Mike Renz, back in his soccer playing days, was famous for his smile — win or lose, sun or rain, he wore a big grin on his face. And the smile's still there... these days, though, it appears when Mike talks about snowboarding.
Yes, even in June, because Mike and his fellow Brookfield High just-graduates, Alex Calder and Chris Walsh, have been making snowboards as part of their joint Senior Experience. The three were hoping for a miracle winter resulting in summertime snow — Alex planned some extreme runs down Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire's Mount Washington, which he'd hiked more than once with Boy Scouts — but alas, the weather (and eye-rolling parents) weren't so cooperative.
Mike says the project was “harder than we thought” at times... but by golly, his board is finished, Alex's is nearly done, and Chris' is on the summer's to-do list.
They were advised by experienced tech-ed teachers, of course: Brookfield High's Robert Zapor helped print out the snowboard plans on the school's oversize printer (“It took like three hours to do it right,” says Mike, who designed his board on a snowboard-specific CAD program), and his equivalent at Whisconier Middle School, Geoffrey Bergen, let the teens use the school shop.
“Mr. Bergen was a huge help,” says Mike: “He always seem to come up with an ingenious way to solve a problem.”
The odyssey began at Catamount Ski Area this winter, where, in classic boys-will-be-boys fashion, Chris lost his car keys. While awaiting parental pick-up, the three teens, having just learned about the high school's “Senior Experience” program, fell into “Wouldn't it be cool” mode... and coming right off the mountain, knew what they wanted in a new board.
“We do a lot of all-mountain stuff — powder, terrain park,” says Mike, and ordinary boards seemed lacking, and high-performance boards remained expensive ($600 and up).
Mike, for example, pictured a board with more flexibility but good grip as well, which implied reverse camber (slightly convex in the middle, rather than concave, leading to better “float” in powder) and significant “magne-traction” — a design in which the snowboard's edges are “waved” to increase surface area (and so maintain better “bite” on ice). Magne-traction acts like “the serrations on a bread knife,” says Mike, who ultimately decided to go radical, adding as many indentations to the board (10 on each edge) as the CAD software allowed. Alex, Mike, and Chris (who was out of town for the interview at the Calder home) got other design ideas by looking at websites like Boardcrafter and Graf Snowboards, and their accompanying how-to videos.
The actual build process was even more complicated. They created a form to hold and mold the snowboard out of medium-density fiberboard (MDF); it consisted of 11, four-foot-or-so wooden ribs running the length of the board, MDF used because — being “basically sawdust and glue,” says Mike — it's easier to shape than grained wood. (The form, at eye level, mimics the board's “profile”: curving upward at the nose and tail, and also in middle... except for reverse-camber boards like Mike's, which curve slightly downward between the boot bindings.)
Then the boys laid out the board itself: a core of poplar and oak wood (bought from a snowboard-parts retailer), routed to the desired shape, which was then sandwiched between sheets of fiberglass and special plastic (the bottom sheet perforated with micro-holes, or “sintered,” to allow wax penetration).
And somewhere along the line Mike installed cast-iron edges to routed-out channels in the core, which, he says, took many hours of hand-bending when the Dremel-modified commercial pipe-bender didn't work.
The built-up layers were initially laid out “dry,” but after being placed on the form — covered in plastic sprayed with Pam cooking oil, to allow easy release — it was showtime: spray adhesive and super-glue gave way to slow-cure marine epoxy, which stays workable for just 15 minutes.
The hardest part, however, was yet to come — getting the components to adhere to one another under high pressure, so they don't “delaminate” under use.
The teens opted for vacuum pressure — creating a “bag” around the snowboard with plastic and sucking out the air with an electric pump, hopefully to a level of nine pounds per square inch. That was the original idea, at least... but they couldn't create a complete seal, Alex says, and the project was also interrupted by .
The team ended up rejecting electricity in favor of pressurizing Mike's board with heavy weights.
“We probably put a half ton of stuff on it,” says Alex, “Anything we could find in Chris Walsh's garage,” where the finally assembly took place. Mike notes that the pressure applied was likely only one or two P.S.I. in places, but happily, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach caused a conversation-starting customization. The top of Mike's board (the bottom bears his name in huge letters, in an embedded graphic) shows a large, regular circle left by the heaviest item in the garage — a commercial beer keg.
Chris (Dean College, outside Boston), Alex (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and Mike (Temple University, Philadelphia) will be living within a couple hours of snowboard mountains come Winter 2012, so here's hoping they'll report back on their boards' success.
Or lack of it... because the BHS Senior Experience isn't about results but stretching students' imaginations, dreams, and sense of purpose.