The History of Skate Deck Shapes
It has taken skateboarding over half a decade to embrace the heritage of deck design. As skating progressed beyond something to do while waiting for surf waves to pick up, board shapes started to adapt to the innovations happening. Decades after boxes and two-by-fours were mounted with roller skate wheels, decks are now offered in every possible style imaginable, celebrating the diversity of styles and approaches.
When the industry and skating itself were smaller and the focus shifted from vert to street skating, deck shapes directly reflected what was happening in parking lots and schoolyards everywhere. As a result, shapes became uniform, geared for street skating exclusively. The early 2000s saw skateboarding open back up and embrace many of the styles that it once cannibalized, resulting in the return of retro shapes and creative designs. Currently, there are brands championing the art of deck design, creating functional shapes in unique styles. There’s a deck for every type of skating now, but there was a huge chunk of time where things were more linear.
No one can really pinpoint when the idea hit kids to create wheeled boards, but the consensus is that sometime in the late 1940s it caught on. There were also the crate scooters, famously depicted in “Back to The Future” as Marty McFly pried the crate nailed into a wooden plank, instantly creating his getaway vehicle, a makeshift skateboard. There was little thought put into these boards, as they were just toys and no one was doing much more on a board, other than “sidewalk surfing,” but that changed as the 1960s approached.
Surf companies, including Makaha and Hobie along with the shop Val Surf, started manufacturing skateboards, based on surfboard shapes. This coincided with the sport’s first boom of popularity, but the decks that were being pumped out still weren’t intended for much more than cruising. Also, the entire boards, including trucks and wheels, needed to evolve. With a focus on the entire board itself, it would be years before deck design could become the art form it is today.
In 1969, a major breakthrough occurred when Larry Stevenson created the first kicktail, a concept he failed at patenting that was initially snubbed. A few years later, skateboarding found its personality and the roots of the boards we’re all riding now began with Zephyr Surf Shop’s Z-Boys led by Skip Engblom, Craig Stecyk and Jeff Ho. It marked a shift to core skaters designing shapes for the streets and the pools they were exploring.
There was also a need for wider shapes for more stability in pools, so that toes and heels weren’t hanging off. In addition, fiberglass and plastic boards were being phased out as Dogtown, Santa Monica Airlines, NHS, and Sims were switching over to a Canadian maple lamination process. Though slalom decks were coming out and still using fiberglass, production would eventually switch to almost only maple laminates.
The entire concept of giving a skater their own pro model completely drove deck design in new directions, especially when the riders offered their input. As the 1980s approached and the popularity was fading, skateboarding had taken a wild ride from sidewalks to pools to concrete parks. As parks started to close down, things took a new turn. Backyard ramps started being constructed to mimic the deceased parks, and boards had to adapt to another new terrain. One stand out was the Santa Cruz Steve Alba Bevel. With a deep U-shaped concave and upturned nose, the shape contoured to the feet and previewed the future of deck shapes.
By the mid-1980s, decks were predominantly geared towards vert skating with a new crop of pros led by the Bones Brigade. Tony Hawk and Mike McGill were top vert skaters, marketed as squeaky-clean all-Americans, something the old guard rejected. Still their appeal and talent were undeniable, and Powell Peralta grabbed a huge hold on the market. Their boards started off fairly uniform: 30-inches in length and around 10-inches wide with stubby tails and tiny noses. The idea of using the nose was nonexistent; the tail was the focus of the board, the fulcrum for dropping into ramps and snapping ollies. The kind of blobby boards that were hanging in shops quickly took a drastic turn as the 1980s continued.
Freestyle boards remained popular for a good portion of the 1980s. They were skinny, shorter and easier to flip. Of course, no one was utilizing their advantages until Rodney Mullen came along and invented a stunning catalog of tricks. As just a tiny part of skating, the concept of the freestyle shape would be vital to changes in skating later.
One of the biggest innovators in skateboarding then was Christian Hosoi. He grew up emulating the surf-influenced styles of Dogtown and Z-Boys, but had uncanny power and grace. Hosoi didn’t lack strength and harnessed it to soar, painting the sky with his variations. He applied his unique style to his pro model, the Hosoi Hammerhead.
With its cutaways and squared edges, Hosoi’s board was not only facilitated the grabs he was doing, but was unmistakably his. The Hammerhead was recognizable and iconic, and sent many off to create their own signature shapes. It escalated to an absolute craze with many gimmicky shapes flooding the racks, but it was an important move not only functionality, but also for branding. For a period of time in the 1980s, you knew whose board was whose only by looking at the shape.
As quickly as it rose, vert skating faded and street skating slowly took over. Most big companies had at least one street pro: Powell Peralta had Tommy Guerrero, Vision had Mark Gonzales, and Santa Cruz had Natas Kaupus. Each rode decks that were slightly different than the vert models. Tails were crafted for ollies, wheelbases were adjusted, and noses were elongated.
With vert being phased out, the industry was uneven. Some companies were still producing shapes that looked ancient compared to the new breed. Designs were reevaluated to provide decks that could perform better on the streets. Boards were still being shaped with cutaways, blunt and pointy noses, and varying degrees of tail steepness and concaves, but a new breakthrough was coming.
Vision had the mold and produced the first true double-kick board, but World Industries owner Steve Rocco’s theft of that mold changed skating. Rocco used this shape on the controversial Mike Vallely Barnyard model and while it was still fairly wide, its more symmetrical shape caught on. One obvious advantage was the ability to lock in and balance nose wheelies more easily.
Now that boards had functional noses, tricks could follow, starting with nose slides. Noses got longer to allow longer slides. World Industries boards slowly morphed into a shape known as the football, as the nose and tail narrowed and rounded out. Later slimmed down and tightened up, it created a shape that dominated the 1990s, a shape former World pro Jesse Martinez referred to as “a popsicle stick” in an issue of Big Brother Magazine.
For much of the 1990s, the popsicle was the standard. With its width below eight-inches and its uniform shape, they were essentially larger freestyle boards. It’s fitting that Mullen adapted his skills to the street, impacting skating again. Skateboarding got technical, and once things were tapped out, boards started to widen. People were going bigger, focusing on how the tricks were done, not just their difficulty.
This marked the end of rapid changes in shapes. Now that virtually every style of skating has been revitalized, every board shape has been resurrected. While shops are filled with reissues, retro shapes and modern boards, companies like Elephant and Welcome are bridging eras, but not just mimicking shapes. Maybe we won’t see another massive change in board shapes in the next decade, but that’s the nature of skateboarding. The innovation and changes come organically, dictated by creativity and progression.