Back in 2009 the owner of Boulder Skateboards put up for sale on e-bay the Prototype Dogtown Shogo Kubo Airbeam, as you would expect it went for some big money. In his auction he wrote about the entire process of building the decks which was very involved. I copied and saved what he wrote and it makes very interesting reading. Enjoy:-
This auction is about Dogtown Skates and what we went through to get them a signature board for Shogo Kubo. (If you want to skip the background info, feel free to skip down to the actual board specs at the bottom of the page).
Betting many of you checking out this listing saw my Kryptonics Tri-Beam auction last week, I will not repeat that entire history here. This will be a more specific accounting.
BUILDING OUR MOST DIFFICULT BOARD
I believe (?) it was Wes Humpston and Jim Muir, owners of Dogtown Skates, that I met with several times; once at the Chicago Surf and Skate Show in early 1979 and later at their location in California. What I liked about them most was their openness to my new ideas which, after my failed exchange with Sims, was refreshing.
I knew they were not happy to have missed a shot at getting the K Beam before Kryptonics but their sincerity in wanting something special for their top pro really pushed me to come up with what I personally consider to be my best skateboard design--the Airbeam.
Though the K Beams were my first babies with the most meaningful personal history, the Airbeam was my most challenging and satisfying design to finally work out.
The K Beams were successful because central stiffness was added without overall weight gain by rearranging the boards mass, i.e. taking the thickness out of the less important sides and restructuring it into the center where it was needed. But the thinner sides also made the board harder to hang onto necessitating the addition of grab rails.
I didn’t get to fix that problem until I did the Tri-Beam, that never saw production, as we covered last week.
For the Airbeam, I was completely intrigued with the idea of increasing the strength and rigidity across the entire width of the board while making the deck easier to hang onto without adding any weight at all. In fact, I wanted to even decrease the weight by keeping the deck at 6 plies.
In structural engineering, increasing “section” (kind of like thickness) increases stiffness. That concept is what makes “I” beams work in construction; it’s what made the K Beams work.
I reasoned that if I could form interior beams that were hollow into a board, I could get that same structural increase without adding a thing weight-wise. But I had one looming problem; how would I ever do that? Especially using a quality super hard wood veneer that would snap like a potato chip on its own!
I knew from previous experience forming compound curves in wood that wood fibers do not stretch (normally not more than 2%) but they will compress, even with the very hard woods like the Canadian Rock Maple we used. You can see the same concept when you hit a board sharply with a hammer and dent the wood--remembering wood fibers are like hollow straws--they have great deal of compressible air in them.
So I knew the key to forming the ribs would be forcing the compression of the surrounding veneer surface going into the dies without letting the critical shoulder areas of the beam veneers stretch, break and crack. That would also require severe press pressures for final forming (we had to run ours at its full 3000 psi rating which was a little nerve-wracking) and super durable dies.
Further, the board would have to be made in three press phases; lower half, upper half and final assembly.
As the list of problems to surmount grew so did my belief that the end results would be worth the effort. My head guy, Kenny Clarke, and I were already putting in long hours so we just kept after it as we were really hustling to have all the new boards ready before the spring season.
The biggest help for controlling the veneer splitting during formation was the colored laminate sheeting with which we faced most of our boards. That was a wood pulp product called Yorkite, still made today, originally designed for the furniture industry as a veneer underlayment. We had it custom runs of it made in various colors. It is basically a thick very high-density paper. Because it has no grain to split along it held the fresh stack of veneers covered with wet glue together just long enough to get the veneers “trapped” into the hot dies to the point they could not spread out and crack. I knew there were limits to how far I could push that dynamic and I have always believed we took it right to the edge.
Additionally, I increased the amount of the flexible water based PVA adhesive we used (unlike the very brittle urea resins the competition was using) to act as more of a lubricant to help let all the veneer shifting take place--friction causes stretching causing cracking. But this forced more-than-wanted water vapor into the board during the hot Radio Frequency “cooking” process, requiring longer press cycles and cure times.
Moisture is guaranteed to warp boards if it is released unevenly and board flatness was critical.
To further complicate things, as the board was being made in separate 3 ply halves that were not yet grain-balanced and were very thin, they were a nightmare to keep flat on a production basis until they got reassembled, especially with the lower beam half with all of its asymmetry and forced interior tension. It was a big headache.
The last big problem was making a die that would hold up to all this that we could build in-house without spending tens of thousands of dollars on machined aluminum or steel. I didn’t want to end up as Kryptonics had with their composite board where they had no flexibility once the expensive die molds were made.
I finally found my answer for a durable die material with a resin product called Linen Phenolic used in the electronics industry; basically endless layers of fabric impregnated with a very hard resin. The linen was like rebar; the resin acted like concrete. We could barely even machine the stuff with our carbide tooling it was so hard but it did do the trick. (I was so impressed with the product I actually made a single 6 beam board laminated with the stuff that never really worked out. Plus, the phenolic was quite expensive.)
As an interesting aside; you can tell the approximate age of an Airbeam by the crispness of its beveled beam shoulders as even the phenolic dies would wear quickly with those kinds of stresses and pressures. Monitoring issues such as that is another reason you always want an original prototype for comparison in production--it sets the quality standard.
Simply, the sharper the angles on the deck beams, the earlier the board was made and the angles in this board are about as crispy as you are going to get. And remember they were formed out of three layers of a very hard and brittle veneer and, going into the tail and ends, are a true compound shape. I think that’s the coolest single feature of any board we ever did.
All of these steps came out of a great deal of trial and experimentation along with the many failures that come with pushing limits to the max. Failures define your borders. So, by the time we had this first prototype successfully out of its last press cycle, it was a special moment followed by the frustration that I knew it would be stupid to test it until it was completely cured and stabilized. I couldn’t wait...
But once the curing was complete and Kenny had it routed to shape, had radius sanded the edges, drilled the holes and machined in our trademark angled and tapered wheel wells we gave it the “knee test”. Just how stiff was this board that we already knew was quite light?
Needless to say, it was grins all around. Cooler yet was to peek into the truck holes and see the hollow space. We had made air beams!
This particular board, like its fellow Tri-Beam, has never had trucks, been ridden or received graphics. That's not what prototypes are meant to do. It does, however, have the red top laminate and griptape which, frankly, does not fit that well back at the tail (I'm getting fussy here). I have no memory as to why we would have stuck a piece on outside of testing the fit as tape normally went on after the graphics. It was also unusual that I used red on top as I normally didn’t worry about color that early on in the production process. We, had, however, every color laying around.
I also am not positive this board is the exact final shape as lined out by Wes for the final production model as it is possible it was done before we even had that. It may be, and probably is, but I don’t have another here at the moment to compare. At any rate, I did sweat how close the final shape came to clipping the outside ribs towards the front. I had wanted a close proximity to the edge to help gripping ability but I cut it pretty close. I really did not want to have to redo the dies...
I do know when we got the screens made for Wes’ killer graphics and had them on the first boards the end result was damn cool. We new this board would be more than a rival for the K Beams and it would be a fine duel with the Airbeam even having the upper edge (it was lucky there weren't a lot of Tri-Beams our there). And, for me personally, creating one design to compete against another of my designs felt a bit like playing chess with myself--I knew it was an even match, I didn’t know who was going to win; I couldn’t really lose.
I was sorry the duel and the game that went with it could not have gone on longer, but the upcoming recession was just not going to go away.
As far as condition, the clear grip tape looks 30 years old; is slightly yellowed and has some kind of minor dirty discoloration that is not easily coming off in the central area. I thought about removing the tape altogether but decided to let it be as it has always been.
The bottom has some scuffs and scrapes and one very minor dent and another small compression on the edge of the tail from too much handling and moving over the years, so, like the Tri-Beam, the board is NOT mint. It was intended to be used as a production standard, not a show piece (which it became anyway). I would rate it as the same Very Good/Excellent condition. It is a beautiful board, just not perfect.
PLEASE REVIEW THE PICTURES VERY CAREFULLY AS ALL THESE DEFECTS WILL SHOW UP. IN THE LAST PHOTOS I HAVE TRIED TO INCREASE THE CONTRAST TO EXAGGERATE ANY OF THE SCRATCHING OR DEFECTS TO MAKE THEM LOOK WORSE THAN THEY ACTUALLY ARE.
Also included is a Certificate of Authenticity. Yippee.
In designing both the Tri-Beam and the Airbeam, one of my hopes was to make a product that would not be easily knocked off by our competition. I felt I did that. I further hoped to use the concepts employed by both decks as the foundations for future designs that would pursue the ultimate skateboard goals; super light weight, super strength, just the right amount of flex and really cool looks.
Sadly, like everyone else, we slammed into the looming recession in 1980, sales dropped like crazy and our business, backed by dozens of investing partners with no interest in skateboarding beyond it profits, fractured. We closed down and went no further.
There was a brief effort later to reform via the other behind-the-scenes General Partner and his son, but with both equally ignorant about what they were doing, the flame was short lived.
I had hoped to start some serious design trends 30 years ago and kill off the curved chair back approach to deck building but, sadly, looking around today that effort obviously failed. I see an amazing array of 7 ply boards where graphics are the main defining element. Unfortunately, you don't ride pictures. I do like some of what I see with Blind and Lib Tech boards and am sure (hope) there are others I know nothing about but I feel for some of the difficulties I'm guessing they're having.
I don't feel wood is anymore the future of great boards that it was for the ski industry and, in hind sight, have to acknowledge the original Kryptonics composite board was, conceptually, ahead of its time.
But the tools and resources are out there right now to do whatever one might dream up.
To all of you working on new designs, Good Luck! I hope the market supports you.
Thanks for taking all this in.
No wonder its taking a long time for Dogtown to reproduce the deck, I hope when/if it finally appears its a good one.