By Adam Sullivan

Millions of years ago, a great human invented the wheel.

In the 1950s, bored kids with roller skates made makeshift scooters. Perhaps as a result of shoddy workmanship, the handles eventually broke off, and skateboarding was born.

Skateboarding’s first wheels were metal and slid sideways about as fast as they rolled. The next logical step in wheel technology for skateboarding’s earliest innovators was to make wheels out of clay. Die-hard innovators even experimented in their kitchen ovens. Better, but it wasn’t quite there yet. These wheels were grippy, and their resilience was lacking.

In 1970, Frank Nasworthy changed the way a skateboard rolled forever.

Nasworthy, a San Diego surfer, developed the urethane wheel for skateboards. These wheels were faster and more resilient—leaps and bounds ahead of their alloyed and adobe predecessors.

Once urethane wheels became the rage, companies like G&S, Kryptonics, and Powell began producing them as fast as they could. Everyone was vying to come up with the next great creation to perfect the wheel. The 70s and 80s saw a number of false starts— rough ideas and brainstorms that never really panned out.

One example of the progression of the skateboard wheel was the conical. Conical wheels were asymmetrical, with the backs lathed off to create the cone-like effect. These were popular among pool skaters, as they rode up over thick pool coping much easier. However, they were expensive, difficult to make, and were eventually replaced with symmetrical wheels that boasted rounded sidewalls. This compromise helped to bring about the birth of street skating.

In the late 1970s, wheels that were rounded on both sides made a brief appearance. Yo-Yo Spinners, as they were called, were around for a short while. They tapered down to a point specifically for freestyle skating, but much like freestyle skating itself, the spinners were soon forgotten.

Gyro, another wheel from the late 70s, boasted an aluminum core. They were fast, but heavy and expensive. And like the Spinners, were eventually left in the dust.

Bones Team Manager Rob Washburn remembers several innovations introduced over the years. In the late 70s and early 80s, Powell made two important breakthroughs, which remain some of the most defining characteristics of skateboard wheels today. “Powell was the first to come up with the white wheel,” Washburn remembers. “That’s an innovation that has stuck to this day.”

The advantage of a white wheel is that the urethane is pure. Washburn elaborates: “(Colored or) swirled urethane is too much of a mess, dyes change urethane qualities.” Too much contamination can alter the catalysts, slowing it down or weighing it down.

Powell was also among the first companies to start putting graphics on their wheels. Up until then, companies had their logos embossed on the side of the wheel. So unless you were holding the wheel up close, it was anybody’s guess as to what you were actually riding. The conical wheel had a flat backing to it, so that’s where Powell printed their graphics. Soon after, graphic wheels became the industry standard, allowing people to roll with some creative freedom.

Once graphic printing was available for the skateboard wheel, logo embossing went the way of the freestyle board. Save for a brief appearance here and there, such as in New Deal’s “Nude Eels” wheels, the practice of wheel embossing was put to rest—until fall of 2000 when Ricta was born. Ricta was created by Ian Deacon and Jeremy Fox to offer a fresh perspective in a stagnant market.

But why emboss? It’s expensive to make the molds, and without a colorful logo, they’re difficult to recognize. NHS Marketing Director Jeff Kendall has the answer. “Differentiation,” he says. “We wanted to do something that would stand out.” And they do. Ricta wheels are currently the only embossed wheels on the market, with an all-white outer and a colored core. They stand out on a skate sh’s shelf, offering the average consumer something different.

Even during skateboarding’s darker ages, change was taking place. For better or for worse, the wheel changed drastically back in the early 90s, when street skating and freestyle were fused into one flatground free-for-all. Kickflips, 360 flips, and the unforgettable pressure flips were the popular tricks at this time. Kids had moved away from the parks and were flooding the streets with their new brand of skateboarding.

But this new style required an overhaul of the skateboard. Within a couple years, decks became skinnier, noses were turned up, and wheels dropped up to twenty millimeters in size. Beagle remembers, “This company called UFO started making wheels back in ’93. They came out with (size) 40.” The benefit of a smaller wheel was that it would give you a lower center of gravity, which would in turn allow you to flip the board more accurately.

But the smaller-wheel phase of the early 90s was not without its drawbacks. Noseslides and bluntslides were big at the time, and flat spots were a common occurrence. Real Skateboards addressed the problem by introducing “Real Small Wheels.” They were small, but they came by the half-dozen, rather than the traditional set of four. That meant, when you had flat spotted a couple of your wheels, you would have two fresh ones to trade them out with. They worked for a while, but eventually Real went back to selling wheels by the foursome.

Fortunately, this small-wheel phase lasted for only a few years, and today wheels have, for the most part, settled into the 50 mm to 58 mm range.

But obviously size isn’t everything. There are other factors that can affect a skateboard’s performance just as much. George Powell, a seasoned veteran in the skateboard wheel industry, offers several different formulas of urethane, each appealing to a different terrain or a different kind of skater. Washburn helps in the design process, too. “(Right now) we have three different formulas, four or five in time. We’re always looking to improve the existing urethane.”

One of Powell’s latest innovations is a new formula developed specifically for use within a skatepark. Washburn is particularly excited about this creation, because it provides a much-needed grip in a slippery skatepark. “(Our skatepark formula) is abrasive and resistant, but it’s also hard. It slides if you want and lasts twice as long.”

When Foundation’s Josh Beagle started Pig Wheels back in 1995, he understood one fundamental concept. In order to leave an impression, the company had to come up with something new. Beagle remembers, “Our first wheel shapes were really cool—they had a wall that just shot back in, kind of like a half-wall, so you can’t scratch your graphics up. We were trying to do something totally different.”

Since then, Pig has seen several new concepts come and go. Pig has carefully picked and chosen which ones to use—a good example is the innovation of the dual durometer wheel. It’s one of skateboarding’s latest wheel breakthroughs, the objective being a harder inner core provides a good solid feel—and a softer outer layer gives the wheel much needed traction. “The company (that invented the dual durometer) came out with the concept,” says beagle. I thought it was a good idea, so I jumped on it.” Beagle wasn’t alone. Soon after its inception, dual durometer wheels became the rage, and several companies were happy to include them into their product lines.

Accel. Urethane is another company that has incorporated some unique ideas into its line. Most notably, they created a wheel that fits a provided bearing with a smaller diameter. Jason Rothmeyer explains that the advantage of having a smaller bearing is that it requires less inertia for the wheel to spin, allowing it to roll easier and longer. “They ride smoother because you’re increasing the amount of urethane between the ground and bearing,” he says. By using more urethane and less bearing, Accel. made a faster wheel and a lighter one at that, neatly tackling two of the most prominent concerns of today’s skater.

Element recently launched a similar wheel, but with an important modification. Its “featherlight” wheel is an injected, hollow core wheel offering the smaller bearing, but each set comes with a plastic hub that the “microbearing” can snap into for it to fit a standard-size wheel. Roger Harrell, Giant Distribution’s production manager, explains how this addresses the weight issue, without compromising durability. “The wheel itself is 60 percent lighter than a standard wheel, and the microbearing is 60 percent lighter than a standard bearing.” All the requirements for a successful innovation are there: the product is lighter without affecting its strength or durability, and the plastic hub will make the kids less inhibited to try it out.

No one knows what the future holds, but many are still trying to perfect the wheel. Skateboarders are forever looking for new formulas, new shapes, and new ideas, just to make a better wheel. “We are constantly testing new advances in materials to see if we can make them into a better formula,” says George Powell. “We have about five development programs going on at this time, working on ways to improve the properties we perceive need improving.”

What it boils down to is that wheels can always be faster, lighter, and more durable. And that’s why companies will forever be scrambling to build the better wheel. , Accel. made a faster wheel and a lighter one at that, neatly tackling two of the most prominent concerns of today’s skater.

Element recently launched a similar wheel, but with an important modification. Its “featherlight” wheel is an injected, hollow core wheel offering the smaller bearing, but each set comes with a plastic hub that the “microbearing” can snap into for it to fit a standard-size wheel. Roger Harrell, Giant Distribution’s production manager, explains how this addresses the weight issue, without compromising durability. “The wheel itself is 60 percent lighter than a standard wheel, and the microbearing is 60 percent lighter than a standard bearing.” All the requirements for a successful innovation are there: the product is lighter without affecting its strength or durability, and the plastic hub will make the kids less inhibited to try it out.

No one knows what the future holds, but many are still trying to perfect the wheel. Skateboarders are forever looking for new formulas, new shapes, and new ideas, just to make a better wheel. “We are constantly testing new advances in materials to see if we can make them into a better formula,” says George Powell. “We have about five development programs going on at this time, working on ways to improve the properties we perceive need improving.”

What it boils down to is that wheels can always be faster, lighter, and more durable. And that’s why companies will forever be scrambling to build the better wheel.