Nerd-talk with Justin Clark

It was the winter of 2023, we were on a little trip to Utah spending some time with the snowboard scene around Salt Lake City, and one morning, Justin Clark (K2 snowboards engineer "gourou") offered a ride to the mountain to show us around. That day was amazing! Not only Justin's a very nice person to hang out with but he's also a super smart and passionate man capable of explaining complicated stuff in the most simplest way! It was so rad to be up there, ride the cool spots and test some boards with the brain behind them. Oh, and there was a ton of fresh snow too so that helped... Brighton is very close to the city but it usually takes ages to get up there. The resort is so popular that the road up the canyon can be super jammed whenever there's a hint of good conditions. I kinda liked that part of the trip though, we got to sink in a bit before riding, catch up with some work if needed and it gave us some precious time to get to know or hosts a little better. Justin was one of these people and I have to admit that on our way up, the conversation happening at the front of his truck between him and Theo was pretty fascinating... So here it is, a real nerd-talk between these two about making snowboards and what not.


Interview & photos: THEO ACWORTH


How did you start making snowboards and powsurfers?

Chris Grenier is a good friend of mine and he had been offered a pro model with Salomon, where I was working at the time. He told me he didn’t know what the fuck he wanted and said that I should design it. I’d been making a few powsurfers on the side, but that was my first real opportunity. Then I did something similar with a company called Niche. They knew I was making pow surfers and asked if I wanted to design a pow board for them. It was right when I was starting to go to engineering school, and I made four or five boards for them which was really dope. 

After engineering school I was supposed to move to Austria and work for Capita, but long story short, that fell out from under me last minute. I was talking to Tom Johnson at K2 and told him it had fallen through, and the next day he called me up and offered me the head engineering job for boards at K2. Ok, let’s go.


How long have you been working for K2 now?

I started in July 2018. It’s flown by. The first 3.5 years were such a hellride. We had to basically scrap everything and hit the reset button. The guy who was in the position previously to me was a skier and didn’t really know what was up with snowboarding. They needed to fill the position and he was there, so they just kind of gave him the job. He really fucked everything up. When I realised that nothing was where it should be, I ended up updating 70% of our skews in one year. That’s 115 total boards, it was fucking crazy. But that next year at all the demos people were giving us the most positive feedback in years. Just tweaking cambers and flexes, the little things that really make the difference, you know?



Were you able to tell just by looking at schematics what needed to be done, or just feeling it out? 

It was a bit of both. I would talk to some people and they would ride the 153 of a board and like it, and a person riding a 164w of the same model would hate it. I went and looked at all the diagrams for the boards and realised that there was the same amount of camber in height and length in all the boards. So the 153 would be almost full camber, and the 164w would just have shitloads of rocker added out to the nose and tail. So there was zero contact length on the snow. The guy didn’t snowboard so he just didn’t understand. I had to get on every board during that first year and feel it all out. It was pretty wild. It made such a difference after that. 

That’s cool to hear that people noticed such a difference in your work. 
Since I started we’ve doubled our board sales, which is pretty insane. 


Have you always been into this kind of stuff?

I’ve always liked making stuff and using my hands, and it all stems from my dad. He’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. Any question about how something works or how to build it, he knows or has a really good answer. He’s the nicest most humble person you’ll ever meet. From as early as age seven he’d have me changing the oil on his truck, things like that. All of my brothers are all very intuitive and hands-on in that sense. We like to figure stuff out. I would always fuck with my bushings or clean my bearings and stuff like that when I was skating. It wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realised that I was maybe decently smart. My mom taught me for a few years in elementary school and she would always tell me how good I was at math, and I was always pretty whatever about it. All through junior high and high school I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted to skate. Then I graduated with a 2.5 gpa, which is really bad. 4.0 is perfect A’s, if you’re under a 3.0 it’s pretty bad. I just didn’t care.

Then after high school I was going to community college here, doing science classes and trying to figure out if I wanted to do marketing or sales, I was pretty lost in it all. At the time I was working at Milo with Brandon Hammid. He was going to school for mechanical engineering as well as one of my really good friends Jamie Orkin who was also doing the same program. I would sit at Milo looking at Brandon’s homework on a slow Sunday in the summer. You have a problem of how a structure is built or how an engine is put together. I’ve always liked problem solving and working with my hands. You can use math to solve problems and build things and design things. I realised this was what I wanted to do. It all just clicked out of nowhere. 


How did the powsurfers start?

So at that time I really wanted to make snowboards because I was around them all day in Milo but I didn’t have the means to do it. Making powsurfers was kind of the next step. Grassroots are one of the OG powsurf brands and my two good friends Trevor and Jeff had boards, and I was looking at them and thinking that I could probably make that. Whenever I get into something, I go headfirst into it and have to figure it all out. I get borderline obsessive with having to perfect whatever craft I’m trying to do. How do I make a mould, build a press, whatever I have to do. 

I started out with rigid insulation foam from Home Depot, gluing sheets together to make a big block of foam and then shaving a camber profile into it. I figured out how you could make a vacuum bag to make a board. I went to arts and crafts store and bought a huge sheet of vinyl, glued it up like a big ziplock bag, found a vacuum pump and just laid up my first board and stuck it in the bag. It was pretty cool. 

“It’s literally the air above your head that presses the board. It’s crazy. So if you’re at sea level the board gets pressed with more pressure than if you were on the top of a mountain. I was so hooked on how cool this shit was.”

How does pressing boards actually work?

Every force has an equal or opposite reaction. So if you lean on a wall, the wall is pushing back on you. So right now, sitting here, we have the weight of the atmosphere pushing down on our bodies, but our bodies are pushing the same amount of force back out, which is fine. But if you go into space and take your spacesuit off, you have an atmosphere’s worth of pressure inside your body pushing out, but nothing is pushing back on you. 


Which is why you explode? Like the guy in the vacuum chamber in the James Bond movie Licence to Kill?

Yeah. So vacuum bagging is the same thing, but opposite. You put the board in the bag, seal it off, then pull the air out of the bag, the weight of the atmosphere presses the board for you. It’s pretty insane. It’s literally the air above your head that presses the board. It’s crazy. So if you’re at sea level the board gets pressed with more pressure than if you were on the top of a mountain. I was so hooked on how cool this shit was. 


What did you use for a vacuum?

It’s a thing called a Venturi. Some scientist back in the day figured it out. You basically blow air really fast over a pinhole, which creates a vacuum effect that then pulls the air out of whatever is down in the hole. It’s this little box that you hook up to a compressor. There’s a hole and a tube going down into the bag, and the air slowly gets sucked out of the bag. It’s sort of like the ‘surface tension principle’ where the air sort of grabs on to itself. It’s pretty wild. They make legit vacuum pumps for bagging composites, but my setup was cheap. The Venturi thing cost 20 bucks. 


How did the first board turn out?

The quality was really good, but it had so much fucking rocker it literally looked like a U. After that I chopped the mold in half to cut out two inches of the rocker, then I made the next board and there was a night and day difference. It looked proper. There was a nice kicktail, a long scoopy nose and it rode so good. That’s what really sparked my interest in figuring out and working with composite materials. Every board I made after that was an experimental board. The next one was full 3d with channels. I was riding Brighton all the time and wished I had a board that I could ride a line with, then ride on the cat track and make it back to the lift. That’s the dream, right? Then you could powsurf anywhere. I made this rocket ship looking board with edges and these crazy 3d channels on the inside and a ptex base. I hiked out on Milly and rode a sick pow line, then went and rode it all day in the park. It looked terrible, the craziest looking piece of fibreglass you’ve ever seen in your life, but it worked so well. Someday I’ll go back and finish that design. So that’s how I got my start, just getting in and figuring it out. 


Going back to K2, are you also do experimental designs there?

It’s a combination. Part of the reason I’ve been able to make boards that people like is from working at Milo for so long. Getting so many people through the store, and getting so much feedback about what people like. At the end of the day I need to make snowboards the people want to buy. That’s the goal. So if you’re making some crazy shit that’s over the top experimental and people are just thinking “what the fuck”, they’re not gonna want to buy it. Having that baseline understanding that it has to be sold to a consumer, that helps dictate the experimental paths I want to go on. I’m for sure down to try some crazy shit and see what happens and if you can get a glimpse of what technology or designs might work. You then need to refine it and get it to where a consumer can feel it, notice it and it works. So I try to tow that line. I can make a board that’s half the weight of a normal snowboard but it’s probably going to ride like shit, so there’s not point doing that. I think a lot of companies try to do crazy super scientific experimental projects but forget that they still need to sell it, and they might only sell 80 of them globally. It’s a game for sure, and I love trying to get weird. 


What board are you the most proud of making since you’ve been at K2?

I would probably say the Alchemist, which is the highest-end freeride board in the Landscape collection. K2 said they wanted a new high-end freeride board, and I told them to give me zero limits on budget to make them what I think would be the best freeride board possible, and they said ok. Whatever I wanted to do, they were down for. The money was always the constraint for me, I couldn’t scale my powsurfers because I didn’t have the money to buy enough bulk material. So they were giving me whatever I needed to make prototypes and try shit out. It just became this all-in thing. I had a million ideas about what could be really sick in a snowboard, so I put all of my brain power into that board and tried to revamp every single piece of tech in it. There were five new pieces of technology for the K2 line that all went into that board. Then it won two ‘board of the year’ awards. I always had that doubt about whether anyone would actually like what I’d designed. I liked how it rode, but when it won those awards I realised that people really liked it. That was a ‘holy shit’ moment. I actually did it. That’s definitely the proudest I’ve ever been of myself in terms of accomplishing a goal. I’ve always wanted to win an award for a board I designed, so that happening was a full dream come true. 

“That Antidote board was one of the coolest challenges I’ve ever had. We were really honing in on the Jackson Hole stop of Natural Selection, and Sage ends up winning the stop on the board. It helps that the guy who’s strapped to it is pretty fucking good, but it was cool that we set that goal and achieved it.”

Two years later Sage got on the team, and we designed a board together called the Antidote. Sage and I grew up together, his older brother Blaze was one of my best friends and we’ve all known each other since we were 16, hanging out and skating and stuff. So we had always really wanted to do something together. The brand he was trying to start didn’t work out, and he saw that we were doing cool shit, and he wanted to come and be a part of it. It wasn’t about money, it was about our relationship and wanting the opportunity to develop product. It’s not everyday that you get someone like him to hone in on the design of a board. I think part of his success is that he’s so dialled in on what’s he’s feeling from his equipment and understanding the nuances of sidecuts and taper and stuff like that. That Antidote board was one of the coolest challenges I’ve ever had. We were really honing in on the Jackson Hole stop of Natural Selection. It had natural and man-made freestyle all-mountain terrain. Powder, steep stuff, but you still need to chuck a cab 9 on something. We went through so many iterations, tweaking it and working super hard on it, and he ends up winning the stop on the board. It helps that the guy who’s strapped to it is pretty fucking good, but it was cool that we set that goal and achieved it. So I would say those two.


A good use of the Antidote by Sage Kotsenburg:


How long does it take from designing a board to the finished product?

It depends on the level of the project. You don’t want to start with the first prototype by putting every piece of tech in it, because you don’t know what piece of carbon or what sidewall design is affecting how the board is performing. You want to start with a solid chassis. Core, fibreglass. You start there and get about 90% of what you want the overall feel to be. Then the next prototype you add a piece of tech, ride that, work out what you need to tweak, then add another piece of tech in the next round. So you go through that process, usually a round of prototypes per month. If you’re really on it and you don’t have anything else going on, you can crank out prototypes fast. We have a rad prototype facility in Seattle called The Arc. It’s a football field size warehouse that’s filled with machines to make snowboards. It’s really rad. So we can go there and rip out a round of prototypes in a week and get right back on snow. 


Wow, that’s a rapid turnaround. 

So that process can be rad. Sometimes it takes a solid 8 months going through prototypes and revisions and tweaking things until you feel like you’re there. That’s about what the Alchemist was. It took quite a lot of time, but I think the result showed. It was really refined and people were happy with how it rode overall. But as another example, Jake Kuzyk has a board this year. It’s still called the Medium which has been his pro model in the line for a few years, but it’s a completely new board. I had been riding with Jake quite a bit and he’s awesome to work with and always has good feedback. As I get to work with every rider I sort of take mental notes on what they like and little nuances that even if they can’t articulate, I love focussing in and trying to understand rider input and really listening to our team. That’s so important. So I try to decipher what they mean when they tell me it’s pressing weird or popping weird. I can look at the core profile and know what to change to make it pop better. So we started the conversation and I told Jake I would just try to make him what I thought he wanted. We’d been talking about boards for years, and this was the first try and making something from scratch. So I made it, he rides it, and tells me that he thinks it’s the perfect snowboard and wouldn’t change a thing.


That’s rad that you can really translate their feedback into designs. 

So we went through a few more prototype rounds just to make sure, he rides them all and goes straight back to the first one. Then he got a bunch of the other team riders on it and they all thought it was incredible. So it can take 8 months, or it can work first try. There’s also not endless amount of new tech or crazy designs in it, it’s just a solid clean board.


How much does it cost to develop a board?

One mold costs between $2500-3500 which is pretty standard. Ours are a bit more expensive because we have our ‘hybratech’ construction, which are sidewalls on the running length and a cap construction at the tip and tail. Pretty much every brand out there use tip filler, and the core stops an inch or two short of the end of the board. We don’t use any extra plastic in the tip or the tail and run a full wood core all the way to the ends. Then we use a cap style pinch at the tip and the tail to seal the board so the core can’t get wet. It’s the most eco-friendly way to make a snowboard and also the most efficient, but it’s so much harder to design. Everyone else uses flat sheets of aluminium for their moulds so their costs go down. Our moulds are more expensive but, in my opinion, we get a better quality product out of it. So if you do ten boards and they’re $2500, you’re $25000 in just on the moulds. Materials for prototyping an average board are probably in the $100-200 range, depending if you’re trying expensive new stuff. You might have to buy low amounts of an expensive material, then you get a big discount when you buy bulk. So you can easily get into the $40,000 range developing one board, which is crazy to think. I don’t think a lot of people understand that it’s pretty damn costly to go through and develop boards. With new surfboard shapes, even if it’s on a machine, you just redesign the board, make a new program, stick it on the CNC, it cuts the blank and the guy goes and glasses it and surfs it. We have to CNC technical aluminium molds, CNC all the parts. It gets pretty crazy. It’s a huge labour cost to pump boards out, especially if you’re trying to prototype things really quickly. You’ve got to have three to four people working 40-hour weeks to produce four prototypes for you. So much work goes into everything, there’s not a lot of automation in ski and snowboard manufacturing. There’s a lot of CNC work, but a lot of putting shit together by hand. 

“Every board we make has to pass the ‘slap test’. We take a board, put it in a freezer at 0 Fahrenheit, then we slap it onto a steel plate at around 150mph, which is psycho fast. The board has to be able to slap the plate 20 times without delaminating.”

Are there things K2 are doing that other brands aren’t?

Every board we make has to pass the ‘slap test’. We take a board, put it in a freezer at 0 Fahrenheit, then we slap it onto a steel plate at around 150mph, which is psycho fast. The board has to be able to slap the plate 20 times without delaminating, which is to simulate something like a big landing on an icy park jump. We also have the ‘bimp test’ which is a sidewall edge impact test, like if you were gapping onto a rail or heelside turning and you hit a rock. They have to be able to do this without delamming. They have to pass 15 hits of this frozen metal pipe smacking the edge insanely hard.


Sounds like you’re really trying to break your own stuff. 

Yeah. We do competitive benchmarks. I won’t name names, but we take boards from some of the biggest brands and put them through those tests, and after two of three slaps they just explode. The nose just fully banana peels open or the edges will delam 10cm or something. So we really do stand by trying to make high quality product that’s durable, and spending the extra money on those molds to make durable product is how we do it. We could easily go with cheap molds, but it’s just not what we want to do.


Where’s your factory?

We own our own factory in Weihai in China. I think China gets a pretty bad rap for shitty quality manufacturing, and that sucks because I think it’s entirely untrue. People go to China and they go to find a factory to make a shitty little toy for really cheap, and the factory will make exactly that. They will make whatever you want. So it’s up to the engineer like myself to show them how to make a quality product, and once you’ve shown them the steps, I don’t think there’s a better culture at being super diligent and following rules and steps to make the best quality product there is. And since we own the factory, we’re completely in charge of all all processing, manufacturing and quality control. It’s not like a rogue setup where we just get the boards and that’s it. I’m involved in every step. They make damn good snowboards, but it’s up to the person showing them how to do it to make a quality product. 


How long have you had the factory there? 

We had an old one for about ten years, and this one was built from the ground up six years ago There’s full solar on the roof and we’re cutting down on carbon emissions. It’s really cool. 

“Right now we could go out and make a damn near 100% eco friendly snowboard, but it might be a piece of shit so there’s no point throwing the three you’d break in a year in landfill, instead of making one solid snowboard that would last five years.”

How’s K2 looking at sustainability and eco friendly materials?

With Elevate, our umbrella company, the number one focus is sustainability. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, making snowboards is so toxic for the environment. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible with everything we’re trying to do. A big thing we’re implementing is a bio resin. The cool thing about it is that it’s 100% proprietary to us. We have these high durability standards, and we want to make sure any eco friendly product isn’t sacrificing durability at all. Right now we could go out and make a damn near 100% eco friendly snowboard, but it might be a piece of shit so there’s no point throwing the three you’d break in a year in landfill, instead of making one solid snowboard that would last five years, you know? The term greenwashing is everywhere now and that’s what so many companies are trying to do, they’re putting lower quality product and saying it’s eco friendly, but then the product doesn’t last as long. We’re trying to be very purposeful with what we’re putting into the product and actually making sure it is doing something and not just some hocus-pocus marketing shit. So by 2024 all of our snowboards and skis as well as Ride boards will all be 100% bio resin, which is super high quality. We’re working on base materials and top sheets that are made of castor beans which is pretty rad. Some really smart material scientist figured out that you could take castor bean oil and make a polyurethane out of it. So with the bindings, we’re about to launch the first full eco binding line. We’ve taken that bean material and have been able to make bindings out of it. You’ve probably seen flax and basalt fibres that are out there, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that this natural fibre actually takes triple the amount of CO2 emissions to produce, so you’re polluting the planet more, but the marketing is much better because you can say that you’re using an eco fibre which is better for the environment. 

Justin "field-testing" the product:


It sounds like a real balancing act. 

So we’re trying to publish every bit of information that we have and want the consumer to see it. Not greenwash, but actually go all the way through the process from start to finish. One example is the shrink-wrap that most boards come in. Some brands wrap their boards in paper, which looks much better than plastic, but that paper bag weighs something like 50 times more than the little bit of shrink wrap. That’s a lot more gas needed to move the boat with all your boards across the ocean. You didn’t save anything, you just made it worse. We did the calculations to use paper ourselves and realised there was zero benefit. 

Surfing does a good job in the way that big shapers will set up regional factories around the world. If you live in Australia and the factory is an hour from your house, that’s amazing. Maybe our future could be having a small manufacturing centre in Europe, China, Japan, USA, Canada. That way the end product will have to travel less miles to get to the consumer. There are tons of riddles like that to figure out. And I like talking about that stuff because I want consumers to understand. If every snowboard company int he world could make the most perfect eco friendly thing, they would, but these eco friendly materials have limitations and we don’t want to be producing $600 boards that snap the first time you tomahawk. Elevate have lofty goals by trying to be carbon neutral by 2050, and I mean legit neutral and not buying offsets. You can spend two million dollars and do that, but at the end of the day that’s a bit of a cop out, in my opinion. It would be smarter to invest that money into developing better processes to manufacture the snowboard more efficiently. The product itself is the root of it all. Get that right, and everything will get better from there. 


How many boards are you making a year?

I’m actually not allowed to say. I wouldn’t mind saying saying it, but for some reason all brands are so secretive about how many boards they sell. We’ll get data form tradeshows so I have a ballpark of what people are doing, but it’s a funny game. You can do some digging and get some good ideas of market shares. Besides Burton there are really five big players, and we’re one of them, but everyone else is just a tiny sliver of the pie. And it’s so important to have those small brands and keep the culture of snowboarding alive. I love seeing new brands pop up with new ideas, it keeps it fresh and alive. If it was just three brands it would be so stale. The coolest thing about snowboarding is how much individualism there is in it. 


There’s a spot for everyone. 

I love this stuff so much, the opportunity K2 has given me to live out this dream has been insane, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Most people on the hill don’t know who I am, so when I ask them what they think of the K2 board they’re riding and they tell me it’s the best thing they’ve ever ridden or are having the best day because of their boards, that’s everything to me. Hearing those reactions and making people want to snowboard, that’s the best thing there is.