For an outsider looking in, all skateboards are created equal. They have four wheels, two trucks, 8 bearings, a deck, griptape and some screws to make it all work. But for those of us who’ve stumbled upon this great passion, we know each skate deck is an intimate reflection of the skateboarder who rides it.
Even more unique than the skater is the board itself as a reflection of an era. For when we look at the evolution of skateboard shapes, we uncover the very epochs of skateboarding’s history, as each new generation ushered in a new shape to fit with the growing trends, needs and desires of the times. But why did skateboard shapes change in the first place? In a profound way, each shape evolved from a direct need to continue to push the envelope of what was possible on a skateboard.
Skateboarding today, when compared to its conception is almost unrecognizable. Truly, as much as the boards themselves have changed, it endures as a direct mirroring of how much skateboarding itself has changed. From the earliest days of dogtown handstands and rail-infused-fish boards, to popsicle shapes and banana boards growing back in popularity and size like their forefathers, we see how shaped boards in recent years are actually making a comeback and the profound reasoning behind this phenomena. Most importantly, the evolution of skateboard shapes tell the history of skateboarding from a perspective that for too long has seldom been explored. That is, until now.
Why Have Skateboard Shapes Changed Over Time?
Why does anything change? Most people would say evolution or adapting to change is based on survival. However, when you talk about an action sport or a performance art like skateboarding, survival is too simple an answer. Skateboarding does not adapt to change, we actively create it. Each new board shape was created to handle the maneuverable needs of skaters who demanded more of their boards and themselves. When Rodney Mullen started perfecting the kickflip, it was evident a sharper tail and larger nose was needed to pop higher and sustain flight. And as skateboarders kept learning new tricks and progressing the sport, progress and adaptability became woven into the very fabric of skateboarding. Subsequently, there is no greater scope for examining the epochs of skateboarding’s evolution, than the evolution of skateboard shapes.
Skateboarding instead, it is a mode for living. For truly, skateboarding makes you feel alive, and as skateboarders continued to push the sport of skateboarding, they needed a board that would allow them to continue to capture that rush of learning new tricks, of bombing hills faster, flying higher on ramps and carving deeper in pools. In other words, board shapes have evolved to continue to allow skaters to taste the feeling of being alive. For as skateboarders, we all understand the feeling of learning a new trick, of progressing and seeing new possibilities of what you’re capable of achieving on a skateboard. It’s precisely what drives us and what has driven the evolution of skateboard shapes.
It’s an entertaining thought to imagine skateboards being prehistoric. A dinosaur or caveman shredding the gnar with a club and stone wheels, but realistically the origin of the skateboard is ambiguous to date. While what we recognize as skateboards today first appeared in the 1940s, there are several schools of thought that suggest skateboards’ ancestors were seen as early as the 1880s. These prehistoric skateboards most likely had handlebars like contemporary scooters and were made of box crates or planks of wood and wheels resembling wagons or carriages. These predecessors to the skateboard were mainly used for transportation and as alternatives to bicycles and box cars. However, it wasn’t really until the 1940s where people began to experiment with wheeled apparatuses for fun. It probably had something to do with the end of the depression and the passing of both world wars, where people refound the importance of having fun outside.
1940s-1950s and Roller Derby Skateboards:
These brave pioneer boards were created by children who began screwing roller skates to planks of wood or wooden boxes. Sometimes this was just a simple 2’’ by 4’’ and roller skates or even a plank of wood taken from a nearby fence. Luckily for us, someone saw their potential. By 1959, the first mass produced skateboard came by the Roller Derby Skateboard and their factory in La Mirada, California. Something that is really important to note, is how skateboarding was born from a DIY mindset. It was a group of kids who found something really fun and wanted to share it with their friends. Whatever it is that drove these first youngsters to literally, make skateboarding happen, still permeates through skateboarding culture today.
1960s Sidewalk Surfers
As you might have guessed it, people started to recognize the first skateboards as an offshoot of surfing culture, especially in California. Naturally, the first appearances of shapes resembling their older surfboards siblings came in the 1960s. These boards were flat or actually drooped down the ends in what is known as a ‘cambered’ deck, where the middle of the board is either flat or most prominent. (A lot like the penny boards of today.) In many ways, we owe a lot to these boards. It is around this time we start to see skateboarding competitions hit national T.V. with long haired California teens curving through cones and handstanding for minutes on end. While this type of skating ultimately resulted in its near extinction, there were a ton of industry lessons learned so to speak and certain cornerstones of skate teams, skate brands, even skate shops were first born in this era. The board shapes of the time expanded the sport as an industry and ultimately put more skateboards into people’s hands. Hands of innovative people like Larry Stevens, who invented the kicktail in 1969 and changed skateboarding forever.
ABC of... Skateboarding
Take a look at the history of skateboarding, from the pioneers of sidewalk surfing to today's skateboarders.
1970s and Kicktail Boards
Like we wrote earlier, in 1969 Larry Stevens invented the kicktail which would change skateboarding shapes forever. No matter how much board shaves have gone on to change or have reverted to their predecessors, they all virtually have kicktails because of the maneuverability they provided skaters. Coupled with Frank Natsworthy's creation of the polyurethane wheel, skateboarding found itself revived from a near fatal crash with a new type of skateboard that gave birth to a new style of skating. Zephyr and Z-Flex, further innovated kicktail boards by making them out of plastic instead of wood, increasing their longevity and coining the term ‘banana’ board. These new boards with polyurethane wheels, and by the late '70s, wider noses, were the perfect compliment to the wave of pool skating birthing on the skate scene. Pool skating demanded a certain type of innovation so by the end of the '70s, skate companies were attempting to come out with the next big wave. Wide boards peaked into the '80s as DogTown and Alva started creating 10 inch “Pig” boards with little to no shape. For a plethora of reasons you can read in our History of Skateboarding article, the late '80s began another downhill crash for skateboarding popularity. As the '70s kicktail board era began to fade, it wouldn’t be until 1989 when a double kicktail board revived the entire industry. However, before we get to 1989, the early to mid '80s were defined by an entirely different skateboard shape. One that created an important element of skateboarding culture that survives well into today.
1980-1989 Gone’ Fishing in the Streets:
Like many times in skateboarding’s history, a single specific product or board came out that simply changed the skate game to a point of no return. The Hosoi hammer-head was exactly that as its debut took the skate world by storm. The board boasted a large hammer-head shaped nose, a whale-like ribcage and a giant kicktail with intense room for custom grip and sticker jobs. In the following years, everyone started to create signature models to hopefully stand out from the rest. Boards resembled fish and coffins with neon graphics and countless copyright infringements. The mid '80s to early '90s fish boards grew in species, like a mutated punk rock amphibian emerging from the freedom pools granted by an industry left alone by popular culture. We should celebrate the artistic culture surrounding these boards as they actually held prominence over literal function. This contributed in many ways, to how skateboarders today value aesthetics just as much (if not more) than performance and the visual nostalgia around this era defined by backyard ramps and railed boards. But really, this time was also a down period in skateboarding’s popularity, it created footholds in our culture that would set the artistic foundation and creative standards for its eventual boom and golden era of the '90s. Without these fish boards, skateboarding might not have stayed afloat.
Mike Vallely’s Barnyard Board 1989 & The Double Tail Invented by Chuck Hults
There are many who would suggest the Barnyard Board of Mike Vallely is the world’s first modern skateboard shape and arguably the most impactful board shape of all time. The board featured an illustrious double tail, the first board to really suggest a symmetrical shape. For historical context, some of the world’s top skateboarders today, like Ishod Wair, skate symmetrical board shapes. While they certainly were street skaters like Tommy Guerrero, Natas Kaupas, and Mark Gonzlazes before him, Mike Vallely represents an important archetype in skateboarding’s history, as someone who forged ahead with their own trick style and boundary pushing mind. The invention of the double tail was then adapted by other street skaters who saw its slanted nose and tail as the perfect mechanism for innovative flip tricks. Skateboarders like Daewon Song took the innovation we saw off the '80s launch ramps and started flipping in and out of illustrious curb grinds. Only a prominent nose and tail would make flip tricks and flatground 360s (off the ground) a reality. Airwalks and early grabs were replaced by boardslides on handrails and kickflips down stair sets. As street style in skating eclipsed vert and transition, skateboarding needed a board to go along with it. Low and behold the board shape evolved into a popsicle stick shape. You know the stick that’s left after you chow down a popsicle? A ‘twin tail and nose’ came as a response to the rising street culture but ultimately was only made possible by Mike Vallely’s and Chuck Hult’s double tail Barnyard board.
1990-1995: The Popsicle Stick Board Endures
While the birth of the popsicle stick board came in from the 1989 Barnyard board and the early 1990s, the popsicle stick shape endures to this day as the modern skateboard shape. While the popsicle stick shape was initially in response to rising street skating that saw itself working less with vertical terrain, today all factions of skateboarding skate a popsicle stick shaped board. Essentially the board has a twin tail and nose shape, rounded at the edges with a concave nature. Essentially, having a twin nose and tail meant a skater could now manipulate a board in more varieties. Fakie, riding the board backwards, nollie, riding the board on its nose, to kickflip tricks, flicking with toe, to heel flips tricks, flicking with you heel and infinite various inbetween from adding sideways shuvit’ rotations and peppering in grinds, slides and really anything you can conceive. The popsicle stick board was everything a skate pioneer like Rodney Mullen could have dreamed for. Roughly half a century since the first skateboards, where kids screwed roller derby skates onto planks of wood, came a board that allowed skateboarding to truly blossom into the palpable culture and sport we see today. Since the '90s, we’ve seen the width of the popsicle stick board fluctuate from 7’’- 9’’ it seems unlikely we would see any innovative board shapes that could truly impact the landscape like the popsicle board has.
Why Shaped Boards Making a Comeback?
It may very well be the enduring archetype of skateboard shapes, but that does in no way mean all skater’s boards are the same. Each skater tailors their board to their specific needs, with any minor millimeter making a huge substantial difference. Even moreso, skateboarding has seen a revival of unique skate shapes, as more and more skaters ride shaped boards found in past decades.
With skateboarding reaching such tremendous heights in terms of skill and death-defying athleticism, the artists and passion seekers have reclaimed their identity within skating by looking back into the past.. What does that mean exactly? Well, not everyone can identify with a 19-year old skater throwing backside lipslides down an 18-stair handrail. So naturally, they are not impacted by those trends, and understandably, they are thus not going to follow any trends that don’t impact their skating.
Skateboarders exude in their own skating what they love about skating, so naturally different people love different aspects and even eras of skating. It’s why every day when you go to a skatepark you will usually see at least one skater with a shaped board, one that looks straight out of 1996, and a few who have those fish boards with neon rails. If you’re in a larger city with older skaters, you’ll certainly see quite a bit more. Remember, skateboarding is all about living free. You can ride whatever board you want as long as you’re having a good time doing it.