As news about an upcoming ski brand manufacturing innovative, award-winning skis in a farm, somewhere amidst the forests of Central Finland started to circle, it was time to investigate.
I´m standing in the parking lot, in front of a traditional Finnish barn, in the heart of the country´s lake district. It´s only 200 meters to the nearest lake called Leppävesi – the regional road 640 crosses it just next to the farm. Vuonteensalmi itself is part of a bigger lake system, giving you access not only to the regional capital Jyväskylä, 20 km´s to the south-west, but also further south to the Päijät-Häme area, via lake Päijänne.
Finnish ski building tradition
The wooden upper section of the barn is painted red, which makes a stark contrast to the gray concrete plinth. At first glimpse, it is an unlikely place for the new headquarters of an ambitious young ski brand. With a closer look you discover that the area is steeped in ski building history, with cross country ski brands emerging from the area already in the beginning of the 20th century.
This was mostly due to the long snowy winters and the abundance of good building material: around 75% of Finland´s surface area is covered by the mostly boreal forests, making the country Europe´s most forested. The conditions provided a fertile testing ground for innovative young craftsmen of their era and during the golden era – the post WW2 decades, before the introduction of glassfiber skis, Finnish ski brands, such as Lampinen, Peltonen, Järvinen and Karhu were household names around the world.
Times have changed and today there are only a handful of small companies in Finland still manufacturing wooden cross-country skis. However, one emerging local ski brand, producing skis for the pure pleasure of going downhill, has lately come up with innovative, award-winning skis and garnered international interest along the way.
As I walk under the black branded canopy, through the open barn doors, I am greeted by Jani Ahvenainen, co-founder of the PUSU Skis company. He is surrounded by a dozen or so guests, who are attending the opening of the new PUSU Skis production site. Most seem to be around their thirties and clad in shorts and t-shirts, which makes the one guest sporting a suit stand out from the crowd.
Ahvenainen is sturdy with short fair hair and a beard. He´s wearing jeans, a black hoodie with a Moomin print and a grey flat cap and looks like modern entrepreneurs often nowadays do: presentable, but relaxed, rather than business-like . Smiling, he leads me past the newly placed machinery, into the social area with a kitchen, and offers me a beer. I settle for a coffee and Ahvenainen gives me a tour of the new showroom and production site, where PUSU Skis recently moved, having outgrown it´s former facilities.
After the tour, we sit at the showroom sofa, while Ahvenainen recounts how he started PuSu Skis, or Puuppolan Suksi, as it was then known, back in 2016 with his good friend and skiing buddy, Ilkka Helenius. Both Ahvenainen and Helenius grew up in the nearby Jyväskylä area in Central Finland, where they mostly skied at Riihivuori, the local ski hill with a vertical drop of 120 meters.
They weren´t drawn to competing, but enjoyed skiing everything: slopes, park, and later off-piste, which they discovered on their road-trips, first to Lapland and later to Northern Sweden and the Lyngen Alps in Norway. In 2009, after one of them saw an advertisement on the internet for a ski building class at a community college in the nearby town of Valkeakoski, they registered without much hesitation: “we drove two hours there every Tuesday for a year and pretty soon started to build our own (ski building) site and production”, Ahvenainen now recalls.
The birth of PUSU Skis
Despite having witnessed dozens of new ski brands emerging on the market, after the initial freeskiing revolution at the end of the nineties, Ahvenainen says their main inspiration came from elsewhere: “we were mainly just driven to build skis for ourselves, we wanted skis that would perform well on our trips – if we were going to Narvik, Norway, then we wanted to build a Narvik ski”.
When naming their ski brand, Ahvenainen said that they took a cue from the old Finnish cross-country ski makers: “You can only really name a ski after two attributes – your surname or the place where you come from”. Since there were two people starting the ski brand, they couldn´t go with the surname, so the pair chose the latter option, naming their ski after Puuppola, where their first ski building site was located, in Helenius´s father´s garage (Suksi means Ski in English).
Word about well-performing handmade wooden skis got around quickly, first among the friends of Ahvenainen and Helenius, and later also within the Finnish freeskiing scene. After a few years of testing, and with R&D input by Finnish freeskiers, like Ape Majava and Jani Johansén , both the performance and the looks of the skis started to be at such a high level, that Ahvenainen and Helenius decided to start their own company, Puuppolan Suksi Oy in 2016.
What goes into the PUSU Skis
The founding of the company presented the need for new investments: “we had to purchase wood machinery, build a ski press and modify a lot of existing tools for our needs, in which the internet was of great help”, Ahvenainen recalls.
The newly-born company also made Helenius and Ahvenainen focus on the development of the company´s ski building process. As a phd physics student, Helenius was not satisfied with having a strong feeling about something, but insisted on being able to measure everything, and to use those calculations as a base for the decision making.
Around the same time, the pair brought in Ossi Valkonen, who had professional surface finish experience from various industries: “Ossi started developing the surface treatment, looking for different ways to make it (wooden top sheet) as durable as possible, and at the same time, in the most efficient way”, Ahvenainen explains.
The minimalistic vintage look, flirting with the Finnish ski building heritage is clearly a big part of the PUSU Skis brand. The showroom skis, using, for example, flame birch, padouk, elm tree and walnut tree as top sheet material, are simply stunningly finished – something you could hang on your living room wall.
Still, they´re made for skiing, and the company seems to put a lot of emphasis to make sure they perform like you´d expect from a 21st century ski: “While we have been digging the traditional look, at the same time, we want to build skis, which are as modern as possible, when it comes to both shaping and what goes inside the skis”, Ahvenainen declares.
PUSU Skis uses a variety of different materials, such as domestic birch and aspen, as well as foreign-sourced ash and balsa for the ski cores. “Depending on the ski models, we look for different characteristics off these core materials, which we then boost with other materials such as glassfiber and Spinnova”, Ahvenainen explains.
Spinnova, Moomins and the ISPO award
Spinnova is another company hailing from Central Finland, which has lately received international fame for it´s sustainable material innovation, enabling the company to produce textile and other fibres from either wood cellulose or waste. Spinnova´s partner list includes big brands, such as The North Face, Adidas and H&M, and more recently – PUSU Skis.
According to Ahvenainen, the cooperation with Spinnova started on a fluke: “Juha Salmela, one of the developer´s of the (Spinnova) fibre, comes from the same province, and also happens to be a skier. I met him, while demoing a pair of skis with a flax fibre core, and after a while, we became interested in knowing what kind of qualities Spinnova could introduce to the skis”, Ahvenainen adds.
Besides being more ecological than traditional core materials, such as glass fiber, not to mention carbon fiber, Spinnova also has additional strengths: “Spinnova (fiber) has really good damping qualities, around 50% better than that of glassfiber – another advantage is that it resists fatigue better, meaning that the ski will retain it´s qualities for longer, Ahvenainen explains.
Developing the ski with a Spinnova core was not easy, it took a full year of R&D to come up with final version. The hard work seems to have paid off though, as PUSU Skis have just won the coveted ISPO gold medal for it´s Loska Spinnova – a freeride ski with 100 mm underfoot and a turn radius of 17 meters.
The company has another ski in it´s lineup, using the sustainable fiber core – the Abisko Spinnova, which is slightly bigger, at 109 mm underfoot. It also comes as a special Moomin version, featuring a printed cartoon character, licensed by the Moomin company.
The cartoon characters are immensely popular, especially in Scandinavia and Japan, where you can find products varying from skateboards to outdoor cups and coffee, branded with them.
According to Ahvenainen, the rights holder of the Moomins brand contacted PUSU Skis and suggested cooperation: “they had seen our products and liked our brand – we share the same values with them (nature and adventure), so it (cooperation) was natural.”
With Spinnova making headlines around the world for it´s revolutionary sustainable fiber and brand cooperation with the caliber of the Moomins , it seems like PUSU Skis has caught the big wave at the right time. The company is currently finishing negotiations with a group of investors, and also hiring for permanent positions, both in the production and sales department, which will add up to the existing three permanent workers.
The company has a clear vision: “we want to be the world´s biggest small ski manufacturer”, Ahvenainen states. He sees sustainability as one of the most important parts of the PUSU brand, but also emphasizes the fact that the end product has to ski well: “our skis are made by skiers for the real skier.”
According to Ahvenainen, the real, or expert skiers make up for the majority of PUSU´s customers, and they know what they want from a ski. Besides a good edge hold, the dedicated PUSU skiers also look for playfulness in their skis: “the ski cannot be boring – it has to have some liveliness, but at the same time, it has to have enough torsional stiffness to hold an edge, when making a proper carving turn”, Ahvenainen continues.
The liveliness is added by reducing the skis longitudinal stiffness, which also enables the skier to drive the ski, using several different turn radiuses. According to Ahvenainen, this ski building philosophy is applied to the entire PUSU ski lineup.
The party upstairs
We finish our discussions, as it seems that the event is nearing it´s end, and the guests are slowly heading towards the exit. The party is just about to begin in earnest though. In the parking lot, I run into Matti Kovanen , the brand manager of PUSU Skis, who is carrying a crate full of beer and wine. He smiles and tells me to join everyone upstairs, where the dj is already playing.
I climb the wooden bridge upstairs and enter into the dark space, lit by decorative party lights hanging from the ceiling. Everything is made of wood from the floor to the ceiling. There are tables with chairs made of barrels here and there and on the left side, there is small bar.
I stumble into the PUSU professor, Ilkka Helenius, who tips me off about his home-made cider, which he then serves me very professionally behind the bar desk, wearing a leather apron. The dry cider from local apples tastes crisp and refreshing. I sit on one of the barrels and watch my kids Iida and Aarne take on the dance floor by a storm, dancing their feet off under blinking disco lights to an upbeat techno tune.
I then strike a conversation with a moustache-clad man in his fifties, wearing a black t-shirt. For a while, we talk about children, his are already in their teens, and then move into the place we´re in. It turns out that, he owns the building and, also, happens to be the chairman of the board in Puuppolan Suksi oy. We shake hands and he introduces himself as Pasi Korhonen, adding that his purchase of the barn was a way to facilitate PUSU´s next phase in becoming an internationally renowned ski company.
Korhonen then goes on to tell me that originally, the main houses were owned by the Finnish army. The farm was then converted into a youth detention center in the 1930´s, which functioned until 1994. In the mid-nineties, the place was remodeled as a prison. During it´s 26 active years, the prison was also occupied by Matti Nykänen, the local 3-time olympic gold-medal winning ski jumper with a famously troubled post-career life.
Now, the area has been protected, both for it´s cultural history and landscape values. Projects like the new PUSU Skis production site give the area a new buzz, creating jobs, while also modernizing the area´s long ski building heritage. I watch as Ahvenainen gives a warm and humorous speech about the company story, after which he enters the crowd and is surrounded by friends.
It´s all about the new generation of local skiers gathering here tonight to celebrate together in the warmth of the mid-summer. In the coming winter months, the lakes will be frozen, the farms covered in snow, t-bars will be squeaking up the local tiny hills – and the PUSU factory will be busy shipping skis around the world.