Hardly anyone notices the piece of wood above the entrance to Burton Snowboards’ prototype facility emblazoned with the words “Top Secret.” That’s to be expected. To see the mysterious printing, you’d have to crane your neck back and stare up at the awning that soars over the door to the factory. That’s why Burton tour guide and archivist Todd Kohlman points it out for visitors. Then he tells them the story behind the words. Because you have to understand the story before you understand the place.
The story is this: In the early days of snowboarding, there was a rider from Washington State named Craig Kelly. He was considered one of the best, and Burton wanted him on its team. But Kelly was under contract to Sims Snowboards. So he and Burton founder Jake Carpenter met in secret.
For the 1989 catalog, Burton wanted to give Kelly his own signature pro board, but Kelly wasn’t yet free of his obligations to Sims. Carpenter came up with a solution. Instead of naming the board after Kelly they called it Mystery Air and shipped the product in wooden crates with the words “Top Secret” on top. The move was genius — the buzz around the board was huge.
Kelly went on to be one of Burton’s most successful team riders. He was a four-time world champion and won three U.S. Open titles. After his competition days ended, he pioneered the freeriding movement and traveled the world making snowboarding movies. But in 2003, his life was cut short by an avalanche in British Columbia.
In early 2011, as a tribute to one of the company’s most influential riders, Burton christened its research-and-development center the Craig Kelly Proto Facility, or Craig’s for short. The commemoration was fitting, Kohlman says, because Kelly cared deeply about engineering and advancing the equipment of the sport he loved. He was the reason rider feedback became the cornerstone of Burton’s business.
Craig’s, housed in a 10,000-square-foot building, is no ordinary place to visit — a factory, museum and Santa’s workshop rolled into one. It employs nine people, who can churn out 2000 prototype boards in a year. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kohlman, a longtime employee and walking encyclopedia of all things Burton, offers free public tours of the facility.
After an explanation of the “Top Secret” markings, Kohlman takes visitors into the one-room museum that catalogs Burton’s rise from a tinker’s endeavor in Carpenter’s garage to global leader in snowboard gear and apparel. Kohlman explains at the outset that Carpenter, who was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer, is a pack rat and as such has kept nearly everything having to do with Burton’s early days, from invoices to board molds to the sign that hung above the entrance of his first workshop.
The outside wall of the museum room is covered in weathered wooden boards meant to replicate Burton’s former Manchester, Vt., factory, which was housed in an old barn. Inside, the room is decorated with posters, photos and snowboards that chart the company’s history. Kohlman points out the dimensions of the room: 360 by 180 inches. Translated to degrees, those two figures are bread and butter to anyone dedicated to the high-flying, trick-heavy sport of snowboarding.
In the center of the room is a row of neat wooden display cases organized by year that hold old Burton jackets, bindings, race bibs, videos and even Carpenter’s journals from the early days of the company. One of the cases holds current superstar Shaun White’s first Olympic board. On the back wall hangs a collection of Kelly’s signature boards, including the Craig Kelly Mystery Air and the CK Slopestyle.
“It’s nice to take the public in and show where we’ve been and then to show them where we’re going,” Kohlman says.
But Craig’s is more than a museum. The boards of the future are being made there. Much of that work happens in a room featuring two high-tech gizmos — a rapid prototyping machine and a selective laser sintering (SLS) device. The prototyping machine, a 3-D printer, allows Burton to make plastic molds of a number of products — bindings, boots, optics. In just a few hours, the R&D team can print a binding, saving the company time and money. While you can’t ride with the molds, they are integral pieces of the manufacturing process.
The SLS machine also makes parts quickly. But the ones that emerge from it are only 20 percent less strong than the final products that end up in stores, and can actually be tested on the mountain. Most of the products currently coming out of these two machines are for the 2014 season.
“It’s kind of like our magic room,” Kohlman says of the 3-D printing area. “The sky’s the limit.”
From there, Kohlman takes visitors to the machine shop, where snowboard molds and custom tools are made. Then it’s on to the wood shop, where the boards’ wooden cores are fashioned. Some of the shaped cores have names like Jussi and John J. written on them in Sharpie marker. Those will ultimately become boards for Burton’s team rider Jussi Oksanen and the team’s newest addition, John Jackson. It takes 560 interlocking pieces of wood to make one core. Kohlman is coy about what kinds of wood are used in the boards. “American wood” is all he’ll say.
When the core has been glued and sanded, it needs to be sandwiched together with fiberglass and the top and bottom sheets. Making a board from start to finish, assuming the graphics are complete, takes just two and a half hours.
Once a board is finished, it needs to get worn in, not unlike a baseball mitt. This is accomplished with the “infinite ride machine,” an apparatus that bends each snowboard, simulating how it would flex and pop on the mountain. The ride machine also doubles as quality control. If a board breaks from the machine’s bending, it wasn’t fit to be ridden.
The last stop on the tour is a silk-screening area where artists’ and designers’ work is transferred onto sheets that will become a snowboard’s top and base. A topsheet can take up to 16 hours to produce because of all the colors that need to be printed, Kohlman explains.
Craig’s, complete with interpretive signs and snowboard art covering the walls, is bigger than many snowboard companies’ actual production factories. That gives visitors a sense of just how large Burton is. Most of its retail boards have been manufactured in Austria for more than 25 years. The company’s high-end boards used to be made in South Burlington, but Burton closed that manufacturing facility in 2010.
As they exit Craig’s, visitors pass the walk-up warranty window, an embodiment of Kelly’s influence on the sport. Riders can walk up to the window, ring a bell and talk directly to a member of the Burton warranty crew. It’s a reminder that rider input matters, and so does getting people on the mountain. Kelly would surely be pleased.
Andrea Suozzo: Thanks for pointing that out, alengyel! We've corrected the story.
alengyel: Great article, except for the mistake that it is not the company's first time in the US. Peasant…