In the basement of the building that once housed the Aspen Brewing Co. on North Mill Street is a small room where a half dozen wooden skis covered in saw dust are scattered around tools and machinery.
On a recent bluebird morning, Graham Sparks, a 26-year-old soft-spoken local wearing flannel and a beard, stood inside looking over a pair of 192 cm custom-made skis.
“I don’t think anyone is doing it the way I’m doing it,” he said, turning the ski on its side to inspect its edge. Sparks was referring to his custom ski company called Grizzly Boards, which he operates out of the 350-square-foot space at 557 North Mill St.
The business is unusual because it’s a one-man operation. While most custom ski manufacturers have multiple employees for different phases of the production process, Sparks designs, builds and demos the skis that he sells on his own while working full time at Aspen Sports in Snowmass.
“I usually work on the skis in the early mornings or late at night,” he said.
He has to if he wants to have time to ski. Sparks averages between 80 and 100 ski days a year and most of those days are spent riding Highland Bowl.
“Skiing is just awesome,” Sparks said. “You’re free out there.”
Sparks’ father introduced him to the world of skiing. As soon as he was old enough to walk, his dad drove him from their home in Rhode Island to ski in New Hampshire. His dad also taught him how to work with his hands.
“My dad was a contractor so I was always around tools,” Sparks said.
Having access to those tools inspired him to build his own pair of skis while he was studying public policy at Hobart College in upstate New York.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Graham Sparks slices through fresh powder on Aspen Mountain on Friday morning while using a pair of his own handmade skis.
After he graduated, Sparks worked for a custom ski company based in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. where he learned the craft of building a ski from scratch. In 2011, he decided to head East to Aspen where he had friends living. He opened his own shop because he wanted to make a higher quality ski with a stronger core than the plywood skis he was making in Mammoth Lakes.
“I just had a different idea about what I wanted to do,” Sparks said.
Grizzly Boards skis are made with maple sidewalls and a poplar wood core, which Sparks chose for its bounce and durability.
It takes about 12 hours to build a ski from scratch, plus time to let materials set. When the model is ready, he takes the skis on a few test runs to see how they ride, but he never takes notes. He relies on his memory to make adjustments back at the shop.
Sometimes Sparks asks his friends to ride his skis for feedback, but it’s hard for people to put into words how a ski can be improved. It usually comes down to how it feels, he said.
“There have been skis I’ve made that I thought were great, but then I take them out for a few runs and I’m like ‘what the f*** is this?’” Sparks said. “I just have to go back to the drawing board.”
That trial-and-error process might take time, but it’s what has led to the creation of some of his best models, including a pair that he recently sold for $1,000.
Sparks said he donates 10 percent of the profit from sales to Project ReMind, a nonprofit that funds research for a form of dementia called Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD).
After a six-year battle, his father died from the disease in the summer of 2011.
When asked about his father, Sparks is laconic.
“It was a pretty long process,” Sparks said of his father’s illness. “The disease pretty much slowly ate away at his brain.”
Since his father’s death, Sparks’ family has encouraged him to grow his business and live the Aspen lifestyle.
“I always knew I didn’t ever want to work in an office,” Sparks said. “I’d rather do this than anything else.”
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