NORTH BENNINGTON >> Bob Dion, unsatisfied with snowshoes he and his wife had used, started making his own in his shed 15 years ago.
Other snowshoes were too wide, he said, and the "one-size-fits-all" bindings didn't control the shoe's position, giving him banged-up ankles.
And Dion, a Readsboro resident with a background in engineering and machine design, didn't like how the shoe was built. A cleat that broke after a trek on thick ice couldn't be easily removed. And shipping the entire one-piece unit back to the manufacturer for repair could be a six- to eight-week process.
"Well at that point, winter could be over," Dion, founder of Dion Snowshoes, said in the company's manufacturing space at 940 Water St. Tuesday. "And If you have a race the day after you send it, you were out of luck."
Today, the local business ships thousands of modular, customizable snowshoes to nearly 60 retailers across the United States and Canada every year. Some recent orders were delivered to Japan and Austria.
Dion and his wife Denise, co-owners and competitive snowshoers in national championships, said they've seen good business because the winter sport is growing in popularity. It's been hugely popular in the Northeast for years and continues to spread west as more races and events spring up.
But they say they want to continue to grow their business slowly. They aren't looking to expand on their international shipping. And they say they would never even think of sourcing cheaper parts and materials from overseas for fear it would result in a lower-quality product.
That high quality led to a great reputation, they say, as their snowshoes are one of the most popular among racers in the Northeast.
"All of the parts, the aluminum and the materials, they're all made in the U.S.," Dion said as he riveted decking to a snowshoe frame.
It didn't take long after Dion began making snowshoes that he outgrew the shed, and the business moved to the Water Street complex in 2009.
Today, the company produces four different snowshoe frames and an assortment of bindings and cleats. A 3,000-square-foot space houses the company's entire assembly, sales and shipping operations.
Dion has his hand on every snowshoe. He uses a bender to shape aluminum tubing for each shoe's frame. Each binder, the piece which keeps the shoe on a foot, is hand sewn.
One basket in an assembly room holds small clips which connect the decking to the frame. Another holds hundreds of small Dion logos to be attached to each shoe.
Dion said the shoe's modular design lets a person customize each shoe to his or her needs. A standard aluminum cleat is good for packed snow or groomed trails. But a stainless steel cleat is available for use on hard, rocky surfaces or solid ice. And cleats and bindings can be swapped off of a frame with common tools.
The Dions said they plan on staying in North Bennington, but may move to a different part of the complex.
"We started out wanting to be the best in the world, and now we are," Dion said. "Now we need to keep being the best."
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979