While the tricktips on this site should go a long way to teaching you the “art” of freestyle skateboarding, they’re still only part of the equation; getting your skateboard set up just right will go a long way to improving your freestyle, particularly as you start to specialise in one or more particular type of trick. What follows is quite a long reference guide to help you understand the variables in play; you can use it to help understand the difference between the huge selection of freestyle decks available now.
Back in 1989, a certain Rodney Mullen wrote an article called “Zen and the Art of Freestyle” for Thrasher magazine. In it, he gave freestylers a whole range of advice, covering approaches to learning tricks, stylistic notes, and equipment advice. A lot of the core elements in this equipment section (wood screws, skid plates, bushings, etc.) haven’t changed a lot, but in the modern era, we have far more options available for deck design than ever before. As such, this page is my attempt at bringing Mullen’s advice up to date. I’ll stay as neutral as I can, and try to explain what every variable will help and hinder.
Note that you can do any trick on any board – there are people doing Caballerial flips and gazelles on 42″ longboards, for god’s sake. However, if you have a certain style of trick you prefer, it’s generally better to find a board more suited to that so that you’re working with your board, not fighting it.
(If you’re interested in reading Mullen’s original advice, Thrasher have provided a scan of it on their website. It’s worth a look.)
In Mullen’s piece, he wrote “small boards are best for footwork. Larger boards are best for rolling and jumping tricks like ollies, etc.” This is still solid advice – but he designated 27.5″ x 7″ as a “larger board”! Nowadays, 28.5″ x 7.3″ is roughly the “industry standard” for freestyle. These are the original dimensions of the Capital Mini from the early 2000s, which is really the most recent evolution of “board design” in freestyle – everything since has been either a derivative of that, 80s flat nose shapes or 90s popsicles.
Generally speaking, I advise people to stick to around 28″-29″, but go shorter if you’re interested in complex/fast footwork and shuvits, and longer for 50-50s (so you don’t have to bend over as much) and ollies.
There is a stylistic consideration here, too – a lot of non-ollie freestyle tricks involve having your legs at either end of the board (most notably caspers, end overs, shuvits and nosehook impossibles). If you like doing these tricks and your board is too long for you to stand at both ends of the board without stretching, your style will be noticeably affected – negatively. A longer board also gives you further to reach out for a rolling fingerflip, which can harm your back. Remember, bend at the knees, not at the back!
On the other end of the spectrum, most ollie tricks require one foot on the tail and one foot in the centre of the board, so if you’re skating something too short, you’ll look cramped up. There’s good reason why ollie tricks look most natural on a 32″ long board; it’s just ergonomically more suited to the setup position.
There are two considerations here:
Most people settle around the 7.25″-7.4″ mark because of the massive range of truck and wheel options for that size. Once you get past 10Xmm trucks, you’re stuck until you get to 126mm/129mm, which lands you around the 7.9″ mark. This isn’t optimal for a lot of freestyle, but it’s certainly workable. Bigger than that tends to look clunky, and makes rail stands seem really tall. You also have to balance ride height with deck width for reliable rail landings, so the wider your deck, the taller your trucks should be. Just something to consider.
Some people think they need wider boards because they have bigger feet. That’s not the case at all – Kevin Harris was a tall guy with huge feet who ripped on a tiny matchstick. If you’re dragging your toes, that’s you being sloppy, and not a problem with the deck.
Mullen believed in 1989 that concave “makes rail tricks unpredictable”. I’m not sure about that. However, it does cause issues with some footwork (as your feet get “locked” into the middle of the board, which is undesirable at times), caspers (as it creates a point that digs into the top of your foot), and certain kickflip variations (as you can’t grip the edge as well when it’s turned upwards).
That said, choose concave if you like doing lots of ollie tricks, as it will help your feet grip the board in mid-air. That’s what it’s designed for.
A new addition to this page comes from Beau Trifiro of Open Source Skateboards, who pointed out that concave also alters the effective height of a setup – and therefore increases the likelihood of landing in rail.
However, an additional consideration is that freestyle tricks often put a lot of strain into the boards. Concave usually adds rigidity, but sometimes it can distribute that force weirdly, and cause cracking and additional flexing.
I’ll leave this to Mullen: “Flexible boards are the worst for freestyle; they kill reaction time. A solid, fairly heavy deck is my preference because it doesn’t flip out of control and doesn’t mess up the balance and quickness with flexing.”
Save the flex for the dancing boards. Any slop in a freestyle board – whether it’s in the truck setup or the deck – is a source of unpredictability and wasted energy (in the scientific sense).
That said, since this page was originally written, I’ve come to realise that too rigid can also be a problem – the stiffest boards I ever skated were also the easiest to snap the tails off of. Like many things, there is a middle ground to be found here.
When I was young, I believed what I was told by people on the internet and came to believe that single kicks were stupid. After all, who wants to do a shuvit and end up effectively riding a different board?
Now, I’ve rejected the double kick hegemony and understand that both have their place. Kicknoses tend to benefit footwork, ollies and a certain type of skater (who likes to move fast and think less), but flat noses are hugely beneficial for pogo, casper, and fingerflip tricks.
The reasons are pretty straightforward: a flat nose is easier to stand on for a casper, it doesn’t drill the top truck into your leg as much with a no-handed pogo, and it ensures that the force applied to the board by a fingerflip is distributed along the central axis of the board, while a kicknose, being slightly off that axis, requires much more force for the same amount of flip.
My first freestyle board was a revelation to me because both ends were exactly the same – this is what we refer to as “bidirectional”. You may also hear it referred to as a “twintip” board. Coming from street boards where the nose was slightly longer and steeper, this seemed like an obvious improvement; it’s a lot easier to chain tricks together when you know the board will perform the same no matter which direction it’s facing.
However, directional boards – whether flat nose or double kick – mean that one end can be specialised for one certain type of trick while one end can be designed for another. The common single kick board in the 80s featured a square kicktail and a round nose, for example; this meant you could butterflip better on the tail, but railflip better on the nose. Sometimes a specialised board is better than a deck that is alright at everything but doesn’t do anything particularly well.
However, a badly designed directional board (i.e. one that has no reason behind its design, or one that only exists due to corner cutting or bad manufacture – such as a poor choice of mould or bad cutting from the blank) is just a waste of time. You’ll spend a lot of time fighting with it, and get very few benefits from its directionality.
Shorter noses and tails are better for ollies and impossibles (the shorter length increases the angle of the board at the moment the board pops) and 50-50s (a lower balance point), but considerably worse for caspers (less room for the foot) and wheelies (less control).
Steep tails can be hell for freestyle. They make caspers more awkward (more likely to slip off the tail; more prone to having your back foot touching/resting on the floor, more severe casper angle), fingerflips become much more difficult and laboured (see the flat nose explanation above), cause shuvit instability, and make wheelies much more twitchy. Steep tails also take some of the subtlety out of footwork as they amplify small movements and weight changes into much bigger motions.
They do, however, improve your impossibles and give you more height on ollie tricks (as they increase the angle of the board as it pops), and if you’ve got a steep nose as well, it gives you something to snag your foot on mid-ollie at the other end to drag it even higher.
Basically, steeper tails = more power, less grace.
One last thing to consider is kicktail placement. Distance between truck and kicktail can really affect the way a board performs; if there is too much space, you have a lot of wasted energy in your movements. In freestyle, this translates to a sloppy-feeling board, as anyone who’s skated both a freestyle board cut from a street mould and a proper freestyle deck will understand.
Meanwhile, at the other extreme, you have kicktails which start curving upwards straight after the truck bolts. Boards designed like this will help increase your “pop” on ollies as, like a steeper kicktail angle, they increase the angle of the board as it hits the floor. However, it will also make the board feel somewhat “leaden” underfoot, and footwork will need more effort as a result.
What I personally feel is best for freestyle is a fairly mellow kicktail angle, but one that starts near – but not right next to – the truck. After trying countless shapes and moulds, this seems to be the most reliable. Increase the kicktail angle if you like ollies, of course.
Tail shape affects six different types of trick: ollies, impossibles, fingerflips, caspers, railflips and pogos. For sake of argument, you only get three different types of tails, although some sit halfway between two styles;
Most freestyle boards have fairly straight sides (rails) for predictable rail tricks. The further the rail goes before it begins to taper, the more stable it’ll be in a rail stand, and the more rail tricks and casper disasters it can take before it needs replacing. Sometimes, a slightly tapered rail can be beneficial as it gives the foot a small amount of clearance on railwhips (360º rail shuvits while you’re stood on one wheel) and rail toespins, but it’s a fine line between aiding them and making them worse. However, an extremely tapered rail benefits certain rare rail tricks such as rail impossibles and latte flips, as it allows the nose to lift slightly more before the trick begins.
At least one deck I’ve skated had nonparallel rails – i.e. the board was narrower at the front truck than the back one. I honestly have no idea why you’d want this setup – I can’t see any obvious benefits. Again, answers on a postcard.
So, that’s my testing notes on every variable I can think of for a freestyle deck. Hopefully it’ll go some way to explaining why your favourite trick feels great/like crap on a certain board, and help you decide what exactly you want to skate in future.
For those who went TL;DR on this article, here’s a quick table as to what to look for and what to avoid for certain tricks.
|Caspers and no-handed 50-50s||Flat nose/mellow kicktails, no/mellow concave, tapered tails (for flips) or square tails (for stability)||Short and steep tails, concave (especially super-steep), round tails, long boards (30″+)|
|Fingerflips||Flat nose/mellow kicktails, rounded or tapered tails||Steep tails, square tails|
|Footwork||Flatter and shorter boards||Steep concave, steep tails|
|Impossibles||Steep, short tails||Rounded tails|
|Kickflips||Flatter and narrower boards||Steep concave, wide boards (8″+)|
|Ollieflips||Steep, short tails, steep noses, concave, longer boards (29″+)||Short boards (below 28″), flat noses, long tails|
|Pogos||Squarer ends, flat noses, mellow kicktails, short tails||Rounded tails, short boards (below 28″)|
|Rail Tricks||Directional boards, straight rails (for rail stability), tapered rails (for rail oddities)||Concave (according to Mr Mullen), tapered rails (generally), square tails (butterflips excluded)|
|Shuvits||Shorter boards (below 28″), mellow kicktails||long boards (30″+), steep kicktails|