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In 1977, a winter sport enthusiast named Jake Burton Carpenter was working out of a barn in Londonderry, Vermont to build a board that improved on a binding-free mono-ski called the Snurfer. The surfboard-esque toy was intended for backyard snow play, but Burton saw potential in it. He reshaped the board to make it more rideable, producing 100 prototypes before settling on the Burton Backhill and Burton Backyard (the former with foot bindings, and the latter without). Both models had a rope and handle at the front of the board to improve balance and help initiate turns.

Burton’s boards would ultimately evolve into the modern day snowboard. But more importantly, Jake Burton contributed to the birth of a lifestyle. Snowboarding is nothing without its scrappy, rebellious, adventure-hungry origins, grounded in an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

By the early ’80s, snowboarding as a sport was taking shape, and a mountainside subculture revolution was bubbling in small towns across Vermont.

(NOTE: The following article was first published in August 2015)

JackThreads / Max Schwartz
Jake Burton’s notes and sketches feature prominently in Burton’s archives.

Todd “TK” Kohlman has worked at Burton for over a decade. A die-hard snowboarding fan, TK was hired as a seasonal customer service rep in 2002 and stayed on at Burton, floating between several departments before landing at the front desk. Jake Burton, wanting to build a company archive, and cognizant of TK’s already-encyclopedic knowledge of Burton’s history, founded the position of Archivist exclusively for TK in 2006.

As the company’s in-house historian, TK knows almost as much about Burton’s history — and the history of the sport of snowboarding — as Jake, himself. And while TK leads a top-notch tour through Craig’s (Burton’s 10,000-square foot museum and R&D and production facility, named for former Burton pro rider and legendary snowboarder Craig Kelly), his role extends beyond tour guide.

When Burton’s production or design teams want to reissue a product, or simply look to past designs for inspiration and reference, they turn to TK.

Plastered on a wall in the entryway of Burton’s headquarters is the phrase, “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going”. It’s Burton’s unofficial mantra, the driving force behind product innovation and R&D, and sums up TK’s immensely influential role at Burton.

Below, the four greatest moments and biggest innovations in Burton’s history (and the history of snowboarding), according to TK.

JackThreads / Max Schwartz

1: Metal edges

“The first production board to have metal edges … was the 1985 Performer Elite [pictured below]. Jake had prototypes with metal edges, but production-wise, this was our first. It’s also when we started working with a factory of ours that we still work with today, based in Austria.”

Metal-edged boards dig into the snow with greater ease, making it easier to turn and allowing for what we today know as “carving”. Burton’s first stainless steel edges, introduced in 2004, made for an even more durable board.


2: Getting into resorts

“It really helped snowboarding to take off after that. This [above] is one of my favorite photos because it really speaks to the era when you couldn’t go to resorts, it wasn’t allowed and [people] didn’t know what snowboarding was yet. So here we see Jake at the Stratton dump making some turns, snowboarding wherever he could. Jake and the pioneers had to go to different resorts, one by one, and help it get accepted.”

Vermont’s Suicide Six became the first resort to allow snowboards in 1982, but not without making riders pass a safety test beforehand. Much like a road test, snowboarders were required to take a written test about mountain safety rules and right-of-way passing, as well as an on-snow riding test. By 1988, snowboarding was more or less universally accepted by resorts, and Burton ceased publishing its list of snowboard-friendly resorts.

JackThreads / Max Schwartz

3: High-back bindings

“That’s one of the proudest things that Jake talks about, is our bindings. We’ve always been at the forefront of bindings. The first pair of high-back [bindings] we made was in 1985, and we called those the Hi-Tops.”

The calf-hugging high-back binding increased rider support and control, especially when turning. By 1999, high-backs climbed higher and were built to contour to the rider’s boots, making for a more comfortable, controlled ride.

4: “The Channel” mounting system

“There was a huge adjustment from five-hole to 3D [stance options]. But The Channel, the 2007 late model release, was a huge step. You have stance options within three-hole patterns, but with The Channel, you have a lot more options, as well as more board-feel and more comfort.”

Whereas Burton’s 3D hole pattern, introduced in 1993, allowed for 2,073,600 stance variations, the baseless binding mounting system of The Channel provides infinite foot positioning options and improved natural board flex for a smoother, more controlled ride.

JackThreads / Max Schwartz
One the 3D printers used by Burton’s R&D team, which can churn out a full prototype in 48 hours.

The Future of Burton Boards and the Future of Snowboarding

A key element of building products with maximum benefit to the consumer is guaranteeing the product’s integrity before it hits shelves. And on the research and development side, time, quality, and money are of the essence.

Burton’s product development is managed by Chris Doyle, whose business card reads “R&D Mad Scientist”. Doyle has been with Burton since 1996, having worked in snowboard development since 1988, and winter sports, more generally, since 1981.

Given that the sport of snowboarding has been around for fewer than 40 years, and that Doyle has worked with Burton for almost 20, and snowboards for nearly 30, Doyle (and so many other employees at Burton) haven’t just witnessed the evolution of snowboards, they’re the guys responsible for it.

“I was making early bindings for [Burton’s] pro riders, and other pro riders, just helping guys out in the field,” Doyle said.

“Because even simple, little things that made boards and bindings stronger and better were giant leaps forward in the industry.”

JackThreads / Max Schwartz
Custom wood boards make up the core of Burton snowboards, which feature cross-grain paneling for durability and controlled flex.

Just over a decade ago, Doyle was constructing prototypes by hand using Bondo filler and epoxy putty, which would be molded and duplicated 150 times over by machines at a cost of over $50,000 per prototype. Lab and on-snow testing would follow, and Burton’s engineers would make minor necessary adjustments to the prototype before moving to a production tool, which would be a $100,000-$140,000 investment for one size of one model of a particular binding.

“We had one or two attempts to try something different before we had to commit…. You really do have to feel good … before you sign that off to the vendor … because, straight up, to [tell] Jake that this didn’t work, [and that] you’ve lost eight weeks and $150,000, that’s a really lousy conversation to have,” said Doyle.

But 3D printing has changed everything for Doyle, and for Burton’s product development.

JackThreads / Max Schwartz
Since 2004, Burton has worked with a series of 3D printers, most notably a Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machine, eliminating the need for prototype tools and molds entirely. Products — whether bindings, goggles, luggage wheel houses, or helmet components — are built from laser-fused layers of plastic measuring 5/1000th of an inch thick each (about the thickness of a layer of paint, or the diameter of a strand of human hair) and sent off for lab and field testing.

“Now we can really, really go broad. We can go so far out, beyond the edges of reason, and come back because we can try so many different things with this. And we learn a lot by doing this, and the engineers actually bring that into their designs,” Doyle said.

JackThreads / Max Schwartz
The 3D printed prototype is extremely close to production-quality strength, allowing testers to have a true sense of how a finished binding or buckle will feel. And since the printed model is based on digital renderings, Doyle and his team are able to make adjustments, print new prototypes, and test more frequently and more precisely than in the days of Bondo and putty models. As laser and material technologies have improved, Burton has inched closer to printing parts that equal in durability to factory-made injected parts.

Everything we pull out of [the SLS] has to pass all the tests that our injected parts have to pass coming out of the factory. And if it does, then we’re confident that what comes out of the [injected, factory-made] tools is going to be the same,” Doyle said.

“What we’ve got going on right now is so future-world for me. Ten years from now, this stuff [3D printing] is going to be such a part of our daily lives. It’s astonishing, it really is such an amazing industry. I’m kind of an old-timer here … and for me, in my career, to go along with this and now be learning and driving this stuff, is really a treat.”

JackThreads / Max Schwartz
In addition to saving Burton’s R&D team time and money, 3D printing technologies, and the precision and testing they allow for, ultimately provide a maximum benefit to the consumer.

“With boots, for example, there’s a huge push to get them ready to ride and feeling good right out of the box,” TK said. “And using the Infinite Ride Machine [pictured above], we’ll actually break in boards so that day one feels the same as day 10. Even if someone is only out there a couple of times a year, we want that product ready to go, not needing to be broken in.”

“I think the biggest thing I always hear from Jake and Donna is asking, or reminding, yourself about the person interacting with the board,” Design Director Douglas Davidson echoed. “It’s more about convenience and making their life very simple, and having empathy for them and thinking about their needs versus our needs, and the consumer who only gets up on the mountain a few times a year.”

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