Skateboard Science

Skateboarding.

The basic premise of skateboarding-it could be said-is best summed up by enjoi pro, visionary, and CEO Marc Johnson, as he states in the company’s current ad campaign: “We kill trees and party.”

It’s something to consider. Surely, the most overlooked or disregarded issues in skateboarding are of wood supplies, consumption, and waste.

As skateboarding progresses and develops, so does the number of issues relating to materials and processes in skateboard manufacturing. Few other sports rely solely upon a completely wood-based instrument as does skateboarding. From tennis rackets to skis to boating oars, the materials used to create the sporting equipment has all evolved from wood to newer composites and materials such as carbon fiber, graphite, and aluminum. Although other materials have been tested, researched, and developed to create skateboards, the general consensus of skateboarders is that seven laminated plies of cold-climate, hard-rock maple from the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada make the best skateboards. Acknowledging this, manufacturers accommodate it.

Graphic application and printing technologies have advanced dramatically since the advent of manual silk-screening methods. There are many ways to apply art to decks, just as the laminating process itself offers limitless options-from the design of the presses and molds to the composition of the glue that binds the veneer. Skateboard manufacturers, while their finished products may be indistinguishable to the average consumer, each adhere to a unique process that suits them and their customers best.

There are numerous considerations to be regarded in the context of glue and adhesives used in the deck manufacturing. Certain adhesives contain chemicals that are commonly regarded as being environmentally hazardous. Thus concerns of recycling and wood-waste disposal exist, and manufacturers are taking a range of approaches to tackle this issue that’s being given more importance as the notion of environmentally friendly manufacturing processes is given more light. Technologies used to manufacture skateboards have also advanced dramatically, and manufacturers of all sizes are constantly working on innovative ways to increase efficiency in their operations.

Background And Perspective

In the early 70s few skateboards were being made, and those that were mostly came from toy companies. At the time, technology was barely developed. Decks made from fiberglass and various plastics were almost as common as the standard solid wood plank. Trial-and-error methods typically reigned, and makeshift backyard, garage, and basement woodshops were commonplace in regions with high concentrations of skateboarders. By the mid 70s skateboarding was growing fast, and opportunity attracted new manufacturers who brought and tested new ideas.

By 1978 board making was a factory-based endeavor, and skateboard manufacturers were everywhere. It wasn’t until skateboarding suddenly died in 1979 that the number of woodshops plummeted. Only a few of the stronger manufacturers survived this period. And it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when skateboarding began to grow again, that the number of deck manufacturers followed. At the same time, the science and art of skateboard manufacturing was being fine-tuned and developing rapidly. Concaves and shapes changed with the evolving sport, and by the late 80s, skateboard factories grew and became more efficient to meet the ballooning demand.

Many factories were hit hard by the U.S. economic recession of the early 90s and the drop in demand for skateboards, but those that survived have been joined by a handful of new woodshops in the mid 90s. As in the early 70s, many of them started out as garage operations, but have expanded and upgraded their operations to keep up with skateboarding’s unparalleled growth over the past few years.

Today, dozens of deck manufacturers operate in California alone. d outside of the skateboard industry’s hub state, manufacturers exist in the American South, East Coast, and Canada. Smaller woodshop setups exist in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Europe. And what’s probably most indicative of skateboarding’s colossal growth in recent years is the growing presence of skateboard manufacturers in Asia, particularly China and Taiwan.

Most North American manufacturers regard the Asian manufacturers as a threat of varying proportions to both their business and Western skateboard markets. Clearly, reasons for the growth of the Asian skateboard manufacturing industry are simple: labor and supplies are cheap, and the market, of course, is huge. The general result, however, is an inferior product comprised of lesser-quality materials, such as softer Chinese maple from the country’s northern regions. In some instances even alternative woods not durable enough for skateboard manufacturing are used. At least one Chinese factory offers decks made from Canadian maple, but excessive trans-oceanic transportation of the raw material and finished decks invites numerous problems both before the manufacturing begins and aboard the slow ships delivering the final products.

The Manufacturing Process

The first step in making a skateboard deck, before the manufacturing process even starts, is ensuring that the veneers used are all free of flaws and of premium-grade. Sorting through veneers is something that all woodshops do, prior to lamination. Typically, when veneer shipments are received, they are examined to make sure they’re of the right quality, not too dry or brittle, and delivered at the right temperature with the right moisture levels.

The veneers are then put through a glue machine that ensures each veneer is covered with the correct amount of adhesive. Next, the veneers are stacked with seven plies for each board. Stacks are placed inside molds in either hot or cold presses for a specified amount of time to form and set.

The laminated veneers taken from the molds are left to cure a few days. The cured wood is usually drilled, then cutting templates align on the truck holes for shaping. Some companies use CNC machines for cutting, while others opt for the traditional means of cutting out boards by hand-using a mold template and a craftsman with a trained eye.

Cut boards are then sanded and the rails rounded with sanders or routing machines. Paint or a clear lacquer seals the deck and gives it a smooth finish.

Once the lacquer has dried, graphics are applied by any of a number of methods, multi-pass silk-screening being the traditional and still most common way. Finished boards are shrink-wrapped, boxed, and shipped out to the respective companies, distributors, or shops.

Paints, Dyes, And Techniques

Design and printing technology and methods have advanced as dramatically as manufacturing methods have over the past two decades. Manually silk-screening graphics onto finished boards has been the traditional means of graphic printing on decks. Although this technique is still commonly practiced, two other techniques have evolved over the past few years, and heat-transfer printing and ultraviolet (UV) printing are becoming increasingly popular among some of today’s biggest manufacturers.

With the heat-transfer technique, a preprinted graphic on heat-transfer paper-similar to an iron-on image for clothing-is placed on a finished skateboard deck. It’s put through a heat-transfer machine for a few seconds-similar to a massive hairdryer for skateboards. The backing paper is then peeled away and any excess ink or paper is scraped off the edges of the deck with a blade. Heat transfers are quick, and the transfer papers can be printed with much more detail than a silk screen can accommodate.

One reason that Grant Burns of Vista, California-based Bareback Skateboard Manufacturing uses the heat-transfer method is that it eliminates the need to stock idle inventory. Burns simply stores the printed transfer papers and applies them to manufactured decks as orders are received. “Heat transfer is going great,” he says. “The things it can do for a business, as far as inventory is concerned, is amazing. And the turn-around time as a manufacturer is great.”

UV printing is also new, though less common than heat-transfer printing, and can be done in a couple ways. One method uses lasers to print onto the flat bottom veneers before the lamination process begins. Another way is to manually screenprint each color onto flat veneers or finished decks, pass it under a UV light to harden, and repeat the process until all the desired colors are applied. The appeal of UV ink is that it dries extremely hard, giving the printed surface an egg-shell-like feel. Also, perhaps due to the density of the ink, the resulting colors can be richer than traditional screenprints.

Efficiency And Expansion

San Diego, California-based Watson Laminates has been manufacturing skateboards since the early 80s. Charlie Watson has taken a great interest in optimizing the process of skateboard making, continually improving the working conditions of his employees, and finding ways to minimize the material and chemical waste inherent in skateboard manufacturing. He’s optimistic and very proactive in the area of recycling and waste management, and is diligent in his efforts to recognize underlying issues of waste and environmental impact.

An excellent example of a company achieving maximum efficiency in both manufacturing and production processes is Paul Schmitt’s PS Stix skateboard manufacturing, which he founded in the late 80s after helping develop and manage Vision’s board production. Schmitt’s a longtime skateboarder and innovator who, over the years, has established PS Stix as the busiest skateboard manufacturer in the industry, producing close to 100,000 skateboards a month, and in a space much smaller than most other woodshops. His Costa Mesa, California facility has developed steadily over the years to earn him a reputation as one of the most respected manufacturers in the industry today.

Burns established Bareback Skateboard Manufacturing in 1996 in San Marcos, California, and began by specializing in the emerging longboard market. But he quickly began developing shortboard manufacturing, and within only a couple of years had completely outgrown his manufacturing facility. Bareback’s new 14,000-square-foot shop in nearby Vista is focused entirely on shortboards, and its list of OEM customers runs across the geographic and marketing spectrum. With the move, Burns implemented a handful of changes to the manufacturing processes, ranging from glues to a CNC machine for cutting boards to establishing a linear conveyor-like production process. He says the upgraded and modernized facility allows him to not only increase volume, but allow his crew to work more efficiently, safely, and with greater productivity.

Jeff Madrid founded Madrid Skateboards with his brother Jerry in 1977. In 1989 the brothers went their separate ways, and in 1992 Jeff established Clearwood Manufacturing with the sole focus of making OEM skateboards. Five years ago Madrid brought in Vice President Of Manufacturing Reggie Church, and last year they relocated the company to a 24,000-square-foot space in Ontario, California and reestablished it as California Skate Factory. Today CSF operates at a capacity of 4,800 decks a day running 80 molds-quadrupling its production in the past year alone.

Madrid says today’s woodshops must be able to satisfy the needs of the large companies that dominate the market. And doing so, requires high-capacity facilities like CSF: “It’s really a big-business thing. Before, where it used to take 50,000 to 60,000 dollars (to start), now it takes at least half a million to start a state-of-the-art facility. It’s like a poker game, and now the ante has been raised.”

With CSF’s increased producntory. Burns simply stores the printed transfer papers and applies them to manufactured decks as orders are received. “Heat transfer is going great,” he says. “The things it can do for a business, as far as inventory is concerned, is amazing. And the turn-around time as a manufacturer is great.”

UV printing is also new, though less common than heat-transfer printing, and can be done in a couple ways. One method uses lasers to print onto the flat bottom veneers before the lamination process begins. Another way is to manually screenprint each color onto flat veneers or finished decks, pass it under a UV light to harden, and repeat the process until all the desired colors are applied. The appeal of UV ink is that it dries extremely hard, giving the printed surface an egg-shell-like feel. Also, perhaps due to the density of the ink, the resulting colors can be richer than traditional screenprints.

Efficiency And Expansion

San Diego, California-based Watson Laminates has been manufacturing skateboards since the early 80s. Charlie Watson has taken a great interest in optimizing the process of skateboard making, continually improving the working conditions of his employees, and finding ways to minimize the material and chemical waste inherent in skateboard manufacturing. He’s optimistic and very proactive in the area of recycling and waste management, and is diligent in his efforts to recognize underlying issues of waste and environmental impact.

An excellent example of a company achieving maximum efficiency in both manufacturing and production processes is Paul Schmitt’s PS Stix skateboard manufacturing, which he founded in the late 80s after helping develop and manage Vision’s board production. Schmitt’s a longtime skateboarder and innovator who, over the years, has established PS Stix as the busiest skateboard manufacturer in the industry, producing close to 100,000 skateboards a month, and in a space much smaller than most other woodshops. His Costa Mesa, California facility has developed steadily over the years to earn him a reputation as one of the most respected manufacturers in the industry today.

Burns established Bareback Skateboard Manufacturing in 1996 in San Marcos, California, and began by specializing in the emerging longboard market. But he quickly began developing shortboard manufacturing, and within only a couple of years had completely outgrown his manufacturing facility. Bareback’s new 14,000-square-foot shop in nearby Vista is focused entirely on shortboards, and its list of OEM customers runs across the geographic and marketing spectrum. With the move, Burns implemented a handful of changes to the manufacturing processes, ranging from glues to a CNC machine for cutting boards to establishing a linear conveyor-like production process. He says the upgraded and modernized facility allows him to not only increase volume, but allow his crew to work more efficiently, safely, and with greater productivity.

Jeff Madrid founded Madrid Skateboards with his brother Jerry in 1977. In 1989 the brothers went their separate ways, and in 1992 Jeff established Clearwood Manufacturing with the sole focus of making OEM skateboards. Five years ago Madrid brought in Vice President Of Manufacturing Reggie Church, and last year they relocated the company to a 24,000-square-foot space in Ontario, California and reestablished it as California Skate Factory. Today CSF operates at a capacity of 4,800 decks a day running 80 molds-quadrupling its production in the past year alone.

Madrid says today’s woodshops must be able to satisfy the needs of the large companies that dominate the market. And doing so, requires high-capacity facilities like CSF: “It’s really a big-business thing. Before, where it used to take 50,000 to 60,000 dollars (to start), now it takes at least half a million to start a state-of-the-art facility. It’s like a poker game, and now the ante has been raised.”

With CSF’s increased production, Madrid’s biggest issue is having enough raw material on hand and making sure they have good connections with the veneer and adhesive suppliers. “We’re always tweaking our glue a little bit to do some different things,” he says. “Boards are now thinner and lighter, and subject to more abuse than they used to be. So the right adhesives, right mold-making, and right pressings are things that can’t be ignored. It’s a constant issue to keep those things balanced.”

Up north in Canada, Montreal, Quebec-based Woodchuck Laminates is growing fast as well. Headed up by professional vert skater Max Dufour, the company has been doing OEM manufacturing of skateboards since 1996. “We specialize in custom boards,” says Dufour. “We deal with custom layup, shaping, sizing, custom mold-making, et cetera. The biggest advantage we have is that the majority of people who work here are skateboarders. So they know what a skateboard looks like and what to look for. I think that’s been the key to our success over the years.”

Over the past year Woodchuck has gone through a significant expansion. Dufour wanted to grow within the warehouse space they were already in and not add fixed costs to their expenses. “So we hired some plant-management consultants, which helped us be more efficient in a lot of stages of the production line,” he explains. “I like to think that we’re really efficient per square foot. We’ve used every inch of the factory as best as we can. We don’t like to stock things-there’s no inventory or layover. If there’s a machine that’s outdated, it’s either sold or taken care of.”

Veneers

According to one of the largest veneer suppliers to the skateboard industry, all of its wood is sourced and harvested from the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. The maple trees in this area are known for their tight, strong grain, which is critical to quality-skateboard making. Maple trees from warmer climates are generally softer and lack the strength and durability of Great Lakes maple.

There is a growing awareness and debate over the use of old-growth versus new-growth maple, and a common misconception is that skateboards are made from old-growth maple. Skateboards are generally made from new-growth maple-trees ranging in age from 40 to 70 years. These are harvested individually from forests where younger and smaller maple trees grow around them. Once a tree is harvested, the surrounding trees have more room and sunlight to grow, and that area of the forest isn’t harvested again until the smaller trees mature. A spokesperson for the veneer company we spoke to doesn’t foresee maple supplies diminishing, and in fact the trees are harvested so carefully that supplies are replenished: “There isn’t a shortage, and we’ve never seen a shortage. An increase in localized demand over the years has caused us to spread out (beyond Wisconsin), but only within the Great Lakes region. We don’t buy any (logs) out west or in the deep south.”

On the flipside, some skateboard manufacturers have suffered from spiking costs for skateboard-grade maple veneers, particularly over the past few years as it’s become a popular choice for furniture surfaces. As a result, some companies have been researching and experimenting with alternative materials, both natural and synthetic. “We’re all going to be searching for different species,” says Tim Piumarta, founding head of research and development at NHS. “We’ve all been doing it, and somebody will crack open something that will work and hopefully open the margins for the manufacturer, shop, and retailer.”

Seattle, Washington-based Lib Tech Skateboards has been manufacturing its composite skateboards for over three years now through its Mervin Manufacturing facility, which also makes snowboards.

Lib Tech skateboards are comprised of a three-ply vertical laminate that is a combination of Birch and Aspen, in addition to a layer each of fiberglass and graphite. The board’s first two plies are wo