Their value is relative, sometimes worth about as much as a rock in your shoe and at other times worth their weight in gold. If you’re already skating, then you probably don’t think too much about them–but if you’re setting your board up and the damn things strip or the nut wears out, you’re hurling curses heavenward at the hardware gods. Hardware is the Achilles tendon of a setup. There is no worse nightmare than gripping your board, putting new bearings and wheels on, and then topping it off with used bolts that rattle after five tailslides.

Hardware may be the least considered product until you need it, but over the past few years the number of companies producing hardware has been multiplying more quickly than rabbits in a box.

Attention Seekers

Today almost every board company packages their own hardware, but there are a few brands that focus solely on the smallest parts of a skateboard. It has its pluses and minuses: smaller profit but cheaper start-up costs; harder to separate yourself from the competition, but easier to get a pro team. One of the main problems is that after you’ve set your board up, the product nearly disappears. How does a hardware company get shops– and skaters’ attention?

“Having a good product is crucial,” says Matt Moffett, wearer of many hats (including the marketing one) at Randoms hardware. Randoms invented a nifty bolt that features flanges around the shaft to keep it from spinning once inserted into a deck. After tapping it in, the rest of the job’s a piece of cake because all you have to do is tighten the nut. This solves the problem of stripped heads and finding a screwdriver or Allen wrench when you need one. “Although skeptical at first, once skaters tried our hardware they were convinced, and we began to get a lot (of promotion) through word of mouth. This helped us win over some of the most cautious people in the industry–skate buyers.”

Like every aspect of the skateboard industry, a hardware company’s success depends on marketing. Even if your bolts are ingenious, you have to make customers aware that you even exist. Killing Machine is one company that can’t be accused of lack of promotional chutzpah. “The original packaging was a frame grab from (the movie) Hardboiled with Chow Yun Fat and another actor holding guns to each other’s heads,” says Owner Brian Munn. “Each package came with a live bullet that corresponded to the bolt’s size. Kingpins were going to have twelve-gauge shotgun shells in them, but they never got made. I went very far to the other side of the spectrum, but soon after I had to dump the bullets because shops wanted to carry the hardware, but were scared of bullets being sold to little kids.”

“Having a unique product makes it a lot easier (to get into shops),” says Rocket Bolts Owner and Creator Donald Cassel. “Otherwise your marketing and ad campaign better be kick-ass to create a cool image.” Rocket Bolts also feature a flanged design that requires only a socket or wrench for assembly.

Unlike almost any other skateboard product, marketing something most skaters take for granted demands a different approach. Randoms solved the problem of graphic placement (always a strong selling point) by engraving two bolts with images on the head (skulls, bored happy faces, aliens). The company also brought in the big guns–the pros. Randoms’ Web site is armed with testimonials from famous skaters. “Randoms are ingenious and simple,” Colin McKay is quoted as saying.

Rocket Bolts, with heads that resemble stars, come in a colorful tin with a cartoon of a rocket flying through space, seemingly aimed at the younger market that gobbles up bright graphics.

Low-Cost Companies

One benefit to starting up a hardware company is that they’re a lot cheaper. The companies of most I spoke with started out of the owner’s house. On the other hand, packs of bolts usually sell for a few bucks–not a lot of profit per unit there–making the nneed for volume sales a necessity. But there are other pluses. “Hardware is a more stable product and is not as affected by trends or image,” says Cassel. “It doesn’t need to be changed as often.”

Besides demanding less capital to start, recruiting a pro team will never be easier or cheaper. Universal, headed by Joey Pulsifer, has heavy hitters like Mike Vallely and Danny Montoya screwing in their bolts. You might remember a few years back a hardware company called Shorty’s that had possibly the largest stable of pros riding their bolts before they expanded to become a top brand name. The old question, “How many angels can you fit on the head of a pin?” is flipped in the skateboard world to, “How many pros can you fit on the head of a bolt?”

But how different can you make bolts? And how do you make customers notice? You tap in Rockets and Randoms, Universal answers the question of Allen or Phillips screwdriver by making a head that fits both. With hardware, every marketing and product factor must add up or you’re left looking like something fished out of Dad’s toolbox. Board companies’ bolts have a head start because of brand recognition, but on the other hand, a strictly hardware company has the freedom to hook skateboard.com detail pro skaters’ equipment down to the bolts. With the fervent way skate rats obsess over their favorite pros, this no doubt influences what they screw on.

It’s impressive how innovative these companies have become and the leaps in marketing they’ve accomplished since the last skate boom. I worked for a distributor in the mid 80s, and the best-sellers were no-name bolts bought in bulk from some mainstream hardware company, their potential for marketing missed by almost everybody in the industry.

That was then.