Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Mountain carvings
Founder Peter Frykholm crafts beetlekill carvings of Colorado's iconic mountains, with an assist from manufacturing automation.
Originally from Colorado Springs, Frykholm moved to Leadville in 2000. "It's still a funky town and a cool place to be," he says. "There's something about the mountains, too. There's nothing that compares to climbing a 14er or having a perfect powder day at Vail."
That's where Precision Peaks' small-scale replicas come in. "They're these perfect storytelling devices," says Frykholm.
A former librarian and copywriter who'd also worked in the nonprofit world, Frykholm came up with the idea in 2011 after he was exposed to 3D printing and CNC machines. "I wanted to work for myself, doing something creative," he explains. " My wife [Amy] and I literally sat down on the sofa with a yellow legal pad and just started brainstorming ideas."
The conversation drifted towards the mountains that surround Leadville. "Wouldn’t it be cool if people climbed a 14er, and then had some sort of small wooden replica of the peak?" says Frykholm. "Or what if they came to Colorado to ski, and wanted to take home a small carving that would show their favorite area?"
Frykholm says he loved the concept, but had no relevant experience to bring the idea to life. "How do I learn this?" he says. "I needed real-world experience on a CNC machine."
So he conferred with his wife and son. Rather than commute to classes in Denver or elsewhere on the Front Range, the family agreed on a temporary move to Chicagoland, where Frykholm studied CNC operations at College of DuPage. "We uprooted the whole family on a little bit of faith and a little bit of craziness," says Frykholm. "It was a tough year."
He put his head down and focused on learning as much as he could about CNC woodworking, and developed a workflow on how to incorporate topographic data so the machines could carve digital versions of mountains. "Thank God for the Internet," says Frykholm. "It was a huge treasure hunt for information."
On the final day of class, he plopped a $150 chunk of wax into one of the school's CNC machines to make his first mountain: the Mount of the Holy Cross in Eagle County. "I crossed my fingers and pressed go," he says. "An hour later, this beautiful carving comes out."
That proved the concept for the business. "We came back to Colorado and invested in a low-end, hobbyist CNC machine," says Frykholm.
In Leadville, he rented a basement space below a local woodworking shop and set up shop. In the former potato cellar, he developed a wide range of prototype mountains and started selling them at shows and online. "We were hardly making any money, but wherever we would go, people's jaws would drop," says Frykholm. "Right off the bat, we had an audience."
And that audience has responded. In five years, he's grown from no sales to just about as many as he can handle on his own, and the orders continue to increase. "The business just continues to grow year after year without much effort," says Frykholm.
For someone who's just climbed a mountain, Precision Peaks 14ers pretty much sell themselves. Who wouldn't want to commemorate their summit hike with a 3D sculpture of the mountain itself? Better yet, it's made from Colorado beetlekill pine.
While there's a high level of artisanship in Precision Peaks, there's also a high level of automation." The beauty of a CNC machine is it can be running and you don't have to be there to operate it," says Frykholm. He's since graduated from the initial hobbyist model to a ShopSabre machine. "It was a big upgrade," says Frykholm.
Precision Peaks' most popular carvings are the 14ers. He makes two sizes of each of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks that sell for $30 and $90. Other top sellers include carvings of Glenwood Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park. He's also created everything from Mt. Everest to Yosemite Valley, as well as beetlekill replicas of dozens of ski resorts.
But the majority of Precision Peaks' revenue comes from custom projects that typically run about $200 to $600. Some standouts include large renditions of the Dolomites in Italy and the Sneffels and Sawatch ranges in Colorado. The last one, a mantle-top carving, was commissioned as a gift to a U.S. senator.
After a customer inquires about a specific piece, Frykholm develops a 3D model to share and makes the necessary tweaks to the design before firing up the ShopSabre. "The data is free from the USGS and the European data is free," he says. "I've never paid for data."
After the CNC machine is finished carving, he spends a little time sanding and otherwise finishing the piece, and uses a laser engraver to add the name of the mountain and custom inscriptions.
He sources planks of beetlekill from Hester's Lumber in Kremmling, and his largest pieces are typically 14 by 17 inches, and about 4 inches high. "The limiting factor becomes the size of the piece of wood," he says. "They're special, they're one of a kind, and that's what makes it fun."
But the smaller catalog pieces provide a baseline for the business. "My bread and butter is the desktop carving," notes Frykholm. After summiting a 14er or skiing a double black diamond, customers "love to celebrate their success."
He'd need bigger machines, bigger pieces of wood, and some human help in order to go bigger and make installation pieces for ski lodges or museums. And he doesn't see his peaks as a good fit for mass production, largely because of the beetlekill's varying appearance. "We want the wood to speak for itself," he says. That means each carving is unique -- with different coloring and knots in the wood. "If I ship 100 Mt. Elberts to the REI store, what's going to stop them from saying, 'I can't sell these, they don't have that beautiful blue in them'?"
Challenges: Hiring as demand grows. "That's definitely a challenge on the horizon," says Frykholm. "I can't grow much bigger without needing help." He adds, "How do you, A, find that person, and, B, how do you figure out taxes and worker's compensation and all that? I know that's around the corner, but how am I going to navigate that?"
There's another impending challenge. "Eventually, I'm going to outgrow the space I have," says Frykholm of his cellar shop. "The dream would be to have a more modern workspace." In Leadville, that's not easy to find. "The housing and industrial stock up here is old," he says. "You can't just plug a CNC machine into an outlet that was wired during World War II."
Opportunities: "I think the biggest possible growth opportunity is to somehow figure out the marketing on the Front Range," says Frykholm. "There are so many people on the Front Range who spend their weekends climbing 14ers. Each one of those people is exactly my target market." He's got one on display at a local coffee shop, but otherwise hasn't invested in much marketing. Customers often grab a card from the display model, then later reach out to Frykholm for one of their own.
Needs: Besides needing an employee and possibly a new space, Frykholm says he's close to needing a second CNC machine. But there's a chicken to that egg: "I do not have space for it right now."