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By: Kyle DuVall

Evolution Of Shape

Start with his first pro model for Powell Peralta in 1988 and follow history forward to today’s line of Street Plant decks, and it’s easy to see that Mike Vallely has a unique perspective on the last 30 years of deck shapes.

“I started skateboarding in 1984 and, even then, skateboard design was already behind when it came to the real life application of what us kids were doing out in the streets,” Vallely explains. “In 1986 when I started skating for Powell Peralta, I drilled the nose of my Lance Mountain board back so that I could actually use it for tricks. Stacy Peralta tripped out on what I was doing trick wise and the fact that the boards he was making were too slow to adapt to what we were doing on them.”

In ’88, when Vallely’s first pro model was released, most “street” boards were still scaled down vert shapes with flared tails and rounded or pointed noses. Vallely was hoping for something different with his debut deck: a real “street” shape. Powell Peralta, however, was not quite ready for what he had in mind.

“When I put out my first pro model in 1988, the nose was considered big by the standards of the day. I actually wanted an even bigger nose but Powell Peralta saw it as too much of a risk in the market place.”

vallely-1988_June

It wasn’t Vallely’s perfect vision of a street deck, but the Elephant was still significantly different from the other big sellers in the Powell line. Not only was the nose longer than the norm by a couple of inches, but it was squared at the end, mimicking a shape pioneered by another street innovator, Neil Blender. The contours also gave the deck a pretty consistent width from tip to tail. There’s no deep inward curve into the rear truck area, no fishtail shape to the tail.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can even see hints of the most influential deck Vallely ever rode in that less-than ideal Powell deck: The Elephant’s squared nose and blunt tail, its subtly curved but relatively consistent width down the rail are both prescient of what was to come; Shave off the Elephant’s money bumps and tack on more nose and you’ve got something close to the legendary World Industries Vallely Barnyard.

Slow to react to innovations in the street, the double-tail Barnyard, however, was a board that could have never happened at Powell Peralta.

“World Industries was smaller and nimbler and more in tune with what was happening in the streets,” recalls Vallely. “And so, working directly with Steve Rocco and Rodney Mullen, we introduced the Barnyard Board in 1989.”

The Barnyard, which became one of the highest selling skate decks of all time, was not the first to introduce a “double tail” design, but it was the the first board a pro skater was wiling to stake his name on. It was also a slight refinement of the simple “Two tails stuck together” concept of previous “double tail” boards. More rounded tail edges, a slightly ovoid shape through the rails and a slightly shorter nose which allowed more power when popping from the front foot in switch and nollie tricks, all helped make the Barnyard a key step in the future of deck shapes.

“I was going out on a limb design-wise by putting my name on that board” says Vallely. “There were symmetrical boards before it but this is the one that stuck, that people remember. I rode it hard and proved it to be functional but I never really thought of it as anything but another fun shape. I never imagined it would become the prototype for the industry standard popsicle.”

Center Spread 1990. Barnyard.

But by 1993, the revolution kickstarted by the Barnyard really had dead-ended with the standardization of deck shapes into the modern, straight-railed, symmetrically shaped “popsicle”. Alternate shapes became all but nonexistent for the next decade.

“I continually wanted to remain open and creative with board design but very few brands were willing to gamble,” says Vallely.

To be fair, the popsicle seemed to work quite well for everyday skaters and for Vallely. Nevertheless, by the early 2000’s, Vallely, and some of his peers at Black Label were beginning to seriously think about alternative deck shapes.

“When I started skating for Black Label in ’98 it was an awakening for what was to come,” says Vallely.

Label Teammate Jason Adams soon began riding the first tapered nose “punk point” boards the industry had seen in a decade. Jeff Grosso’s enduringly popular shovel nosed shape was in the mix. Old innovations were being repurposed. Vallely was taking notes, but when it came to his personal skating, it was not quite time for experimentation.

“I was in a very high performance mode during that time and completely unable and unwilling to mess with what was and had been working for me, what I had been riding since 1995: the popsicle.”

However, time on the road observing the broadening demographic of skating at the beginning of the 2000’s convinced Vallely that maybe the time had come for substantial experimentation.

“When I started Vallely Skateboards in 2003 my intention was to create a line of shaped boards very similar to what I’m doing now with Street Plant,” explains Vallely, “but I hit a roadblock with my partners and my distributor, who didn’t want to gamble on such a concept. When that brand folded and I ended up riding for Element there wasn’t even a conversation to be had… It was a popsicle and you’ll like it.”

The undercurrents that Vallely had picked up on in the early 2000’s had only grown stronger by the time he parted ways with Element. When he started skating and developing decks for Elephant Skateboards, re-issues of old shapes and “old-school” and “cruiser” boards were becoming common (and profitable) once more. When Vallely created Elephant’s flagship shape the “Street Axe”, it was about more than cashing in on a trend. The Street Axe, even with its 9.5″ width, deep curves and large flared tail was a shape that demanded to be shredded.

“Originally, it was supposed to just be this cruisey kind of shape,” admits Vallely, “but it had this energy to it, it became something else.”

Intentional, intuitive, or just coincidence, what Vallely and Paul Schmitt had crafted with that first Axe was definitely way more than just another cruiser. Modified from an old John Grigley shape, the Axe became Vallely’s signature stick. He rode it at the 2012 Tampa Pro contest and in several video edits for Elephant, and, although he was switching from shape to shape at the time, The Axe seemed to personify where his skating and his mindset were.

Pure, direct, powerful: The Street Axe was the ultimate functional street machine for an alternative movement on the rise in skateboarding. It was a cruiser you could get expressive on.

With its inward curves at the front and back truck, The Axe, even with its hefty 9.5” width, was tailor made for 8.5” trucks. This meant that it was incredibly agile for a board with a 15” wheelbase. The flared 7” tail gave The Axe the pop of a street board even while rolling wheels big enough to take on chunky pavement. The curves also made it incredibly light for a 9.5” deck.

That 9.5” width gave The Axe stability and a lot of extra real estate you could keep your feet on when slashing out of a slappy or bringing in a sketchy wallride. The curved rails and extra large size also made it great for one of Vallely’s signature tricks: the boneless. The outward curve in front made for a very comfortable grab, and the width at the forward truck provided a solid landing spot when stomping the front foot back down. It practically begged you to bend down, grab a rail and plant your foot.

The Street Axe soon accumulated a cult following and it became evident to Vallely that the Axes out on the street were being used for much more than coffee cruising and beer runs. When it was time for The Axe to evolve, Vallely took his cue not only from his own experiences with The Axe, but from the video clips and photos The Axe’s devotees shared with him via social media.

“The changes to the Street Axe are inspired by the direction skaters were taking it in the street,” explains Vallely. “It’s a response to what I was seeing.”

One of the biggest changes is in the new Axe’s nose. An inch and a half longer than the original Axe, the new Axe’s nose is big enough to slap into a stable nose slide or twist into a crooked grind. More real estate beyond the front bolts also makes for more comfortable nose manuals, not to mention more forward sliding room for popping and tweaking ollies.

The wheelbase has dropped as well, a full half inch, from 15” on the original to 14.5”.

Street Axe 2015.

“I have always adapted my skating to what I’m riding, and respond to the board whatever it is,” explains Vallely. “But, for me, personally, I felt that a 15” wheelbase was a bit limiting, and making The Axe more maneuverable fits in with where people were taking it.”

As nice as it felt to have that extra room when coming out of a sketchy wall ride or bringing in a boneless, the full 9.5” width of The Axe might have been just a little too much of a good thing. The new Axe’s 9” width still gives plenty of landing room and stability, but makes the board a little more agile for expressive skating and even more open to flipping. At 9” the inward curving shape at the trucks still makes it compatible with 8.5” hangers. The wide, solid 7” fish tail of the original Axe is tightened up as well, but just a little. The new Axe’s tail is an eighth of an inch shorter and a bit narrower, but still maintains the squared, shape of the original. This means the pop is powerful, and a tiny bit more vertical, but just as stable and dependable when you drive your foot down.

The new Axe also boasts a different concave with a deeper and more rounded front foot area for more comfortable foot placement and a bit more catch on the side for flicking a kick flip.

Photo: Mark Nisbet.

Photo: Mark Nisbet.

For the new Street Axe “Engineered For The Streets” is not just a slogan. Trimmed of the previous version’s affectations and made more functional, the Street Axe is now leaner, meaner, and more focused; A board that merges expression, inspiration and innovation. It’s the “Barnyard” of shaped decks: a radical shift inspired by where skateboarding is going and where it has been.

Where are you going to take the new Street Axe?

Kyle DuVall has been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding.