Gilson Snow now working on wakeboards

As the crew at Gilson Snow works to fulfill record orders of custom snowboards and skis, the Snyder County manufacturing firm is moving closer to entering a whole new marketplace: wakeboards.

Gilson continues its partnership with mechanical engineering professors Craig Beal and Nate Siegel and students Matt Rulon, Ben Snook and Matt Sennett from Bucknell University via the school’s Small Business Development Centre.

The professors and students work with Gilson staff to design, build and test prototypes. The work takes them from campus labs and the Gilson shop to the waters of the Susquehanna River.

“I had never been wakeboarding. I rode one wakeboard that I didn’t make to compare. I picked it up quicker than I thought I would,” Rulon said. “Riding our first prototypes versus riding our prototypes now, it’s a massive difference.”

Gilson makes its snowboards and skis from Pennsylvania poplar. The firm turned to the very same wood for wakeboards. An all wooden wakeboard was too heavy, Rulon said, explaining they spent six months seeking alternatives to make it lighter without compromising strength.

Nick Gilson, who co-founded the company with Austin Royer, said they started with wood to nail down the fluid dynamics.

The wood retains shape memory after being pressed into 3D form and stores up “amazing energy” when it’s flexed, he said.

They shifted to a high-performance bond of surf foam and poplar, Gilson said, adding that they’re exploring organic alternatives such as mushroom-based foams.

“We’ve arrived at a fluid dynamic shape and a profile as well as a makeup of materials and the engineering of the product. We believe we can offer an ultra-lightweight, high-quality, American-made wakeboard,” Gilson said.

Beal said students involved in the project gained knowledge of which design elements can make a board both light and rigid and where to put certain materials, hiding small features hardly visible to the user but which significantly contributes to the board’s performance. Finding the right layering sequence of fibreglass, wood and foam was key.

“Water being liquid, it doesn’t provide quite as much of a media to work against as snow does. Our features had to be more exaggerated than on a snowboard. Adding fins was a big thing that affected the board. Even if you take the fins off, even the flat board is ridable because of the features we put on it,” Beal said.

Snowboard business at Gilson Snow doubled while the custom ski business quadrupled, Gilson said. It’s caused a significant backorder to handle, he said, and they’re appropriately focused of filling those orders. That’s the priority.

But as they settle on product quality and design for a wakeboard, Gilson said they’ll look to build up tooling within the shop to manufacture them at higher volumes. He anticipates online sales and a retail partnership.

Gilson Snow’s successes in snowboards and skis shouldn’t give them any hubris that success is guaranteed with wakeboards, Gilson said. “We recognise this is a really different marketplace,” he said. “The reason we’re entering this space is because we’ve built a phenomenal high-quality production line on American soil. The engineering and build processes are similar. What’s motivating this is actually driven by our craft.”

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