Longboard decks are made of shaped wood or composite materials, designed to balance properties of weight, stiffness, flex, and twist, while offering a secure stance, and accommodating the height and weight of the rider. The simplest decks are made from 7 to 10 plys of 1/16" thick birch or maple. These plys are glued together, and pressed into the desired shape with a vacuum, hydraulic, or manual press. More complex decks include the use of fiberglass and carbon fiber for decreased weight and increased stiffness, solid hardwoods for stiffness and aesthetics, foam cores for rigidity and light weight, and even exotic woods, like bamboo.
Decks are often given curvature that enhances their use. A board that is bent up in the center (when viewed from the side), is said to have camber, while a board that bends down in the center is said to have rocker. Camber makes a board ‘bouncier’, which is a good quality for some styles. Rocker allows a lower center of gravity, and a sensation of being 'cradled' by the deck during riding similar to the rocker in a surfboard. Decks may also be curved up at the edges (when viewed down the long axis), which is called concave. Concave bends add stiffness, leverage, and allow the rider to feel the edge of the deck without looking. Other bends, such as a bend up at the tail or nose (kicktails), or a deep drop at the center of the board to dramatically lower center of gravity are common on more specialized decks.
Many people have explored outside the realm of brand name equipment and find making their own decks as highly beneficial. A great variation that some riders enjoy is in the covering over the top of the deck. Some decks will have grip tape, basically a sheet of sandpaper covering the deck itself. Some decks are covered with sand and a liquid fiberglass that makes the deck extremely rough and easy to grip. Many riders enjoy adding their personal touch to their boards, oftentimes painting or carving in their own artwork straight on the deck.
Even though there is a multitude of ways to design a wheel, certain patterns are prevalent for different riding styles. To save time and space, I will define the three general types of wheels for the major riding styles present today: Cruising, Downhill, and Freeride.
Cruising Wheels: What a person wants in a cruising wheel could vary highly from person to person, but most will agree that a larger height/width wheel and softer durometer is desired to tackle any pavement and have a fair amount of grip.
Cruising Wheel Specs: Height: ~75mm; Contact Patch ~55mm; 75-80a; Square or Round Lips, generally thick; Offset Core.
Downhill Wheels: The shape of downhill wheels has stayed pretty consistent over time and most everything seemed to come down to each company’s unique urethane compound and what size wheel you were using depending on if you had to deal with wheel bite. Recently, however, it seems like the new generation of skaters has been breaking the conceptions of what you can ride downhill and melding a lot of freeride and slide style into DH.
Traditional DH Wheel Specs: 70-75mm; Contact Patch ~55mm; 78a-83a; Square lips; Offset Core.
Freeride Wheel: Most freeride wheels you will see resemble a traditional “shortboard” wheel in shape, but are larger and have softer durometer urethane. Most will look as if they are centerset, but they are usually slightly offset to add a nice balance between grip and slide. Freeride wheels generally have the largest spectrum of variability in shape, core position, and durometer because the way people slide is very dependent on an individual’s size, weight, and riding style. However, going over 75mm for a freeride wheel will run the risk of sliding poorly due to the fact that the excess urethane added to give the height will deform more and grip, making slides harder to initiate and less predictable.
Freeride Wheel Specs: 65mm-70mm; Contact Patch ~45mm; 80a-86a; Round Lips; Offset, Sideset, Centerset Cores.
Height: The height of a wheel is the distance between where the wheel touches the ground and the top of the urethane. The larger the wheel, the easier it will roll over cracks and rough pavement. However, the smaller the wheel, the faster it will accelerate going downhill. Often a rider’s personal preference will determine the balance between the two.
Wheel measurements are generally given in milimeters (mm) and the height is usually listed in the title of the wheel. Example: Wheely McWheel 75mm/78a.
Width: The width of a wheel is technically the distance from the outer to inner edge of the urethane, however, most often width is measured by the contact patch of the wheel. The contact patch of the wheel is the width of the wheel physically in contact with the ground, excluding the any extra urethane that may be rounded or beveled to make the edge of the wheel. Generally, the wider the contact patch, the more grip a wheel will have, but the durometer (we'll get to that shortly) of the wheel will be a factor in grip.
Edge Type or Lips
The lips of a wheel refer to the very edges of the wheel and vary in shape and thickness.
-Round Lips: Have a rounded appearance and allow the wheel to break traction for slides easier. See Orangatang Stimulus or Abec 11 Freeride
-Square Lips: Have a sheer drop of at the end of the wheel, giving it a squared appearance. This allows for a maximal contact patch, and more grip. See Abec 11 Centrax or Abec 11 Retro BigZigs
-Beveled Lips: Have an angle at the end of the wheel, giving it a sharp, triangle appearance. This allows for a mix of slide and grip. See Fireball Beast or Fireball Incendo
-Thick vs. Thin Lips: The thickness of a wheels lip refers to the depth of urethane near the outer edges and is generally applied to wheels with square lips. The thicker the lip of a wheel is, the more elasticity it has when deformed in a turn, allowing for a higher rebound and easier return to center, especially at high speeds. A thicker lip will also resist deformation while turning and slide out easier.
Durometer (softness/hardness of wheels)
The durometer of a wheel is not really part of a wheel’s anatomy, but more like its physiology. Durometer refers to the measurement of the hardness of the rubbery polyurethane and is represented by a number and a letter, which will always be an "a" for polyurethane. The lower the durometer the softer and more rubbery the wheel is. Most wheels range from 75a to 99a, where 99a would be a very hard shortboard wheel.
The durometer often comes into play when understanding how you want your wheel to slide. A higher durometer/less flexible rubber will slide better, where a lower durometer/more flexible rubber will grip. “Grippy” wheels are generally found between 75a-78a; Freeride wheels are generally found in the 80A-87a; and park/slide wheels are found in the 90a+.
It should also be noted that durometer plays a role in the speed of the wheel. Since lower durometer wheels grip the road better, that friction will also slow the wheel down. A harder wheel will have less friction and keep its momentum longer. Again, it often comes down to an experienced rider’s personal preference for durometer to choose where he or she feels most comfortable as far as grip and speed are concerned.
The core is a circular hard plastic (or sometimes hard urethane or aluminum) ring that seats the bearings and gives the rubbery polyurethane a place to attach. For the average rider, the size and shape of the core will make little difference, but it should be noted that a larger core will allow for less deformation of the surrounding urethane, often enhancing the slidability of the wheel.
What is really important about the core is its placement within the wheel and its effects on traction. When, going into a slide, the wheels will have the most force put in the inner lip of the wheel. Depending on where the core is placed inside the wheel will determine how much urethane is available to aid the wheels grip. The three core placements are: center set, offset, and side set.
-Centerset: Centerset cores are often found in wheels made exclusively for sliding. This is because you can flip them around (given the urethane shape is symmetrical) and prolong their life. However, contrary to this thought, centerset wheels have the most effective grip. To overcome this for a sliding wheel, the durometer is often high and the contact patch is small.
-Offset: As logically implied, the offset core is placed off center, closer to the inner side of the wheel. Most wheels you will come across in the longboarding world have offset cores because they offer a nice balance of grip and slip to fit almost any ride. If certain characteristics of a wheel are desired, the shape, thickness, and durometer of the urethane is modified to fit the designers purpose.
-Sideset: Sideset wheels have a core that is placed very close to the inner lip of the wheel. Sideset wheels are notorious for effortless slides due to the minimal urethane on the inner-lip that would be used for traction. Anyone who has heard of the legendary slide of the “Blue Kryptos” knows the effects of a side set wheel.
Breaking In Your Wheels
Taking your wheel out for a rough DH/sliding session as a first ride is not really a great idea. When you get a wheel it will have a shiny rubber surface that should be worn down to a smooth, but not slick texture before a heavy session. To do this, simply take a nice carving, cruising session for thirty minutes to an hour with minimal sliding. Not breaking in your wheels before riding will run the risk of causing “chunking” or damaging the wheel’s outer lips. A common trend in freeride wheels is to have their surface stone ground so they are ready to slide right out of the box, eliminating the need to break in the wheels as much, if at all.
Like any vehicle, a longboard is only safe to ride if you know how to stop it. There are a number of different braking techniques employed by longboarders, some of which are described below:
Carving- Carving is an effective way to control speed when traveling downhill. Instead of coming to a complete stop, the rider makes a continuous "S" path by leaning left and right. By making so many turns the speed can be controlled and maintained.
Air brake – Air braking uses the idea of wind resistance to slow down at high speeds. Standing upright, the rider stretches his arms out to either side, slowing down (a little).
Slide brake – Also called a power slide, this type of breaking is used mainly by downhill longboarders to come to a complete stop very quickly. Essentially, the rider makes a rapid, controlled turn sideways, often placing a hand on the cement to steady him or herself (for this reason, protective gloves are necessary accessories for most bombers).
Foot brake – If you’re just trying to slow down a little, you can run the sole of your shoe along the road, dragging it to decrease your speed. Foot braking requires good balance and sturdy shoes.
Sit brake – This is where a rider sits down on his board, sled-style, and uses his outstretched feet to slow the board to a stop. Because it requires a lot of effort and balance to get into the seated position, and because of the damage it causes to shoes, sit braking is not a preferred method of stopping among most longboarders.
When it comes to stopping on a longboard, riding the momentum out is almost always the best option. This means bombing a hill with a long, flat section at the bottom, allowing you to slow to a stop over some distance. Riding out your line is the safest option in most cases and causes the least damage to your board and shoes. Pumping a skateboard evokes the same feeling as pumping on a swing set. As you ride, use your legs and hips to shift the momentum towards the front of the board, like surfers do to increase or maintain their speed. The goal is to move the board forward without ever touching your feet to the pavement. (Some people go on long-distance pumping rides where they see how far they can go before using their feet.)