"Handrails changed everything. That was the real sea change in terms of opening up what all was possible in the urban landscape."–Tony Hawk
Conceived in the Santa Monica-bred Natas and Gonz melting pot of progression that boileth over so many years ago, handrails have always served as the proper separation between "casual fun" and "serious shit." One of street skating's longest-standing lines in the sand, try taking that same trick from cuddly curb to serious seven-stair and watch the eyebrows raise. Oh, you fancy now!
Written By Eric Swisher
One can largely measure the timeline of street skating's progression by the measure of their rails. Varieties of banister formerly seen as pure fantasy in the past have now become daily staples in the warm-up routines of precocious ten-year-olds everywhere. From the three-stair pokers of the late '80s to current day skating's erector set bullet trains to hell, this ever-dangerous obstacle remains the proving ground for pushing limits and snatching glory. How far we've come.
For this first installment of Technique, we invited a legendary roster of rail chompers past and present to individually field a quick questionnaire on the subject of skateboarding's most unforgiving terrain. Each subject received the same list of 13 questions and had no knowledge of their colleagues' corresponding responses. Enjoy.
Cast of Characters:
01. Pat Duffy
The father of modern handrail skating. His beyond-influential 1992 Questionable part set the benchmark with clips that still bang today.
02. Kyle Walker
Oklahoma upstart propelled into the spotlight with fearless pant-pisser stunts destined for the history books.
03. Nyjah Huston
The promise of a child prodigy fulfilled. Ice-cold, no mistakes.
04. Jamie Thomas
Early handrail pioneer notorious for misleading our youth to hell and back. Thanks, Chief!
05. Cole Wilson
Foundation's latest handrail enfant terrible. Up, down and around…no rail is safe.
06. Dane Burman
Sydney's soldier of fortune with No Cash Value. His Philly 50-50 for Zero's Cold War will go down in infamy.
What was your first trick down a handrail? How long was the rail? And how long had you been skating at the time?
01. Pat Duffy: This was early '90 so I'd probably been skating seriously for about a year and a half. It was a boardslide on a bent two-stair handrail… I think a truck had backed into it or something. But yeah, I remember making it and thinking to myself, "Okay, I'm going to go try a ten-stair now," and off I went! I got annihilated. Racked my balls and the whole deal. I remember having to catch the bus back with my tail between my legs. It was miserable.
02. Kyle Walker: Do you remember the Rail of Tranquility in Houston? That was my first street rail. I did a front board down it. I had a helmet on and everything. I must've been 13 or 14 at the time so I was a couple years in.
03. Nyjah Huston: The first trick I ever did down a handrail was a front board down a six-stair. I was seven-years-old at the time so I'd been skating for two years.
04. Jamie Thomas: My first rail trick was a caveman boardslide down a three-stair. I did a front board down it a few days later. It was 1988 so I'd been skating seriously for a few years by then.
05. Cole Wilson: My first rail was a four-stair wooden rail. I noseslid it. I think that I'd been skating for maybe five months at that point.
06. Dane Burman: My first trick down a rail was a backside boardslide. It was on a five- stair rail in Sydney that everyone used to skate called the Silver Rail. I was around 15 or 16, so I'd been skating for a good seven years or so already. But once I did that first one, I started jumping on every rail after that. Within a year, I was trying stuff down twelve-stairs and bigger. I got bit by the handrail bug, for sure.
What's your current go-to warm up handrail trick? What's your tester move?
01. Pat Duffy: Always a frontside 50-50. I used to always have to ollie the stairs first as well but after a while, it got to the point where you couldn't always do that.
02. Kyle Walker: If it's frontside, a 50-50. If it's backside, just a typical boardslide.
03. Nyjah Huston: Frontside or backside 50s first, depending on the rail. Just to get the feel of it.
04. Jamie Thomas: Ironically, it's still a caveman board followed by a front board.
05. Cole Wilson: Just a frontside grind. That always works.
06. Dane Burman: Backside, it's usually a boardslide. Frontside, it's a 50-50 unless it's a taller rail, where I might try to slide a front board first instead. I'm not too good at front boards so I never actually seem to land them warming up… which means I'll probably kick out and then go back to trying 50-50s (Laughs.)
For you personally, what's the gnarliest rail you've ever done and what trick was it?
01. Pat Duffy: Looking back, I'd say that lipslide through the kink in Virtual Reality. I had looked at that rail for years and originally wanted to do a 50-50 but for some reason, I went with a lipslide instead. I still don't know why.
02.Kyle Walker: The Glendale one that everyone talks about was pretty crazy but I'd say the multi-kink one that I did for my Vans commercial a couple of months before was scarier. Glendale was really long but the scariest part was right at the beginning with the first kink. After you got in there and stood up, it was all balance from there. For my Vans commercial, I had to pick my spot a month or two prior to shooting, which meant that I couldn't just go out and do it. I had to wait for a permit. Knowing that I had to do it "soon" like that was pretty nerve-racking. I ended up having to do it at ten in the morning with all of these cameras set up. It was super stressful.
03. Nyjah Huston: Well, I did a back five-0 down a 34-stair recently for ETN. That was pretty gnarly. There has honestly been a few others that I've gotten as of late but I can't really talk about them yet. I'm working on a new part.
04. Jamie Thomas: The scariest one for me was probably a 50-50 down the 20-stair at Earl Warren. It was filmed a few weeks after Misled Youth was released but the footage didn't come out until the after- black section of my Dying to Live part.
05. Cole Wilson: I would probably say the last clip in my Oddity part, a frontside grind… I honestly don't know how long that rail was.
06. Dane Burman: In my opinion, it would be the 50-50 in Philly that was my last trick in Cold War. I've grinded harder and scarier rails but I think that one had the highest consequences if anything were to go wrong.
Of all the tricks you typically do down rails, which one is the most fun for you?
01. Pat Duffy: Back Smiths.
02. Kyle Walker: A 50-50 or a feeble on a good, long rail. Just get on and glide.
03. Nyjah Huston: It always depends on the rail but I probably have the most fun doing backside 50-50 grinds down really long rails, where you can just stand on it and go. Back Smiths are really fun, too.
04. Jamie Thomas: I'm from the '90s so my tricks are basic but back Smiths and front feebles always feel the best.
05. Cole Wilson: I really like the feeling of a front board on a good-sized rail.
06. Dane Burman: Long backside 50-50s are the most fun.
Which one gives you the most trouble?
01. Pat Duffy: Probably back Smiths again.
02. Kyle Walker: You will not see me doing frontside or backside five-0s. I don't know what it is, man. Every time I think I got 'em, it just folds.
03. Nyjah Huston: I have to say that front crooks are always a hard one for me. And it's weird because I'm pretty good at back overcrooks on rails. I can also do front crooks on flat rails pretty easily, too. But I always tend to have problems with them going down rails for whatever reason.
04. Jamie Thomas: They all give me trouble these days [laughs]!
05. Cole Wilson: Probably a front blunt.
06. Dane Burman: I've been having trouble with backside Smith grinds lately but I always seem to fuck up on front crooks and frontside noseblunts. I always miss locking in.
Which trick is the scariest?
01. Pat Duffy: Handrails are just scary, man. Obviously not the little ones but those days are long gone. I can't speak to what these dudes are doing now but a back lip might be the scariest for me.
02. Kyle Walker: Probably a front crook. Much respect to all the folks out there doing that one. That or a frontside noseslide. Shout out to Lizard King on the Hollywood 16!
03. Nyjah Huston: Backside noseblunts. Because you're totally putting yourself out there, fully-rotated backwards. It's really easy to get hurt.
04. Jamie Thomas: Flip-in tricks have always been scary to me. I tried a few in the late '90s but I always felt like I was chasing my shadow.
05. Cole Wilson: Front crooks. I don't even dare to try them most of the time.
06.Dane Burman: I'm scared of tricks where you Ollie and turn frontside at the rail. My board always feels like it comes off my feet a little and I can just picture myself clipping the rail and sacking. Front lip, front tail, front Smith, front noseblunt, front nosegrind… they're all scary to me.
Describe your worst slam on a rail. What happened and what was the aftermath, injury-wise? Did you get back up and get it?
01. Pat Duffy: I was shooting with Giovanni Reda at the Brooklyn Banks and we had a police barrier down the 16 there. I'd already feeble grinded it and was trying a back lip. I'm not exactly sure what happened but I caught my heels and got completely knocked out. Reda can tell you the story, it was one of those coming-out-of-the-fog type of deals where I had no idea where I was. It was like 110 degrees that day, too. Just terrible, man. I went home after that. We'd already got the feeble, I had to let that back lip go.
02. Kyle Walker: The one that comes to mind was probably four years ago. I was down in SD skating Rincon. I'd already filmed a front feeble on it so I sat down for a little bit to rest when Rhino came up to ask about shooting a photo of it. I'd already made it a couple of times that day so it should've been easy but I ended up hitting the middle post and got tossed. It was one of those where I remember lying flat while still in the air, where you have enough time to think about how much trouble you're in but there's nothing you can really do about it. I hit the hell out of my head but I luckily didn't break anything. Sorry, Rhino. We never did get that photo.
03. Nyjah Huston: My worst slam was trying a back Smith down that La Jolla rail. It's in my Rise and Shine part. I just didn't pop right and as soon as that happened, I knew that I was going to die. I clipped on the way up and fell down the whole thing, hitting my head super hard on the bottom. That's easily my worst slam. I was thankful to be alive after that one… and yes, I went back and got it.
04. Jamie Thomas: I once locked-up on a Smith in Boston and landed on my face. I didn't get knocked out but my vision went crooked for, like, 30 seconds. It was really scary. We weren't even filming at the time, just cruising around the city. But the rail had a bad run-up, which is probably why I locked up in the first place. Needless to say, I never went back.
05. Cole Wilson: Oh man, I was 16 and trying to feeble grind this kinked rail. I ended up sacking it so hard. I wasn't even tall enough to touch the ground so it was a pure sack, right on the kink. I flew forward and cut the gooch. There was blood. I made it next try.
06. Dane Burman: I sacked a kinked rail just three weeks ago in Spain. I messed up right as the rail kinked down a nine-stair and jumped from the top straight to the next flat. I hit my knee on the rail first, then my groin about an inch from my balls. My knee is still swollen and my whole groin zone went black. Full purple dick. I have a little hematoma next to my dick that feels like a rock-hard testicle, which I'm still trying to massage out. That was probably my worst one. Now I just need someone to buy me a plane ticket back to Spain so I can try it again.
What's a common feature in rails that annoys you the most? What represents the biggest deal breaker for you when looking at a rail?
01. Pat Duffy: I used to always hate those little kinks at the bottom. In my era, if there was one of those at the end of a rail, it basically meant that you had to come back later and saw it off. But I don't even think kids care about those now.
02. Kyle Walker: Aluminum. You will never see me skating an aluminum rail.
03. Nyjah Huston: I love skating kinked rails but I hate square kinked rails. Circle rails lock-in better. You feel like you're in there more. It's just a matter of dimensions and personal preference. It might be too steep, too short, the wrong material… aluminum can be super sketchy at times. You have to keep all of those things in mind whenever you're checking a rail out. But if you're not feeling it, maybe just go look for another one. There are too many good rails out there to be skating bad ones.
04. Jamie Thomas: No run up is the worst.
05. Cole Wilson: I like all shapes and sizes. If it looks like a good time, I'll jump on it. But square kinks are my least favorite, for sure.
06. Dane Burman: I hate steep rails. That's my biggest no-no. You have to go slow and barely pop to get on them. Nothing ever feels locked in right because you can never really put enough weight on there. I also hate the small kinks that sometimes come at the end of rails. You'll be locked in so good and thinking you're about to ride away when the next thing you know, the kink swats the board off your feet quicker than Kobe defending the net as you go in for a dunk… I know nothing about basketball but you get the idea.
What's the secret to kinked handrails anyway?
01. Pat Duffy: People always bring up my 50- 50 in Questionable but honestly, those were mellow kinks. I think that you just have to absorb it. Use your spine and your knees to get through it.
02. Kyle Walker: Lean in that backseat… but not too far. And cross them fingers.
03. Nyjah Huston: It takes a while and experience definitely helps. I tried to back 50 my first kinked rail, a perfect triple kink, when I was 11 and almost got killed. I flipped out but luckily, it was only grass on the side. So yeah, I was really scared of them for a while. You have to find some mellow ones and build your way up. You'll get the hang of it. Because it does take some time figuring out how to really compress into that first kink if it's a decent-size set.
04. Jamie Thomas: Relax and try to absorb the kinks. It's like a pole jam but not as severe.
05. Cole Wilson: You basically have to think of it like rolling down a bank. You just have to pump through where it goes flat. It's basically the same concept.
06. Dane Burman: I love big kinks. As long as I have time to feel the kink and the change of direction, there isn't a better feeling. My best advice is to watch Cole Wilson. He gets on with his weight dead on-top every time and he stays squatted with a low center-of- gravity to keep balance. That's how you do it.
What's a tip you can give to someone about to try their first handrail? Is there anything specific that you should or shouldn't do?
01. Pat Duffy: Hesitation is your worst enemy. You have to clear your head and believe that you're going to make it. If you hesitate at all, you're fucked.
02. Kyle Walker: If you think you're going fast enough, take one more push anyway. And bottom line, no hesitation. Just say fuck it and hope for the best.
03. Nyjah Huston: I remember being six years old and wanting to try rails so badly. I'd roll up over and over again for hours but I couldn't get myself to try it. I just wasn't ready and not being ready is how you get hurt. Skate some park rails first, too. Skating as many different types of rails as possible will help your confidence going forward. You'll know how to adjust to any situation.
04. Jamie Thomas: Skate a flat bar religiously and then skate a skatepark rail. Once you get that figured out, try to find a similar rail out in the real world. For me, confidence comes from preparation and experience.
05. Cole Wilson: Make sure to fully Ollie. I see kids that don't seem to think about that, which can be deadly. Clip on the way up and you're getting tossed, straight to the sack.
06. Dane Burman: For your first rail, always go fast enough to where you won't sack or land on the stairs. You want to be able to get to the bottom. And don't second-guess yourself. I've seen people jump off their boards to sack so many times because they had doubt in their mind.
Do you have any "madness"-type behaviors that come into play with any of this?
01. Pat Duffy: This is embarrassing but I used to say "No Fear" over and over in my head. I know that it's the name of a stupid jock clothing company but it had nothing to do with that, which makes it even more ridiculous. It was like this chant that I had to repeat over and over again before trying something gnarly.
02. Kyle Walker: Nothing too crazy. I used to always have to drag my tail when throwing down but I haven't really been doing that one anymore. Getting that first try out of the way is always the worst. If it's something that you are pretty scared of doing, the first try is always the one. But once that's over, you're good.
03. Nyjah Huston: I had a few things like that as a kid… tapping my board on the ground three times before going, things like that. But I've gotten over all that as it really goes with that whole "no hesitation" thing. You have to know, on some level, that if you really want to do a trick, you're going to have to go for it. So you might as well just get to work.
04. Jamie Thomas: I just need the foreground to be clear. Distractions in my line of vision are tough to overcome unless I'm in the zone.
05. Cole Wilson: Not really. None of that.
06. Dane Burman: Sometimes I get mad at myself for second-guessing if I can do a trick and start talking to myself but nothing I would call "madness." No tapping wheels or counting to three or anything like that.
What's the gnarliest thing you've ever seen go down on a rail in-person?
01. Pat Duffy: When I saw Chris Joslin do the back lip that was in True, it just looked so easy for him. I also saw Paul Machnau boardslide a 20-stair rail that had gaps in the middle of it. He boardslid through the gaps. I couldn't believe that I was watching him do it.
02. Kyle Walker: When Elijah [Berle] did that nosegrind nollie flip at the bank spot for our Vans video? That was pretty insane to watch. He couldn't have done that any better.
03. Nyjah Huston: Well, right before I did that back five-0 down the 34-stair I mentioned earlier, I watched my buddy Chase Webb do a Smith down the same rail. That was really gnarly. There's no way that I'd personally want to hold a Smith grind down 34.
04. Jamie Thomas: I wasn't there but in my opinion, Dane's 50-50 at Philly City Hall in Cold War is the gnarliest rail stunt ever done.
05. Cole Wilson: I watched Cory Glick overcrook this triple-set rail in honor of Heath Kirchart's birthday one time. It was the same rail that Heath had back lipped years earlier. We kept screaming, "Do it for HK!" Cory handled it first-try, no problem.
06. Dane Burman: Ed Duff's kickflip boardslide down the Hollywood 16 comes to mind. So many things could go wrong with that one. James Brockman's switch grind went down in that same session, which was also a scary one to see. Both of those are in Cold War.
Who or what inspires you to skate rails? What's the motivation to risk life-and-limb?
01. Pat Duffy: Jeff Petit and Ray Simmonds in Shackle Me Not. They were from Marin County where I grew up and they were amazing. Doing ten-stairs with one push. So gnarly.
02. Kyle Walker: The Cardiel front board that he did in Sacramento. That's always stuck out in my head. Skating with Ishod always gets me hyped, too. David Gravette. And skating with the homies, of course. It's always a good time.
03. Nyjah Huston: Geoff Rowley, 100-percent. I've always loved Arto Saari, too. Chris Cole skated a lot of kinked rails back in the day and I've always looked up to him as well. When it comes to handrails, that's just the type of skateboarder I am. I'm always trying to challenge myself. Scaring myself to get that adrenaline rush. It's just so exciting.
04. Jamie Thomas: It's fun and easier on the body than taking the stairs.
05. Cole Wilson: Geoff Rowley and Arto Saari are big heroes of mine. Heath Kirchart. Leo Romero, too. And I really like Matt Bennett's trick selection as well. That dude's a magic man.
06. Dane Burman: Kirchart. Always. If I want to try something and I'm a little shook, throw on "Nights in White Satin" and that always helps. Ben Gilley was another one who I always loved watching. He had so much passion to just fucking get some. I loved that. I like skating rails because I'm definitely not the most talented skateboarder out there. Other types of skating just end up frustrating me a lot of the time. Handrails are a direction that I feel like I can really push myself in. I like being scared and overcoming that fear… controlling it and using it to my advantage.