Powell Skateboards

After 25 years, George Powell is still building boards for Everyskater.

Changes in our lives are often beyond our control. The people who’ve been in this business know that all too well, and those who have survived some tumultuous times in the micro economy that is the skateboard industry have taken some heavy blows from sudden changes in the sport’s popularity, or in the national and global economies. But they managed to steer their way through the rocky shallows of the early 80s and the early 90s, and are here today to enjoy what many industry experts consider to be the most stable era in skateboarding’s history. Perhaps the efforts of the companies who stuck with the business when all others failed are partially responsible for keeping the sport’s core alive, engaged, and excited–beyond just keeping it equipped.

Often the changes in our lives result from conscious decisions. As we pursue a goal we’ve set and realize that it may not be as fulfilling as we’d hoped, other opportunities and challenges tend to present themselves. When George Powell finished his studies at Stanford University and began working as an aerospace engineer, he thought he had started out on the path that would lead him through his life. It took nearly a decade for him to realize he hadn’t.

Powell’s work involved designing aerospace instruments and industrial products. In the late 50s he built a skateboard that he tooled around on, and in the early 60s he spent much of his free time skating Stanford University’s smooth plazas. But once he relocated to Los Angeles and took on his new career, the fun and games of college and youth were stowed away like old family photos. It wasn’t until his son began picking up dad’s old habits that Powell was reintroduced to skateboarding.

By 1974, the wood plank and clay wheels of dad’s old Hobie didn’t appeal to the boy, so Powell began to experiment with various materials to build his son a better skateboard. He laminated wood with some of the high-tech materials he’d been working with on the job, combining spruce-and-honeycomb composites with Fiberglas and aircraft aluminum to create flexible but strong lightweight boards. He also began to experiment with urethane compounds, mixing chemicals in his kitchen and curing the wheels in his oven. “During the time that I was developing this stuff, Fiberglas was being used in slalom boards,” says Powell. “The flexible G&S Fibreflex slalom boards, at that time, were very popular. This is before pool riding and oak-plank kicktails were popular.”

Powell Skateboards

In 1975 Powell met Tom Sims, who had just launched his own skateboard company. Sims made every size and shape of wood board, including pool models and longboards, but he didn’t have the technology or manufacturing capability at his disposal to make a flexible slalom board. Their meeting inspired Powell to develop an alternative to the popular Fibreflex. “Skateboarding is something that I always loved, and I thought, ‘Gee, here’s an opportunity to get into an industry that could use some engineering experience,'” says Powell. “I loved skateboarding because it was just fun to skate, and later as the culture developed I loved it because it was free, unstructured, and creative. I’ve always loved that part of skateboarding.”

His rekindled interest in the sport was strong enough that Powell took a chance and followed his heart up the coast to Santa Barbara, where he and his family moved to start a skateboard company in a small warehouse that for a while also served as their residence.

At the time there was no notion of a “skateboard industry.” A few individuals had established or contracted with woodshops to manufacture products, and they marketed them however they could, occasionally encountering each other at spots or contests. “It was like people moving in the night,” says Powell. “You didn’t see each other for a long time, and you didn’t know if they were there or what they were doing.”

At the time information about the sport and the various companies rendezvoused monthly in Skateboarder magazine, where Powell advertised his first creation–an aluminum-skin/maple-core slalom board in 1976. The Powell Quicksilver Tom Sims Signature model and the later Quicktail board design epitomized the high art of building skateboards until the pool and skatepark revolution changed the sport (and the requisite properties of skateboards) forever. “I got out of aluminum boards at that time, and switched to laminated maple,” he says. “We started really experimenting when people were making decks with a cross ply for every long ply. I thought about that, and knowing that the stress is really in the skin, I wanted thicker skins and less cross plies. So I switched to a double-thick skin construction with two cross plies. Now all decks are made this way.”

Partnering With Peralta

George’s transition into making products for parks and pools was helped by his partnership with Stacy Peralta in 1978. Peralta, already a renowned skater from the legendary Zephyr team, at the time had a top-selling board with G&S but wanted to be involved in a company he could help direct. George’s engineering experience combined with Peralta’s marketability and keen nose for talent helped catapult Powell Skateboards into the limelight–literally, as the brand introduced several new models featuring fluorescent coatings that reflected skateboarding’s new wave. “I wanted to form a great skateboard team,” says Peralta. “It was something I just felt deep within me that I needed to do. I also wanted to make product that was a reflection of what I–as a skater–wanted and not what some manufacturer was telling me I wanted.”

One of Powell’s first lamination innovations was the modern two-three-two layup: a long-ply core sandwiched between a cross-ply and two outer long plies on each side. Further R&D produced such gems as the Beamer, a five-ply deck stiffened by Fiberglas-reinforced laminated beams that ran between–and raised–the trucks. The Beamer was as difficult to find as it was to make. The 2,000 samples sold for a whopping 45 dollars at the time, and Powell soon focused on improving the now-established maple-laminate skateboard.

Another Powell original was the Brite Lite, an ultraviolet tinted seven-ply deck made from a combination of hard and soft maple veneers–a finer-tuned balance between strength and lightness. “We made the board with hard maple skins and core, with soft maple between that,” says George. “It worked pretty well, and we were able to take almost a quarter pound out of the board.”

George continued to work on his designs, and used feedback from Peralta and the team to change the boards as skateboarding itself changed. “All wood varies quite a bit,” he says. “Hard-rock maple varies too, but at its minimum strength it’s still pretty strong, whereas soft maple is weaker and can sometimes fail. So we switched back to all hard-rock maple because we couldn’t control the strength and grain structure of the soft maple.”

Kitchen Bones

Bones wheels, launched in 1977, were the product of George’s kitchen chemistry projects. The 60- and 64-millimeter opaque-white wheels featured a patented double-radius design and unique formula at a time when most wheels were translucent and flat-backed. The main feature of the visually unique Bones wheel, he says, was the chemistry inside: “We pioneered the first MDI diphenylmethane diisocyanate white wheel and the double-radius shape. There are two main types of commercially used isocyanates, MDI and TDI toluene diisocyanate. MDI is a type of urethane that’s very difficult to pour, because you only use ten percent of one part and mix it with 90 percent of another. It’s hard to mix that accurately, and you have to mix it completely in order to get good properties.”

The original Bones wheel influenced other manufacturers with its opaque color and its radiused edges. The MD
I compound would also eventually become an industry standard as manufacturers learned to closely control the delicate process. Bones wheels evolved with more pronounced radiuses on the newer Cubic model, a 64-by-64 millimeter monster released in 1979, and on the subsequent 64-by-57-millimeter Mini Cubic. It wasn’t until 1982, however, that Powell felt he had perfected the formula for skateboard wheels. For the next decade, most Bones wheels would be made with this new V-IV formula.

Birth Of The Bones Brigade

When Stacy Peralta joined Powell in 1978, the company’s profile and direction changed dramatically with the combination of George’s product-development acumen and Peralta’s skate credibility and penchant for spotting promising skaters. In fact, over the next fifteen years, the re-named Powell Peralta brand would be best known for the names and personalities that comprised the Bones Brigade skate team: Ray “Bones” Rodriguez, Alan Gelfand, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill, Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero, Mike Vallely, Colin McKay, Frankie Hill, Chet Thomas, Chris Senn, and too many others to count.

Peralta says he looked for certain qualities in skaters–individuality, inventiveness, style, a strong work ethic, competitiveness, and a photogenic quality. “If you weren’t photogenic, you didn’t get in the magazines,” he says. “It was a different world back then.”

Ray “Bones” Rodriguez earned himself a pro model in 1979, and inspired the now-infamous Sword And Skull graphic drawn by Powell’s then warehouse manager (and George’s brother-in-law) Court Johnson. Quickly earning himself a promotion to Powell Peralta’s in-house artist, Johnson would produce most of the company’s graphics and help define its skull-and-bones style for the next decade.

In the early 80s, when skateboarding was evolving into an aerial sport, the dwindling number of skateparks drove the sport underground, onto backyard ramps, and into the street. Through those lean years, Powell Peralta, like all surviving companies, learned to scale down and still promote its brand and sport on a shoestring budget. “The industry crashed in ’79, and we got as small as we could get,” says George. “We went from about 24 employees to twelve. By 1980 we were selling 500 skateboards a month. We didn’t know if it was gonna come back or not–we just loved it. We loved the business, we loved skateboarding. I decided I’d grit my teeth and tough it out.”

George managed the company full-time and Peralta continued to handle the team and promotional duties while seeking supplemental work in Hollywood. “That was a very slow time for skateboarding, and there wasn’t enough to keep my mind activated,” says Peralta. “As a result I did some things on the side like acting on network television.”

The next few years would be trying, but the company held its place in the depressed market through grassroots efforts to promote the solid Bones Brigade team and product line. “I would go to every event in order to make our presence known as well as to support my team and to see the field,” says Peralta. “We worked hard in order to build for a very uncertain future, as well as to try and get as much of the market at that time as we could obtain.”

In the fall of ’82, skateboard sales began to grow again, and over the next several years Powell Peralta maintained its prominence and market position more through marketing and promotional innovations than giant leaps in product technology. “Product was important, but nothing was more important than the team,” says Peralta. “The Bones Brigade was important for a number of reasons, but at that time I would say the single most important thing that group of skaters did was they influenced and inspired skaters all over the world to skate. And if you can inspire people, then you’ve got a gift, because inspiration many times leads to action, and action leads to change.”

One of Peralta’s early creative influences was Craig Stecyk, who was associated with the Zephyr skateboard team where Peralta, Jay Adams, Tony Alva, and other mid-70s legends began their careers. When Peralta joined Powell, he collaborated with Stecyk on the company’s advertising and artistic direction. “His role was to be my creative partner in advertising, videos, product ideas, company strategy, industry politics, et cetera,” says Peralta. “Craig shot photos and video, wrote the copy, and created many of our greatest advertisements. He also designed many of our best trade-show booths. He was the consummate behind-the-scenes guy who had a huge hand in just about everything we did.”

As business picked up in the early 80s, Peralta and Stecyk developed the company’s newest product–the skateboard video. The series of films, beginning with The Bones Brigade Video Show in 1984, would unleash the video epidemic that has become essential to promoting any skater or brand. “Many of our distributors around the world begged us to keep bringing out more videos because they said the videos were lifting the tide of the entire sport,” says Peralta. “The initial videos at that time seemed to give skateboarding a much needed direction. They allowed kids to see what was really happening.”

Peralta and Stecyk’s efforts would produce classics like Future Primitive (1985) and Public Domain (1988), but their craft peaked in the epic Search For Animal Chin (1987), a scripted odyssey that took the Bones Brigade to some of the most famous skate spots and ramps.

The skate videos that other companies would produce in the following decade resembled the trickumentary style of 1984’s Video Show, but more ambitious efforts in recent years have incorporated the skits and travel motifs of Animal Chin–Birdhouse’s The End (1999) and éS’ Menikmati (2000), most notably.

Skate One

Companies like Powell Peralta, which rode the 80s wave like a tsunami suddenly found themselves beached by the time the 90s and America’s economic recession hit. For George, his new 180,000-square-foot office, warehouse, skatepark, and manufacturing complex had suddenly turned from asset to immense liability. By ’92 the team was splintering, and Peralta had left the company to pursue a directing career in Hollywood. “The mission was accomplished with Powell Peralta, and I didn’t want to repeat myself,” he says. “I had lost interest in what I was doing and wanted to challenge myself at something else. So I took a chance on myself and blazed a new trail.”

Peralta’s exit from skateboarding represented a clear break from the past, and the emerging companies were ushering in a new era that he would have no part of. “The thing that hurt was to see how many ex-professional skaters got into the business and began to suck the sport dry from greed,” he says. “In my opinion, professional skaters turned businessmen have had the worst impact on the skateboarding industry. The money became more important for them than the thrill of skateboarding. This is why ESPN has gained such a foothold on the sport–while all the skate companies were busy stealing from each other and not building their sport together as a whole, ESPN came in, saw an opening, and grabbed it. Now ESPN has so much control over how the world at large views modern skateboarding.”

For the time, Powell’s facility had become too big a financial liability to support–it was taken by the bank, and George leased a portion of it to house what was left of his company. In a decade, the industry had come full-circle to the desperate days of the early 80s. But George was still driven by the desire to keep trying, and he began rebuilding the company.

Powell was a specter of its former self in 1993. Its offices occupied a small corner of the building, the famous Powell Peralta SkateZone skatepark was gone, and most of its former space had been leased to various industries. But the manufacturing operations remained intact, and the smaller but complete company would mana
ge the drought in much better shape than it was in the first time around.

When George Powell regrouped in 1993, he founded Skate One, Inc. as the holding company and distributor for his various brands. Powell Peralta reverted back to the original name, Powell Skateboards, Bones Wheels and Bones Bearings became distinct brands, and last year Skate One launched the Brigade brand of pro decks.

Each of the Skate One brands is designed to address the needs of particular types of skaters. Powell serves skaters of all ages and tastes with the broadest range of products, from mini boards to pool boards to longboards, as well as the Mini Logo pricepoint lines of decks and wheels. Bones Wheels is a high-end urethane brand, with special emphasis on different formulations for different applications; a new TDI formula resulted in the long-wearing and translucent Fireballs line in the early 90s, and experiments with core materials resulted in last year’s Hardcore dual-durometer wheels and bushings. Bones Bearings has two primary products, the Bones Swiss bearing, which was developed by George Powell and a Swiss bearing manufacturer to meet the specific demands of skateboarding, and the China Bones Red bearing, which is a Chinese-manufactured version of the Bones Swiss design. And with its pro team as the primary promotional tool, the Brigade focuses on products in popular styles and sizes.

Quality Control

With in-house R&D, manufacturing, sales, and marketing operations, Skate One has enjoyed a level of control over its products and branding that few companies have. Its location on California’s central coast has also afforded Skate One–or forced upon it–a degree of independence that hasn’t always benefited the company. “There are companies that are closer to TransWorld and Thrasher, and have an easier time getting the magazines’ and the public’s ear,” says George. “In Orange County rent and labor’s cheaper, so it’s been a disadvantage to be here in many ways.”

The critical benefit to managing the manufacturing operations, says George, is quality control. After working with various woodshops and urethane manufacturers in the 70s and 80s, it quickly became a goal of his to bring all the production in-house. Currently all Skate One products are made on-premises–from wheels to decks to screenprinting–the one exception being Bones Bearings. “The reason I brought production in-house originally was for quality control,” says George. “If you make your own product, you’re able to experiment more readily with new raw materials. You’re right there in the quality-control process, and you’re able to make those decisions instead of someone 100 miles away.”

George admits that the extra staff and overhead add a dimension to his work that non-manufacturing companies don’t have, but ultimately he’s more satisfied having the flexibility and control that his own manufacturing facilities afford him. “The good thing about the manufacturing is that, for example, we developed our own laminating presses,” he says. “We’ve perfected it to where it’s better than hydraulic presses. If we had someone else press our wood, as we did in the early 80s, we wouldn’t have been able to.”

Having his own manufacturing facilities on-premises has helped George avoid the problems he encountered when his boards were pressed elsewhere. In the early 80s, entire shipments would arrive warped and defective. Having worked with the woodshop to solve the problem–one “solution” being the much-maligned and shortlived Boneite board construction–he realized he would prefer to handle the manufacturing himself, despite the extra work and investment it requires. “It’s both a help and a hindrance,” he says. “In one sense you invest in certain technologies, and if another technology comes out that’s better than what you have, you’re really at a disadvantage until you acquire the new technology. On the other hand, if you’re on the leading edge of your technology, you can do things first. We have the luxury of knowing what all our raw materials are, trying them all, comparing them all, and optimizing what we do. And we do it all right here.”

Mini Logo

One of Skate One’s most talked-about products in the past few years, if not the company’s most successful, is the pricepoint Powell Mini Logo line. Stripped of the expensive graphic treatments on most boards, and free of the royalty costs that pro models require, Mini Logo decks are plain, unexciting, and cheap. “We couldn’t have done that if we didn’t make the boards ourselves,” says George. “Other companies were in denial when they said that blank boards weren’t going to become a significant part of the market. When blank boards became between 25 and 40 percent of our dealers’ sales, we had to do something.”

Many of Powell’s competitors criticize the company for promoting “blank” boards, but George is quick to point out that the Mini Logo line, while plain and inexpensive at about 30 dollars retail, is a branded product helping to support a company that in turn supports skateboarding. Most of the factories pumping out blanks a few years ago, George points out, didn’t have teams or marketing programs–they just took the money and ran. The Mini Logo line, therefore, was a tool to combat them on their own terms. “I decided that the only way to fight blank boards is to give them a branded board at a blank-board price, basically. The Mini Logo’s taken a huge part of the market back. Basically there was no branded product in that pricepoint market, and we had a higher-quality product at the same price.”

Critics screamed that Powell was desperately trying to do just that–to grab market share at any price. They didn’t believe that the company could afford to sell boards at that price, and that it would ultimately fail. But it can, and it hasn’t, says George, thanks to a streamlined manufacturing process and sufficient quantities to keep the Mini Logo program profitable.

In the past couple years, the critics began to let up as they themselves began releasing pricepoint lines, though none at the 30-dollar Mini Logo level. “The majority of the industry is marketing companies that pay somebody else to build a product they don’t care enough to build themselves,” he says. “I think that it’s important to invest back in technology, to build quality product, and to be able to offer it to customers at the lowest price possible. That’s what a skateboard company should do. It Mini Logo line was a hard thing for me because we built our entire product line on signature-model boards and marketing pros, and this was taking a step back and going, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t run this company for pro skaters, I run it for skaters. And I need to look at my customer and what my customer wants.'”

Brite Idea

To commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, Powell has reissued some of its classic graphics, including the Sword And Skull and the original Alan “Ollie” Gelfand Tank graphic. George has also drawn on his R&D history to develop a modern version of 1979’s Brite Lite line. “In the old days we had flat boards, so you really couldn’t go too thin because it’d be too flexy,” he says. “We really focused on maximizing stiffness, so we evolved the concave up and up to the K-12. The concave gives us more stiffness, and we took some of the weight out, which makes it lift faster.”

The Brite Lite series is different from most of the boards George has developed in the past two decades. Most of his feedback over the years has come from his pro team, and these days most pros ride relatively shallow concaves, but the K-12 is Powell’s deepest. “We build most of our boards for the team riders, but we developed the K-12 concave to satisfy what some of our customers want,” he says. “It’s been very positive. That decision is a hard one, but who do you listen to, you customers or your experts?”

The New Brigade

With the growing Powell line o
f decks bulging with the popular Mini Logo, Brite Lite, and Angel Boy series, George decided to separate the pro program and launch a brand based on the team his company had spent many years developing. “Stacy and I are both optimistic people, and that’s one of the things that brought us together,” he says of his former partner who developed the original Bones Brigade. “We wanted to pick up people who would be positive role models. The Brigade is a group of the finest skaters that we could find in the world who also make good role models. They Brigade members get along well, and they have the right chemistry.”

With a brand of its own, the Brigade promotes Skate One’s marquee deck line, and George points out that team members’ personalities and cohesiveness are as important to him as their talent. “To create a stable team really requires selecting the right people who want to skate together as a team,” he says. “If you just pick stars who are good, you’re going to have all these centrifugal forces, and that creates problems. We look for people who are a little more mature, a little more caring, and willing to give back to the young skaters supporting them. I think that’s what makes the Brigade special–they’re very professional, kind, and creative people.”

Still About Product

For George, the rebuilding of his company in the 90s was guided more by product development than any marketing scheme. “When Stacy Peralta was here, we were focusing primarily on the team and marketing videos,” he says. “I didn’t have time to spend on R&D and new-product development–we were trying too hard to catch up with the market that we already had. So if there’s one bit of criticism of those years, it’s that we didn’t do enough product development.”

The last several years have been all about developing new products, which is what got George into this business in the first place. “When I started the company, you would be known for coming out with new products, quality products, and stuff that worked rather than for marketing,” he says. “It’s not always possible in today’s industry to control that. Today, it’s sometimes the luck of who wants to skate for you, and the coverage you get in the magazines. My focus is to continue to innovate new products. Sooner or later, if you build enough good product, people will recognize that in fact you’re not a bad skateboard company because you’ve been in business for 25 years.”

Today, George still enjoys researching and testing new materials. But while several space-age composite materials are on the horizon, they lack some particular properties and are too cost-prohibitive to replace tried-and-true hard-rock-maple laminates. “But every year they get a little better, so some day we’ll be able to make something better than wood,” he says, “hopefully before we kill all the maple trees.”

The choices we’ve made and the circumstances in our lives have brought us to where we are now–to our jobs in the skateboard industry, and to this moment in the evolution of our sport. For most of us old enough to remember, the past 25 years have seen a number of changes, and we find ourselves in a much different situation. For George Powell, an engineer committed to researching and developing new and better skateboard equipment, the path has been circuitous, but the destination much the same. Pleased with the outcome, after a quarter century he remains clear about his goal: “I’m still a product designer after all these years. I love working with the artists and being involved with product development. That’s my favorite thing. The business, politics, advertising, and that sort of thing is much less to my liking. It’s interesting work, it’s just not what’s been fun for me.”

At the helm of a much larger operation, today George still finds himself in much the same place he was when he and his family moved into a Santa Barbara warehouse space in 1976. “When I started the company, it was all about product,” he says. “It was all about trying to build better skateboards–better decks, better wheels. I don’t really feel as though we’ve done all we can do. Every day I learn something new, I find a new material, I have another new idea. I’ve got several products that I’m working on, and there are a number of things in manufacturing that we’re doing that will allow us to continue evolving. So it’s still all about product and the people you work with.”