An interview with Scottish ski maker Jamie Kunka, of Lonely Mountain Skis. The article appeared in The Scots Magazine.
Snow place like home
It’s a frosty morning with heavy cloud hanging over the Perthshire hilltops as Jamie Kunka enjoys a run on forest trails near his home.
As he strides out, with his Collie dog Hemp by his side, Scotland’s only ski maker is dreaming of a forecast that has predicted the first snow of winter.
There is a good chance, he thinks, that he will be testing his newest product, a set of Nordic back-country skis, on local tracks in the next few days.
In the meantime, however, he has plenty of commissions to be working on and, having swapped sports clothes for jeans, a casual long-sleeved top and a brown cotton carpenter’s apron, Jamie, 34, heads to his compact workshop close to the village of Birnam, where his business Lonely Mountain Skis is based.
The 30ft-by-30ft space is lined with a fascinating array of equipment, both old-fashioned looking hand tools, such as files, chisels, spokeshaves and planes, and modern electric appliances including belt sanders, power saws and jigsaws. Jamie is a self-taught craftsman, who makes all of his skis from wood.
Today’s project is steam-bending a pair of back-country skis that are destined to be used in Antarctica. Jamie sets up a pot of boiling water in a corner of the workshop, over which he will place a steam box for the skis.
As the water simmers and steams, the workshop warms up and Jamie rolls up his sleeves in preparation for another project.
On a large and sturdy bench another set of half-finished skis are laid out. Jamie gets to work planing and sanding them. In the background, folk music plays, while outside there is the thrum of nearby A9 traffic streaming between Central Scotland and the Highlands.
Jamie, who has been making his unique, hand-crafted skis since 2014, works solo and except for friends and occasional passing strangers, he is content with this set-up.
He says: “I always knew I wanted to have my own business and after a degree in product design at Dundee University, during which I was able to work on prototype wooden skis, I was inspired to be a one-man craftsperson, like the original Norwegian ski makers.
“I enjoyed the process of learning the skills of making wooden skis and re-establishing old techniques. It wasn’t easy in the beginning though because few people still make skis as I do.
“I was fortunate to have some insight from a Welsh ski maker who was based in Chamonix in France at the time and I found bits and pieces in archives, such as in old books and films.
“Tools have also been sourced from different places and some have been handed down through my family, from my grandad and dad.
“I have learned a lot through trial and error and it has been a rewarding and satisfying process to get to where I am with my business now.”
The Lonely Mountain skis, which include eight different high-performance models for downhill, back-country and now Nordic back-country skiing, are made as sustainably as possible. Although Jamie has to import the wood, it is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a trusted mark of sustainable forestry.
He explains: “I need straight-grained wood from hardwood trees, which isn’t so easy to find in the UK. Instead, I buy my wood from overseas but ensure it is FSC compliant. Sustainable products are important to me, especially as climate change is believed to have affected reducing levels of snow in Scotland.
“I also feel like I am able to recreate some of the properties of trees, especially strength and flexibility, in my skis. I want to do justice to the raw materials with a product that lasts for years and years.”
Jamie’s skis are made of different combinations of woods, such as maple, beech and poplar, and the blend will depend on each customer’s requirements. He says: “I’ve learned over the years, what type of wood – and blend of woods – will suit different skiers and the sort of skiing they will be doing.
“Wood is a great product for making skis and I think it feels like it has life still in it. People are always surprised by how good it feels to ski wooden skis. They are just so responsive and energetic.”
Maple is Jamie’s favourite ski wood. He says: “Maple is beautifully ‘poppy-feeling’. It absorbs shock but also has great life and energy. I love skiing on maple.
“I like beech as well and it has lots of spring, as well as being shock-absorbing. Beech is great for stopping the buzz and chatter you might experience in modern skis made of plastic.
“Then there’s poplar wood, which helps to reduce the weight of the skis. Poplar also gives lots of bounce and spring but at a lower density. This is the wood I use to soften and lighten the skis.
“I am obviously biased but wooden skis are fantastic to ski and I think they are particularly suited to Scottish skiing conditions where the snow can be very changeable. There is enough energy, give and shock-absorption to make skiing in Scotland a great experience.”
Which brings Jamie to his latest creation, the Nordic backcountry skis called Turas, which is Gaelic for “journey”.
He says: “I like all kinds of skiing and I have been skiing since I was seven. But, I’d say, Nordic back-country skiing is my favourite thing to do in Scotland and we have plenty of places where it’s relatively easy and accessible to ski, especially locally in Perthshire.
“The Turas lies somewhere between a Nordic track ski and a telemark ski. It is the perfect ski for forest tracks, breaking trail and snowy adventures. The skis have enough width and power to descend but they are still light enough to go uphill and have a built-in skins on the base to prevent the skis slipping backwards.
“They also work well at around zero degrees, which is common air temperature in Scotland in winter.
“The Turas are great fun to ski on and I am looking forward to showcasing these to other people this winter.”
As the sun starts to set, Jamie decides to finish work early and take the opportunity for a quick mountain bike ride.
He wants to mull over a design for a pair of powder skis that a customer has requested – and he knows the fresh air and country views will bring inspiration. Hemp, of course, is keen to join him and as the pair head off to a favourite forest, Jamie spots a dusting of snow on the hills, where the clouds had collected earlier in the day.
Maybe tomorrow, he’ll be back here on his Turas skis.