Colorado Springs is home to a company that manufactures an internationally recognized line of consumer goods. Its brands are sold in retail stores in every state, plus Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Spain and Israel. Through web sales, they have shipped to Russia, South Africa and more — to every continent, in fact, but Antarctica.
The company is 7th Floor, and reviewers consider its flagship product — the Silver Surfer vaporizer — one of the best on the market.
Just ask Willie Nelson. 7th Floor founder and owner Steve Kelnhofer says Nelson has purchased 46 of them.
Every morning, employees at the company's retail store, Higher Elevation Masterpiece Productions (1323 Paonia St., higherelevations.net), plug in to heat the very first Silver Surfer, making sure its heating element continues to work flawlessly, 11 years in.
Current Surfer models start at $270 (those who use concentrates will also need an $80 conversion kit to dab). Opt for a color other than the standard silver, and you're looking at nearly $400 for a vaporizer with no temperature display and no numerical markings on the heat dial. What justifies the price tag?
Kelnhofer says it's built to last well beyond its 3-year warranty. The body is made from powder-coated aluminum, with any color or custom designs baked into the coating, eliminating chipping risk. Each Silver Surfer is assembled in Colorado Springs, a seven-point quality assurance card shipped with the finished product.
7th Floor also sells aromatics trays that use the Surfer's heating element as an aromatherapy diffuser without blocking access for vaping. The Surfer and its sister products — Da Buddha ($190), Life Saber (hand-held, $190), and Super Surfer ($550) — come in custom-made, padded hemp-and-recycled-polyester bags. Oh, and it produces a potent, flavorful vapor.
Kelnhofer, a 38-year-old Springs native, radiates an infectious, nerdy enthusiasm for his work. His office on Aviation Way is stacked with vaporizers, parts and prototypes for the next product.
The Surfer's story is his story, and that story begins in 2002. Kelnhofer had recently lost his job as an electrician after he was busted for growing marijuana.
"My world ended there," he says. "I was going to be an electrician. I was doing it for six years. I had just become a journeyman, and boom, I'm laid off."
Unable to find work, Kelnhofer took inspiration from a friend, taught himself HTML and started a distribution website for sex toys under the name sexsells.com. After his customers complained about having received boxes stamped with a big "From SexSells" on the address label, he changed the name of the company to 7th Floor. But when Google updated its search algorithms, 7th Floor dropped from the first page of sex toys to the 10th page.
Meanwhile, he and a friend routinely smoked from his friend's vaporizer — at least, when it wasn't being repaired. Kelnhofer hated how often the heating element failed. He also disliked that its design forced a smoker to turn the bowl upside-down — a huge spill risk.
So he decided to make something better. He ditched the wood for an aluminum tube, then designed a glass heater cover that points down, eliminating the dump risk. When he held the prototype in his hand, he knew it was something special. He ditched the sex toys but kept the 7th Floor name for his incubating vaporizer company.
Kelnhofer kept the electronics for the Surfer simple and robust, then hunted down the best ceramic heating elements he could find (as mentioned before, the first Surfer is turned on and heated every day). The glass was a little trickier. The main parts are imported from China, but Kelnhofer wanted to do as much work and customization on-site as possible. The problem was labor; he couldn't find good, affordable glassblowers in town.
"I went and got a book called Contemporary Lampworking, read it, and I just taught myself how to do it," he says.
At the time, he was awful at blowing glass, though he says he's gotten better since. But even back then he could finish the heater covers and make custom temperature dials for each unit.
In 2004, at long last, Kelnhofer released the Silver Surfer to the market.
As the company grew, he wanted to expand his on-site operation to make the glass wands that hold the weed. He tried hiring local glassblowers, but every candidate came up short.
"They could make a pipe because the pipe would never have to be the same shape, and as the end consumer, you'd never notice," he says. "But their skills weren't honed enough that they could replicate the same piece — so to me, they weren't good glassblowers."
Instead, Kelnhofer trained one of his employees to blow glass. Now all of 7th Floor's glassblowers are trained in-house. The company's dedicated studio space, Elev8 Glass, is four miles up the road from 7th Floor headquarters. Their products include vaporizer parts, stand-alone smoking glassware, and the recently added high-end glass cups and mugs. Kelnhofer will also open a new glass gallery and retail location downtown later this week.
Over the years the Surfer has attracted scores of high-profile fans. Kelnhofer's office has shelves and shelves of plain and custom-designed Surfers signed by musicians from GWAR to Hank Williams III to Cypress Hill. But Nelson, the legendary 81-year-old singer-songwriter (and marijuana champion), is the highest-profile. And how they linked up is a story in itself.
One of Kelnhofer's customers, the tale goes, picked up actor Woody Harrelson on the side of the road and brought him home to smoke from his Surfer. Harrelson was so taken with the Surfer that he insisted they meet with Nelson, his longtime poker buddy, for a smoking session. The customer bought Harrelson and Nelson each their own, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2008, the Surfer even made its silver-screen debut in the stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay — with Kelnhofer none the wiser until a customer called and told him. To this day, he has no idea how it happened, calling it good karma for making a high-quality product.
"If I wouldn't have gotten busted for growing pot, I'd still be an electrician," he says. "I turned lemons into lemonade, I guess."