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How Skateboarding Works


Skateboarding Image Gallery Surfers used to call skateboarding "sidewalk surfing." See more pictures of skateboarding.
Image courtesy Bob Kimball/ MorgueFile

As far as sports go, skateboarding isn't very old, but nobody knows exactly when the first skateboard was invented. We do know that skateboarding has its roots in surfing. Surfers called it "sidewalk surfing," but no self-respected surfer took it seriously. They skateboarded to improve their technique, especially when the waves weren't good. As a result, all skateboarding moves mimicked riding waves.

In recent decades, skateboarding was associated with the punk rock scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Skateboarders came to be known as radical individuals -- a rebellious youth subculture with a death wish. Skateboarders were stereotyped as criminals, known for destroying property and despising authority. But not all skaters fit the old stereotype, and in many ways this persona is only a caricature. Today's skateboarders aren't associated with any one style of music or clothing (or with crime, for that matter). And not all of them are young anymore. Long-time professionals, like Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen and Steve Caballero, have skated well into their 30s and 40s.

Simply put, "skateboarding" means riding on a wooden board with four wheels fastened to the bottom, propelled forward by the push of one's own foot or at the force of gravity on a slope. But skateboarding, transcends mere movement. Today's skateboarders take the simple action of riding a skateboard and turn it into both a sport and an art form. And despite its allure and the undoubted athleticism required to perform skateboarding tricks, the sport has fallen in and out of favor with the public and been driven underground several times.

If you’re into skateboarding and other board sports, check out the sa­ndboarding article, video and images at Discovery’s Fearless Planet to learn more.

In this article, we'll take a look at the different types of skateboarding, how skateboards are made and the fundamental tricks that make it possible for hundreds of exciting, logic-defying combinations. We'll also take a look at the history of skateboarding. First, we'll start with the skateboard itself.­

The Basics of a Skateboard

Longboards are often used for street skateboarding.
Longboards are often used for street skateboarding.
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

A skateboard is made up of three main components: a deck, trucks and wheels. The deck is the part of the board that you stand on. The typical skateboard deck today has both an upturned nose and tail, and a concave shape through the middle. These features give a skateboarder greater control over how the board moves when doing tricks. Decks vary in width, and your choice depends on what kind of skating you want to do. Typically, wider boards are used for vert skating, and narrower boards are used on the street. But really, it all comes down to personal preference.

Let's take a quick look at how skateboard decks are made:

  1. First, maple wood gets planed down to thin layers called veneers.
  2. The veneers are laminated, and have adhesive spread over them by a special machine.
  3. Next, the veneers get glued together and placed into a mold.
  4. Once in the mold, a hydraulic press compresses the layers to form the nose, tail and concave shape to the deck, and makes the deck very strong (many skateboards have had their boards run over by cars, only to find they were unharmed).
  5. Finally the shape, or outline (also known as the "plan" form) of the deck is cut with a band saw. The holes for trucks are drilled and the edges are sanded.
  6. The deck is sprayed with a sealant, to protect it from moisture and warping.
  7. Graphics are added through a screen-printing process, similar to the process used when screen-printing t-shirts.

­­A skateboard deck is slick and hard to stay on while riding. To remedy that, skateboarders cover the top of their boards with special sheets of sand paper bought in skate shops, called grip tape.

Trucks are the T-shaped axles attached to the front and rear of the board. In addition to allowing wheels to spin, trucks give skateboarders the ability to turn. The wheels of a skateboard are are typically made of polyurethane (a flexible medium in the rubber family), and come in a variety of sizes and hardness. But for a wheel to roll smoothly on the axle, it needs a bearing. These are small rotating disks that sit inside both the left and right side of each wheel. The outer ring snugly fits inside the wheel, while the inner ring turns on the axle as the beads inside rotate. To learn more about bearings, check out How Bearings Work.

Now that we know the basics of the skateboard, let's take a look at the different types of skateboarding and how it's done.

How to Skateboard

Most people ride skateboards "regular foot," with their left foot forward.
Most people ride skateboards "regular foot," with their left foot forward.
Image courtesy Mary Vogt/MorgueFile

At times, skateboarding bears a striking resemblance to surfing. Both share what's known as a "side-stance." There are three main ways people ride skateboards:

  • Regular foot means riding with the left foot forward. The left foot remains on the board, often in the middle section nearest the nose. The right foot is used to push.
  • Goofy foot is the opposite of regular foot. It means putting the right foot forward and pushing with the left at the rear.
  • Mongo foot is when the skateboarder's rear foot remains in place on the board while the front foot pushes. This is considered inferior by many skaters, as it can reduce speed and control.

If you don't already know which stance you prefer when learning how to skateboard, see what feels most comfortable. If you're still unsure, pay attention to which foot you use to step forward from a still, standing position. Another test is to have someone push you, as if to knock you over. The foot you put back to catch your balance is the one that should go on the tail of your skateboard while riding.

After nearly five decades of skateboarding, a few main styles have evolved. Let's take a look at these in detail.

Downhill skateboarding is all about speed. There aren't any fancy tricks involved. Just like downhill skiing, the objective here is to finish a run with the lowest time, and at the highest speed. In contrast, Long boarding is most closely associated with surfing. True to their surfboard counterparts, long boards are meant for cruising and "carving" up a concrete wave. They remain a favorite form of transport among surfers, beach goers and on college campuses.

Freestyle is as close to dancing as skateboarding comes. It consists of manipulating one's board on a flat surface. The tricks are largely technical and revolved around making the board spin, roll and flip in the most creative ways possible. In the past, freestyle competitions included skateboard choreography to music.

Vert skating, also known as ramp skating, rose to great popularity in the 1980s and continues to remain popular today. It's what many people think of when they think of skateboarding. To put it simply, vert skateboarding is all about catching big air and performing technical tricks before landing. It gets its name from the vertical structures and surfaces vert skaters ride, like half-pipes (large ramps with two inclines on both sides and a flat section in the middle) quarter-pipes and bowls (sort of like wooden swimming pools built especially for skateboarding). Vert skaters have also been known to invade backyards to skate emptied swimming pools, and hop fences to skate in concrete canals and drainage ditches.

Street skating, like parkour, makes use of the urban landscape in creative ways. Tricks are performed on benches, hand rails, retaining walls, picnic tables, over sets of stairs, shopping carts and parked cars. And that's just getting started. For the street skater, virtually anything is rideable.

Next, we'll look at some of the tricks that you can do on a skateboard.

Skateboard Tricks

A child executing an Ollie
A child executing an Ollie
Image courtesy Andre Maritz/Dreamstime

There's one skateboarding move that's foundational to tens of others, and the basis of literally hundreds of trick combinations in both street and vert skating: the Ollie, a simple jump that allows a skateboarder to gain air (as in vert skating), and hop over or onto obstacles while riding.

The Ollie is named after its inventor, Alan "Ollie" Gelfand, and discovered by pro skater Stacy Peralta while on tour in 1977. Peralta and his friends watched as Gelfland caught air off the lip of a bowl in utter amazement. They had never seen anything like it.

Gelfland developed the Ollie first in a vert setting, but later professionals, most notably Rodney Mullen, adapted the move and implemented it into freestyle and street skating.

To Ollie, a skateboarder kicks the tail of his board to the ground, or ramp, and leaps into the air. Leaving the front foot resting on the board as he jumps, he brings his rear foot up to the height of the other. The board pops up beneath him and catches up to his feet.

Let's take a look at a few other fundamental tricks and important skateboarding vocabulary:

  • Frontside - Frontside tricks occur when a skater faces the obstacle or ramp as he performs a trick.
  • Backside - Backside tricks are the opposite of frontside tricks. The occur when a skater's back, rather than her front, faces an obstacle or ramp while performing a trick
  • 180 - The 180 is a 180-degree turn of the skater's body with his board. It is preceded by an Ollie, usually while in motion on a ramp or concrete. They can be executed on ramps or in street skating. More advanced turns include the 360, the 540 and Tony Hawk's world-famous 900-degree turn.
  • Fakie - To ride "fakie," one remains in his preferred stance (goofy or regular) but moves backward. This is not, however, the same thing as riding "switch stance."
  • Switch stance - This simply means riding in the opposite stance of one's preference. Successfully performing tricks switch stance is extra impressive, just like a right-handed person skillfully writing or throwing a ball with the left hand would be.
  • Pop Shovit - Pop Shovits are a combination of the Ollie and the 180. But in this trick, the skater's body doesn't turn. Only the board beneath him turns one-hundred-eighty degrees.
A single-axle grind
A single-axle grind
Image courtesy Mary Vogt/MorgueFile
  • Grind - Grinding happens when a skateboarder Ollies onto the edge of a curb, wall, bench or rail. But instead of landing on a part of the board or its wheels, the skateboarder purposefully lands on the wide part of the trucks between the two wheels. This causes the metal trucks to grind against the obstacle's surface. There are many different combinations of grinds, including one or both axles.
  • Boardslide - Slide tricks occur when the wooden part of the skateboard slides along another surface. Starting with an Ollie, the skateboarder allows the skateboard deck to land on the obstacle. Depending on what type of slide he wants to execute, he positions the board to match.
  • Kickflip - While in mid-air, the skater kicks the side of her board down with the front foot. The result is that the board spins on horizontal axis toward her. As the board finishes turning beneath, the skater places both feet on the deck.
  • Heelflip - Like a kickflip, performing a heelflip requires the skater to kick his heel outward. This causes the board to spin on a horizontal axis away from him. As the board finishes turning beneath, the skater places both feet on the deck.
  • Manual - Performing a manual is the equivalent of doing a wheelie on a bicycle. The skater pops up the nose or the tail and rides on one set of wheels alone for as long as possible.

In the next section, we'll examine the origins of skateboarding.

The Origins of Skateboarding

A replica produce-crate scooter
A replica produce-crate scooter
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

The skateboard's earliest ancestors were homemade, wooden scooters ridden by kids in the early 1900s. To make a scooter, all you needed was a two-by-four, some nails, a produce crate and some roller skates -- a far cry from the sleek aluminum scooters kids ride these days. Kids built their scooters by nailing the steel roller-skate wheels onto the bottom of the two-by-four and the crate to the top. It served as the scooter's neck. After attaching another piece of wood to the top of the crate for handles, the scooter was complete.

Kids continued to ride these scooters into the 1950s. How they made the scooters changed over time, but the most drastic change came when children began removing any sort of handles all together, and rode the wheeled two-by-fours hands-free. With that, the first skateboards were born and their popularity soared among young people.

It didn't take long for manufacturers to take advantage of the growing phenomenon among America's youth. The first manufactured skateboard found its way to store shelves in 1959. And in 1963 professional-grade skateboards appeared on the market, along with teams of pro-riders to demonstrate them.

Skateboarding quickly found commercial success, aptly carving a niche into the fad world occupied by hula hoops and yo-yos. But too little development and innovation went into those first boards: they still had steel wheels, which made for an uncomfortable and dangerous ride. Eventually skateboards were made with clay wheels, which made riding smoother and more enjoyable, but they still weren't very safe.

Clay wheels lacked the traction needed to prevent riders from getting injured. At that time, only a small number of skateboard manufacturers made higher-quality wheels, and they were expensive. Because they were cheaper to manufacture, clay wheels remained the industry standard. The result was a flood of injuries, which gave skateboarding a bad name. Police chiefs discouraged retailers not to carry skateboards anymore. And when reports of fatal accidents came in, cities all over the United States banned them.

In 1965, after half a decade or cultural prominence, skateboarding virtually died over night. Though, not everybody gave up on skateboarding. A select few carried on, but their numbers weren't enough to sustain the sport's popularity. Retailers withdrew their orders and left manufacturers broke and with a surplus of unsellable skateboards.

We'll look at the skateboarding boom in the next section.

Modern Skateboarding

Skate parks and ramp skating became popular in the 1980s.
Skate parks and ramp skating became popular in the 1980s.
Image courtesy Kenn Kiser/MorgueFile

The next skateboarding boom came in 1973, and with some innovation to boot. Most notably, new wheels made of urethane -- a versatile polymer compound in the rubber family -- made for a smoother ride, and gripped the road better. This made skateboarding safer and re-energized the public's interest. New bearings soon followed. In addition, manufacturers began making trucks specifically designed for skateboards.

Just a few years prior, another technological innovation changed skateboarding forever. In 1969, Larry Stevenson patented the kick tail, which opened up skateboarding to a new level of performance beyond imitating surfing. The kicktail is the portion of board that turns up at its end and makes the majority of skateboarding tricks possible. When the demand for skateboarding came back around, Stevenson was ready. Without the addition of the kicktail, skateboarding's most famous trick -- the Ollie -- wouldn't be possible.

After skateboarding's resurgence in the early 1970s, the sport has seen a fluctuation in public interest over the years. Another surge of interest from 1983 to 1991 included the rise of vert skating. The boards at this time were wider and characterized by big wheels.

A national recession slowed the growth of skateboarding until 1993, when historians mark the fourth wave of skateboarding. Skateboards got thinner, lighter and had smaller wheels. It became more common for decks to have both a kicktail and a raised nose for increased trick possibilities. Skateboarding is still its "fourth wave" today, with no end in sight.

For lots more information about skateboarding and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Alan "Ollie" Gelfandhttp://www.ollieair.com
  • Brooke, Michael. "The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding." 1999.
  • Brisick, Jamie. "Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow." 2004.
  • Glossary of Skateboarding Terms (6/18/2007)http://www.sk8boardworld.co.uk/support/glossary.htm
  • "How Skateboards Are Made." Skateboard.com, June 18, 2007.http://www.skateboard.com/p-skbd_101_howmade/index.html
  • "Skateboarding Safety." American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. June 18, 2007.http://www.orthoinfo.org/fact/thr_report.cfm?Thread_ID=373&topcategory=Sports
  • "Trick Tips." Switch Magazine. June 18, 2007. ­http://www.switchmagazine.com/skateboarding_tips/index.html
  • ­Wanner, Noel. "Skateboarding Glossary." Exploratorium, June 18, 2007. http://www.exploratorium.edu/skateboarding/largeglossary.html