True Grit

“Griptape has never had much identity,” says Rodney Mullen, skateboarding superhero and an industry Edison who’s created his own griptape, Blacktop. “Unfortunately it likely scores the lowest on the brand-loyalty scale of all skateboard components and even most accessories. For example, mounting hardware has probably been given more distinction than griptape, which may be a little unfair as there is a lot more feeling between good and bad griptape.”

Mullen would know–he’s dissected skateboards like dead frogs in a freshman science class for the past decade in order to understand all the intricate details. He recently e-mailed me, in minute detail, an explanation of how griptape is made. Chips of one of the hardest substances know to man, silicon carbide, are sprinkled into a carrier (the bottom layer on your grip), and then a layer of epoxy is coated on.

There are different types of silicon carbide. For example, Blacktop uses the French version. Some cheaper griptape, like the kind found on 40-dollar completes in drug stores, use other materials for their grit, such as alumina, which in Mullen’s words is “rotten” because it’s so soft. The tinier the grit, the better. But the smaller it gets, the harder it is to control when you’re making thousands of sheets.

The stickiness of the carrier glue presents another quality-control issue. The better it sticks, the easier it bubbles. It’s a fine line between being sticky enough not to peel, but not so sticky that you can’t get it flat.

Ditch The Grip

Bud Smith of griptape-giant Jessup Manufacturing has been selling grip to the industry for over 30 years and moves more griptape in the skate world than anybody else. He sells Jessup to over 50 countries and makes grip for a variety of hardgoods brands. He understands the headaches of maintaining consistency with such a precarious procedure. “We continuously test to make sure the adhesive is the right thickness and meets our stringent test standards,” he says. “We test to make sure the grit is securely anchored to our film. The griptape receives another inspection when we fabricate it into rolls, sheets, or special shapes, and the final inspection is when we package our griptape.”

The End Of Anonymity

The days of anonymous rolls of black griptape in the back of shops is coming to an end. Companies have realized that branding griptape helps attract customers, just like branding everything else in skateboarding has. Madrid pioneered this almost twenty years ago with Flypaper, which had flies die-cut out of the griptape, a revolutionary idea at the time. “We advertise Flypaper in magazines, taking full advantage of the Fly trademark,” says Owner Jerry Madrid. “That has helped make Madrid Flypaper the most identifiable griptape in the world.”

Flypaper seemed thinner, lighter, and grippier than the non-name brands stocked in shops when it first came out. With ads and stickers floating around, Flypaper was the first brand to let the skater know what brand of griptape they were riding.

Since then most companies have clued into the fact that branding is the way to go. In 1993 Shorty’s began shipping their Black Magic griptape in boxes of 25 sheets. Shops displayed the boxes, and skaters knew what they were sticking on their boards. But it didn’t take some shops long to realize that they could simply refill the boxes with cheaper griptape when the Black Magic ran out. Die cuts are common, companies screen logos on top of the grip, or on the backing paper, and sectioning it into squares and custom packaging are all common tricks of the trade. Like everything else in skating, customers are now being informed and persuaded to buy the brand their favorite pro rides. In some cases griptape companies have their own teams. And if pro power doesn’t steer their wallets, at least skaters can make up their own minds as to what works best and stick with that brand.

But with all these improvements, I think companiees are aiming their efforts in the wrong direction. We all know what really sells tape, and these gripheads are stumbling around in the dark. You need something that really separates the brands. It’s not the stupid grit or tackiness–it’s how cool the grip looks on your board. And we all know that has to do with color. Hardest substance on Earth, carriers, quality control, blah, blah, blah. The first company to reissue pink griptape will hold the power of the griptape world in its hands.

Wait a sec–what’s that neon stuff Svitak’s got on his board? Oh yeah, it’s Wooster. I remember the ad.