Small craft workshop in Bohemia makes wooden skis from ash trees
A strong smell of wood permeates the workshop of Zdeněk Fryml and Michal Martinek in the small town of Dobré in northeastern Bohemia. The exhibited historical wooden skis, sleds and other items take visitors back to the turn of the twentieth century, but the items are not museum pieces –they are tailor made for clients who want an exclusive, personalized product.
Carpenter Zdeněk Fryml learnt the art of making historic wooden skis from his father, but it was his great-grandfather who started making the first wooden skis in Orlické hory (Eagle Mountains) back in the late 1920s. Back then he made skis for loggers, gamekeepers and other inhabitants of the mountain region who needed to get to work and move about during the harsh winter months. Three generations of Fryml men learnt the art of producing historic skis - how and where to find the right tree, how to chop it down, let the wood dry and give it the perfect shape –secrets that make their skis a highly original article.
The instruments lining the shelves of the workshop were inherited from Zdeněk’s grandfather -together with a love of wood and enthusiasm for the craft. The skis made in his workshop bear the name "jasanky"(ash–skis) .
"I am from four generations of carpenters, three of whom produced wooden skis. Most of the instruments here are from my grandfather’s days, some I modernized slightly, but I basically use the original set of instruments and techniques. The skis we make today are slightly different from the old ones, they are a bit wider than those grandpa made, the binding is positioned differently, and there are other small details, in order to meet present day needs. The old skis were made for cross-country, people needed skis to get around, not for sport, which is their main purpose today.”
Zdeněk says that he was always fascinated by the family workshop with its wood shavings, characteristic smell and instruments and although his grandfather died before he could get to know him, the attic was full of historic skis from the old days. He and his friend Michal would take them to the slopes and when they had demolished the whole lot they decided to make their first pair of wooden skis. With the help of Zdeněk’s father they succeeded, but it would be a long way before they got everything right and perfected the technique of producing historic wooden skis.
At first they made wooden skis only for their own use and for friends, thinking that wooden skis could not replace modern ones. Now they say their skis can meet any challenge -be it a classic cross-country hike, expedition, ski mountaineering, skiing in open terrain and on the slopes. They can be used for sports, for work in mountain terrain or a historical skiing race.
“When we took part in our first competition it was just a bit of fun. We wanted to show off our wooden “ash” skis. We even made a special “tandem” pair for the occasion –two of us on one pair of skis, which was a big attraction – but then our friends from Holland informed us that there was even a world championship in skiing on wooden skis. So we attended the championship in Austria where we realized that it was more than just a bit of fun. We were surprised by the great skiers who took part -former Austrian champions –now aged around 70 – who flashed by us on their wooden skis, perfectly in control, leaving us far behind. When we eventually reached the finish line they were waiting for us with mulled wine and smiles on their faces.”
Michal says the world championship is Austria was an eye-opener in many ways and a very enjoyable experience.
“Not only was the track much longer, it was more gruelling and, as it did a century ago, it led through open terrain, several isolated settlements where the locals would cheer us on and stop us to give us shots of home-made brandy. It was hard to put them off and with one freeride behind us and another ahead that shot of brandy was really deadly!”
However fans of historic wooden skis in Austria showed them that there was a huge interest in – and a market for –wooden skis; that what had seemed like a bit of fun at the outset could actually be turned into a promising business. Every new pair of skis they make for a client at home or abroad starts with a walk in the forest.
“We walk in the forest and select trees that are likely to make great skis. Right now I have pre-selected about ten trees that look very promising. When I look at a tree I know right away what the wood will be like. If there is any sign of disease, it wouldn’t make good skis. The tree must be healthy and straight, paradoxically the worse conditions it has had, the harder and better the wood will be. And the tree must be straight –the crown must be symmetrically distributed above the trunk –if it is leaning to one side, then it is no good for us. “
In the workshop in Dobré, skis are created according to the given requirements and they are "fine-tuned" for each client. It depends on whether they are for cross-country skiing or for downhill skiing. Zdeněk and Michal also make replicas of historical skis for filmmakers. These differ in shape, binding, material. In Scandinavia wooden skis are made either from birch or pine, probably because of their light weight, but Michal says that up north the wood is a whole different story.
“Up north where you have harsh winters the wood is harder, denser, of much better quality. Here you can use pine or birch as a last resort, but in Scandinavia they are as good as our ash.”
One pair of wooden skis costs around 7,000 crowns. They are made to last, and impregnated to withstand the negative effects of artificial snow which is particularly harmful, but Zdenek says that the owner must still count on giving them extra care.
“They must be waxed, just like modern skis, maybe even a bit more. But that’s the thing you know –these are not skis for someone who wants to show them off on the slopes once, or who will spend a day skiing and then toss them in the garage. That’s not going to work. These skis are special, they are something to cherish, take care of and display, because they are truly beautiful – that is how they differ from the run of the mill, modern skis.”
Zdeněk and Michal definitely cherish their wooden skis and have tried and tested them to the hilt in Hardangerviddy, Norway, as Michal recalls.
“Hardangerviddy is in the southern part of Norway, between Oslo and Bergen. 12,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level and you are moving in what resembles Polar conditions. So you are not far from civilization, but in wild terrain that simulates Polar conditions. In fact Amundsen trained there before setting off on his Polar expedition. We spent 12 nights there and covered about 150 kilometres on our wooden skis. We didn’t keep track exactly, because the aim was just to have as much fun as possible.”
Asked what a fortnight on skis in the frozen wilderness brought him Zdeněk says it is hard to explain if you have not tried it.
“It is about friendship and a cleansing of the mind. All your problems are blown away. You stretch your resources to the limit, you have to fight to survive, but in Nature, away from our stressful world, everything seems simpler and you have time to get things in perspective. When we got back our wives asked what we’d been smoking, because we couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces for a fortnight. The things people were put out about seemed laughable. We could laugh and do our own thing. That was the best part.”