Reinventing The Wheel

By Adam Sullivan

Millions of years ago, a great human invented the wheel.

In the 1950s, bored kids with roller skates made makeshiftscooters. Perhaps as a result of shoddy workmanship, the handleseventually broke off, and skateboarding was born.

Skateboardings first wheels were metal and slid sidewaysabout as fast as they rolled. The next logical step in wheeltechnology for skateboardings earliest innovators was to makewheels out of clay. Die-hard innovators even experimented in theirkitchen ovens. Better, but it wasnt quite there yet. These wheelswere grippy, and their resilience was lacking.

In 1970, Frank Nasworthy changed the way a skateboardrolled forever.

Nasworthy, a San Diego surfer, developed the urethanewheel for skateboards. These wheels were faster and moreresilientleaps and bounds ahead of their alloyed and adobepredecessors.

Once urethane wheels became the rage, companies likeG&S, Kryptonics, and Powell began producing them as fast as theycould. Everyone was vying to come up with the next great creationto perfect the wheel. The 70s and 80s saw a number of false startsrough ideas and brainstorms that never really panned out.

One example of the progression of the skateboard wheelwas the conical. Conical wheels were asymmetrical, with the backslathed off to create the cone-like effect. These were popular amongpool skaters, as they rode up over thick pool coping much easier.However, they were expensive, difficult to make, and wereeventually replaced with symmetrical wheels that boasted roundedsidewalls. This compromise helped to bring about the birth of streetskating.

In the late 1970s, wheels that were rounded on both sidesmade a brief appearance. Yo-Yo Spinners, as they were called, werearound for a short while. They tapered down to a point specificallyfor freestyle skating, but much like freestyle skating itself, thespinners were soon forgotten.

Gyro, another wheel from the late 70s, boasted analuminum core. They were fast, but heavy and expensive. And likethe Spinners, were eventually left in the dust.

Bones Team Manager Rob Washburn remembers severalinnovations introduced over the years. In the late 70s and early 80s,Powell made two important breakthroughs, which remain some ofthe most defining characteristics of skateboard wheels today.”Powell was the first to come up with the white wheel,” Washburnremembers. “Thats an innovation that has stuck to this day.”

The advantage of a white wheel is that the urethane ispure. Washburn elaborates: “(Colored or) swirled urethane is toomuch of a mess, dyes change urethane qualities.” Too muchcontamination can alter the catalysts, slowing it down or weighing itdown.

Powell was also among the first companies to start puttinggraphics on their wheels. Up until then, companies had their logosembossed on the side of the wheel. So unless you were holding thewheel up close, it was anybodys guess as to what you were actuallyriding. The conical wheel had a flat backing to it, so thats wherePowell printed their graphics. Soon after, graphic wheels became theindustry standard, allowing people to roll with some creativefreedom.

Once graphic printing was available for the skateboardwheel, logo embossing went the way of the freestyle board. Save fora brief appearance here and there, such as in New Deals “NudeEels” wheels, the practice of wheel embossing was put to restuntilfall of 2000 when Ricta was born. Ricta was created by Ian Deaconand Jeremy Fox to offer a fresh perspective in a stagnant market.

But why emboss? Its expensive to make the molds, andwithout a colorful logo, theyre difficult to recognize. NHS MarketingDirector Jeff Kendall has the answer. “Differentiation,” he says. “Wewanted to do something that would stand out.” And they do. Rictawheels are currently the only embossed wheels on the market, withan all-white outer and a colored core. They stand out on a skateshops shelf, offering the average consumer something different.

Even during skateboardings darker ages, change wastaking place. For better or for worse, the wheel changed drasticallyback in the early 90s, when street skating and freestyle were fusedinto one flatground free-for-all. Kickflips, 360 flips, and theunforgettable pressure flips were the popular tricks at this time.Kids had moved away from the parks and were flooding the streetswith their new brand of skateboarding.

But this new style required an overhaul of the skateboard.Within a couple years, decks became skinnier, noses were turned up,and wheels dropped up to twenty millimeters in size. Beagleremembers, “This company called UFO started making wheels backin 93. They came out with (size) 40.” The benefit of a smaller wheelwas that it would give you a lower center of gravity, which would inturn allow you to flip the board more accurately.

But the smaller-wheel phase of the early 90s was notwithout its drawbacks. Noseslides and bluntslides were big at thetime, and flat spots were a common occurrence. Real Skateboardsaddressed the problem by introducing “Real Small Wheels.” Theywere small, but they came by the half-dozen, rather than thetraditional set of four. That meant, when you had flat spotted acouple of your wheels, you would have two fresh ones to trade themout with. They worked for a while, but eventually Real went back toselling wheels by the foursome.

Fortunately, this small-wheel phase lasted for only a fewyears, and today wheels have, for the most part, settled into the 50mm to 58 mm range.

But obviously size isnt everything. There are other factorsthat can affect a skateboards performance just as much. GeorgePowell, a seasoned veteran in the skateboard wheel industry, offersseveral different formulas of urethane, each appealing to a differentterrain or a different kind of skater. Washburn helps in the designprocess, too. “(Right now) we have three different formulas, four orfive in time. Were always looking to improve the existing urethane.”

One of Powells latest innovations is a new formuladeveloped specifically for use within a skatepark. Washburn isparticularly excited about this creation, because it provides a much-needed grip in a slippery skatepark. “(Our skatepark formula) isabrasive and resistant, but its also hard. It slides if you want andlasts twice as long.”

When Foundations Josh Beagle started Pig Wheels back in1995, he understood one fundamental concept. In order to leave animpression, the company had to come up with something new.Beagle remembers, “Our first wheel shapes were really coolthey had a wall that just shot back in,kind of like a half-wall, so you cant scratch your graphics up. We were trying to do something totallydifferent.”

Since then, Pig has seen several new concepts come andgo. Pig has carefully picked and chosen which ones to usea goodexample is the innovation of the dual durometer wheel. Its one ofskateboardings latest wheel breakthroughs, the objective being aharder inner core provides a good solid feeland a softer outerlayer gives the wheel much needed traction. “The company (thatinvented the dual durometer) came out with the concept,” saysbeagle. I thought it was a good idea, so I jumped on it.” Beaglewasnt alone. Soon after its inception, dual durometer wheelsbecame the rage, and several companies were happy to includethem into their product lines.

Accel. Urethane is another company that has incorporatedsome unique ideas into its line. Most notably, they created a wheelthat fits a provided bearing with a smaller diameter. JasonRothmeyer explains that the advantage of having a smaller bearingis that it requires less inertia for the wheel to spin, allowing it to rolleasier and longer. “They ride smoother because youre increasingthe amount of urethane between the ground and bearing,” he says.By using more urethane and less bearing, Accel. made a faster wheeland a lighter one at that, neatly tackling two of the most prominentconcerns of todays skater.

Element recently launched a similar wheel, but with animportant modification. Its “featherligh
t” wheel is an injected,hollow core wheel offering the smaller bearing, but each set comeswith a plastic hub that the “microbearing” can snap into for it to fita standard-size wheel. Roger Harrell, Giant Distributions productionmanager, explains how this addresses the weight issue, withoutcompromising durability. “The wheel itself is 60 percent lighterthan a standard wheel, and the microbearing is 60 percent lighterthan a standard bearing.” All the requirements for a successfulinnovation are there: the product is lighter without affecting itsstrength or durability, and the plastic hub will make the kids lessinhibited to try it out.

No one knows what the future holds, but many are stilltrying to perfect the wheel. Skateboarders are forever looking fornew formulas, new shapes, and new ideas, just to make a betterwheel. “We are constantly testing new advances in materials to see ifwe can make them into a better formula,” says George Powell. “Wehave about five development programs going on at this time,working on ways to improve the properties we perceive needimproving.”

What it boils down to is that wheels can always be faster,lighter, and more durable. And thats why companies will forever bescrambling to build the better wheel.