Basically a skateboard is a piece of shaped plywood with wheels that you ride around your town and skatepark. But there is much more to your skateboard deck than that. If you are the inquisitive type, you want to know how this piece of wood that has given you a mix of pleasure and pain is made.
Lets take a deep dive and get down to the nitty gritty of how skateboard decks are made.
Skateboard Deck Construction Process
The process of constructing a skateboard deck can be broken down into a fairly simple process:
- Glue wood veneers together.
- Press glued veneers to shape in a mould.
- Remove from mould and cut board to shape.
- Drill holes to mount the trucks and enjoy.
Well that is simple enough. Yes, it is. This is the very bare bones explanation of how a skateboard deck is manufactured. Its the TLDR version, if you will. In this article we will dive deep and break down all the finer aspects of constructing a skateboard.
Where are skateboard decks made?
Commercially produced skateboard decks are made in a wood shop. Most are dedicated to producing skateboard decks because they are required to have a number of different machines to keep up with production. Some smaller shops will also manufacture other wood products to supplement their profits.
Large scale skateboard production wood shops are thousands of square feet in size. This allows space for the large presses and CNC machines that are used in the process. They also need this large space because different processes need to be separated. You cannot spray lacquer in the same space that boards are being cut out because there is too much dust that would get into the finish.
Most of the well known large scale manufacturing wood shops are found in Mexico, the United States and Canada. There is also a large scale shop in China that produces decks. People often wonder why their favourite deck isn’t American Made and unfortunately it is not always cost effective to manufacture in the US with the already small margins companies have on skateboard deck sales.
Smaller scale deck manufacturing can also be found in home wood shops and even skate shops. A home wood shop might not have a hydraulic press like a major manufacturer, so they will use alternative means to press the board into shape. A local skate shop has been screening their own graphics onto blank board, and they just got a hydraulic press so they can make their own decks now. A lot of the work cutting a board in a small scale shop will be done by hand as opposed to CNC machining.
Any well constructed product starts with the best materials. A well constructed house needs to be framed with straight lumber. A quality pair of shoes needs good rubber and high quality leather to last. A skateboard deck needs to be made of the right materials to perform as intended.
The best material for manufacturing a skateboard is Canadian Hard Rock Maple. Manufacturers have tried to make boards out of different woods, composites, and aluminum materials, but Hard Rock Maple has always proven best with its perfect balance of performance and durability.
The early skateboard decks were made from simple planks. The materials would be of what ever type of lumber the skater had laying around. They were flat with no concave or nose or tail. The builder may have cut it into a shape, or just left it rectangular. It was to be ridden like a surfboard so there was no need to change the shape much. The first skateboards were homemade.
Commercial skateboard deck manufacturing started to show up in the 1960’s when surfboard manufacturers started also making and selling skateboard decks in Southern California. These were shaped to resemble surfboards. They would have been made of the same materials that the shop was making surfboards from, usually a local wood species.
The 1970s brought some interesting materials that we would now think of as strange. Skateboards were being manufactured from fibreglass materials and even aluminum. Skateboards today are also made from maple and a combination of bamboo and composite materials for added durability.
Constructing the Deck
Now that we have our materials figured out, we need to assemble them together. Basically, a skateboard deck is a piece of maple plywood, which is several thin sheets of wood (Veneers) glued together to make a thicker piece of wood. We can do a better explanation than that.
Maple Veneers are made of thin cross cuts from a maple tree, usually about 1/8″ thick. These veneers are coated in glue and stacked 7 layers high. The 7 layers are also called Plys, hence the name “Ply-Wood”.
The veneers need to be stacked in two orientations to provide strength, rigidity and prevent the deck from easily breaking. The best way to stack veneers is to stack: Top Face, Core, Cross Cut, Core, Cross Cut, Core, Bottom Face.
Each core ply and cross cut ply have adhesive spread on both sides to help ensure a proper distribution and bond. The top and bottom face only have glue on one side.
Sandwich the glued veneers together and we are on the way to making a skateboard. But how do you ensure that the glue will stick and how do you get the shape?
Apply Some Pressure
The next step in constructing a skateboard deck is to apply some kind of pressure for a period of time to the stacked and glued veneers. The pressure will do two things: It will help ensure that the glue is distributed properly and has time to bond to the wood. Just like in life, the pressure can be applied in several different ways.
Large commercial skateboard wood shops use hydraulic presses with the shape moulded onto metal plates on the top and bottom of the press. The stacked veneers are placed in between the mould plates and pressed for any where from 1 to about 4 hours. The time depends on the adhesive being used, and how quickly it dries.
Depending on the setup and size of the press, skateboard decks are pressed from 1 to 7 decks at a time. Single pressed decks are going have the most true moulding and are often more solid. The more decks that are pressed at a time, the more likely that the mould shape can be lost in the stack of decks.
There are other ways to press a skateboard into shape that are done by DIY skateboard deck builders. People have made concrete moulds and the weight of the two slabs of concrete provides adequate pressure. There is a way to make moulds from styrofoam and use the pressure inside a vacuum bag to shape the deck. Moulds can also be shaped from wood with the veneer stack clamped inside the wood mould until it is done.
Once the skateboard deck is done in the press it is set aside for 7 to 10 days to allow the adhesive to properly cure. The adhesive needs to cure before further shaping otherwise it can loose the shape of the mould as the adhesive isn’t fully hardened.
Get Into Shape
Now that the adhesive is cured it is time to cut out the shape of the board. Skateboard decks can be cut in any shape the manufacturer wants. The most common shape these days is the standard popsicle. Old school shapes are also quite popular for cruisers and pool riding decks. Alltimers Skateboards was cutting decks into some crazy shapes a few years ago. Remember the water cooler and Glowworm shaped decks? Everyone remembers the Rihanna shape.
There are several ways that skateboard decks can be cut to shape. Most commercial wood shops use a CNC machine router that is programmed to cut the deck into the desired shape. The major excess wood is cut with a more coarse bit, and the wood for the final shape is cut using a round-over bit. This gives a nice round edge to the deck.
Small deck producers and DIY artists will trace the shape template onto the pressed deck and might cut the excess wood and rough shape of the deck with a jigsaw or a band saw. Using a hand router or a router table with a round-over bit will give a nice edge, but if you don’t have a router, a power sander or sanding block can be used to round the edge but will be more work.
Drill Truck Holes
Drilling the holes for the trucks is the next step. It could be done before cutting the deck to shape, but doing it after cutting can help determine proper centring so the trucks won’t be off to one side or another.
A CNC machine can again be used for precisely drilling the holes. A drilling template and a drill press are also used extensively by commercial wood shops. At home, a hand drill can suffice, but its very important that the holes are perfectly straight and not drilled at an angle.
Holes must also be drilled to 3/16″ or 13/64″ diameter. Any smaller than that and the truck bolts won’t fit. Any larger and the trucks can move around.
Sanding And Smoothing
Now for the fun part: Sanding. Sanding smooths out the wood and cut edges, and will remove any adhesive that may be on the outside.
In commercial shops, the rounded edges of a deck are sanded with a balloon drum sander. The sanding drum is filled with air, like a balloon, which cushions the wood while running it over the sanding drum. The cushioning helps the sandpaper cup the rounded edge and prevent flat spots.
The top and bottom of the skateboard decks are sanded using palm sanders with 220 grit sandpaper. This is a medium fine grit that smooths the wood by removing any high ridges in the grain and easily removes any excess adhesive that may have been squeezed out during the pressing process.
The final sand is done with 400 grit sand paper. This high grit sandpaper gives the wood a very smooth finish and prepares it for lacquering. This process is either done by hand or with an orbital palm sander.
Sealing The Skateboard Deck
Lacquer is applied to the entire skateboard deck. Lacquer is usually sprayed on the deck in several thin coats, allowing time for each coat to dry between resprays. Small scale manufacturers will often sand with 800 Grit sand paper between resprays to give a nice polished look to the lacquered wood surface.
Lacquer not only gives the wood a nice shiny finish, but it also seals the wood up and helps protect it from taking in moisture, or releasing moisture and drying out. Wood needs to maintain a fairly steady internal humidity level to keep its shape, otherwise it can warp and split.
Everyone appreciates and loves a sweet deck graphic. More often than not, a deck is purchased because of the bottom graphic. I cannot be the only person who has bought a deck solely based on the graphic. While its not the mark of a quality deck, it feels pretty cool to ride a deck with a graphic you like.
Graphics can be applied decks in a variety of different ways. Commercially produced deck graphics are usually applied with a heat transfer process. The simple explanation is that the art is printed onto heat transfer paper. The paper is stuck onto the skateboard deck and then run through a heat transfer press. The press is two silicone wheels that press the transfer paper to the deck while heating it to transfer the graphic to the skateboard deck.
Another common method for applying graphics to a skateboard deck is by screen printing. The screen printing process is done by hand and in layers. A deck is placed on the screen and the back stencil design is put in place. the screen is covered in paint and wiped off with a squeegee. The process is repeated for as many layers as necessary. Because screen printing is more time consuming, it is usually done by smaller producers or for small runs.
Lately I have been seeing hand painted skateboards for sale. These are designed more to hang on your wall rather than skate. Hand painting is definitely not an efficient way to apply a graphic when mass producing skateboards. While the graphic might be awesome, the process would be too slow to meet high production demands.
Building a skateboard is a multi step process. Each step is as important than the last and precision craftsmanship is required to produce a quality product. If one of the steps does not meet a high level standard the board won’t look or perform as expected. Nobody wants to spend their hard earned money on a skateboard deck that was slapped together and doesn’t feel right.