The archives of the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. contain a significant collection of Howard Head’s papers. Part of that collection is the “Honeycomb Ski” journal which documents Head’s development work from May 1947 to March 1948. As an aeronautical engineer Head knew that a honeycomb core could provide a weight advantage in a ski just as it had in airplanes. However test skis with the honeycomb broke too easily and Head ended up substituting a heavier plywood core.
Last week’s Ski Bum of the Week was also the first one with the correct answer to last week’s trivia question. Ken Duclos identified Hexcel as the first ski with an aluminum honeycomb core.
The Hexcel Corporation started in 1946 as a provider of strong lightweight materials primarily to the defense aerospace industry. The lunar lander for our trips to the moon utilized Hexcel materials. In 1971 Hexcel began making skis with an aluminum honeycomb core.
Hexcel skis were less than half the weight of comparable other skis. Bob Burley says that they were “light and quick edge to edge. Very high energy ski for its time period. I raced them very successfully in Slalom for a couple of years.” However Ken and several others commented on how the Hexcels were prone to breaking, bending, or denting.
Will Spalding who used to work in a ski shop commented on what a pain it was to mount bindings on Hexcels. “You had to use a drill bit or a nail to break away the honeycomb inside the skis after drilling them, then inject epoxy in the screw holes, and then after you screwed the bindings down you had to leave the skis upside down overnight to let the epoxy cure.”
I had a pair of the original Hexcel Comps in a 210cm length and I loved them. The original model had a cracked edge at the tip which did lead to delamination. When I obtained a later model of the Comp, Hexcel had done away with the cracked edge and I didn’t like the ski nearly as much. I don’t think it was just the missing cracked edge, but I believe the design had also been influenced by the “in” technique of that time (see this week’s trivia question.)
Hexcel skis were expensive to manufacture and by the end of the 1970s the Hexcel Corporation was looking to get out of the ski business. The Hanson Company known for its rear entry ski boots purchased the ski portion of Hexcel and continued to produce the skis under the Hanson name. Hanson went bankrupt in 1981 which ended the Hexcel ski story.
So let’s move from a ski that had a reputation for breaking to a ski that was unbreakable. And I don’t mean that they were just guaranteed against breakage. Several ski companies including Head and hart guaranteed their skis. If you broke one of their skis, they would replace them. However Graves skis were really unbreakable!
About the same time that Hexcel skis appeared, the Graves Ski Company in Newburyport, Massachusetts, began making skis that were entirely fiberglass with a foam core. They claimed that you could take the tip of the ski and bend it back to touch the tail of the ski without breaking.
We never figured out how to try that test, but we would suspend the ski with just the tip and tail supported by chairs, and then get the heaviest guy in the room to jump with both feet on the unsupported center of the ski. The ski never broke and always returned to its original shape. In fact it returned to its shape with a vengeance that usually shot the guy jumping on it across the room!
In ski testing a pair of Graves, I experienced that strong rebound firsthand. I skied through a small dip at moderate speed and suddenly it seemed like I was 5 feet in the air. The camber rebound was amazingly powerful.
On the web at least one person nominated the Graves as the worst ski ever. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it certainly was a strange ski. If you have any stories about Graves or other strange skis, please post a comment here!