Strip off the steel edges, the sintered base, and the screaming-loud topsheet graphics of skulls and psychedelic mountains. Take away the neon Gore-Tex, the high-speed six-packs and the Nickelback broadcast from lift-tower speakers. Leave the softly falling snow, the backyards and the birch trees.
You’re still snowboarding. Only you’re riding a simple, swallow-tailed wooden plank, floating through knee-high powder and ripping tight turns around trunks, far from a resort’s madding crowds. You’re at least $650 poorer, but you’re also the proud owner of a one-of-a-kind PowderJet snowboard, handcrafted by carpenter Jesse Loomis in Rupert, Vt. After garnering a cultlike status among Green Mountain shredders, the throwback board is sliding into shops nationwide this winter; it’s also landed a rider in Japan and is gaining buzz among pros who want to get back to basics.
“I just wanted it to be simple again,” says Loomis of his mission to build an eco-conscious, super-fun board for the backcountry. “Who cares what we are wearing? Who cares about fashion or style or anything like that? Just go out and fart around.”
The tiny PowderJet Company — just Loomis and his wife, along with photographer Shem Roose in Richmond, who also helps with design — began in 2007 at a ski area in southern Vermont. The Rupert-raised Loomis, who’d been snowboarding for 20 years, was teaching his then-7-year-old to ride, at a pace slow enough to contemplate the surrounding cacophony.
“It was overwhelming,” Loomis recalls. “I was like, ‘Man, it feels like I had more fun on my back hill when I was a kid.’ I just wanted it to feel quiet and fun again.”
Around the same time, friends in Maine had started a wooden surfboard business. “It took me about a year and a half of being jealous of them — They have this cool lifestyle; I wish I could build wooden surfboards,” says Loomis. “And then it dawned on me: I live in Vermont, why don’t I just build wooden snowboards?”
With a stint of working in the snowboard industry behind him, including gigs in customer relations at Burton and as a photographer, Loomis knew a thing or two about the manufacturing process. But not that much. “I thought of it as a giant skateboard with bindings,” he says. “No one makes a snowboard like they used to, short and wide, with a shape to the tail that gives it a really surfy feeling. I wanted to make something like that again.”
Loomis scoured online forums for information on how to craft a vacuum press that would help him produce a simultaneously dense, strong and lofty board. “There are all these kids at MIT who apparently have nothing but spare time,” he says of his discovery of detailed instructions. “God bless them — that’s how I made the equipment to build it.”
The result was a closer cousin to the original wooden “snurfer” than anything built by Burton today. At 151 centimeters long, the PowderJet is relatively short, allowing the rider to whip around trees. No edges? No problem. This is a “quiver” board, the one you take out when a foot of fresh powder has just fallen, or when you want to lap stashes on Stowe’s Hell Brook all day long — not when you want to tackle hardpack.
Loomis tested his very first PowderJet on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. “I laughed my ass off for three consecutive knee-deep powder runs,” he told ESPN last winter.
All was not perfect, however. As Loomis reveals on a recent, 79-degree day when he talks to Seven Days, one of the early PowderJets basically blew apart. Loomis and Roose were hiking up a power-line trail for some turns, not realizing there were giant boulders beneath the fluffy snow. “Shem took a heel-side turn, and [the board] split up; parts were flying everywhere,” says Loomis. “So I worked on finding ways to make it strong, which can be tricky.”
Each PowderJet board requires two and a half to three hours of hands-on work, but the maker doesn’t need to worry about exposure to chemicals high in volatile organic compounds. In a shop adjacent to his home, while listening to the Who’s Live at Leeds or other “very loud” music, Loomis layers Forest Stewardship Council-certified maple and poplar wood (branded with the PowderJet logo) with laminate and fiberglass, spreads it all with bio resin, cranks up the pressure to 15 pounds per square inch, and cooks the rectangle at 200 degrees for an hour. Once it’s cool, Loomis cuts the board with a computer numerical control router in Dorset. He takes it back to Rupert for sanding and finishing with substances that include a whey-based polyurethane. “It’s cow’s milk,” he says. “Super strong, super clean.”
Finishing a PowderJet to perfection is “a pain in the ass,” concedes Loomis, and finding time to build the boards can be tough, too. So far, he’s made close to 100. Last year, he took a few to Mount Baker in Washington State for some feedback from pro riders in big mounds of powder. “No complaints,” reports Loomis. “I can’t find anything to fix on [the board], so I’m just going to stick with it.”
With many standard snowboards going for $200 to $300, some riders might grumble about the $650 price tag (metal edges cost $100 more). Even so, Loomis still hasn’t turned a profit. “That’s part of the future plan,” he says. Although he participated in a Middlebury College Digital Bridges program for students and entrepreneurs, Loomis has no visions of selling his start-up to Burton or signing on the “Flying Tomato” — snowboard champ Shaun White. On PowderJet’s Facebook page, which helped sell a board to a rider in Japan, Loomis actually insists his company is the antithesis of the new action-sports line Shaun White Supply Co.
That’s just fine with plenty of snowboarders who gush about the PowderJet on forums such as tetongravity.com, calling it “the best board I have ever ridden in the tight VT trees.” ESPN equates the feeling of riding a PowderJet to surfing, and yet another online reviewer calls the board “a refreshing way to shred.”
Riders who are hesitant to order a custom board and fork over several hundred dollars can demo PowderJets through one of the Darkside Snowboards shops around Vermont, or through Power Play Sports in Morrisville. For 2010-11, Loomis has expanded his demo program to Utah, California, Oregon and Washington.
Loomis has fantasies about one day moving out West, where he’s often ridden his own big mounds of powder. But there are the kids — ages 11, 8 and 3 — and the carpentry job. Not to mention the Green Mountain State’s legendary tough, treed terrain and the pockets of powder left by the steel-edged souls seeking a groomed experience.
“It’s been, I think, just hope and stubbornness,” Loomis says of PowderJet. “But hopefully it motivates you to go out and get off the resort and into the real world.”