A day in the life of bespoke ski maker Jamie Kunka

The chief ski maker at Scotland’s Lonely Mountain Skis on living in a corrugated tin bothy, and why he’s partial to an ice-cold early morning dip 

I live in the middle of nowhere on an estate in Perthshire, in a mountain bothy made from corrugated tin. It’s beautifully remote.

Days usually begin at 7am with a mile run to Loch Ordie, along with my collie puppy, Hemp. If I’m feeling brave I’ll jump in for a swim: the icy dip wakes up every cell in the body. Then I’ll run back freezing cold and put on a breakfast of eggs from the farm over the hill, and porridge. I’ll also have a cup of pine needle tea, which tastes like drinking a Christmas tree. I’m not sure what medicinal properties it has but I like it!

As well as making award-winning skis in his workshop, Jamie brews beer | Alum Callender

As well as making award-winning skis in his workshop, Jamie brews beer | Alum Callender

I’ll try to get to my workshop, which is in a nearby village called Birnam, for 8am. It’s on an industrial estate, but there are only two buildings on it – me and the joiner next door – so it’s not very industrial, or much of an estate!

I found my workshop around the same time I found my corrugated cottage, two years ago. I picked Birnam because it’s close to three saw mills, and equidistant from the good ski hills – Glenshee, Cairngorm, Glencoe and Ben Lawers – which are all within an hour’s drive.

Strangely, not long after renting the workshop, I found out that I wasn’t the first to make skis in this village. Fifty years ago a man was making skis just down the road. I found that out because a lot of old boys would come into my workshop to ask if I knew him and tell me he never paid them!

I grew up in a city – Aberdeen – then studied at Dundee University, so I was excited about moving to the countryside. It was only possible because, after graduating in product design, I managed to raise over £60,000 in small start-up grants to set up a ski-manufacturing business.

The pitching was exhausting but there is lots of support out there if you look around. I bought my first wood-working machine with a grant from Dundee Arts Council. Shell give grants to small start-ups, and I also got money from a venture competition in Dundee, from an arts fund in Glasgow called Starter For 6, and from the Sport Innovation Fund. I got a fellowship through the Royal Society of Edinburgh too.

I fell in love with skiing when I was a kid, on trips to Glenshee when the snow seemed bottomless every winter. At 17 I got more into cross-country skiing and raced for the British team. That was when I decided I wanted to design skis when I was older.

I had my first go at ski manufacture after watching a Ray Mears episode. They were very basic – solid redwood pine, steam-bent at the tips and coated in pine tar – but it was incredibly satisfying to ski on them, even if they were a little out of control.

Jamie at work | James Robertson

Jamie at work | James Robertson

At university I explored sustainability and taking skiing back to its roots. I made three-layer skis celebrating the high performance of wood: they even had wooden bases. I wanted to make skis that will last a lifetime and are beautiful enough to hang on the wall between the seasons, and that’s still my aim.

There aren’t many books on making skis unfortunately, but there’s a good forum on skibuilders.com. It seems that in every town and village the precise recipe for skis is different due to varying humidities, so the answer is to experiment.

Some things were a total mystery to me for ages, like how to make skis flat. For over a year they kept ending up concave when I pressed them. Then, when I was skiing out in Chamonix, I met Tom Greenall who makes skis under the name Idris Skis out there. He explained that you have to cut channels into the wood core.

The skis I make now have eight layers and are 80% made from grown sources. Flax – linen basically – adds shock absorbency. Carbon fibre runs side to side to prevent them twisting, the bases are plastic, and there are three woods in the core. Maple and beech make the ski strong and give it stability and power out of turns. Poplar lightens up the construction and adds a nice spring.

When I arrive at the workshop I’ll usually begin by working on some ski designs on the computer. When designing, I start with an idea for shape and width, and this governs how I want the skis to flex. Next I make a 3D model using a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) program. When I have finalised a design, I send it away up the road to my friend who’s a joiner and has a CNC machine. He cuts me out a template in exchange for some beer, which I brew in the workshop. I’ve named the current batch Scottish Powder. It has heather honey and peat malted in it, and I’ve made a picture of a skier stuck in mud for the bottle labels!

After finalising the ski designs, I’ll go onto the workshop floor and do some ski building. The plastic that makes the ski base goes into the CNC template first, so I can cut it out precisely to form the bottom of the ski. I then glue the steel edge on to that, add the other layers, put it all in a custom-made silicon bag, suck the air out, and bake it for three hours.

At lunchtime I might take a prototype out for testing. I fit adjustable bindings so I can give them to various sizes and shapes of people. My good friend Phil and I are the core test team. He is similarly obsessed with skiing and is a doctor in Dundee.

We’ll probably head to Ben Lawers in my Landcruiser, which has been converted into a mini camper, with a bed and room for skis and a dog in the back. Ben Lawers is the ancestral home of Scottish skiing. It was one of the first ski resorts to be built here, and has a lot of different terrain, so it’s a great testing ground.

We’ll set off skinning and do some swapping skis around to find the best boot configuration. There’s usually a sweet spot, which becomes the recommended place to attach bindings. If I’m happy with a prototype, after skiing I might drive the mountain road to Bridge of Cally near Glenshee. It’s a Swiss-style Portakabin that’s been turned into a ski shop. I’ll go in and drop the skis into their demo fleet, and have a coffee with Chris and Holly, who own it.

To end the day I like to stop by the Atholl Arms for a pint of local beer, True North, by Strathbraan Brewery, before heading back to the workshop, where I’ll write down all the things that Phil and I discussed about the skis, and tweak the design on the computer. That’ll go on to be the next prototype to test.

If you want to make your own skis my advice would be to get a sander, a jigsaw, a router and an electric blanket and experiment in your garage. I cobbled together various industrial things to make a press. Tom at Idris uses underfloor heating panels to cook his skis.

As well as making award-winning skis in his workshop, Jamie brews beer (this is not beer, though) | Jamie Robertson

As well as making award-winning skis in his workshop, Jamie brews beer (this is not beer, though) | James Robertson

I have five ski models now. The newest are the Pudar, which is Gaelic for powder. They are 110-waisted freeride skis, which are very stable and floaty. I’m working on a new design, which will be a lightweight version of the Schnechda, my Scottish do-it-all skis, which won the Gold award in the ski-touring category at ISPO last year. I caught the judges by surprise; they didn’t know anything about me. A lot of them didn’t know you could ski in Scotland. I had a video on my phone so I was showing everyone!

It’s exciting to win awards, but I want to stay small. I’ve always romanticised artisan craftsmanship. I’m inspired by people who have an incredible reputation and only produce a few things a year.

Once back at the bungalow I’ll light the wee wood burner and put dinner on. Curled up with the dog by the fire this might be my favourite time of the day. I can fully recharge, hatch some plans for the following day and maybe dream up a new pair of skis.

My last inspiration came from a dream that I was riding these skis with stubby tips and tails. I was captivated by the idea
and when I woke up I thought: I’m going to have to make those right now! 

Words: Sarah Stirling

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