There are two things you should know about Eric Newman, the intense 25-year-old craftsman behind Montana's first custom ski company. The first is that he really loves skiing or, as he puts it, "I'm completely off-the-wall fanatical about it." The second is that he has the determination of a big mountain avalanche—once he makes up his mind to do something, nothing short of death or total dismemberment will stop him, and even that might not be enough. Understand these things and you will begin to grasp the improbable story behind Newman's new Bozeman-based ski business, Seneca Boards.
Seneca's origins reach back to a decade ago when Newman first decided to try boiling his skis. Yes, boiling, like a witch over a steaming cauldron. Newman was a teenager at a Vermont ski-racing academy and his long skinny racing sticks weren't getting the job done in the terrain park. The kid needed twin tips. So when his parents weren't home, he stuck his racing skis in boiling water for an hour and propped them under a door overnight at a 45-degree angle. Voila, homemade twin tips.
His tinkering continued—sanding graphics off skis, etching his name in the bases and melting in a different color P-Tex—until he moved from his home in Massachusetts to Bozeman in 2004 for college (read: skiing) at Montana State University. It was around this time that he realized he wanted to do more than just modify someone else's skis—he wanted to build his own.
Enter the aforementioned avalanche-like resolve, because as Newman soon discovered, making skis is complicated. You don't just grab a piece of wood and carve them out. He tried that first, of course, but then there were the bases, and the edges, and soon Newman realized that if he wanted to make skis with modern performance he needed to use composites and invest in a suite of tools. Building skis was going to take serious time and money.
This is the point where most 20-year-olds say "screw it" and go buy a pair of K2s. Instead, Newman hit the books, spending countless hours in the MSU library reading about, as he puts it, "every type of wood, and elasticity, and composite." He devoured books on skiing, woodworking and the benefits, both tangible and intangible, of making things by hand.
It was during this time that he was hit with The Idea: If he was going to figure out how to make skis, he might as well make a business out of it. Even if his ambitions of becoming a sponsored skier came true, it would only last a few years. To realize his dream of a life in skiing, he needed something with longevity.
In the winter of 2005, Newman, a college sophomore, rallied a group of friends to start a homegrown ski company. Unsurprisingly, most of them disappeared when it came time to put in work and cash. But one friend stepped up to help, another offered up his garage as a workspace, and Seneca was officially born.
Before the crew could make skis, however, they needed a ski press, a metal-framed device powered by an air compressor that applies 25 tons of pressure to the sandwiched layers of a ski. After finding scrap steel beams at Pacific Steel, which also cut the pieces to size for them, Newman and his partner blew out (and returned to Wal-Mart) countless drills and bits in their attempt to bolt the beams together. When they finally completed the press—which Newman admits "was a miracle"—they turned their attention to calculating the parabolic equations and acquiring the expensive tools needed to build a perfectly calibrated mold for shaping ski curvature and camber. (Once the mold was done, most of the tools were carefully re-boxed and returned to Home Depot.)
By January 2006 Newman giddily stood atop a run at Bridger Bowl on the first pair of skis he'd ever made. With a friend capturing the moment on video, Newman made a total of two turns before one ski shot away from him and down the mountain. He lifted his boot, trying to ignore the laughter from his videotaper—the binding was still attached.
Turns out the epoxy that holds the ski together needs to be applied at exactly 180 degrees or it won't hold binding screws. (Newman had no idea what temperature the epoxy was when they applied it, but he did know that it melted his partner's brush shortly before the glue bucket burst into flames.)
Similar but less incendiary follies followed over the next two years as Newman persisted in mastering the nuances of epoxies, fiberglass thickness and edge construction.
"These were things we couldn't just figure out on the Internet anymore," he says.
Just when Newman was finally getting it all together, everything fell apart. While competing in the 2008 Superpark competition at Big Sky, he mis-landed a 70-foot gap jump and crumpled badly. With multiple breaks in his sternum and various vertebrae, Newman's life as he knew it was over. He dropped his classes. He lost his ski-building partner and his garage space. After eight months in a body brace, he was told he'd never ski again.
The story could easily end there. "I re-thought everything I was doing," Newman says. But in the end he realized that giving up on skiing would be giving up on life.
So it was that in late 2008, while he was focusing every iota of energy on physical therapy, someone approached him about building a pair of skis. Then another person asked. Then a dozen people. By that winter Newman was not only skiing again, he was cutting and planing skis in the back alley behind his house (and earning visits from police alerted by noise complaints).
Seneca Boards was back.
Newman has spent the time since then entering freeskiing competitions and refining his ski-making skills. In 2009 he made dozens of pairs of skis for Bozeman-area powder hounds as part of a year-long prototype study, and Lilly Deford, a 22-year-old MSU student who charges big lines at Bridger Bowl, confirms that Newman's binding-ripping days are long past. "I skied a pair of Senecas about 20 times last year and they were awesome in powder and crud," she says. "They're real burly—they could take abuse for sure."
Last spring, Newman joined MSU's class of 2010, graduating with a degree in business management. And with a new manufacturing space in Belgrade (where he's trading framing and finish work for rent), he's officially launching Seneca Boards this winter. Though his original vision was to make purely custom skis, tailoring every ski to an individual, he's since decided to broaden his focus in order to keep his business viable—and local. "There's a huge market for custom skis, but in Montana people want skis that are affordable," he says.
To that end, Newman is offering stock Senecas in three models—big mountain, all mountain/powder, and park—with a choice of custom graphics for $500. Fully custom skis start at $1,000. Though he's reluctant to give up a personal relationship with his customers—his original vision called for skiing with each one before making their boards—retail shops have started approaching him about carrying his brand. After working three jobs since graduation to save up money for the raw materials, he now plans to have Seneca skis in select Montana stores this winter or next.
No matter which skis you buy from him, Newman says they're a long-term investment that will outlast mass-produced products. "I can have better quality control than big companies because I'm making my skis by hand," he says. "And I use higher quality materials that will last, so you can bring your skis back to me and I can refurbish them and restore the camber."
Building skis, restoring skis, hucking huge gaps on skis, and plowing through any obstacle in his way—this is Eric Newman, skiing fanatic. All he wants is to live the skiing life, and with his body strong again and Seneca Boards in demand, he's well on his way.