Athlete Q&A: Frisco’s Jim Smith started a snowboard company out of his own garage
Jim Smith Snowboarding
After pressing snowboards for five seasons, Frisco’s Jim Smith has split his company into two distinct lines: Grom Snowboards for kids and Purist Snowboards for adults. Here’s a look at the 2016-17 lines for both — and a sneak peek at the owners plans for next season.
Grom Snowboards, basic
Sizes: 80 cm, 90 cm, 100 cm, 110 cm
Shape: 360 rocker
In a nutshell: Smith’s learner boards do away with the one-size-fits-most mentality of big-name brands and instead feature shapes, sizes and materials more for youngsters. The boards are thinner than most (good for learning to turn), while the 360 rocker shape prevents edge catching. All graphics and designs are handmade by Smith.
Grom Snowboards, performance
Sizes: 120 cm, 125 cm
Shape: Traditional camber
In a nutshell: The advanced kid’s line is made for riders like Smith’s son, Ever, who get 50-plus days of riding per season and need a board made for anything: jumps, halfpipe, powder, groomers and more. Next season he plans to release a reverse-camber models in both sizes for pow hounds.
Sizes: 145 cm, 153 cm, 157 cm
Shape: Traditional camber
In a nutshell: Like all of Smith’s boards, the adult Purist line features domestic materials and custom cores made and assembled in Smith’s garage. All current models feature a radial sidecut with aspen core and white oak sidewalls, plus sintered base material from Ohio. Expect reverse-camber models next season.
Perched between the rafters in Jim Smith’s garage is a faded-black snowboard deck with white-yellow tape and one name in bright, red print: Ever. At 80 centimeters, it looks more like a skateboard than a snowboard, but for several months, young Ever was the sole product tester for his dad’s brand-new line of snowboards.
“I was shopping for my son’s snowboard and the brands out there weren’t doing it for me,” Smith tells me during the grand tour of his workshop in Frisco, a small, self-made space split between two floors of his garage in the Peak One neighborhood. “It was breaking my heart to see a Sponge Bob or a cartoon character on a snowboard. It gave me the Target vibe, and it just didn’t have the individuality and creativity- those things that drew me to snowboarding as a kid.”
And so, with hardly any manufacturing experience and even less industry sales, Smith started pressing boards in his garage. That first black model lasted for a few months before the next one was ready, and then the next one, and then the next. Now, five years after screwing bindings to his son’s first custom-made board, Smith has pressed more than 100 kid and adult models — and he’s gotten damn good.
“I’m very inspired by Colorado board builders, and this state has a rich history of making snowboards,” continues Smith, a native of Golden who spent time in long-gone factories of the ‘80s and ‘90s: Naked Boards of Boulder; Aggression Snowboards, also of Boulder; Summit Snowboards of Summit County; Unity Snowboards of Silverthorne, one of the final remaining holdouts from that era. As a young snowboarder with dreams of going pro — and he did, beginning with his first win at an Arapahoe Basin mogul contest in 1987 — Smith started learning the ins and outs of snowboard manufacturing by simply hanging out with guys like Steve Link, another longtime local who Smith says still quietly makes Summit Snowboards decks from his home in Blue River.
“For a kid, to be in that shop, I was thinking, ‘This is so rad,’” Smith tells me about his first time seeing the Summit Snowboards press and factory in action. “The guys in that shop were so passionate about it, and my board building is a homage to that — to the guys who have been building snowboards and riding snowboards in this state for so long.”
After fine-tuning his process with kid’s boards, Smith started making adult boards about three seasons back. Last season was his first as a “real” snowboard company and led to two lines under the Jim Smith Snowboarding brand: Grom Snowboards, made for little rippers like Ever, and Purist Snowboards, made for guys and gals like Smith who want more from a board than cool graphics and questionable tech. He sold about 40 boards through shops that season, but decided this season to sell almost completely through his website, GromCoSnowboards.com.
“That’s not really the be niche I’m going for,” Smith says when we leave the upstairs pressing room and return to the downstairs “wood shop,” where he hand-forms and presses every core for every model — something even boutique manufacturer’s like Unity rarely do. “I want to make something that’s totally unique, totally from scratch, nothing imported, and I think there’s a market for that with riders who care about what they ride… I think I’m putting heart and soul into it that matters with some riders.”
On a bluebird February morning, I met with Smith to tour his shop, talk about the future of Jim Smith Snowboarding, and find out exactly how a former pro and current coach got into pressing snowboards. One word: Ever.
Summit Daily News: You just got back from coaching at the U.S. Revolution Tour in Mammoth Mountain, California. How did you go from snowboard coaching to snowboard manufacturing?
Jim Smith: It was purely inspired by needing a board for Ever, for my son. One of the big factors for me was width. The boards were just way to wide and I knew that Ever would never get on that edge, and then the graphics were a big part for me. I don’t want to come from hater place — it’s fine for people who like that thing — but the Disney graphics don’t do it for me. It was that, but also being a pro — being a coach, writing the book (“The Art of Snowboarding” about freestyle snowboarding) — I wanted to explore other parts of this sport, of this art form I love.
SDN: How did you learn now to make boards? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you can just pick up.
JS: It’s been a really fun exploration man. I had seen it done in the past, visiting factories since I was a kid: the Naked factory the Aggression factory — just all of those Boulder factories when I was a kid. I rode Unity boards for many years before I rode my boards, and being down in Pete’s factory, seeing what he does, that got me inspired. With those visits you get a sense of how it’s built. This isn’t brain surgery, man. It just takes a little research.
SDN: Talk about that first prototype boards you made for Ever. Did they turn out how you wanted?
JS: Yeah, I think so. I built it with a plywood core so that it was designed after a snowskate almost. It was super basic — plywood core, steel edges, all of that. I pressed it with the pneumatic press with fiberglass and epoxy and inserts, and he rode that thing for a couple of months. By a few months later I had another board for him, and what I was messing with back then was the width. I made the kid’s boards with rockered bases, so you have a 360 rocker from edge to edge and tip to tail. It’s a really loose ride for a little guy so they don’t catch their edge (…) when you have a cambered 80 cm board you just know they’re going to catch their edge every two seconds. As you saw, there’s a pile of these experiment boards, just trying to work with Ever and Zabel (Parrott) — who you interviewed — to test those first snowboards.
SDN: Describe the look and feel of your snowboards: What sets them apart from the thousands and thousands of other boards out there?
JS: For all of the boards, I’m trying to come from a heart-and-soul place. It’s about putting my best work into them, and for the right reasons. Those right reasons are so a kid can enjoy boarding as much as possible. The example is: If a kid is out on a board and catching his edge every two seconds, he might not end up loving snowboarding.
With the bigger kids boards — the 120 and the 125 — I did those with sintered bases and camber. Kids who are buying those boards, who are getting a bit better, have a hard time finding a larger board with performance-style features. I’m using a high-quality base so that the kid can go fast and feel the glide. In my years of coaching, I’d watch kids go for a jump and they can’t even make it because there’s an extruded base on there. It’s something the big manufacturers do to pump out these cheap boards, but the quality isn’t there. In some circumstances, I’m seeing kids whose snowboarding is being hurt by their gear.
SDN: As a company, Jim Smith Snowboarding is still relatively new. What was the hardest part about simply getting off the ground — you know, turning a hobby into a business?
JS: Honestly, it’s really on a pretty major hobby level still. I’ve got to be honest about that. I’m certainly making batches of boards — I’m not making any money off it yet, all of that money goes right back into glue or more sandpaper or belts for the grinder — but the challenge moving forward is that I already have two fulltime jobs. I want to grow, but it’s very challenging to have the snowboard coaching job — that thing that pays my mortgage in the winter — and a summer job as a fly-fishing guide. It’s labor intensive.
Board building, again, is not brain surgery. I draw the boards on CAD, I do the work in the shop, and all of that is labor intensive. If everything goes well, the timeline for an adult board is 8 to 10 hours. When you have the matchbook topsheets that’s a long build (and) the cores are a lot of that time. Kid’s boards can be about 3 to 5 hours. But in the end, when you get to strap that thing on and its carving for you — rocking along, slashing powder, getting airs, watching your son cruise on a board you built just for him — it really resonates.
SDN: What’s the most important part of the board-building process that people just don’t hear about?
JS: I’m not sure. A big pet peeve of mine is flat bases. To tech a board and see a flaw in this brand-new snowboard with a ripple in the base, that just breaks my heart. That’s something I’ve pushed for in my board building — getting that flat base. As far as the building process, when you have the core profiled and built, that’s really gratifying. I love seeing my cores. I’m looking out my window at the type of trees that are inside the core. Then the topsheets are cool too, like those matchbook ones, where you select the veneer and take the piece out of the veneer that will look the coolest. That’s a gratifying part of making it too — those wood grain topsheets.
SDN: Where do Grom and Purist and Jim Smith Snowboarding go from here?
JS: Again, it’s trying to brand it now as Jim Smith Snowboarding. That’s the name I coach under these days. I certainly am going to keep coaching — that’s a huge part for me — and then I want to try and build my Grom brand for kids and the Purist brand for adults.
I’ll use the word organically, I guess, by growing from home outward. The community has been really supportive around here, people saying, “Yeah, we should buy that board.” I hope to bring it to other Colorado communities eventually, and then from there into other snowboarding communities. I have a few boards in Tahoe right now. Soon I’d love to be in Mammoth, Utah — across that area. It’ll be growing like roots, in a tree, with boards from a tree.
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