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From Yachts to Skis: The Fascinating Story of Graves Skis born in a Marblehead boat shed

Graves Yacht Yard Sign

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In a small seacoast town, north of Boston, the Graves Ski was born. My father, Frank Orne, worked at the Graves Yacht Yard in Marblehead, MA in the 1960’s and helped to develop the ski.

I also worked in the ski industry in the 1980’s when almost all skis were manufactured by the “big” names. It’s exciting to see so many new, hand crafted skis entering today’s market. This November I had an opportunity to go through a ski build with Parlor Skis in East Boston and then the following week at Sego Skis in Victor, Idaho. It inspired me to sit down with my dad to learn the story of the Graves Ski.

Graves Skis were being introduced to the US ski market in 1968. In the “Annual Ski Test Program,” (ski review) Skiing Magazine’s October 1969 issue featured this review of the Graves Ski:

“Skis are made in all kinds of non-ski locales now a days – Baltimore … Vashon Island … Santa Ana … so why not Marblehead, Mass? That’s exactly what the Graves Yacht Yard people figured. Since 1963 they have been adapting the fiberglass technology, developed while building America’s Cup contenders, to the problem of making skis out of unidirectional, glass monofilaments. They soak nearly 2,000,000 of these threads in polyester resin, lay them up around a rigid urethane foam core, add a plastic top edge, a P-Tex bottom, a hidden edge: and with a lot of care, technology, heat and pressure, a ski emerges. It’s a product which Graves guarantees for life against breakage, loss of camber, torn out edges and defects in workmanship or materials.”

In that same issue, Skiing Magazine had this to say about the Graves Model GR21:

“Don’t let the name “Graves” throw you. There’s nothing deadly about these skis. Fact is, they have a very lively way of carving up a slope. And it’s not easy to get into trouble with them – they’ve a fast way of apologizing for your errors. Somehow, turning no longer seems so tricky. You can take it easy and play all the way. These exceptionally nice skiing skis have one minor flaw – the quality of their surface finishing. The ski just doesn’t look as good as it is. Still, it’s eminently suitable for beginners to advanced skiers. $170.” 

There is a wonderful archive of digitized Skiing Magazines in the Google Books library. You can find this review here: Skiing Magazine – October 1969 pages 193, 194.

Graves Competition Slalom Ski
Graves Competition Slalom Ski in author’s collection

To understand why a successful boat building operation was dabbling in ski making we must look at what was happening in the ski industry. In the mid 1960’s the ski industry was undergoing rapid evolution. Plastic, aluminum, steel and to a large degree fiberglass were quickly replacing all-wood skis. From the beginning of ski history until this time, little had changed in ski technology.

A Brief History of Modern Ski Evolution

In the early 1800’s cambered skis were the big breakthrough.

It wasn’t until 1926 that a steel edge was invented in Austria by Rudolph Lettner. This seemed to trigger an avalanche of innovation propelling a niche endeavor into a mainstream recreational industry. In 1928 the spring-loaded cable binding, which held the heel to the ski, paved the way for modern alpine skiing.

1932 saw the first three-layer laminated wood skis that also featured camber. Only two years later aluminum skis and poles were being marketed.

By the mid 1940’s Dynamic of France had introduced a cellulix plastic bottomed ski. In 1949, Howard Head, an aircraft engineer, introduced the Head Standard, a plywood-core and bonded aluminum ski with plastic sidewalls and continuous full length metal edges.

At about the same time, in 1950, Austrian ski maker Kneissl introduced the first multi-colored ski.

By 1960 “modern designs” had replaced more than 50% of the wood ski market.

Bob Lange added fuel to the fire with the introduction of plastic-shelled boots in the early 1960’s.

The race for improvement in performance, weight and durability was on. Fiberglass, plastics and p-tex had revolutionized the ski industry allowing the sport to become a recreational activity for the masses.

Graves Yacht Yard

The ski industry was really following the technological advancements occurring in larger markets like airplanes and boats, which brings us back to Graves Yacht Yard.

James E. Graves began building small rowing dories around 1895. He opened a workshop in an historic nook of Marblehead, MA known as Little Harbor. His business thrived and grew into the Graves Yacht Yard. In 1929, a year before James died, he incorporated the business as James E Graves, Incorporated.

In 1933 E. Selman Graves, James’ son, had taken the helm and purchased a second Yard on Front Street on Marblehead Harbor. The business continued to grow and true to its family business roots, Selman’s sons, E. Selman, Jr, Donald and younger brother James (Jimmy) would all be active in running the yards as the third generation.

During this time, from 1939 – 1965, Graves was designing and or building some of the most successful sailboats in the yacht racing world. Marblehead was home to numerous world-famous yacht designers at the time including L. Francis Herreshoff and C. Raymond Hunt who both designed boats built by Graves.

America’s Cup 12-meter contenders were coming out of the Graves Yacht Yard like the famous Nefertiti and Easterner. Graves was also building racing boats like 110’s, 210’s and Constellation’s like crazy.

In the late 1950’s, the famous 13’ Boston Whaler prototype was being developed. Boston Whaler’s founder, Dick Fisher was a friend of Ray Hunt. Together with Selman Graves and Eric Tasker, the design engineer for Boston Whaler, they experimented at the Graves yard with expanding liquid foams injected between two fiberglass hull molds that would fuse together in a single, unsinkable structure.

Graves Yacht Yard Sign
Graves Yacht Yard Sign, Marblehead, MA

The Graves Ski

With this new material, liquid, flowing foam core, and expertise in fiberglass and epoxy, Graves saw an opportunity to apply what they had learned to a new product. Jimmy Graves was an enthusiastic skier and Selman was an enthusiastic inventor. Together they enlisted the help of the talented, former Boston Whaler design engineer, Eric Tasker, and set out to create the fiberglass Graves Snow Ski.

My dad, Frank Orne, began working at the Graves Boat yard in 1964. He had taken a break from Babson College after completing his junior year in order to rebuild his finances. He was hired full time to build fiberglass sailboat hulls. After two years gaining proficiency in building boats, Selman Graves, knowing that Frank was an avid skier, asked him to join the Graves Ski project. The development team consisted of Selman Graves, Frank Orne and a gentleman named Donnie Risteen.

They were starting from scratch in terms of ski building equipment and needed to engineer every aspect of the process. The very first prototype ski was made from a fiberglass mold created from a Kneisll Blue Star ski. Without edges, those first skis came out of the mold weighing 9 pounds each. They had a long way to go.

Between 1966 and 1967, in their ocean side workshop, the small Graves team created a full ski building operation including:

Mold: To develop the production molds they worked with United Shoe in Beverly, MA. The male and female mold cavities were made of machined steel. Each half incorporated a network of tubing channels allowing heated glycol to flow around the ski mold to facilitate the curing of the heat activated resins. High strength magnets were used to hold steel edges, tips and tails in place. Each half of the mold was wiped with a releasing agent of PVA (poly vinyl alcohol) to prevent the ski from adhering to the mold.

Automated mold closer: To automate the process of closing the male and female portions of the mold with the desired pressure they created a machine that used pistons intended for bomb bay doors on B-52 bombers. The pistons, and much of their equipment, was sourced through a used equipment seller in Salem, MA called Young Engineering. The molds were setup with the female section (top of ski) on the bottom so that the ski was molded with the top side facing down.

Top Skin: The first ingredient into the mold was a gel coat to which color could be added as desired and which would become the top skin of the ski. The gel coat was allowed to cure for 30 minutes.

Glass: Unlike the fiberglass cloth now used in ski construction, Graves began working with rolls of continuous unistrand roving. The roving came spooled in a box. Each strand of glass roving, known as fiberglass yarn, was comprised of 60 individual glass threads. There were two layers of glass in each ski. Each layer was comprised of 60 of these strands of fiberglass yarn.

Fiberglass Continuous Roving
Frank Orne holding a strand of continuous uni-strand fiberglass roving used in the original Graves Skis
Fiberglass Continuous Roving
Fiberglass Continuous Roving used in original Graves Ski

Roving Rack: A rack that held and guided the individual strands of glass through a series of matrix that combined the yarn into a larger cord and guided that into a resin bath was designed.  Recall that each box of glass contained a grouping of 60 individual glass threads creating one strand of roving. Sixty boxes of roving were arranged on a rack of shelves. Each strand of roving was fed from the box through a series of 60 stainless steel rings that had been welded to 6 stainless steel rods. There were 10 rings per rod creating a 10 X 6 matrix. Something like this: 

Roving Rack Matrix 60
Roving Rack Matrix 60

The first stage of 60 strands were drawn through the matrix then those strands went through a second matrix where they were combined and reduced to 30 cords. This process repeated going from 30 to 15 cords. Finally, the combined 15 cords were reduced to 3 cords, each containing 20 strands.

Roving Matrix 30
Roving Matrix 30
Roving Matrix 3
Roving Matrix 3

The final 3 cords were drawn through a trough of heat activated polyester resin. Fully saturated, the 3 cords were laid into the length of the mold running from tail to tip. The strands would be cut at the tail and hand shaped by smoothing and flattening the cords into a uniform layer.

Hand shaping: Once laid the 3 cords of resin soaked glass were hand shaped, smoothed and compressed flat creating a solid ski length layer of glass and resin.

Core: The design team had developed a milling machine that allowed them to shape the cores which were initially mahogany wood but later changed to urethane foam to decrease the ski weight. The core was laid into the mold over the three, resin soaked and flattened fiberglass cords.

Second Glass Layer: With the core in place the process was repeated and a second layer of three resin saturated cords of glass was drawn into the mold and flattened and smoothed sandwiching the core. This completed the structural part of the ski.

With 60 strands of 60 threads each there were a total of 3,600 individual glass threads per layer and each ski had two layers so a total of 7,200 glass threads were used per ski.

 Edges: For edges my father explained they worked with Simonds Saw, the country’s oldest cutting tool company started in 1832. They were able to create a full ski length steel edge with alternating cut outs where one flange was parallel to the edge and the next flange was bent to a 90-degree angle. This fully integrated the edge into the body of the ski. If you know my father you know he saves everything and at this point he tells me “I’ve got a set of edges in the garage, hang on.” At which point he gets up and sure enough, returns with a set of two steel edges, as described and photographed in detail here.

Graves Ski Edge
Graves Ski Edge

Steel Tip and Tail: The team designed a steel tail protector and a tip surround that further locked the edges in place and made the Graves Ski fully wrapped in hardened steel around the entire perimeter.

The left and right edge along with the tip and tail surrounds were held to the top (male) section of the mold with strong magnets such that when the molds were closed and pressured together the edge, tip and tail were incorporated into the glass and resin curing process.

Graves Ski Steel Tip
Graves Ski Steel Tip
Graves Ski Steel Tail
Graves Ski Steel Tail

First Press: At this stage the mold was ready to be closed, pressurized by those B-52 Bomber pistons and heated by the glycol flowing through the channels on the mold. The heat activated resin would harden and cure in roughly 20 minutes.

Once cured, the molds would separate revealing a ski with no base.

Base: A dye cutting operation was made for constructing the ski base cut from a roll of P-tex (of which my father also has a roll in his “don’t throw anything away” collection.)  The precisely cut base was carefully laid into the mold over an epoxy glue that had been applied to the core.

Final Press: The B-52 Bomber pistons closed the mold for the second time and the heated glycol flowed to work its magic and create what would emerge as the Graves Ski.

As skis came out of production there was no shortage of avid skiers around the boatyard anxious to test each pair, including my father. They’d build a set of skis, send them out for testing and adjust based on feedback.

My father recalls a trip up Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington in May of 1966 with a test pair of 7 ft (210) Graves Skis. The skis had no branding or graphic and were an odd maroon color. They had a long-thong wrapped heal and a Dovre toe piece binding. He recalls that he and his buddy, John Chase, did eight loops on Hillman’s Highway that day.

The Graves Corporation

Graves then hired the Head Ski Company’s national sales manager named Alan Chesney who moved himself to Marblehead. Alan quickly realized that the Graves Ski was not yet at a production stage to launch so he left to become president of the Mount Auburn Cemetery.

What Graves really needed were investors. That became the focus. Interested parties were offered a set of skis to go out and see what they thought.

My father recalls that some early investors included the Clark family of Hamilton, MA, who owned the local Hamilton Hill ski area, and Sandy (Henry) Laughlin Jr. who founded North Atlantic Aviation and Northeast Air.

The real money, that changed the Company though came from Henry Englehardt who at that time owned the Deerskin Trading Post in Danvers, MA. In addition to his investment, he secured an historic mill property in Newburyport, MA known as the James Steam Mill.

To replace Alan Chesney, a Czech gentleman named Josef Hurka was hired and became general manager. Joe was a bit of a legend in the New England ski world. It was at this point in 1968 that the Graves Ski operation relocated to One Charles Street in Newburyport, MA to the James Steam Mill.

The Graves Ski had become an entity onto itself, and the Graves Corporation was created. My father was issued 135 Founder shares dated July 15th, 1968.

Graves Corporation Stock Certificate 1968 Marblehead, MA
Graves Corporation Stock Certificate 1968 Marblehead, MA

It’s at this point that my father’s involvement with the Graves Ski Corporation ends. Given the option of continuing in Newburyport and building skis or staying in Marblehead to build boats, he chose boats.

Graves Goes Big

Once production was setup in Newburyport, things happened fast. To the best of my knowledge, the first national ad ran in the October 1968 issue of Skiing Magazine. This was followed by ads in the November and December 1968 issues. Graves Skis were also being advertised in Ski Magazine in 1971 including September, November and December issues.
The ads, copyright information and links to the archival magazines at Google Books follow:

Ad > (Copyright Skiing Magazine, October 1968 page 30) Magazine > Skiing – Google Books
Ad > (Copyright Skiing Magazine, November 1968 page 136) Magazine > Skiing – Google Books
Ad > (Copyright Skiing Magazine, December 1968 page 22) Magazine > Skiing – Google Books
Ad > (Copyright Ski Magazine, November 1971 page 146) Magazine > Ski – Google Books

Skiing Magazine October 1968 Ad Graves Skis as
Skiing Magazine October 1968 Graves Skis ad
Skiing Magazine Nov 1968 Graves Skis ad
Skiing Magazine Nov 1968 Graves Skis ad
Skiing Magazine Dec 1968 Graves Skis Ad
Skiing Magazine Dec 1968 Graves Skis Ad
Ski Magazine Nov 1971 Graves Skis ad
Ski Magazine Nov 1971 Graves Skis ad

Core Design Evolution

It’s obvious from the advertisements that the ski underwent a considerable redesign of the core. If you recall, the Marblehead design used a traditional layering of fiberglass and epoxy sandwiching a urethane foam core. The production ski developed in Newburyport has a unique “one-piece molded fiber glass structure.”

If you’re familiar with the early advertisements for the flagship 13″ Boston Whaler, it’s a very similar core construction. This goes back to what the Graves Yacht Yard folks were working on with Dick Fisher and Eric Tasker. They were creating a one-piece fiberglass framework into which expanding flowing foam was injected. The end result was a solid, stable, light weight hull that wouldn’t sink even if cut in half. Take a look at the photo on the left below from a 1961 Boston Whaler ad in Life Magazine and the photo on the right showing the hull construction of a half Boston Whaler. Now compare that with the core design illustrated in each of the ads pictured above.

Lifetime Guarantee

The folks at Graves were so confident in the resiliency of the ski construction that they offered a “Lifetime Guarantee” against breakage, loss of camber or torn out edges.

Graves Skis lifetime guarantee
Graves Skis lifetime guarantee

They Had a Great Run ~ 1966 – 197?

The Company enjoyed a fast-growing and well-respected trajectory in the ski industry. Graves Skis were embraced by the National Ski Patrol and a specific “N.S.P.S” graphic was used specifically for Ski Patrol skis. Graves skis could also be found in rental shops both in the east and west.

I’m not sure what ultimately caused the demise of the Graves (Ski) Corporation but, the ski industry is fiercely competitive. It seems as though business was slowing by the end of the 1970’s and the Corporation was dissolved on 1/19/1983.

Collections and Museums

Before conceiving the idea to write this history I stumbled upon a Graves Ski exhibit while visiting the Colorado Snowsports Museum at Vail that featured the N.S.P.S. National Ski Patrol skis. I also recently noticed two pair as part of the amazing ceiling decor at The Red Parka Pub. As an aside, The Red Parka Pub has to rank among the top 10 historic apres ski bars in the country. It’s located in Glen, NH and has been family owned and run for 50 years. You might end up there if you skied Wildcat, Mount Washington, Attitash, Cranmore or Black Mountain.

Colorado Snowsports Museum Vail Graves Skis
Colorado Snowsports Museum Vail Graves Skis
Red Parka Pub Graves Skis
Red Parka Pub Graves Skis
Red Parka Pub Graves Skis
Red Parka Pub Graves Skis

I hope you’ve enjoyed this origin story of the Graves Ski from Marblehead, MA. Please feel free to share any information you might have in the comments of this post. I did find a wonderful discussion thread about the Graves Ski and Hexel ski at .

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1 thought on “From Yachts to Skis: The Fascinating Story of Graves Skis born in a Marblehead boat shed”

  1. Nice job Steve…lot of work. Say Hello to your family (Mom, Dad, Sigred the girls, et all) for me al the best, Bill Niland

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