History of Santa Cruz Skateboards (NHS Factory)

Updated: January 21, 2023 | Archive

One of the most innovative and dynamic skateboard companies to emerge in the 1970’s was Northern California’s NHS. From boards to wheels to trucks, NHS has been at the forefront of skateboard making. One of their biggest innovations had to do with wheel bearings.

The shift from the clay to the urethane skateboard wheel was a major breakthrough in skateboard technology and led to a revival of the sport in the early ’70’s. Although not quite approaching the same level of breakthrough as urethane, when wheels went from 64 loose ball bearings to precision bearings, there was immediate positive impact on the world of skateboarding.

The story of how wheels moved from loose ball bearings to precision begins with a surfboard company. In the early 1970’s three surfing buddies, Richard Novak, Doug Haut, and Jay Shuirman, got together to make surfboards. The trio worked out of the back of the Santa Cruz Surf Shop and eventually took the name NHS (from their initials). In 1973, NHS found themselves with a surplus of fiberglass and no customers, so they started to think about other applications. They came up with the idea of making skateboards. Thus, Santa Cruz Skateboards was born.

One day, while Richard and Jay were assembling loose ball bearing wheels onto trucks, something happened that wound up changing the entire skateboard industry. By accident, Jay spilled a wooden cask of nearly 100,000 individual loose ball bearings! After this incident, a man by the name of Tony Roderick walked into the shop. Tony was from a Rhode Island company called Quality Products. Holding a sealed precision bearing in his hand, Tony wondered if there was an application for skateboard wheels. With Quality Products heading up production and NHS handling the marketing and sales, the Road Rider precision skateboard wheels as born. The year was 1975.

Road Riders started out with their #2 model and progressed to sizes #4, #6, and the Henry Hester model for slalom. Eventually they made harder pink-colored wheels for park riding. Without question, red Road Rider wheels were attached to many trucks during 1970’s. As well, hundreds of thousands of OJ’s, Speed Wheels, and Bullets have been purchased by skaters. All of them come from NHS.

But Santa Cruz’s innovations didn’t stop with wheels. They created graphite-loaded slalom boards, were one of the first manufacturers out with five-ply boards, and Jay Shuirman was instrumental in the development of Independent Trucks. Tragically, Jay died in 1979 of leukemia.

The new person to head up Research and Development at NHS was former skateboard test pilot and freestyler Tim Puimarta. From the start Tim worked on a number of important projects, including the addition of an extra two plys of wood to the five-ply boards and working with silk screen technologies to achieve full images on boards (i.e., the Olson checkerboard design).

In the early 1980’s, Tim started working on a variety of board designs. He worked on concave shapes and developed the first upturned nose. “The one thing I never did was copy anyone. There was just something in my nature that said I don’t want to ever copy anyone.”

Many skaters active in the 1980’s remember Cell Blocks — the first stackable, colored riser pads. Black Top skateboards were another of Tim’s innovations: “They had black fiberglass on top of laminated wood. Literally, out of the tens of thousands Black Top skateboards we ever made, only one came back broke.”

In 1989, Tim took skateboarding to the next level and came up with Everslick, a specific type of thermoplastic that covered the bottom of the board. Tim remembers a pro skater exclaiming, “Oh my God! You can slide over anything!” Santa Cruz Skateboards was fast out of the gate with Everslick. “We got to market fast it took two weeks from conception to production.” At first many people thought the idea was crazy, but as Tim recalls “within six months everyone had copied it.”

In 1994, an industrial product designer came to Santa Cruz with an idea for making plastic, injection-molded snowboards. “He had this stuff he’d lifted from Lockheed — definitely Stealth Bomber stuff,” recalls Tim. Both Richard Novak and Tim immediately thought “skateboard.” From this concept came “NuWood,” a board you can drive a car over or leave out in the rain for a thousand years without damage. The interesting thing about NuWood is that it is the world’s first truly recyclable skateboard. When a rider is finished with it, they can send it back to NHS, who will grind it up and make a new one.

One of the most recent products to emerge from NHS is grip tape featuring full-color graphics. “Our president, Bob Denike, wanted some sort of innovation to grip tape. We code-named it wacky tape. I found a way to put photos into grip tape.” It took about eight months for Tim to develop this new tape, now called Roofies.

Tim Puimarta is humble about the skateboard research and development that he has done for the past two decades. While some of his ideas have failed to take off, most have been incredibly successful. “If I have one strength it is that I can take our team riders’ language, emotion, and feedback, and translate it into a three-dimensional object that can be mass produced. If there’s a theme to what I’ve done, it is building value into what a skater buys.”

2023 Update

Santa Cruz Skateboards (aka N.H.S.) started up in 1973 with three people: Richard Novak, Doug Haut and Jay Shuirman). As we are now in 2023, they are celebrating 50 years in business – quite a milestone!

In 1999, when I featured the company’s history in my book, I had no idea that eventually, I’d be working closely with their most famous artist – Jim Phillips.

I was able to work with Jim on a cover for Concrete Wave Magazine. It remains my favorite cover. It sure felt at times I was that guy on the skateboard being chased by the monster. The monster of course was just a metaphor for what you’d call those who dislike change within skateboarding!

In 2017, Jim was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame for his incredible contributions, which include the Independent Truck Logo and the ubiquitous “Screaming Hand” graphic.

Santa Cruz got inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. When I started up International Longboarder Magazine, the company decided to relaunch the Road Rider brand, and they took out an ad – which was pretty cool.

Over the next two decades, I got the opportunity to meet and work with a number of Santa Cruz folks. I recall bringing my son to their sprawling warehouse and chatting with Richard Novak and Doug Haut. I worked closely with former 80’s pro, Jeff Kendall, who headed up their marketing department.

But it is Jim Phillips who provided me with one of my best skateboard moments. I had a chance to hang out with him at his home in Santa Cruz. He was such a gracious host and answered all my questions and took my oogling of his incredible artwork all in stride.

I was able to feature Jim’s artwork in the magazine and in what is perhaps one of my more unique ideas – I asked artists to create a tribute to the screaming hand.

Michael Brooke

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