Not All Decks Come From Trees

Understanding how Lib Tech manufactures skateboards.By Arlie Carstens

Why a successful snowboard brand would want to enter the highly competitive and credibility-cum-image-driven world of skateboard manufacturing is interesting. Particularly because it would have to be done in a compelling, innovative way that doesn’t just look like bandwagon jumping.

So how did Lib Tech Skateboards of Seattle, Washington-based Mervin Manufacturing do it? With plastic. That is, with composite decks. Or as Lib Tech Product Manager Micah Shapiro explains, “We make a vertically laminated composite consisting of birch, aspen, fiberglass, graphite, and various other goodies.”

During a recent tour of the Mervin Mfg. facility in Seattle, Washington-home to Lib Tech skateboards, snowboards, and snowskates; Bent Metal Binders; Gnu and Supernatural Snowboards-Shapiro explained why Lib Tech began manufacturing skateboards: “Because Mike Olson (resident mad scientist and one of Mervin’s two founders) built skateboards in his garage before he got into making snowboards. He had wanted to make something better than seven-ply maple. But he got busy with snowboards. So this is a return to that original project for him. We’re marketing to the skateboarder that’s tired of the deficiencies of seven-ply maple.”

So what does an outsider snowboard company know about composite deck manufacturing that most skateboard companies don’t? As it turns out, lots.Beginning in 1997/98, Mervin Manufacturing hit upon the idea to construct skateboard decks using many of the same composite technologies they’d developed during their nearly twenty years spent building Lib Tech and Gnu Snowboards. In just four years’ time, they’ve gone from fussing around with a handful of experimental prototypes to today offering twelve decks-including seven pro-model shapes and two longboards. Their sublimated decks offer a vibrant array of graphics rendered by a diverse collection of top-notch East and West Coast skateboarders/graphic artists like Ken Adams, Mike McCash, and Chris Adams.On the sales end Lib Tech hasn’t been slouching, either-they’ve built an army of 850 retail accounts, this year projecting sales of nearly 45,000 decks. The brand’s popularity is concentrated regionally in the Midwest and Northeast, as well as right at home in the Great Northwest. “I would say everywhere except California. That’s where the industry has most control. The farther we get away from that, the stronger we are,” says Shapiro. “I think we appeal to people that are tired of buying a skateboard and having it break in three days-people that are tired of buying a skateboard driven by hype and image.”

An additional spot of good luck came Lib’s way during the February 2002 Long Beach ASR convention when Lib pro-skater Alex Bland won the Grind King Switch Ollie Contest riding his signature Lib Tech composite board. That day, at a world-record-setting 40 1/8 inches, the board with the most pop by far was a Lib composite. Bland’s switch ollie instantly garnered the previously oddball skate/snow brand some much-needed credibility.

According to Shapiro, “We got a lot of interest from shops and consumers because of that win, our Web site was swamped. We got a lot of e-mails from kids asking, ‘What’s up with this?'”

But the reaction from within the industry has been mixed, to say the least. Shapiro recounts, “There was a big-name pro rider sitting behind me while it was going on (the switch-ollie contest), he said, ‘Too bad he’s riding a fake skateboard.’ But that was fine. I know there’s a lot of resistance against us, but we’re making them have to change how they’re doing it, and what they’re doing.”

In the months subsequent to that fateful win there seems to be mounting support to back Shapiro’s claim. At least some within the industry no longer regard the folks at Lib a pack of interlopers with half-baked ideas. Indeed, industry luminary Planet Earth’s Chris Miller has recently gone on record prsing Lib’s composite decks. In the October 2002 issue of TransWorld SKATEboarding Business, he offered a bit of valuable insight into the history of composite deck construction and expressed strong support for Lib’s efforts, saying, “I think our market is really saturated with too much product and very little technical innovation. I’ve been skating for 25 years, and I think the best skateboards I’ve ever ridden were some of the foam-pocket boards Paul Schmitt made in the early 90s. That technology may not be valid anymore, but the point is no one has really tried much since then. I think it’s interesting that it took a snowboard company-Lib Tech-to create something that is actually better than what we’ve been making for twenty years” (TransWorld SKATEboarding Business, October 2002, Volume 14, Number 2).

Time To Make The Sandwiches

Unlike many deck brands, Lib Tech doesn’t have to outsource their manufacturing. They’re responsible for all 130 parts that go into their product, entirely laid up one at a time by the hands of real people. The construction process begins obviously enough with wood, and specifically in rural Port Angeles, Washington, once one of the state’s leading timber-industry communities but now in an economic depression since the mid 1990s. When Mervin Mfg. wanted to build their woodshop in P.A., it was merely because Mike Olson and Pete Saari were avid Northwest cold-water surfers. They wanted to play within close proximity to their working environment, and freely admit not much more thought than that went into it. However, when the local government offered the company great deals on permits and land use in exchange for hiring within its ample, skilled labor pool, the location revealed itself to be the perfect fit, and the deal was cinched. According to Chris Crittenden, Mervin Mfg.’s head of production, “These days, when running at full tilt, the shop employs upwards of 35 people, making it, I think, the second or third largest employer in Port Angeles behind Costco.”

Here, they build cores made of birch and aspen stringers vertically laminated using DAP Carpenter’s Glue. “The kind we use is intentionally less toxic that the industry standard,” explains Shapiro. “Ours is just for gluing, not for adding strength.” This is important to note because in skateboard manufacturing, glue is a very big deal. Most conventional deck manufacturers use a formulated polymer system designed specifically for the skate industry-a water-based adhesive made by the Chicago-based company, National Casein. This adhesive is mixed with one of three popular catalysts, the highly toxic chromium-nitrate-based K10, the less toxic aluminum-chloride-based K1, or phosphorate-based K4. Although materials bonded with these environmentally unfriendly catalysts cannot be recycled according to EPA rules, most companies prefer using them (particularly the nastiest of the bunch, K10) because they provide superior strength and faster curing times when pressing seven-ply hard-rock maple decks. However, as Shapiro notes, because Lib decks achieve their strength by other means further along in the manufacturing process, they only need to use DAP Carpenter’s Glue when initially bonding their aspen and birch stringers into blocks. These blocks are then cut into thin cores and shipped to Seattle.At the Seattle factory on Commodore Way, the assembly process begins by die-cutting the woodcores, graphite, and fiberglass to the proper specs for each board shape and size. The graphics are then sublimated to a layer of plastic, which is then laid up against three vertically laminated woodcores, and one layer of graphite, one layer of fiberglass, and one top layer of plastic. Inserted at the tip and tail are Lib’s patented Power 90s, which Shapiro explains “are installed to help prevent breaking or splitting where decks generally suffer the most abuse. Consequently this is one of the features that allows our decks to last longer than seven-ply maple.”

Upon close inspection, the Power 90 is a miniature puzzle of innovative, gonzo construction-a series of thin laminates of finished birch plywood running perpendicular to each other, which are then combined with a high-density, non-brittle, abrasion-resistant plastic material (the same stuff plastic bags, shampoo bottles, and bulletproof vests are made of). Imagine the P 90s as high-tech bumpers built into the deck, and you’ll soon get the picture.

Like a sandwich, all of these components are then bound together using equivalent chemical technology to that found in their snowboard construction-a two-part epoxy resin consisting of a resin plus hardener. Providing some insight to the seriousness of the epoxy process, Shapiro states, “Before the resin is cured, it is totally gnarly toxic, however, the resin is completely non-toxic after it’s cured.” Curing happens when the resin is combined with the hardener. After a blank’s been laid up-resembling nothing more than an enigmatic, slightly concaved, two-sided black plastic rectangle-it is then put in a press for thirteen minutes. Thereafter, it is placed on a cooling rack. Finishing usually begins the following day. The blank is placed on top of a master shape and then sent around a fixed rotating blade where it is cut to a specific shape and size. At this stage it is now recognizably a skateboard deck. The deck is then routed to round out all remaining rough edges, truck holes are drilled, and the whole thing is polished up and sent to shipping.

After that, according to Shapiro, “All leftover wood and paper products are recycled. And we’re working on a way to reuse all the plastics, basically grinding them up and turning them into benches or something. We send a company the remnants, and they’re figuring out a way to grind down the tip and tail plastic pieces to re-extrude them into new raw materials. (While) plastic and resin cannot be recycled, we recycle everything we can.”

However, when pressed for statistics on how much landfill waste Lib currently produces annually, Shapiro states, “I wouldn’t know the answer to that-we haven’t compiled data on that yet. We have a huge dumpster outside that fills up every Tuesday, you could start there.”

The New Process

However, there are two caveats to consider: even though Lib Tech’s Original Construction process is certainly pioneering, not every skater has responded favorably to it. Some have argued that Lib Tech’s composite decks don’t look or feel enough like a “real skateboard,” and the sublimated graphics tend to appear fuzzy underneath the slick plastic bottom. Recently, Lib Tech’s been hard at work developing an alternative that will combat these fundamental (and potentially damning) criticisms of their brand, while hopefully broadening their market share. Decks are now available using two construction techniques: Original Construction (a slick plastic bottom with sublimated graphics), and The New Process.

But how are these New Process decks different from Lib’s originals? Simple, slightly less plastic and a little more wood. The interior construction is the same as the original, but the bottom layer of plastic is replaced with a layer of rock-hard maple, making the deck appear more like a conventional seven-ply deck. Additionally, the graphics are much crisper due to development of Lib’s new top-secret screen-printing process. These new boards look, feel, and slide more like everyone else’s seven-ply maple decks-except for the fact that each is still manufactured with approximately 130 parts, including wood, graphite, fiberglass, DAP Carpenter’s Glue, high-density plastic, and epoxy resin. Shapiro says, “We feel we can reach a whole side of the market that isn’t comfortable with a plastic bottom deck because they’re used to wood. They’re used to the slide and pop of a traditional maple board. With The New Process we’re offering them a deck that is going to have the feel of a maple deck but with the advantages ofp>Upon close inspection, the Power 90 is a miniature puzzle of innovative, gonzo construction-a series of thin laminates of finished birch plywood running perpendicular to each other, which are then combined with a high-density, non-brittle, abrasion-resistant plastic material (the same stuff plastic bags, shampoo bottles, and bulletproof vests are made of). Imagine the P 90s as high-tech bumpers built into the deck, and you’ll soon get the picture.

Like a sandwich, all of these components are then bound together using equivalent chemical technology to that found in their snowboard construction-a two-part epoxy resin consisting of a resin plus hardener. Providing some insight to the seriousness of the epoxy process, Shapiro states, “Before the resin is cured, it is totally gnarly toxic, however, the resin is completely non-toxic after it’s cured.” Curing happens when the resin is combined with the hardener. After a blank’s been laid up-resembling nothing more than an enigmatic, slightly concaved, two-sided black plastic rectangle-it is then put in a press for thirteen minutes. Thereafter, it is placed on a cooling rack. Finishing usually begins the following day. The blank is placed on top of a master shape and then sent around a fixed rotating blade where it is cut to a specific shape and size. At this stage it is now recognizably a skateboard deck. The deck is then routed to round out all remaining rough edges, truck holes are drilled, and the whole thing is polished up and sent to shipping.

After that, according to Shapiro, “All leftover wood and paper products are recycled. And we’re working on a way to reuse all the plastics, basically grinding them up and turning them into benches or something. We send a company the remnants, and they’re figuring out a way to grind down the tip and tail plastic pieces to re-extrude them into new raw materials. (While) plastic and resin cannot be recycled, we recycle everything we can.”

However, when pressed for statistics on how much landfill waste Lib currently produces annually, Shapiro states, “I wouldn’t know the answer to that-we haven’t compiled data on that yet. We have a huge dumpster outside that fills up every Tuesday, you could start there.”

The New Process

However, there are two caveats to consider: even though Lib Tech’s Original Construction process is certainly pioneering, not every skater has responded favorably to it. Some have argued that Lib Tech’s composite decks don’t look or feel enough like a “real skateboard,” and the sublimated graphics tend to appear fuzzy underneath the slick plastic bottom. Recently, Lib Tech’s been hard at work developing an alternative that will combat these fundamental (and potentially damning) criticisms of their brand, while hopefully broadening their market share. Decks are now available using two construction techniques: Original Construction (a slick plastic bottom with sublimated graphics), and The New Process.

But how are these New Process decks different from Lib’s originals? Simple, slightly less plastic and a little more wood. The interior construction is the same as the original, but the bottom layer of plastic is replaced with a layer of rock-hard maple, making the deck appear more like a conventional seven-ply deck. Additionally, the graphics are much crisper due to development of Lib’s new top-secret screen-printing process. These new boards look, feel, and slide more like everyone else’s seven-ply maple decks-except for the fact that each is still manufactured with approximately 130 parts, including wood, graphite, fiberglass, DAP Carpenter’s Glue, high-density plastic, and epoxy resin. Shapiro says, “We feel we can reach a whole side of the market that isn’t comfortable with a plastic bottom deck because they’re used to wood. They’re used to the slide and pop of a traditional maple board. With The New Process we’re offering them a deck that is going to have the feel of a maple deck but with the advantages of our construction, which translates into a lighter, stronger deck with more pop.”

The Dawn Of A New Era, Or Just One More Fad?

It seems like Lib’s on the fast track to entering the world of skateboard manufacturing the same way they entered snowboarding-with ingenuity, enthusiasm, and a knack for hitting upon (sometimes entirely by accident) new technologies and groundbreaking innovations. Within just four short years, they’ve figured out how to play up their strengths to an emerging audience of skateboarders looking for something different from the norm. They’ve strategically increased sales of their product by focusing marketing around solid core values: product performance and durability. Although many hipper, more credible companies within the industry have tried to find ways of viably marketing composite decks over the years, to date no such effort has proven tremendously successful. If Lib Tech’s rising board sales are any indication, these outsiders just may have finally done it.

“In the next six months we’re gonna see a lot of people industry-wide coming out with new constructions,” says Shapiro, “whether they’re gimmicks or actually something new, people are trying to say they’ve got something different. I could see in a few years, seven-ply maple might not exist as a top-of-the-line skateboard. You may only see them at Kmart.”

As of right now it’s unclear whether these will prove to be prophetic or merely boastful words. But as Lib Tech finds their niche, they may just revolutionize how the entire industry does deck construction.

Lib Tech
Construction: 130-plus composite parts in each deck.
Bonding Agents: DAP Carpenter’s Glue and non-recyclable, two-part epoxy resin.
Lib Tech’s manufacturing costs are up around twenty dollars per deck.
Wholesale is $39.75.
Suggested retail is $59.95. Industry Standard
Construction: seven plies of maple from the Great Lakes region of North America.
Bonding agent: Wood glue manufactured by Chicago-based Adhesives Co. National Casein. A water-based polymer system designed specifically for the skateboard industry. Mixed with one of three common, non-recyclable catalysts: K1, K4, or K10.
Standard manufacturing costs are up around sixteen dollars per deck.
Average wholesale price ranges from 33 to 39 dollars for conventional seven-ply maple decks.
Suggested retail is 44 to 56 dollars.Other Companies Currently Working With Composites:
Santa Cruz Powerlite, Foundation Pop Top, Premium Wood, Element, Black Label, and New Deal (all have composites on the market or products in development).
Average wholesale is 40 to 43 dollars for most brands’ composite decks.s of our construction, which translates into a lighter, stronger deck with more pop.”

The Dawn Of A New Era, Or Just One More Fad?

It seems like Lib’s on the fast track to entering the world of skateboard manufacturing the same way they entered snowboarding-with ingenuity, enthusiasm, and a knack for hitting upon (sometimes entirely by accident) new technologies and groundbreaking innovations. Within just four short years, they’ve figured out how to play up their strengths to an emerging audience of skateboarders looking for something different from the norm. They’ve strategically increased sales of their product by focusing marketing around solid core values: product performance and durability. Although many hipper, more credible companies within the industry have tried to find ways of viably marketing composite decks over the years, to date no such effort has proven tremendously successful. If Lib Tech’s rising board sales are any indication, these outsiders just may have finally done it.

“In the next six months we’re gonna see a lot of people industry-wide coming out with new constructions,” says Shapiro, “whether they’re gimmicks or actually something new, people are trying to say they’ve got something different. I could see in a few years, seven-ply maple might not exist as a ttop-of-the-line skateboard. You may only see them at Kmart.”

As of right now it’s unclear whether these will prove to be prophetic or merely boastful words. But as Lib Tech finds their niche, they may just revolutionize how the entire industry does deck construction.

Lib Tech
Construction: 130-plus composite parts in each deck.
Bonding Agents: DAP Carpenter’s Glue and non-recyclable, two-part epoxy resin.
Lib Tech’s manufacturing costs are up around twenty dollars per deck.
Wholesale is $39.75.
Suggested retail is $59.95. Industry Standard
Construction: seven plies of maple from the Great Lakes region of North America.
Bonding agent: Wood glue manufactured by Chicago-based Adhesives Co. National Casein. A water-based polymer system designed specifically for the skateboard industry. Mixed with one of three common, non-recyclable catalysts: K1, K4, or K10.
Standard manufacturing costs are up around sixteen dollars per deck.
Average wholesale price ranges from 33 to 39 dollars for conventional seven-ply maple decks.
Suggested retail is 44 to 56 dollars.Other Companies Currently Working With Composites:
Santa Cruz Powerlite, Foundation Pop Top, Premium Wood, Element, Black Label, and New Deal (all have composites on the market or products in development).
Average wholesale is 40 to 43 dollars for most brands’ composite decks.