In this era of consolidation, most industry folks predicted that only the biggest snowboard companies would survive. But to weather the snowboarding industry's accelerating fallout, Arbor Snowboards has based its survival on the unique and striking look of its wood topsheet boards. With this simple, solitary graphic element, an Arbor Snowboard stands out as more than just a piece of sporting-goods equipment. In fact, each handcrafted deck contains a quality similar to a piece of artwork or an expensive antique piece of furniture, says Co-owner Bob Carlson.
But there's more to the boards and brand than just a “look.” According to the company, the wood topsheets add to the structural integrity of the boards, improving their strength and performance characteristics. In addition, the company has based its image and marketing around the individualism of board sports in general, giving a big nod toward the original board sport: surfing.
Arbor was founded in 1995. “We started out at the worst time in the market, which was on the edge of the consolidation,” says Carlson. “But we've weathered the storm and we're still here. We've sacrificed a lot and worked very hard to get to where we're at.” This fact makes him and the other staff members believe that things will only get better. And, indeed, things have been steadily improving for the brand.
Production Advantages Some might be confused by Arbor's headquarters location being in Santa Monica, California, but the site actually puts the Arbor and its employees close to both the factory that produces its boards and the woodshops that prepare the topsheets.
“Being in Southern California also puts us in the middle of the largest market for snowboarding, and we're actually close to riding, close to materials suppliers, and close to our production facilities,” says Carlson. “For a small company like us, you have to be in the factories every day to make sure things are getting done for you.”
Building the wood topsheet boards turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than the owners first thought, but the process has been refined for several years now and the kinks all but worked out. Carlson and Co-owner Chris Jenson both had furniture and woodworking experience, which helped them immensely. But a lot of the learning process has just come over time.
“We've learned how to mass produce one-of-a-kind boards,” Carlson says about the company's unique decks. “We can now have topsheets delivered to any manufacturer around the world and can have boards built in any factory,” he adds. “We've made the process dummy-proof for factories.”
The factory Arbor has been with for the last several years is the Ride facility in Corona, California. With its long-standing reputation for top-quality construction and workmanship, the factory is a huge asset to the Arbor staff.
“We use our own designs and molds, but they've given us some of their technology to use, including things like insert-retention plates, reduction cap, and pricing discounts that they get from their suppliers,” says Carlson. “Our product is unique compared to what they build, and they don't feel threatened by it. We really stand out from what they're building, and right now we're the factory's only OEM customer.” Carlson's confident that this arrangement won't change with K2's new ownership of the factory.
With board construction in good hands, the biggest challenge in building an Arbor board is preparing the wood topsheet for the production process.
In addition to the original koa wood, Arbor has also used walnut, beech, rosewood, and maple as topsheet material. However, Carlson believes that koa is still the best. It's what the first surfboards were made of, plus it offers the most variety of colors and grain patterns.
Arbor's use of koa has an environmental advantage as well. The company only uses wood from fallen dead trees in Hawai'i that were brought down to help new growth in the fragile forest ecosystem.
“Only ten to twenty percent of the trees are even taken,” Carlson says. “The rest are left to rot, add nutrients back to the forest, and provide habitat for insects and animals. By using helicopters, roads aren't built through the forest. Plus, for every one tree taken, there are 300 saplings planted.
“We try to be responsible gathering all our wood,” he adds. In addition to the Koa, the walnut wood the company uses comes from walnut-tree farms. After a tree has several different harvests, it won't produce more nuts and is cut down for furniture or other uses. All the maple Arbor uses comes from furniture rejects.
Once the company decides what wood it's going to use, a mill cuts it to 1/32 or 1/46 of an inch to use as a veneer. One six-foot log could get topsheets for as many as 500 boards, Carlson says. The company plans to do 6,000 boards this year, using only ten to twelve logs.
Arbor goes further to stretch its resources by utilizing the smaller wood cuts for skateboards and smaller items.
But it's not as simple as cutting veneers. Each thinly sliced wood piece is taken to several different subcontractors for proprietary prep work to make suitable for the board manufacturer to use. “We've worked four years to perfect this process,” says Carlson.
Once prepared for construction, the wood topsheet acts much like an extra fiberglass layer. The resin used in the lay-up process actually pushes into the wood fibers and creates a stronger bond. The company discovered that because this bond was so tight, they could reduce the weight of the other fiberglass layer on the top of the board from a 24-ounce glass to a 21-ounce glass. In addition to the strength, the wood helped the board maintain camber longer, transfer energy quicker, add tortional stiffness, and increase dampening.
Line Additions As unique as the koa topsheet boards are, the company will also be adding one of the most unique kinds of snowboards to the line: the swallowtail. Although they are figuring to sell less than 100 swallowtails, Arbor believes that the board compliments its high-end board line and freeriding direction.
With the swallowtail addition, the freecarve line will be dropped, while boards geared toward women riders will be added. These will be in the form of two smaller sizes in the Progression series.
Within the continuing Woodie line, koa will still be used. These boards are all one-of-a-kind because each piece of wood is unique with knots and other unique characteristics. The Heritage line has a mix of wood and other graphic elements reminiscent of classic longboard surfboards. The company also has plans to slowly expand into the skateboard, wake, and surf markets with similar wooden-looking products.
Environmental Program Arbor Snowboards is committed to environmental conservation. In addition to harvesting its wood in responsible manners, this season the company is donating a portion of its proceeds to groups working to save and restore ancient Koa forests. It's also supporting the Surfrider Foundation and its SnowRider Project.
In this age of shrinking shelf space and tight-ordering retailers, Arbor has found something to stand for and has maintained a look that separates its from everything else on the shelves. With a few exceptions, most snowboard companies can't make that same claim.