Interview: Nikolai Samson (Almond Manufacturing)

Chasing down the semi-professional life in any sport isn’t as easy as it sounds. For Nikolai Samson, he went down that path to become a professional snowboarder but was burned out after years of throwing himself off of massive jumps, just to capture it on film. So he found surfing. From there, he was exposed to a new source of stoke which he wanted to translate onto the snow. With the rise in popularity of noboarding (snowboards without bindings) and splitboards, Nikolai rekindled his passion for hunting down fresh powder lines. Now, Nikolai has started his own company, Almond Manufacturing, making traction pads for surf-inspired snowboarding. In the interview below, he talks about become a DIY board builder, making his own splitboards in the garage, perfecting his lines and templates for over a year now, and how he came into reinventing his passion on the snow.

When did you first start surfing? What spots had you been surfing before you relocated and where about did you move?

Like a lot of Canadians, I didn’t learn to surf til my early twenty’s which would have been around 2002. Been snowboarding in Revelstoke, BC since I was a kid. My good friend Tyler and I had dreams of chasing the semi-pro snowboard life so we were trying to do the ‘backcountry huck carcass off jump and film it’ thing but were starting to get burnt out and not having as much fun on the snowboards. Mid way through the winter he said he wasn’t into it so he hatched a plan to drive to Baja. We were there a week and a half later via his ’84 Astro van. So glad I went, even though I “quit” surfing multiple times that trip. I thought that being a decent snowboarder and a barely average skateboarder would make the surf thing no big deal. It was so tough to learn but the progress was super exciting and rewarding. I barely snowboarded for the next few years but got myself in the water in the US, South America, and Baja a couple more times and then eventually settling on Vancouver Island for a year or two. Eventually, I moved back to Revelstoke, BC for work opportunity as Tyler was starting up his own construction company. Being land locked again and not as interested in ski hills, I decided to buy a splitboard and go hunt down powder.

For those of us who don’t know, can you talk a little about what a splitboard is?

Basically it is a snowboard that can come apart in the middle and be used as two ski’s. You attach adhesive backed skins for traction and ski that sucker up hill. Once you get to the top of where you want to be you peel off the skins and put the board halves back together then blast turns and airs back down the mountain. Best piece of snowboard equipment I’ve ever owned and has helped me make the best turns I’ve ever had. You can cover a lot of ground on the splitboard setup. Go where you want. You’re only limited by motivation and fitness level. The current hardware setup has more or less been around since the mid 90′s but is now just starting to get some mainstream popularity.

How’d you get started in crafting these boards? Any special features on yours?

I had made a set of traction pads for my splitboard after seeing my friend Joel’s board set up with a traction mat on it called a noboard pad. Riding the snow without bindings seemed like a another step closer to surfing, bit of a placebo as making the trek to the ocean was getting harder to make happen the older I got. The more time I spent riding without bindings got me thinking that there had to be better board shapes suited to how I wanted to ride. Most North American snowboard companies seemed to have meat and potato shapes at the time. I got my hands on a big swallowtail board and started to look into some old school snowboard designs. Also, I saw some current boards from Japanese companies such as Gentemstick and Moss that looked more like what I wanted to have under my feet. Snowboards are expensive so I figured I’d make a smallish investment and start to build for myself. With the internet, ski and board building forums were an amazing resource and many years of experience as a cabinetmaker/carpenter, I’d figured I’d give it a try. Been building boards for just over a year now and it’s kind of consuming. Takes a lot of hours to learn and refine technique, but it’s exciting when it works out. I’m just trying to work with outlines to allow for faster turns in tight spots. Trying to make them shorter while still retaining the buoyancy. Radical changes in direction while keeping as much speed as possible is the goal I reckon. Also messing with some secret special sauce base profiles to assist with loosening things up when needed but also help edging engagement. Ideas are always changing, some things work great others need refining.

In what ways is the feeling of riding one different than that of a conventional snowboard?

The boards feel like they roll from edge to edge easier and smoother in deep snow. The swallowtails allow the rear end to sink more so you can have a bit more power when turning as you can use both feet instead of doing the rudder thing and riding with most of your weight on your back foot trying to keep the nose up. Sharp turns and spinning out of turns is a bit easier as well.

How does it compare to surfing?

I think there is a fair amount of likeness to surfing, especially in deep snow. The feeling of buoyancy and railing a good strong turn. I find myself constantly looking for features like banks and walls to turn on. Trying to maintain a good flow and keep speed to clear flat and low angle sections. For me it’s the closet I’ve been to it out of the water.

Once you have the inspiration for a new board, how do you go about materializing that idea into something tangible? What’s the process like?

I start on the computer and with some ballpark measurements of where I think things should be. Once that is kind of sorted, I figure out where I want the stance located, then finally I push and pull the tip curves till my eyeball likes what it sees. From there I print out a rough paper template and throw it on some mdf and cut out and hand sand a half board template to a desired shape. I use this as the master to make all the other core and base templates. Then comes the tricky part of gluing and shaping all the necessary elements and hoping they all line up. After too many hours of hiding out, working in the little garden shed and if all goes well, I’ll have a new tool to surf the mountain with.

Have you tried experimenting with any eco-friendly designs? What are the tradeoffs involved if you go this route?

Eco-friendly was one of my first goals when getting started building. The first board I built was glassed with hemp cloth instead of standard fiberglass. I came up short on epoxy and therefore had to use less cloth when the board went in the press. It had a super soft flex and was fun for about a thousand feet till I hit a rock and snapped it. Hours of work for five minutes of fun. Even with enough epoxy and more cloth I don’t think the board would have had that long of a life span. It ain’t easy being green, especially with the stresses that a snowboard typically endures. The last few boards have been reinforced with fiberglass instead. The hemp cloth is used for a top sheet. The wood for the cores is harvested and processed here in BC. I’m also using Entropy Super Sap Bio Resin which seems to work just dandy. I try to eliminate as much plastic as I can but the glide characteristics’ of a PTEX base is hard to beat so I still use it. There is a fine line in keeping with the eco-friendly thing and still maintaining an acceptable amount of durability. If it’s more eco-friendly but only lasts half as long then it’s kind of redundant. Hopefully the future brings smarter and friendlier ingredients to work with.

Can you talk a little about your company, Almond Manufacturing?

The carpentry thing is still my day job and Almond Mfg is a snowboard product company I work on in the evening. I make and sell traction pads for surf inspired snowboarding. I made my own set of traction pads a few years ago as I couldn’t find a product that would work on my splitboard as well as standard snowboards too. The prototype worked well and friends were keen to try it out. So I went about getting an injection mold made to produce the pads and see where things would go. The pads are molded here in BC and all final machining, drilling, assembly, sewing, packaging, etc. is done here at corporate headquarters in Glacier Heights Trailer Park in Revelstoke, BC. It’s tough working out of home in such small spaces but you learn to make it work. I’m glad the ol’ lady is patient and understanding as I spend quite a bit of my free time working on it and therefore have crap spilling out all over the place. Obviously it’s pretty much a one man band operation. Being small time has also forced me to learn how to do all my own website, video and most of my graphic work (thanks Brent!). It’s all quite different from my day to day at work so it’s exciting to learn some new skills and have a creative outlet.

How can people purchase your creations?

At this point traction kits and accessories can be purchased through the website at www.snowsurf.ca. Maybe I’ll have some boards for sale one of these days. But I’d have to be sure I have things really dialed in before I’d feel comfortable selling them. I’d like to keep them all as there are no duplicates so far but only so many will fit in the trailer.

What’s been driving you to create lately? Anything in particular getting you stoked these days?

Having ideas and seeing them come into fruition under my feet is pretty exciting. The perpetual battle to refine and perfect a craft that you love is a strong driving force. It’s cool to see so many sub genres and riding styles within each and every board sport and the tools used to make them happen. I guess I take bits and pieces from them all, past and present. Pretty stoked for the good fortune of having these recreational pursuits and the good company that I enjoy them with.

For more, be sure to check out Nikolai’s website: www.snowsurf.ca