A few years ago, armed with prototypes of their soft-edged snowboards, a unique design where the metal edge sits 1.5-millimeters above the snow, Nick Gilson and Austin Royer toured the country looking for buyers.
Believing in the designs that Gilson began toying with in his early teens, they bought a 1976 Airstream trailer and an old Dodge Ram and set off on a 20,000-mile trip. The pair, old buddies who had taught middle-school science together, hit 50 resorts asking riders to try their snowboards. The feedback they got was encouraging, Gilson says. People apparently liked the forgiving feeling of the raised edge, which didn’t catch as easily as conventional snowboards and allowed for surfy turns where the back foot could drift.
But retailers weren’t having it. Three-thousand stores sent the buddies packing without buying any decks. “We did everything we were supposed to do but we were too weird,” Gilson says. “The industry rejected us.”
But now, four years after being on the market, “several thousand” customers have ordered boards directly through Gilson Snowboards’ site and in Gilson’s words “new orders are coming in at an accelerating pace.” At least a few of those customers have likely seen a video — one that’s racked up 1.8 million views — of riders buttering, drifting and otherwise ripping on Gilson boards in a way that looks a little softer and a little smoother than usual. And even if you never buckle into a Gilson snowboard, it’s impossible to deny that, like their boards, everything this young company does, from design and manufacturing to sales and even choosing their team riders, is a little different.
After the disappointing cross-country journey, Gilson and Royer kept at it. But in their own way that bore no resemblance to traditional snowboard manufacturing and sales. The pair designed and built their own snowboard press and began making their boards in an old barn in central Pennsylvania using wood cores from locally grown trees. No one in the company has ever worked for another snowboard company.
The only conventional aspect of their boards are that they use the same steel edges, sourced from the same manufacturers, as standard snowboards. Though, to hear it from Gilson, raising the edge off the snow surface — along with a couple of other design tweaks — unlocks a feel other boards don’t have.
Gilson design, explained:
“The base of the board bends to form a soft-edge, allowing you do to drifty playful maneuvers. But as soon as you want the edge to break or carve, you have it on no delay,” says Gilson. “A trick you might not land on a normal board you can butter out of and continue riding.”
Gilson Snowboards also have more flex than traditional snowboards, concentrated between the rider’s feet, a characteristic the company terms “central flex” and says is responsible for facilitating buttering. Their big mountain boards feature a “pow channel,” similar to a concave found on a surfboard bottom, meant to be used “like how skiers switch to wider skis on a pow day,” Gilson says.
On hard-packed snow, the board planes on two runners that straddle the channel; in powder, the entire board makes contact with the snow. Gilson, a Rhode Island-native, borrowed the channel-bottom idea from catamaran boats. “There are billions of dollars of research on how to shape objects that move on or in a fluid. The idea is that flat can’t be the best for snowboards, either,” he says.
Another fact that makes Gilson different: Their team of riders, including names like Danny Jones, Bryant DeMarsh and Breana Horvath, are selected partly for their snowboarding prowess, Gilson says, and partly for “their ability to be a great person in their community.”
Though Gilson isn’t the first or only company to produce boards with three-dimensional bottoms, “Their boards are substantially different from what’s out there even in the genre of softer edges,” says Jeff Carey, an avid snowboarder and friend of the company. Carey is not an employee or sponsored rider, but an early customer who bought a board immediately after seeing team rider Danny Jones on one about five years ago. “It was flexing like crazy,” he says.
Carey buys his own boards (he has six Gilson boards). He travels to the company’s factory when he wants to buy a new one, so he can be intimately involved in the creation. “It’s a really unique concept to me. I don’t know anywhere else you can build your own snowboard,” he says. “The other part is I get to support a business I really believe in.”
At 42, Carey doesn’t huck huge gaps or massive boxes in the park. “I ride mostly snow and do a lot of butter tricks,” he says. “Their board is so soft and playful and forgiving for that type of riding. It morphs what might be a stale sport into something that can be slow and still ultra playful.”