Why Are Most Skis No Longer Made of Solid Wood? (Advantages Of Multi-Layer Skis)

by Anthony Schwabe | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

Wooden skis are where it all started. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors did not have the luxury of composite skis and other similarly fancy technology. Wooden skis might appear to be a thing of the past, but is that really true?  

Modern skis consist of composite layers of specified materials to give them increased performance over wood. Multi-layer skis offer lighter weight, better flexibility, and higher performance like increased stability and speed. Wood is also quite expensive, only being used nowadays in high-end skis and ski cores. 

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The History of Wooden Skis

Long before skiing was a sport and even longer before we had highly technological multi-layer composite skis, people used wooden pieces of wood to traverse the frozen tundra for things like travel and hunting. 

wood ski
Photo by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet licensed under CC BY 2.0

While Scandanavia is often thought of as the origination of skiing, archaeologists have traced its roots as far back as 6,000 BC, with some believing them to be used as far back as 8,000 BC in Altai, China. 

Due to the age of skiing, it makes sense that wooden skis have been around since the beginning. Wood is bountiful and rather easy to manipulate into different shapes. This is how wooden skis were born. 

The wooden ski has been utilized all over the world. Basically, if there was any form of snow or ice that needed to be traversed, there was some form of the ski. 

The Norwegians are often thought of as the inventor of the ski itself. While this might not be completely true, they did have a large role in it. In fact, the word “ski” comes from an Old Norse word that means “piece of wood.” 

Although skiing has been around since 6,000 BC, the modern ski is still quite new - relatively speaking.  It is believed that the first cambered skis were fashioned around 1840 in Telemark, Norway.  Since then, the design of skis has gone through endless iterations, but one thing that many high-end modern skis still have is wood.

Some of the most modern and advanced skis today still feature a wooden core because manufacturers and skiers both agree that it gives a ski a lively, responsive feel. The wooden core also helps dampen unwanted vibrations. 

Interestingly, whole wooden skis aren’t altogether gone. There are a select handful of bespoke ski makers that still use wood as the main material for their products. 

Introduction of Multi-Layer Skis

skis equipments

It took quite some time for skis to turn into the composite layered items we see all over the slopes today.  The first indication of skis changing from a pure wood construction was in 1926 when an Austrian man by the name of Rudolf Lettner created skis with metal edges after he suffered a near-fatal skiing accident. 

By the start of the ‘60s, the first successful fiberglass skis were invented, bringing in the modern era of skis.  Modern skis typically feature composite constructions. This means there are layers of fabric bound together by epoxy. Fiberglass is, of course, the most common fabric for composites in skis. 

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As time went on, carbon fiber began to replace fiberglass as the choice material for the composite layers. This is because it's incredibly high-performing and lightweight. It's the same reason it's used in Formula 1.  Unfortunately, carbon fiber comes with quite a steep cost, meaning it’s usually reserved for only the best quality & highest priced skis. 

Another huge advantage of multi-layer skis is the result of using materials that have different mechanical properties. This essentially gives manufacturers the opportunity to make skis that are both very tough and very flexible. 

On the other hand, wooden skis are all made from the same material, meaning they can only handle a certain amount of flexing

Typical modern skis feature a construction of a core, sidewalls, top sheet, and base. Manufacturers choose materials based on their properties to get the most out of the skis.  You’ll find everything from low-quality foam to precision carbon fiber in modern skis.

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Cost is another big factor that manufacturers consider, opting for cheaper materials at the cost of performance when it comes to lower quality skis like rental and beginner skis. 

Benefits of Modern Multi-Layer Skis 

There are plenty of reasons why so many manufacturers make their skis with multi-layer construction.  The first of these reasons is the increased dynamic properties of the skis. 

When it comes to both fiberglass and carbon fiber, they are much lighter than wooden skis. This gives skiers a much more responsive ride, allowing good skiers to turn on even the tightest corners. 

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Carbon fiber is also very strong. This means skiers are given the comfort of knowing their skis can withstand pretty much anything the mountains have to offer. 

The second difference a skier will notice is just how light modern skis are compared to their older counterparts. This really helps skiers maneuver much easier in highly technical skiing and at greater speed.

Another benefit of modern skis is that relatively speaking, they are more affordable than wooden skis. Buying wooden skis nowadays usually comes with a considerable initial cost, as well as ongoing maintenance costs - from waxing to sharpening.

Here is just a summary of the biggest advantages of using a modern composite ski: 

  • Lightweight
  • Better vibration damping
  • Increased rigidity
  • Flexibility
  • Increased dynamics

Are Wooden Skis Better?

old ski bindings
Vintage ski bindings from 1950's, photo by Ole Husby

Like everything in life, it all comes down to preference. Both wooden and composite skis have their pros and cons.  Testing out both wooden and regular skis is a good way to determine which you prefer, but the majority of us will always opt for modern skis.

There’s a reason modern skis are so widely used today, even by professional athletes.

Modern skis just have that extra level of engineering that makes them usually stand out in terms of performance on the slopes. It’s also a lot easier to get your hands on modern skis over decent wooden skis.  For anyone really pushing the envelope on the slopes, there is no substitute for multi-layer composite skis. 

Do People Still Use Wood Skis?

pair of skis with poles
Photo by Ozzy Delaney

While not used by the huge majority, there are some people that still prefer to use wooden skis for one reason or another. 

Boutique wooden skis are still manufactured today by certain brands. The most common users of wooden skis are those who appreciate the feel of a heavier ski. Some people also feel that wooden skis are a better way to connect to nature. 

Additionally, wood is still used in high-end skis as the core. Wooden cores are used for their highly desirable properties like vibration dampening and better dynamics. 

Evolution of Skis

Downhill Orange Jacket

Wooden skis are where it all started. They allowed our ancestors a way to traverse snow and glaciers for things like hunting and simple travel. While they are technically ancient and have been all but replaced by composite skis, they still have their perks. 

Some traditionalists enjoy the feel of wooden skis, still using them today. Manufacturers also use wood for the cores of their high-end skis to increase performance.  Even after 10,000 years, wood is still used and will likely be used for the foreseeable future.