I want to spend the next few articles talking about building sleds on metal runners. It’s a subject that gets brought up in a lot of calls to the shop during the year.As in any aspect of sled construction there is a lot of confusion about their capabilities and warranted applications. Metal runners are not for everybody and their cost is significant enough that using them should be done with proper planning. In photo 1 are the three main types of metal runners currently on the market for home-built sleds, the Matrix, Rex and Snapfit. Note the difference of the curve and height between the runners. If you currently own a metal-runner sled and wish to change runners to a different type make sure your current sled design will accept them.In this issue I want to talk mainly about the runners and design. In future articles I will cover connecting and stanchion/crosspiece material, along with plastic and bolt types and finally putting all the pieces together. The first and one of the most valuable pieces of advice I can give you is to check the runners and make sure they line up. In Photo 2 you see four sets of metal runners set out on a table. These runners are paired as they were purchased, with the curves matched. Notice how the ends of the runners do not line up properly. This is an issue because the runners come with holes already drilled in for connecting brackets at the front of the runners so you just cannot line them up and trim them accordingly. And when paying that kind of money for a pair of runners you do not want to start off having to work around a problem. Those of us who use a lot of the metal runners often line up multiple sets like this and then re-pair them for usage. For most people this is not an option.The next thing to understand is that these runners can be bent and they can be broken. This is not going to be the last pair of runners you buy because, like most other pieces of sledding gear, sooner or later it’s destroyed. I have seen enough pairs in usage long enough that one of the main factors in breakage has been mushing style. I know of sleds with original runners that have traveled over 10,000 miles including both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest Trails. I have also seen brand new runners broken within 100 miles. Plan on the possibility of having to replace the runners into your design so that you can remove the minimal amount of bolts or ties as possible.As I have written before, keep your connection areas from your stanchions to the runners small. Three to four inch lengths for your metal brackets are good. Do not attempt to build a rigid toboggan style sled described in previous issues. You never want to bolt a long piece of steel or aluminum angle or channel to the top of the runners. The runners will break at the back of that piece quickly. I don’t recommend putting a rigid wood or aluminum strut between the flat of the runner and the front end of the runner. Metal runners have a lot of flexibility and it is never wise to try and over-constrain them. That has included attaching a ¼” thick bed of plastic directly to the runners. While not seeming to cause any special breakage it does not utilize the true potential of these runners. The smaller connection points will make the sled nimbler and more fun to drive.While metal runners are nice to ride on whether you’re a recreational musher or a racer, the reality is that they have become the staple of the competitive end of the mushing world. And for good reason. Lightweight and tough, easy to work with in design, they become a great base to build a sled on. They allow you to build a sled with the least amount of connective tissue needed to get you across a finish line in whatever race you’re in. Used that way they are great. Going camping and throwing in a few days supplies, just fine. What they won’t do is haul a lot of dead weight, like 30 gallon fuel drums, over rough terrain. Because of that wonderful flexibility in the runners they want to splay all over the place and make your mushing experience a uniquely miserable one. These are not freight sled runners and should not be treated as such.Most runners come in 10′ lengths though shorter ones are available. Make sure you have finalized your design before you cut the runners. Leaving too much runner out behind the sled can catch trees or stumps you might otherwise miss in tight turns. If you plan to have a cooler holder or other cargo area behind you, make sure to take this into account into your design. Decide whether you want a permanent or temporary structure behind you. Between your brake, drag and structure behind you, your movement is restricted and requires different sled handling techniques than you may be used to. There may be terrain that your mushing through that kind of limit to your mobility will be a real hindrance.Take a look at what other sled builders are doing with their design. They have often made a lot of the mistakes for you and have settled on a lot of things that work. As you look at a lot of these sleds you may notice a similarity in a basic style (Photo 3). This usually involves a long handle stanchion that connects near the front of the runner, a second stanchion a bit farther back and a short support for the rear of the bed. Amongst those of us who have been around the sled building business long enough we call this a “Charlie Design” and this gives me an opportunity to give a little bit sled-building folklore about Charlie Boulding. Charlie had built a lot of sleds so he had a solid base of knowledge about how a sled should handle. Over the years he had been working on some raised toboggan ideas and was playing around with different types of materials. On a long run one day, legend has it, Charlie had an incident and broke a rear stanchion on his sled. Continuing on he found the sled driving badly and he found it frustrating to control. So Charlie broke the other rear stanchion and found to his relief that the sled drove a whole lot better. Soon after that he started working on designs that purposely had no rear stanchion in the traditional sense. I must admit that the first time I saw one of his early sleds on his truck I was skeptical, but have come to realize the true genius of what he started. By not connecting that rear stanchion, the weight in the sled sits in the back and simply travels down the trail while the musher steers the sled with the long stanchions connected to the front of the runners. This gives the musher great control without tiring from moving that extra weight in the sled.So now that I have given you some things to think about as you design your new sled, go get yourself a pair of well-matched metal runners and get ready to work on your design. Before you cut any wood or metal, clamp a runner sideways on a bench and work on your stanchion layout using lathe or scrap wood to get an idea of lengths needed (Photo 4).Next issue I will write about the options for stanchions and crosspieces and how to connect them to the runners. Until then, Happy Mushing.David Klumb has been making dog sleds in Fairbanks, Alaska since 1980. David and his wife Joanne ran the 2006 Serum Run. For more information on Laughing Husky dog sleds, visit www.laughinghusky.com.