control eXperts, Inc., K2 incorporated "piezo" cards into some ski designs. By dampening vibrations from choppy terrain and distributing that energy throughout the board or ski, these cards smooth out the ride. There are even LED displays imbedded in the top sheet that blink to indicate that the piezo is in use. Used in the ski line since 1995, piezo technology is appearing in the snowboard line this season, with the Futura for freestyle riding; the Electra for freeriding; and an all-mountain board, the Ultima.
K2 bikes is another growing segment of the company, so we did a quick drive-by tour of the bike assembly section. Parts for K2 bikes come from all over the world, but the Noleen suspension components are produced at the factory.
After another swing through the finishing room, where individual skis were being put through a flex test and paired according to their exact flex levels, our tour had come full circle. By the end of the day, 700 boards and 1,500 pairs of skis would be built and ready to ship. Walking out of the factory and into the crisp fall air, we were all fully stoked to ride or ski and happy to see what a little good 'ole American ingenuity can produce.
Mary Catherine O'Connor, MountainZone.com Staff