Ski Construction: What Are Skis Made Of?

Ski equipment lined up on floor
Christa Burkett
By Christa Burkett
Last updated on August 23, 2022
Table of Contents

Today we take a deeper dive into the construction of skis so you can get a better understanding of the inner workings that make up this awesome invention.

If you’ve ever spent time shopping around for skis, I’m sure you’ve noticed that no two pairs of skis are built exactly the same. 

In fact, almost every manufacturer out there has its own patented ski materials and methods for producing their skis, and each one claims that their designs have specific advantages for certain types of terrain or snow conditions. 

Of course, this is great for allowing you to find a pair of skis that are designed specifically for certain snow conditions or types of skiing. However, trying to sift through the different types of skis, materials, and designs in order to choose a pair can quickly become a seemingly impossible task.

Fortunately, even though there are literally hundreds and thousands of different skis brands and models out there, all skis are designed using a few basic design principles, which have been around since the advent of the sport in itself. 

And that’s exactly what I hope to explain in the following article!

So keep reading, and we’ll take a deeper look at ski construction to help you understand how each component works to provide you with the awesome, exhilarating experience you crave. 

Basic Ski Construction Explained

Although you’ll find plenty of variations in the shape, design, and materials used for different skis, their components, and the way they’re put together, usually stays the same. 

At the center of practically any ski, you’ll find a laminated wood core or a combination core of wood and other materials. 

The core is then surrounded by a layer of composite materials, both above and below. 

A top sheet, base, and sidewalls are then added to help give the ski its own unique characteristics.  

And finally, steel edges are added to the ski to help reinforce the rest of its design, and to provide a better transfer of energy between the ski and the ground below it. 

Ski construction materials and layers explained

Core Materials And Construction

It’s best to think of the core as a ski’s primary component, which determines most of its other characteristics. 

The core provides the ski with most of its strength and stiffness/flexibility, as well as its ability to dampen vibration while riding on a rough surface. 

Most skis have a wood core made from birch, poplar, beech, fir, spruce, maple, or bamboo. But, it’s not uncommon to see skis that are made with a combination of different types of wood. 

Wood is a natural material that has been used in the process of manufacturing skis since the sport was first created some 6,000 years ago. In fact, the earliest skis were made entirely of carved wood. 

Today, however, most manufacturers use wood, in combination with a number of other materials, to give their skis certain advantages specific to their design. 

Below, we’ll take a quick look at the most common core materials you’ll see used in conjunction with wood. 

  • Fiberglass - The main advantage of using fiberglass is that it’s a fairly strong material, and is also lightweight and relatively inexpensive to produce. 
  • Carbon Composite - This material is both extremely lightweight and strong, however, it’s significantly more expensive than others. 
  • Aluminum - Aluminum is both strong and lightweight, but it’s also on the pricier end and doesn’t offer very good vibration dampening properties.
  • Titanium - One of the strongest materials you’ll find in your skis, Titanium is excellent at damping vibrations, but again, it’s going to be more expensive than wood or fiberglass. 
ski wood core

The length of a ski’s core will vary depending on its intended purpose. In other words, some skis might have shorter or longer cores depending on their design. 

But for the most part, you’ll find cores that run the entire length of the ski, from tip to tail. 

By either using different types of wood/composite combinations, and by fine-tuning the length of the core, manufacturers are able to create skis that have different flexibilities, strengths, stiffnesses, and weights. 

The Composite Layers

While the core can be thought of as the main component of your skis, the composite layers that surround it are where your skis get most of their torsional strength and flexibility from. 

So on top of protecting the core, the composite layer’s strength and flexibility add other properties and characteristics to the way the ski is going to perform on a slope. 

As you can see in the list above, there are several different composite materials that can be used for these layers. Fiberglass is probably one of the most common materials you’ll see here. However, other composites like carbon, aluminum, or titanium are much stronger. 

As with the ski’s core, the type of material and its dimension will affect the ski’s overall performance.

The Topsheet And Base

Base and topsheet layers

As its name implies, the top sheet is the uppermost layer of your ski, where you’ll typically find most brands’ logos or graphics. 

Although the top sheet is usually only a few millimeters in thickness, its main duty is to help protect the inner composite layers and core. 

Top sheets are normally made from wood, fiberglass, nylon, plastic, or a combination of materials. 

On the other side of the ski, you’ll find the base, which is typically made from polyethylene plastic, known as P-Tex. 

You’ll often see a ski’s base material followed by a number, which is used to describe the molecular weight of the plastic. The higher this number is, the higher the plastic’s molecular weight will be, which, in turn, means that you’re looking at a stronger, more durable base. 

When it comes to skis, there are 2 different types of bases: sintered and extruded. 

With a sintered base, the base material is first ground down into a powder to then be heated, pressed, and cut into shape. This type of ski base is generally found on higher-end skis because a sintered base is considerably more durable than an extruded one. 

On the other hand, an extruded base is made by melting the base material into a mold and then cutting it into shape. This type of base is cheaper to make and doesn’t require as much maintenance. However, they’re less durable and often slower than extruded bases. 

Sidewall Construction

Ski sidewalls

You’ll find your sidewalls running along the length of the ski, directly above the metal edge. 

Sidewalls can be constructed in three different ways, which will be determined by the way that the other components are put together.

The first type of sidewall construction is referred to as an ABS sidewall, or sandwich construction. 

With this type of build, the ski’s top sheet, composite layers, and base are all flat, and an ABS sidewall is installed between the top and bottom layers to help protect the core. You’ll typically find this type of construction on racing skis because it makes them stiffer and more resistant to damage, while also giving them better edge hold. 

The second type of sidewall build is known as “cap construction”.

With this type of design, the top sheet and upper composite layer will curve downward to meet the base, fully encapsulating the core. The cap construction is often used to reduce weight, however, this type of construction doesn’t provide as much edge hold or control, especially at higher speeds. 

Finally, you might also see skis with a “half-cap” sidewall construction, which is essentially a hybrid version of a sandwich sidewall and cap construction. 

In this case, the composite layer will curve down to meet the base, fully protecting the core. But the top sheet will only come down about halfway, where it will meet up with a smaller ABS sidewall. 

This type of sidewall construction tends to be the most versatile because it provides good edge hold and control, while still being relatively lightweight and strong. 

You might also see skis that have a sandwich sidewall construction near the center of the ski, and a full-cap or half-cap sidewall nearer the tips. Again, different combinations of sidewall construction will give the ski different characteristics on the slope.  

Edge Construction

Ski edges

Finally, in order to help reinforce the ski, manufacturers will install a metal edge between the base and lower composite layers. 

When it comes to edge construction, you’ll either see skis that have a full or partial wrap. 

As you can imagine, full wrap edge construction is when the edge wraps all the way around the ski, with only a single seam at one end. 

Although this type of edge makes the ski more difficult to repair when damaged, it is significantly stronger than a partial edge. 

Alternatively, a partial edge only runs along some portions of the ski and is most often used to reduce the overall weight of the ski. Unfortunately, this also makes the ski weaker, and the tip and tail more prone to damage.  

Putting It All Together

As you can see by now, there are only a few different components to a ski. 

However, each of these components can be built using a number of different materials, shapes, or techniques, which affect the overall performance of the ski. 

By understanding the individual components of your skis, you’ll have a much better idea of how a ski will perform, even before you get out on the slopes. 

And in the end, by knowing as much as possible about your gear and how it works, you’ll be one step closer to being a pro! 

If you're looking for a solid pair of skis to get started - whether you're renting or buying - we recommend checking out our all-mountain ski selection guide.

Christa Burkett

Christa Burkett

Christa is an avid skier who loves to explore the world. She has a particular love for speed and snow which she first found in her adulthood but since then she's made up for it by volunteering at ski resorts and learning from the best.
Published June 19, 2020
Last updated August 23, 2022
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