Branching out — Local craftsmen turn passions for artistry into practical creations |

Branching out — Local craftsmen turn passions for artistry into practical creations

In a fast-paced world where people can buy anything they want with a credit card and a computer, and in a world where people are impressed by brand names instead of workmanship, there is a group of Steamboat Springs’ artists traveling their own path.

“Lots of bike makers have a computing program for doing bike geometry that I just don’t have,” local craftsman Ken Kruse said. “I had a bike, a piece of plywood and a pencil. It’s pretty crude in some ways, but I was able to get it done with what I have.”

Kruse built a cruiser bike out of walnut and ash — not as a fine art piece, but as a bike he can ride every day.

Kruse isn’t alone in Steamboat Springs. There are more than a few other folks in town who turn their love of working with their hands and working with wood to create useful, but finely crafted, objects.

Fellow woodworker Dave Winters has built a strong local following for his cutting boards, centerpieces and jewelry. But it’s his love of skateboarding, developed as a young man growing up in California, that fuels his latest passion — Moonlight Longboards.

“When I was growing up, skateboards had steel wheels, and skateboarders didn’t wear helmets, and there were no pads,” Winters said.

A few things may have changed in skateboarding since Winters was a child, but his passion for the sport is reflected in the love he puts into each of the longboard decks he makes.

“They’re fun to make, and it’s very rewarding when you see the finished product,” Winters said.

When Andrew Beckler broke his ski pole at the start of the 2014 season, he decided enough was enough. Instead of taking his complaints to the local sporting goods store, Beckler decided to make his own ski poles and, in the process, established a new business using a natural product (grass not lumber) to make some of the strongest poles on the market.

“Nobody wants to spend $130 on a ski pole, because it’s just a ski pole,” Beckler said. “I wanted a pole that I was actually excited to use and that I knew was going to last.”

The idea for Grass Sticks ski poles grew out of necessity.

Grass Sticks founder Andrew Beckler is a civil engineer turned ski bum. He entered the world of business earlier this year when he discovered he needed a new pair of ski poles after he broke one during the first few weeks of the ski season.

Beckler didn’t head to a local sporting goods store or a ski shop to buy a pair of $100-plus poles, but instead chose a different path.

“Most of the poles out there are kind of boring … they are going to break, kink or permanently bend because they are aluminum. Plus there is nothing special about them.”

So instead of reaching into his wallet, Beckler reached into the depths of the Internet to see if there was a better choice. It was there that the idea of making a bamboo ski pole first entered his mind, and a few weeks later, he began experimenting with different kinds of bamboo to determine which would make a great pole.

“There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different types of bamboo out there,” Beckler said. “I tried three different kinds before I found a type that was perfect for my ski poles.”

He fine-tuned his choice of bamboo and, along the way, found manufacturers to provide the grips and tips he needed to create the first pair of Grass Sticks ski poles. He added a hemp strap and finishes off each pair by branding them with a GS for Grass Sticks.

“I just wanted to make a pole that people wanted to buy. The customer can choose what colors they want, the poles look cool, and people are excited about using them,” the former college ski racer said. “They are also super strong, super light, and I love the way the poles flex.”

Beckler graduated from Penn State with a degree in physics and civil engineering and is hoping he can turn his need for a better pole into a profitable business. He has already sold more than 200 pairs of Grass Sticks ski poles.

Next winter, Beckler will stop working as a coach with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, where he has been for the past six years, to focus on his business full-time.

“I have fallen in love with bamboo. I think it is the perfect material for ski poles,” Beckler said. “The weight-to-strength ratio is the best. The material flexes and then snaps right back into shape.”

More importantly, Beckler believes the poles are better for the environment since bamboo produces about three times as much material and consumes more carbon dioxide than lumber.

Growing up in Hermosa Beach in southern California, Dave Winters was exposed to many of the pursuits that shape his life today in Steamboat Springs.

The 61-year-old craftsman is well-known for the custom-made cutting boards, centerpieces and jewelry he makes in his shop. He said he inherited his father’s love of woodworking at an early age.

“My dad was a tinker. He was an amazing guy who was very smart, almost a genius. He would always tinker with wood, and he was a master metalsmith,” said Winters, who moved to Steamboat Springs from California in 1974. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been messing around with wood and other stuff.”

But Winters’ love of woodworking wasn’t the only thing he took away from his days growing up on the beach.

“I call it the coolest place in world to grow up,” Winters said of Hermosa Beach.

He still cherishes the lifestyle he enjoyed as a child — surfing with friends and riding his skateboard up and down the paved walkway.

These days, Winters sees that same passion in his children’s eyes, and it’s not surprising they share his love of snowboarding and skateboarding. It was their interest in those sports that sparked Winters’ desire to create custom Moonlight longboards. He said the name comes from his early days in Steamboat Springs, when he and a few buddies used to skateboard down Rabbit Ears Pass under the light of a full moon.

“There is way too much traffic these days,” Winters said. “But back then, there wasn’t that much traffic, and we were pretty good at spotting the cars well in advance and coming to a stop before we crossed paths.”

Winters incorporated many of the same techniques he uses to make his fine-art cutting boards, including his trademark flow lines, to give his longboards a unique look.

“When my children got into skateboarding, it was just a natural progression for me to take my woodworking skills and start making long boards,” Winters said.

It turns out that a lot of his customers don’t even bother riding his skateboards. They simply ask him to put feet on them so they can use them as a centerpiece on a table, or they hang them on the wall like a painting.

But one of Winters’ greatest joy comes from seeing the longboards he created being used.

“People love the way they ride,” Winters said. “They have just enough flex that the riders can propel themselves by ‘pumping’ the board.”

Strength is provided by several layers of laminations, and the Moonlight longboards are pressed to give them the proper shape and camber. But Winters also makes drip-coated longboards, which are a combination of hard maple and a polyester resin. They come in custom colors and include models like the Wahine, Rasta and The Roy G Biv, which is made from all the colors of the rainbow.

“If I said I had a favorite between the wood and drip-coat designs,” Winters said, “the other one would be jealous, so I just will not say.”

Like so many other longtime Steamboat Springs locals, Winters was drawn to the Yampa Valley almost 40 years ago for the skiing. He worked for years in the restaurant business, holding jobs as a bartender, waiter and bus boy.

Eventually, he moved into construction and started a custom building business with a partner. The two opened a shop with high-end tools, and that’s how Winters returned to woodworking in 1984. He said his custom pieces account for about one third of his income each year.

Someday, he hopes his woodworking projects will pay all the bills. To see more of his work and other longboard designs, visit

In a town filled with high-end bikes, Ken Kruse’s woodworking project has turned more than a few heads as he rides it around town.

“I didn’t even tell people that I was doing it,” Kruse said. “If things went wrong, then I didn’t want to have to tell people that it didn’t turn out.”

This bike doesn’t draw attention because it is manufactured with cutting-edge technology or because it is particularly lightweight. Elite riders are not in search of a bike like this to elevate their performance. The bike grabs people’s attention because it’s handmade from top grade walnut and ash instead of titanium or aluminum.

“I’m working my way up to a boat,” Kruse said. “But my shop is small, so for now, I have to settle for a bike.”

The project was a way for the longtime homebuilder to keep busy and stay involved in woodworking — something Kruse has done for most of his life — after he retired. But even with his professional experience, Kruse admits that building a bike was not easy.

“I started with a bike that I liked riding,” Kruse said. “I put that bike in front of a piece of plywood, and I drew the wheels, where the bottom bracket was, the seat post angle, the fork angle, and then I took that bike away. I played with it on plywood to get a shape I liked, and then started building it.”

Kruse laminated three pieces of wood together to make the main part of the frame. He hollowed out certain sections in the frame with the hope of making the bike a little lighter without sacrificing strength. He also used titanium tubes in some places to protect key areas from wear and tear.

Kruse said the finished bike weighs about 30 pounds. It is heavy by modern bike standards, but it’s not too bad for tooling around town.

“This was a fun project,” Kruse said. “I really like riding it because it’s so simple. It’s like when you were a kid and you didn’t have to shift, and all you had was the coaster brake.”

Kruse did add a special hub that automatically shifts the bike between two gears when it reaches 11 mph. He said there are many riders in Steamboat Springs who wouldn’t need the added gear, but he admits the device helps him get up some of those steep climbs.

“I’ve ridden the bike about 30 miles before,” Kruse said. “But it’s really designed for getting around town.”

For Kruse, the project was a labor of love.

“I did it to keep myself busy and have fun while I did it,” Kruse said. “I’ve been woodworking my whole life. It’s a challenge, but you also get a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when you can see what you’ve done.”

Kruse said his bike was a prototype, but he only plans on building one more — for his wife.

Kruse isn’t driven by the idea of seeing dozens of his wooden bikes rolling down the Yampa Valley Core Trail. The last thing he wants to do is start building the bikes as a business.

“If I had orders, then it would be like I’m working again, and that’s not where I’m going,” Kruse said. “This was a fun project: No clients, no nothing — just me and what I wanted to do.”

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