Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Students’ longboard start-up rolls on

Longboarding is on the rise in Madison and across the nation. Most have likely seen swarms of longboarders meeting at Capitol Square, tearing down the hill on Observatory Drive or at least a few solitary riders around town.

But the boards they are riding don’t come cheap. A typical longboard, complete with wheels, bearing, trucks and so on will set you back at least $100, with the higher-end setups costing upward of $200-300. That isn’t exactly pocket change in a college student’s budget.

So it’s no surprise that some students, like Alex Ruff and Nick Ambur, have taken the board-making process into their own hands. Ruff has even helped others to learn some longboard tricks of design.


Ruff said he started longboarding last summer, and the need to build came shortly after – maybe too shortly.

“I bought a board, and five days after I bought it, it got run over by a car,” he said. “So I chopped it down and I rode it like a short one for a while, but I couldn’t really afford to buy another one, so I decided to experiment with building them.”

Just like that, an artist was born. Ruff, a fifth-year student of geology and geophysics, works in the Craftshop at Memorial Union, which gave him access to the tools and facilities necessary for experimentation.

Like a scientist in the lab or a sculptor in the studio, Ruff tested different board shapes, lengths and concave designs until he felt satisfied with his ride. A stack of worn decks tucked in the back of a closet in the woodshop testifies to the amount of time he put in.

“My philosophy has kind of always been that you can build anything; you can make anything work, if you just try,” he said. “At least try, and if I can’t make it, I guess I’ll resort to buying something.”

After mastering the art for himself, it was time to teach the craft to others. During the fall, Ruff led a Wisconsin Union mini course at the Craftshop, where he instructed students on how to design and build a longboard.

“That just came out of me working here at the Craftshop. … One day, Jay [Eckleberry] from the mini course office asked me if I’d be interested in teaching a mini course,” Ruff said, “So we sat down and did the logistics of it, … and yeah, it worked out.”

After a five-week session that met once a week for three hours, Ruff said students were leaving with two to three decks each. At a cost to students of $149 for the course, the final products students walked away with paid for themselves. To get two or three decks for that price would be a deal anywhere. Additionally, the ability to design one’s own board, custom-fitted to the rider’s needs, is about much more than sheer discount.

“A lot of my students have never really worked with wood, so it’s just kind of cool to get something that they can apply and then ride,” Ruff said. “I think it’s so rewarding to be able to ride something that you built. That’s definitely one of my favorite aspects.”

Ruff has sold a few of his boards, although he said the goal has never been to make a profit. He is more concerned with people being able to ride on a quality product. Achieving this involved a lot of experimenting.

Most of his experimentation relies on a heavy, wooden construct about a meter long: his press. Another Ruff DIY project in itself, the press clamps around layers of Baltic birch plywood to hold them together while glue dries, resulting in a multi-layer longboard deck.

If you look closely at any longboard or skateboard, you will see several layers of wood. The thickness of each layer, type of wood and shape of these layers is what gives a board its unique characteristics. A board’s strength, flexibility, shape and size are all crucial to the type of riding one does, Ruff said, whether it be slalom, sliding or just cruising.

When interviewed, Ruff was working with concave patterns in a W-shape, which he said adds strength and stability at high speeds. The slight “W” is visible when holding the board lengthwise, like a telescope. 

The press might be the most important tool in the process, but for Ruff, it also limits what he can do.

“There are some drawbacks just with my simplistic press. It doesn’t allow me to get some of the shapes that companies are coming out with now,” he said. “A lot of those manufacturers are using vacuum pressing, and they’re just using a lot more sophisticated designs, a lot more pressure, and I’m just using wood clamps.”

Vacuum pressing isn’t strictly limited to big-name manufacturers, though, nor is it impossible to do for cheap. Ambur, a third-year student and member of the University of Wisconsin longboarding club, seals his boards into shape with a vacuum press he made in his garage. The materials he used to make it include an industrial shower curtain, sealant putty and a medical suction pump borrowed from his mother, a nurse. The pump is the most recent evolution in an ongoing experiment.

“A buddy and I just decided to cut up some plywood and put skateboard trucks on it and go down a hill,” he said. “And it kind of evolved from there, I guess. I’ve never really bought a board; I’ve just kind of made them myself. That’s kind of how I got started.”

Although Ambur said he’s probably lost more boards to the vacuum pump than he’s gained, it’s all part of a process. You try something, see what works and what doesn’t, cut out what doesn’t, and move forward. Some would call this the scientific process.

For Ruff and Ambur, building longboards has saved hundreds of dollars and allowed them to progress further in a sport than they ever could have without building, they said. Their experiments with hardware have led them to more experimentation on the streets as riders, where they both go as often as possible. 

The fact that they’re riding homemade boards makes it all the more satisfying, as they put a new spin on an old adage: Give a man a longboard and he will ride until it breaks (for Ruff, that was five days); teach a man to make a longboard, and who knows where he will go with the knowledge. A good bet would be the nearest hill.

To see some of Alex Ruff’s longboards, check out his company’s Facebook page at For more information about Wisconsin Union Mini Courses, visit

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