Behind the Scenes: Designing skis with Faction

Faction Skis
Image: Faction

By Chloe Hardy

You probably haven’t heard of Patrik Sannes. But you may have heard of Faction Skis. Founded in Switzerland in the midst of the early noughties freeski revolution (or as it’s more commonly known, when skiing got cool again), Faction has cut its own lines through the freeski market. The brand behind high-profile skiers like Candide Thovex, Johnny Collinson and most recently, Kelly Sildaru, Faction has found its niche as a small but mighty force within the skiing community.

You may ask what’s different about Faction compared to say, Armada or Line or any other microbrew freeski brand. You won’t find a dedicated carving ski in any of these companies’ collections, but Faction manages to stand out from the crowd because of their dedication to experimentation and quality. As an independent, skier-owned and skier-operated company, the Faction mantra is strong; combining traditional construction methods with new and innovative techniques and materials to create skis that are long-lasting and fun to ski all over the mountain. Faction is also at the forefront of sustainable ski design.

Anyway, back to Patrik Sannes. What does he have to do with Faction? Well, he’s the guy you have to thank if you’ve ever bought a set of Faction skis; he designs them. I had an in-depth Skype conversation with him over the summer to find out just how skis are made, how you achieve that Faction touch and how to make it all a bit better for the planet.

Faction skis

Faction was born in Verbier, Switzerland. Image: Faction

So designing the ski. Where do you start? Despite Patrik being chief ski designer, it’s always a group effort. ‘We have a lot of discussions before I design the skis,’ Patrik explained, ‘About the concept and where [the ski] sits in our product line, and what we want to do as a company. I think that’s what we spend the most time with.’ As an ever-growing independent company of passionate skiers, no one is telling Faction what to do. Which is great because they can pretty much do what they like, but a lot of discussion, knowledge and thought needs to go into making a ski that will represent the company and sell well.

Patrik also explained a little about Faction’s – and his own personal – goals when designing a ski. While Faction skis always pop up at the freeski and freestyle end of the spectrum, versatility is the driving force in Patrik’s designs; ‘A lot of skis are just designed for carving,’ he explained, ‘but 80 – 90% of people won’t carve down the hill, most people kind of slide or slarve. So a lot of what we’re doing is taking the things we learned from powder skis into the kind of all mountain, on-piste skis.’ This not only means that the skis are more enjoyable to ski, wherever you are on the mountain, but saves you buying multiple pairs and thus, is better for the planet.

Once the concept of the ski is set in stone, Patrik makes technical drawings and designs to send to the factory for production. Thanks to a background in design and engineering, as well as a childhood spent skiing all over the world, he knows which materials have the right properties, and what kind of shapes and profiles will be most effective. Patrik explained that he usually designs a few different versions of the same ski, with different lengths and different flex profiles, which are made as one-offs in the factory. Then it’s a simple matter of testing to see which versions work the best, making minute changes, testing again and so on and so forth until you’re left with a ski that everyone is happy with. This process takes around three winters of continuous testing, communicating with the factory and fine-tuning until the ski is finally ready for mass production.

Faction skis in the factory

Taking shape. Image: Faction

So what actually goes into a ski? And how is it made? ‘A ski might look quite simple if you just hold it in your hand, but it’s one of the most complex things to build,’ Patrik told me. And here’s why. We’ll start with the main ingredients.

1 – The Wood Core:

The most important part of the ski. The core is often made from different types of wood and defines the main characteristics of the ski.

2 – Reinforcements:

Generally made from fibreglass, carbon or metal, reinforcements or ‘stringers’ are placed along the top and bottom of the core to reduce the weight compared to just using wood. They also increase the torsional and general strength of the ski. Faction was one of the first companies to experiment with flax fibres for this purpose.

3 – The Base and Edges:

Steel edges encompass the ski, while the bases are covered with P-tex to give you that nice slidey feeling on the snow.

4 – The Topsheet (or the bit where the graphics go):

A thin but durable layer of plastic that covers the top of the ski, protecting the reinforcements and edges, as well as displaying the graphics.

5 – The Sidewalls:

These are the bits that protect the sides of the skis. There are three main constructions: cap, ABS or a hybrid of the two. ‘We mostly do ABS full sidewalls on everything,’ Patrik explained, ‘because it allows for a bit more torsional strength, which in the end, gives you a bit more grip on ice.’

6 – Anything Else?

Lots of other small additions make up a ski, for example, protective plastic inserts in the nose and tail and rubber sheets underfoot to dampen vibrations from the snow.

Patrik calls this ‘the basic construction we use,’ but it’s easy to see how complex the process is. The tricky part is putting all those ingredients together. All the different components need to be carefully cut, glued together and then put into a ski-shaped mould. From there, the mould goes into a special press where it’s heated at a high temperature, under high pressure for around 15 minutes, which bonds all the materials together and gives the ski its shape. After this you’re left with what Patrik described as ‘a pretty raw ski.’ From this point, a huge amount of work still needs to be done, mostly by hand, like profiling the edges and grinding the base, getting the ski ready to be skied.

Faction skis

Putting it all together. Image: Faction

That’s roughly how skis are made, but how do you make this process better for the planet? Mountain sports are not generally good for the environment in any way, but there are steps Faction take to make it, well… less bad.

Let’s start with the factory. The mass production of anything generally isn’t great for human and emissions purposes, but Faction work with a factory in the Czech Republic that’s been operating for over 100 years and specialises in making skis (Patrik referred to the people who work there as craftsmen rather than factory workers). Wood is generally sourced from nearby forests, other materials come from nearby areas and pretty much all the different parts of the ski are made in-house, as opposed to being made elsewhere and shipped or flown there to be put together. The factory has one of the most modern furnaces in Europe, which provides heating and hot water, as well as the high temperatures needed to create the skis, and the graphics are printed in a sustainable manner. Plus, the factory provides pretty much an entire rural town with jobs and income.

But the road to making environmentally-friendly skis hasn’t always been an easy one. Patrik explained that when the idea initially came about, Faction experimented with using renewable materials and cutting down on the amount of harmful substances they used. But this drastically affected the durability of the skis. ‘We did make a lot of mistakes in the early years,’ Patrik admitted, ‘releasing some stuff to early, and skis breaking loads. It’s kind of pointless to introduce something that’s just slightly better from a material perspective.’

Faction skis

Perfecting a ski is a team effort. Image: Faction

Now the main focus at Faction is on making their skis extra-durable and super-versatile, thinking along the same lines as brands such as Patagonia and Picture; if you make something well enough, you won’t need to throw it away and you won’t need to replace it as often. ‘It allows us now to go back and focus on the whole process from the beginning,’ Patrik explained, ‘how we sell our skis and distribute them, and after their lifetime if we can repair them.’

Furthermore, these initial setbacks don’t mean that Faction haven’t carried on experimenting with sustainable materials. ‘It’s allowed us to make a lot more out of using more environmentally friendly materials,’ Patrik put it. ‘Now we know how they act, we know which ones are strong enough.’

And there you have it; a sneak peak into the wonderful world of ski design. I could ramble on about environmentally friendly ski production all day but I’ll leave off by thanking Patrik for talking to me and answering all my nerdy questions, and by saying that I hope next time you buy or rent a pair of skis, you’ll be able to appreciate the amount of hard work that’s gone into developing and making them.

Check out Faction’s latest range of skis and clothing HERE.

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