Behind Closed Doors
Words/Photos: Ian Sansom
White Lines pays a visit to the Area 51 of snowboarding
Since 1977, Mervin Manufacturing have been building Lib Tech and Gnu snowboards from their home in the Pacific Northwest, developing a reputation for innovative designs which challenge established thinking.
Some of the developments Mervin have been responsible for launching include: implementation of knitted fibreglass for increased strength and life; ‘T’ nuts for mounting bindings (the holes that you screw your bindings into); vertically laminated sandwich construction in 1984 (when other companies were still hand cutting their boards out of plywood); Cap construction in 1986; Genetically engineered wood for lighter, snappier cores; ‘end grain’ wood construction (using the grains of the core material in opposing directions for increased strength and edge hold, a concept since taken up by six other companies); and a special dye sublimation process that produces incredibly bright and vibrant graphics without die-cut bases. They also had the first four-hole insert pattern (although wider spaced than today’s ubiquitous 4x4 design) as well as the first 3-hole insert pattern. But perhaps their most important innovation was the deep sidecut, implemented at a time when everybody else was using surf-inspired big noses and narrow tails. Put simply, carving was a term that didn’t simply didn’t exist in snowboarding before Mervin introduced the Gnu Hypercarve. Throughout their business life then, Mervin have often been regarded as somewhat loopy – but that doesn’t detract from everything they’ve brought to the sport.
This story began as a feature on how to build a snowboard, and was originally slated for the White Lines Product Guide – incidentally, available now in all good snowboard shops and newsagents (plug, plug). We figured that as the longest running factory in the USA they would know a thing or two about building boards, and through a combination of timing and good luck, we were set to be in the Pacific Northwest, Mervin’s operating base, at the end of June. After we’d been there and seen the factory for ourselves, we realised that the story was bigger than simply ‘how to build a board’.
I got in touch with long time Lib Tech rider James Stentiford – who is now the European Team Manager for DC clothing and boots – and he hooked me up with Pete Saari, Mervin’s marketing man. Pete has been with Mervin since the early days – in fact, he was their third employee – and over the next few weeks we exchanged some pretty non-committal emails working out a rough time for a visit. I was a little worried by the laid-back response and took it that “sure, come over" meant “have you no idea how busy we are?" I was in the Northwest for three weeks and as my time there was coming to an end I realised that if I didn’t pull my finger out, it wasn’t going to happen. I managed to get hold of Pete’s phone number and called – I had two days left, could I pop by to shoot some photos? “Sure, come over" he said.
Mervin are as Northwest a company as you can possibly get – they’ve been operating from the region in various guises since 1977 (their entire business lives). While other companies have since moved to the area, Mervin have ignored the trends and continued to do what they do - all with a sense of humour that sets them apart from every other snowboard company. But this is not just some fanboy ranting – while Mervin are my favourite company, no one in the industry would deny that their legacy to snowboarding is long, and runs deep.
Of course, actually finding Mervin was another matter. After a long drive out of Seattle, we finally turned up in Carlsboro, Washington. Now, this place is literally in the middle of nowhere, and after following the directions we ended up driving down what looked like a dirt road to nowhere. I was convinced we’d made a wrong turn. At the end of the road was a huge metal shed, with a myriad of pick-ups and old machinery lying around – it looked more like a hillbilly hangout than a world class snowboard production facility. Dogs padded around at random, but when I saw the fifteen-foot plexiglass halfpipe (on wheels, with no flat bottom) I knew I had found the place.
As we pulled up, Pete was holding some kind of meeting in the parking lot, and recognising him from old magazines I went over and said hello. He smiled, said "You must be the British guy" and shook my hand. “We’ve kind of got a meeting in a couple of hours, so we should get started – what do you want to see?" Erm, how about all of it?
Mervin’s facility is like Willy Wonka’s factory, but without the midgets – well, mostly without the midgets. Pets are welcome in the workplace, but as their website says, they’re encouraged to stay out of the grinding areas. That means there’s any number of dogs hanging out in the back of pick-ups, or just lounging around on the parking lot.
We started off by checking out the design and business area, a 1,000 square foot log cabin away from the main factory. Inside are designers, the team manager and various other sales and business people. It was all interesting stuff, but I was itching to get into the factory and see the magic. As we walked back across the parking lot, a small side door opened and Mike Olson ambled out. Mike is the founder of Mervin and the Willy Wonka to this particular factory. When they first started he didn’t have any money, so he turned to all manner of schemes to keep the company going, from shaping surfboards to teaching skiing to reselling components to other snowboard manufacturers. It’s from Mike’s mind that Mervin’s innovation comes, so when he invited me into his office to chat I was stoked.
We spent the next hour or so talking – if there’s one thing that Mike Olson can do as well as build boards, it’s tell stories. I learned a few things about the snowboard industry that are as incredible as they are shocking. Mike’s office is like a snowboarding museum crossed with a ramshackle workshop. Ancient boards are propped up everywhere, there are prototypes of established models and a number of ‘in the works’ innovations that I’m not allowed to talk about. One thing that Mike is particularly excited about is Lib Tech’s new surfboard division – instead of using the toxic foam blanks that almost every other surf brand uses to make their boards, Lib are working on a biodegradable foam core with laminated balsa technology taken from their experience in making snowboards and skateboards. Whether he’s more excited about the new technology or the two week ‘R&D’ trip to Indonesia he’s taking the next day is hard to fathom, but there’s no denying that this board could do much to change the way that surf boards are made.
Lib Tech’s green credentials are impressive, although not something that they trade on excessively. Mike mentions a water-based resin (the glue that’s used in snowboard manufacture) that some companies are shouting about using this season. “It’s a great product and does the job better than oil-based resins – the thing is that we’ve been using it for over ten years. I think next year we’ll announced our ‘new’ water based resin!’ he says with a wink. Mervin fully admit that making snowboards is hardly the most environmentally friendly activity in the world, but they’re doing their best – from giving all the sawdust that comes out of their woodshop to a local farm for compost, to using bio diesel (vegetable oil) to heat the factory and run some of their vehicles. Mervin’s intention is to reduce their impact as much as possible
Mike Olson is one of the most interesting characters in snowboarding. He started the company after seeing a photo of a snowboarder riding a board with no bindings in the back of an old skate mag and realised his calling. Perhaps it was the lack of bindings that first sparked that ‘what if’ inside his head? Whatever the inspiration there’s no doubting that his contribution to snowboarding is immense. He’s a bit of a loon, to be honest, but he’s also one of those rare people who can look at something that seems to work absolutely perfectly and wonder ‘how can I make that better?’
Take Magnetraction, for example. It’s basically the most outrageous sidecut system that you’ll ever see – inspired by way a serrated knife slices bread more effectively. “Why not apply it to a snowboard edge?" thinks Mike. Or the new Crazy Skate Banana, which uses inverse camber like the rocker on a surfboard to help the board float over powder.
Mervin is all about snowboarding – their factory is staffed almost entirely by snowboarders and employee benefits include money towards their season pass to make sure that they spend plenty of time on the hill. Plus once a year every employee gets to build a custom snowboard to their own specifications, with personalized graphics. If that’s not a good enough reason to go work for Mervin, then I don’t know what is! When they moved from their Seattle facility to the new place on the peninsular, they could have cut their staff and wages to reflect the cheaper cost of living on the peninsula. Instead, everyone kept their jobs and wages remained at the same level.
Thank god for companies like Mervin. Not many people were building snowboards 30 years ago, but the enthusiasm and dedication of these early pioneers has kept the ball rolling and helped shape the sport’s identity. As more and more people jump on the bandwagon, it’s nice to know that guys like Mike are still out there - trying to make the best boards they can, support the scene and basically do what they love.
Pete Saari Interview
Name: Pete Saari
Job Title : VP Marketing
How many people work there?
40 or so in each shop, 80 total.
Do you all ride? Is there a certain standard you're expected to be at?
I think almost everybody rides. There are no rules or standards. If you don't ride it's fine as long as you care. We usually get snowboarders, skaters or surfers because that is what we do.
What does it take to get a job in your team? For instance do you need certain skills to make the boards or are you just trained on the job?
You are trained on the job. Most of the jobs here don't exist in other places so you get trained here by one of the leads. The best skill to bring is a stoke and a willingness to work hard..
Who's the biggest character at the factory?
Well there are many but I like Shag right now. He builds skateboards for us, plays at local clubs in a one man band, does weird skate tricks that nobody ever did or does, and always has something good to say.
What do you all do to let your hair down?!
I shaved mine off. It's summer here so some people go to Mt Hood but most skate all the local cement parks, fish, drink beer, surf...
What stands you apart from the rest of the industry?
We actually build snowboards and ride them. Most companies design graphics and have a ski company build their boards for them. We are like surfer shapers here. Build a board test it refine it build another one test it. We have been doing that for 20 years or more. We also read White Lines on the shitter.
How A Board Gets Made
Obviously this process will vary slightly from brand to brand (and board to board) but here is how a snowboard gets made, Mervin-style.
1. Lengths of wood are glued together into solid blocks.
2. Said block is cut across to make several board cores.
3. Off-cuts go into pile to heat the factory.
4. Base specialist puts the die-cut p-tex base together
5. On a different bench, sidewalls and plastic bumbers are attached to a wood core.
6. The magic begins. Edges are fixed into the base and a layer of epoxy resin is spread on. This is carefully measured for minimal waste.
7. Rubber dampening strips go in. Check out the tat!
8. First layer of fibreglass and another layer of resin is added
9. Core section is placed on top, and covered in a third layer of resin.
10. Another layer of fibreglass, another layer of resin.
11. Now for the lovely topsheet.
12. The whole lot is then bunged in a press for about 20 minutes (handily, about the time it takes to put the next board together). Excess resin is squeezed out down the blue run-offs.
13. Here we have our freshly grilled panini. I mean snowboard.
14. Check out the tufts! Looks weird dunnit?
15. Using the edge as a guide, another worker goes round the board with a saw, cutting off the excess fibreglass.
16. OK this isn’t the same board, but the process is the same. Edges are sharpened on a grinder (by a guy in a banana suit).
17. Quality control. The board gets a thorough inspection for defects.
18. Once cool, our finished Lib Tech TRS is bagged up and placed with the others, ready to ship. Happy shredding!