Shaped with Soul

Interview withPeter STELTZNER
PhotographyAlexander James

AMONGST THE UNTAMED, WILD MOUNTAINS OF THE FRENCH ALPS LIES THE WORKSHOP OF PETER STELTZNER, A TALENTED CRAFTSMAN WHO HAS COMBINED HIS LOVE OF THE MOUNTAINS WITH HIS UNFALTERING FASCINATION FOR FINE WOODWORKING.

Nestled in the small French mountain village of Les Praz in the Chamonix valley is the old sawmill, Moulin des Artistes. Considered to be one of the oldest sawmills in the valley, this unassuming building is garnished with features that belie its 17th century history and only patches of grey stonework still hint at its past. Many walkers may be familiar with the building as it is the starting point for the Chalet Floria trail, which follows a shady path up through the forest to spectacular panoramic views of the majestic peaks of the Mont Blanc massif. Many of the valley's old sawmills have now been converted into holiday chalets, but this one remains active: it is the home and workshop of Peter Steltzner, owner and founder of Rabbit on the Roof and maker of handmade wooden skis and snowboards.

Before moving to Chamonix in 2010, the Californian born craftsman was living in Montreuil on the outskirts of Paris after having moved there in 1989. Upon his arrival in Paris, Peter soon began working with wood, and his unfaltering fascination with the medium drove him to learn the art of fine woodworking and become a bespoke cabinet and furniture maker. Years later, starting as a side project, it was in his Montreuil workshop that Rabbit on the Roof, his new wooden ski-making business, was born.

Peter's newly combined passion for fine woodworking and skiing became the driving force behind the next chapter of his life. He applied himself full-time to making handmade wooden skis and snowboards, upped sticks and headed to the French Alps, leaving both furniture making and Paris behind. And, situated amongst a community of mountain enthusiasts, both visiting and permanent, the old Les Praz sawmill provided the perfect home for Peter's new venture.

The front of the mill is reserved as a show-space, with the walls festooned with an array of beautifully adorned skis and snowboards, all uniquely different in their various woods and finishes. The workshop is tucked away at the back of the building, in which everything is lightly covered in sawdust and decorated with small curls of wood shavings. The air is thickly laden with the smell of oil, wax and freshly cut wood, and works-in-progress and hopeful planks rest against workbenches, ready to be crafted. The dusty shelves that line the walls are stacked high with old woodworking tools, some seemingly as old as the mill itself, and jarred powdered finishes and dyes bearing labels that read Terre du Sienne Naturelle, Vert du Zinc, Bleu Outremer, Rouge Bordeaux.

Outside the workshop under a metal awning sits a large saw still powered by the original 1913 steam turbine. Next to it rests a freshly sawn tree trunk, its formerly solid form now comprised of timber planks, having just commenced its journey to becoming hand-crafted skis.

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HOW DID RABBIT ON THE ROOF START?

Rabbit on the Roof started as an improbable adventure. After 15 years of making one-off pieces of furniture in Paris, I needed to find something new to keep my interest alive and to give me a release from city life. As an avid skier, a pair of freeride skis provided the perfect challenge. These skis allowed me to combine my years of experience and methods in woodworking, veneer work and finishing techniques, with my strange wood bending machines. The skis immediately worked very well and also touched many people who shared my passion for the mountains. Made with an ash core and finished with a veneer of palissandre dos santos, rosewood, they were beautiful and efficient, and they were my take on a twin tip backcountry ski.

WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THE NAME OF YOUR BUSINESS?

The story behind the name is quite offbeat. At my Montreuil workshop, an eccentric friend came to the door with a small black rabbit. I don't know where he got it from but there was undoubtedly a quirky story to go with it. I hesitated but accepted his gift. At the time, I lived in an apartment above my workshop and after a few days the little devil began to chew on things in our home. This was enough for me to put him outside the apartment window, onto the workshop roof (which was enclosed so he couldn't fall or escape). He loved it! I built him two little hutches and things were going smoothly until another friend gave me a second rabbit. That marked the beginning of a large rabbit colony. Twenty little rabbits of all different colours began nesting in the roof insulation, popping their little furry heads out when it was time for a rooftop run around. However, they started to scratch through the insulation until it would no longer support their weight and they would fall into the workshop below, surprising me with a fright. Once down there, I decided to leave the rabbits in the workshop; this was the beginning of the second colony! I kept the rabbits as friends and they would inspect every step of the skis' fabrication, to the point of occasionally tasting them. They were in no way bothered by my loud machines and had their meals in front of the table saw. This went on for nine years, amusing visitors and local children.

The name came from a French friend who upon visiting was surprised to see a rabbit dart in front of the window and, in his charming French accent, proclaimed, "Rabbit, rabbit on the roof". At the time I needed a name for my new business and I thought that that was as improbable as someone making hand-made wooden skis in the 93 (the Parisian Bronx), so I adopted it. When we came to Chamonix I managed to give all the rabbits to families with children and gardens, which made me very happy.

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HOW ARE THE SKIS CRAFTED?

I use ash as the mechanical wood for the core material and I then add a second piece of wood as a top sheet to balance the core with the race bases and technical fibres. The top sheet opens up an endless palette of creativity and I am constantly looking for beautiful woods to make each pair unique and remarkable. Every pair must have its own 'soul' and be adapted to the person who will use the skis; it's a synthesis of beauty, pleasure and performance, which is a definite plus for the final results and satisfaction.

There are a lot of steps to the process. Each one is essential and if not done properly will lead to problems further down the line in the production process, so every step demands a lot of intensity and concentration. The ski has to be balanced technically, adapted for the person it's built for and, of course, beautiful. So all of these things make each part of the process very important and time consuming; it takes hours of work and meticulous preparation – which always makes the workshop look like a bomb went off. But every step is critical and there is a satisfaction that comes with that.

HOW PERSONALISED ARE THE SKIS?

Aside from their weight and size, it's important that I understand what the person I'm making the ski for wants to do with them: how do they enjoy skiing, where do they want to go with the skis, and what performance are they looking for. This ensures that I choose the shape and materials that are appropriate for them. Then there's the creative process of choosing the finishing woods for the top sheet, which again keeps it interesting and exciting and allows me to go through the process of selecting woods that may be very strange, such as bug-eaten wood or knotty wood or white ebony.

When you bring all this to people who are super passionate and are high level skiers you get fantastic returns; although, it's just as much of a reward to make a pair of skis for someone who is an occasional skier but really loves it. If you get all of those things together, assemble everything in the best way, and really bring that intensity to the process, then the person who uses the ski will experience greater pleasure from a vastly improved performance object that has been loaded with soul. It's really cool when I see someone who I've made skis for on top of the mountain with their skis and a large smile on their face; that's a huge reward.

All those years of struggling to remain creative and free-spirited added up to a lot of experience, and all that experience is now put into every pair of skis I make.

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HOW HAS YOUR PAST EXPERIENCE AS A FURNITURE MAKER LED YOU TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?

None of this would have been possible had I not spent so many years making furniture and constantly exploring new techniques. Also, I had the luck of meeting and working with many old and experienced craftsmen. All those years of struggling to remain creative and free-spirited added up to a lot of experience, and all that experience is now put into every pair of skis I make.

A lot of my professional life has been spent picking up flags on the battlefield from craftspeople who have retired from traditional processes; processes such as steam bending, which is now a very rare technique, are difficult and require a lot of effort so it's not always appealing for people to continue them. It's also not as financially viable as it was before, but if you choose to say well that's something cool and interesting so let's keep it alive it brings a special dimension to our lives. I choose to live like this, it's who I am and how I express myself.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF OWNING A PAIR OF CUSTOM WOODEN SKIS?

A really good musician will be able to play a cheap guitar and make beautiful music, but they'd undoubtedly take more pleasure in making music with an instrument that is finely made by a craftsman with the best materials available. The benefits of using custom wooden skis are much the same. The ingredients used are sensual, natural, comfortable and stable, and, much like a fine musical instrument, they serve pleasure and performance. The difference is there.

Wood is a little like us human beings; as we grow up we have our experiences, we wound ourselves and perhaps break an arm or leg. A tree is much the same; as it grows it will experience fractures and things that create stress. When the tree is cut down we can see what has happened in its life on the inside and it's always really unique. Every tree grows differently and every type of wood is interesting, and when you start to work with different woods you begin to feel and understand the grain and its cellular structure, and what each wood should be used for. There is great satisfaction in transforming natural materials into something beautiful and technically appropriate for what it is made for. For me, this remains extremely important in keeping the job interesting, because when it is physical and repetitive – as much as it's me repeating the process – it is this that keeps it exciting. Looking for that perfect piece of wood is a lot like looking for the perfect wave or perfect powder; it makes all the difference, it really does.

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AEShapedwithSoul AlexanderJames

HAS THERE BEEN ANYTHING UNEXPECTED OR SURPRISING IN SETTING UP RABBIT ON THE ROOF AND HAVE THERE BEEN ANY OUTSTANDING MOMENTS ALONG THE WAY?

There have been so many unexpected and exciting events, from meeting high-level professional athletes, to my skis winning the prestigious Derby de la Meije as well as other prolific events, to having my skis tested in magazines next to the big brands and receiving great reviews. Even, for me personally, discovering the Alps; one of the biggest surprises is to be now living and working in beautiful Chamonix with such a magical workspace and playground to boot!

Skiing today is based on a principal of pleasure. A pleasure that generates happiness has a healing quality for each of us, and this keeps us in touch with the beauty of nature. Sharing such a luxury with clients who often become friends is a true treasure.

And I must thank Anati Graetz whose love and support makes the difficult hours of production bearable day in and day out. I thank her for believing in me, my fervent passion, my reckless determination, and for bringing her personal creativity into our adventure at every level. •