Full disclosure – this video is not a “how-to” ski tuning tutorial. It is also long, highly technical, and cuts out before the clinic ends.
So what exactly is this video? It’s an open-forum Q&A with Alex Martin, ski tech for Ted Ligety. It’s a fascinating demonstration of prepping race skis for World Cup competition. And if nothing else, it’s a rare opportunity to bask in the glory of a master ski tech chatting casually about race skis…with an Austrian accent.
Unofficially, we’ll call it part of our “Ridiculously Specific Videos for Geeks” series. So if you enjoy watching experts in action as much as we do, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Then read on for our thoughts on the master craftsmanship of Alex Martin.
No matter how much experience you acquire in a given field, you will always find someone whose knowledge and skill humbles you. In the world of ski tuning, Alex Martin is that guy.
An “Official Head Rebels Ski Service Master,” and Ted Ligety’s ski tech, Martin has been tuning skis at the World Cup and Olympic levels for more than 20 years. And befitting of his title as tech for one of ski racing’s biggest stars, operating on the world’s biggest stage, Alex is a legend in the slightly less publicized world of ski tuning.
As part of Head’s traveling World Cup Tuning Clinic, Alex visited us last spring at Rennstall for a four-hour clinic on the finer points of World Cup race prep. Progressing through his finely honed routine, patiently answering questions along the way, Alex covered the step-by-step process required to turn a pair of Ted’s newly pressed skis into race-ready contenders.
A well-tuned pair of skis is the result of the ability, knowledge, and skill of the tech who services them. Alex Martin was clearly born with a special ability. And through the years he has amassed an insane amount of knowledge. But it’s his skill – the all-important ability to execute – that has set him apart as one of the best in the business. And, as we learned during the World Cup Tuning Clinic, Alex’s skill is the result of his ability and knowledge being applied to the task at hand with a uniquely philosophical and creative approach.
Ability and Philosophy
It is, of course, impossible to adequately convey the precision with which Alex works. But it’s telling that, in a room full of experienced techs, his craftsmanship was making jaws drop. After pulling and sanding the sidewalls with the same tools we use at Rennstall, the results were humbling – even bordering on deflating. Perfectly tailored and buffed, the once factory-issue vertical sidewall was transformed into a fully customized shape to complement the extreme angulation that defines Ted Ligety’s racing style.
Alex is downright philosophical in his approach to edge work. In describing his process he makes precise hand tuning sound at once simple, yet maddeningly out of reach. He keeps his diamond stone dry, so he “can hear how it’s reacting with the edge.” He also doesn’t use file guides. “If you don’t have the feel with the diamond stone, you don’t have the feel to be tuning by hand,” he says. And like any master of a trade, Alex stresses patience. Addressing a question about how to tell when you’re done with an edge, he politely dismissed the notion that the answer could be so formulaic. “Take a break, wash your hands, then come back to feel the edge. Sometimes you’ll be done without knowing it.”
Knowledge and Creativity
There’s an image that comes to mind when you think of veteran ski tuners. They’re weathered, always right, and saltier with each passing season. They’re intimidating to talk with about skis because they know more than you, and aren’t particularly patient with your efforts to decipher their language. But with the exception of his Austrian ski-villain accent (think Rudy Garmisch from Hot Dog), Alex is so far from the stereotype of your lifelong ski tuner that it’s almost comical. Well-spoken, thoughtful in his responses, and clearly self-aware of the insanely specific line of work he’s in, Alex approaches ski tuning with a humble confidence.
For those of us trained in the hierarchical structure of a shop, it was fascinating to hear such an un-regimented mindset when it comes to ski tuning. Alex stressed repeatedly that there is no single “right way” to tune skis. While the goal is always the same – sharp edges and fast skis – there is no set formula to get there. In that sense, Alex’s approach to hand tuning stresses flexibility and creative thought, dispelling the notion that it’s strictly a job of manual labor.
At Rennstall we are fortunate to have highly advanced, efficient (and expensive) tuning machines. When the shop is running full-bore at 10:00 p.m. during Christmas week, it’s an impressive display. From start to finish, skis are in constant motion – tuned, waxed, and back on the rack in less than 30 minutes. It’s this level of mechanized efficiency that allows four techs to tune more than 60 pairs of skis in a single night.
But there’s a downside to that level of automation. For the technicians running the machines, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what was accomplished through personal craftsmanship and what was the result of mindless button pushing.
In large part, that is what was so inspiring about hearing the way Alex describes ski tuning. His commitment to innovation and creativity dispelled the notion that machines could ever replace the role of human involvement in ski tuning. While machines can crank out mass-produced tunes that meet the quality-needs of recreational skiers, they will never be capable of the creative thought required to tune for World Cup athletes. When quality of work matters most, doing it by hand still prevails.
In this age of 3D printers, laser cutters, and robotic welders, it’s satisfying to know that craftsmen like Alex still exist in irreplaceable ways. His work is valued not in the way a handcrafted watch is – expensive because of the incredible number of hours that went into its production – but in the sense that it can’t be replicated by any mechanized process.
For the techs at Rennstall who specialize in hand tuning, this concept served as positive affirmation for the countless hours they spend on the bench. While the machines behind them pump out tunes at 10-times the rate, the quality of craftsmanship achieved by hand tuning validates their time-intensive efforts.
We are honored to have been able to host the Head World Cup Tuning Clinic, and we hope you enjoyed the video. Thank you to Alex for coming to show us his techniques and sharing his thoughts on race prep. At Rennstall, we’re always looking for ways to make your skis just a little faster, and a little more precise. There’s no better way to accomplish that goal than to learn from a master like Alex Martin.
Nate Tomlinson, Senior Content Writer & Rennstall Ski Tech