Backyard Mini Ramps
Posted on December 6, 2014
If we had a scene that was specifically ours, it was backyard mini ramps. When I started high school in 1988, the vert ramp scene that had flourished up and down the east coast was on its way out. If you are interested, that scene is nicely documented over at House of Steam. In the late ’80s vert went out of fashion among the kids. The few backyard vert ramps still around were primarily skated by an older crowd. My high school years, 1988-1992, perfectly coincided with what was a major transition period in skateboarding. The release of The Search for Animal Chin in 1987 marks the apex of vert’s popularity. By the following year, street skating had begun to take prominence and the ‘80s vert pros were starting to look like relics from an earlier era. Across the country, city kids flocked to urban plazas, such as Love Park or Embarcadero for example, and these hot spots would soon launch the new technical style of street skating that took over in the mid ‘90s. The boards changed to match this emerging style of skating, acquiring bigger, steeper noses, slowly shrinking and losing their shapes. By 1993, they had become the familiar popsicle shape, almost indistinguishable from today’s modern boards. It seems fitting that since we happened to come up during this transitional phase, we primarily chose to skate something that was in itself in between. As suburban kids, we too skated a lot of street. We also skated a little bit of vert. We mostly skated mini ramps.
The skateboarding craze of the mid ’80s was over by the time I entered high school. Of Team PEB, Eddie still skated but went off to a different school. Brian, like most of the other boys, had lost interest and stopped. Jeff B was a year ahead of me, so I was, for all intents and purposes, the only incoming freshman from my middle school who still skated. Two middle schools primarily fed into my high school. The second served the next neighborhood to the north, Cockeysville. Unlike my middle school, many of the Cockeysville kids still skated. Most of them would slowly quit during that first year as well but those that didn’t became the core of my skate crew and some of my closest friends. I met the first of them, Marc, my very first day at high school. He was in my homeroom and I recognized him from Lutherville. Through him, I gradually met the rest of the Cockeysville skaters, specifically Young and a second Jeff, Jeff R.
During those four years, both Jeffs had backyard mini ramps. So did a number of acquaintances. There were many more ramps scattered throughout the small section of Baltimore County of which we were aware. I imagine this was true for much of the suburbs across the nation at this time. It was a uniquely suburban phenomenon. You needed space not available in the cities to build these ramps but you also needed a certain amount of population density. In rural areas a vert ramp could be a destination, people would drive distances to skate it. No one traveled very far to skate a tiny mini ramp. You went to the one down the street instead. If there wasn’t one down the street you built one somewhere. What we had was a loose, shifting network of ramps. Some of them lasted years, some only lasted months. The key was that there were a lot of them. Every suburban skater with an indulgent or unconcerned parent built a ramp at some point. We floated between all of them. There was always a nearby ramp to skate.
The first ramp I ever skated was horrible. It was some garbage ramp in a clearing in a wooded, undeveloped lot. I don’t know who built it or when. It was probably boys a few years older than we were, a few years before. Whoever it was had obviously never built a ramp before. It was four feet wide with no decks and no flat. It wasn’t built with templates, just random crossed 2x4s creating uneven transitions on both sides. In spite of these obvious failings, I skated it a number of times and learned to pump and kick turn. There were quite a number of these crappy ramps strewn around my neighborhood, built by enthusiastic but unskilled twelve year olds, or worse yet their fathers. Those ramps were always the worst because that well meaning but ignorant adult would inevitably build something that was virtually unskateable. That hulking, creaking deathtrap would then sit unused in the backyard for a few months, slowly rotting before finally being torn down. I skated many of these. They were like four feet wide, splintery wooden roller coasters. The challenge was just to see if you could even ride on them, much less do any tricks. As young teens, we prowled the surrounding neighborhoods looking for these ramps.
I’m happy to say we never built one of these garbage ramps ourselves. I don’t know exactly why that is. I don’t think that we were any smarter or more competent than any of the other kids. We definitely never had the Thrasher Ramp Plans that is the header image of this post. We must have gotten some word of mouth advice from older boys and cut our teeth building launch ramps and quarter pipes first. Still, each time we built a ramp it was a learning experience. New problems were encountered and new solutions devised. Each ramp was like a barn raising, the community would come together to build them. Every skater associated with the crew would stop by to lend a hand. This shared experience meant that the mini ramps in my area became increasingly well built and more sophisticated with each passing generation. We learned to use power tools. We learned about chalk lines and levels. We learned how to draw our transitions. We learned the proper orientation of the 2x4s and to use screws, not nails. We learned cross bracing. We learned to use at least two layers of plywood and to stagger the seams. We learned the appeal of smooth top layers and that Masonite was not a good solution. It seemed perfect at first. Then it got dusty and slippery. Then, once rained on a few times, it turned in to a sodden mess the equivalent of wet cardboard. We used Lauan after that. We learned that PVC cracks quickly and makes poor coping. We learned how to drill metal coping. We learned to use post-hole diggers and sink 4x4s into concrete as corner posts.
Jeff B was the first of my friends to have a backyard ramp. After a summer of skating the mini ramp at Lutherville, he must have decided that he wanted one of his own. Like much of the rest of this blog, the time line is very hazy. I’ve consulted many of the people mentioned in this post and everyone has a different idea of when these things may have happened. So what I am presenting here is not a strict chronology. We must have built this first small ramp sometime during my ninth grade year, before the summer of 1989. Jeff B lived only two blocks away from me and I skated with him daily so I feel like I must have had a hand in this ramp’s construction but I honestly can’t remember building it at all. It was small at three feet high and eight feet wide, so it wouldn’t have required too much. I don’t have much memory of actually skating this ramp either but I must have learned a fair amount on it. A year or so later, when that ramp eventually came down, I wanted to move it to my backyard but my father wouldn’t have it. Instead I took one side of it, rebuilt it to strengthen it and wedged it in as a quarter pipe at the end of my driveway, sandwiched between our garage and basketball hoop.
That first mini was taken down because Jeff B had decided to build a new ramp and, despite what I said at the beginning of this post, the second ramp he chose to build was a vert ramp. What we built was ten feet high with a foot of vert, sixteen feet wide and had twelve feet of flat. It was huge for us at the time. I took an intimate part in building this one. I drew up the plans. I designed it modularly. We built the flat, decks and transition in sections and everything slotted together and then screwed in to place. The end result wasn’t perfect. In spite of some work with shovels flattening out the ground and spending a lot of time with strings it still wasn’t quite level. One side sat higher than the other did and it tilted laterally ever so slightly. It wasn’t bad enough that it effected the skating but it was bad enough to bother the perfectionist in me. It probably wouldn’t have been much different if we had built it on the fly, but with my planning we knew exactly how much wood we needed. This was important because as teenagers we didn’t have much money. We pooled our lawn mowing earnings and bought some of the wood. We recycled some of the old ramp. The rest… we stole as much of the rest as we could.
It’s an old joke among skaters of a certain age that you built your ramps with wood stolen from construction sites. It’s also true. I think for us, it all started with one piece of coping. We found a perfect sized pipe at a new building site roughly a mile from Jeff B’s house. We put that pipe on our skateboards and precariously wheeled it home. That area of Baltimore County, from Towson through to Hunt Valley, was just beginning what was to be a long and extended period of growth. There was new construction everywhere, from housing developments to strip malls. This was before security cameras were cheap and ubiquitous and contractors would just stack their wood up, unguarded, at the sites. Most of our thefts were fairly innocuous, at least as innocuous as theft gets. We were young teenagers on foot and could only manage a few 2x4s or sheets of plywood at most. We would just cherry pick a few sites. Most of these thefts were simply crimes of opportunity; we saw some wood we could use so we took it. Later, when we were driving, there were definitely some more egregious thefts, where we would load up the car with as much wood as could fit.
We built Jeff B’s vert ramp this way, in fits and starts. Through the cold spring of that year, we worked on it whenever we had some wood. We cut and assembled everything in an old shed in his backyard. The ramp was finished by the summer. The final piece was the second piece of coping. A young man in the neighborhood who worked for a building supplier got us a discount on that. I mowed his and his father-in-law’s lawns and his mother was Jeff B’s neighbor. I think he was fascinated with what we were doing and it is because of him the ramp lasted as long as it did. The ramp sat only a few feet from his mother’s bedroom window and she started to complain about the noise almost immediately. He helped mediate that ongoing dispute but of course couldn’t help with the noise complaints from other neighbors. We stuffed the underneath of the ramp with old carpet pieces and then sealed it in to try to muffle the sound as much as possible. County inspectors came out several times and it always seemed like it was on the verge of getting shut down, but that summer we padded up and skated it daily. I learned the basics, like rock ‘n’ rolls, axle stalls and low, early grab frontside and backside airs. That was about the limit of my ability on vert. Jeff B was, of course, much better than I was but at some point he decided to cut the ramp down to a more manageable six feet. My memory is unclear about when this happened. We could have done this as early as that fall but I would assume that we cut it down the following spring, as ramp building was generally seasonal. After each winter, all the teenage suburban skaters would emerge from hibernation and decide to build a new ramp somewhere. What I do remember is I cut down one side of the ramp completely by myself. Oblivious to safety as boys are, I was underneath the ramp, cutting through the last template when it collapsed on me. I wasn’t hurt, more out of dumb luck than anything else, but it scared the hell out of a watching neighbor. Despite all that unsupervised time with power tools, no one was ever really injured. The most serious injury was when I stepped on a nail. That one went a little like this:
“The soles of these shoes are really thick. Look! This nail sticking out of this 2×4 won’t even go through them. Look, I’ll put all my weight on it! Ouch!”
I digress; anyway, the smaller version of this ramp was a lot of fun. The vert ramp was too intimidating for me. Cut down, it was large for a mini at six feet but with those big transitions and the huge flat it seemed mellow. Yet, although it was so close to my house, I spent more time skating another ramp. This was the other Jeff, Jeff R’s ramp, or Dookie Ramp as it became known.
Inspired by a trip to Jeff B’s first mini the summer of 1989, Jeff R and the Cockeysville kids built a small mini sometime during our sophomore year. They built it in a field between an elementary school and small stand of trees. It was at the end of the dead end street on which Jeff R lived and just a block or so from Marc’s house as well. While we skated with the Cockeysville kids on occasion, our two groups hadn’t really merged yet. That happened because of Dookie Ramp. In its first incarnation, it was a small four feet high, eight feet wide ramp. It wasn’t perfect but it was fun. It wasn’t even that badly built but we took to calling it Shit Ramp for one reason or another. Eddie, whose parents were strict about cursing, made that name more polite and christened it Dookie Ramp. That was so stupid it stuck. Except for Jeff B none of us were driving yet so we had to skate to the ramp. Being in Cockeysville that meant I would go after school sometimes but otherwise it was just a bit too far, so I didn’t skate it very often. That changed the summer of 1990. Built on county property and subject to lots of complaints Jeff R eventually had to tear the ramp down. Yet instead of destroying it, he moved it in to his backyard. He didn’t just move it, he built a new, sixteen feet wide, four feet high ramp and attached the old eight feet wide ramp as a spine. When I heard a new ramp was being built, I was excited to help. I enjoyed the planning and problem solving, but the new Dookie Ramp went up so fast I missed my opportunity. I was taking driver’s ed after school that spring and I remember stopping by after my lessons one day, only to find everyone hard at work and the ramp almost complete. I was both excited and disappointed. They hadn’t needed my help, though. What Jeff R built was fantastic, it was significantly better than the first version. That ramp lasted somewhere around two years, or at least two summers, which is almost unheard of for backyard ramps. It was the perfect size for me. Once a ramp got over four feet I started to lose tricks, any smaller and it felt like a toy ramp. I could do more at Dookie Ramp than anywhere else. We skated it, if not daily, then close to that. I think I can safely say I skated this ramp more than any other. Random friends and acquaintances would sometimes stop by but, by and large, it was normally just the six of us.
I don’t have any pictures of it. What I do have is video. Sometime, most likely the summer of 1991, I borrowed Jeff B’s video camera and filmed a video. The camera was slightly damaged so the original recordings weren’t great. I then edited the video by dubbing from VCR to VCR. I dubbed on to a used tape. That tape then sat around for twenty some years before I finally digitized it. This is the long-winded way of saying that the video quality is horrible. I will be presenting selections from it as historical documents for this and some upcoming posts anyway. If you watch long enough you can sometimes make out what is happening. I apologize in advance.
Featured are me, Eddie, Young and both Jeffs. Marc is unfortunately MIA for this session.
Most of the local skaters knew each other and hung out at the same spots. While Eddie, Jeff B, Jeff R, Marc and Young may have been my core group of friends, there was a larger, looser network of kids that all skated together. Some of them had ramps as well. Chris, one of the slightly older guys, had a giant monster of a ramp farther up north. Clark had a small mini. I didn’t know Clark that well. All I really remember about him is that he had dreads. Long hair and dreadlocks were particularly popular in Baltimore County at the dawn of the ‘90s. It wasn’t a hippie or surfer kind of thing, though there were a handful of white Rastas. Our style was more an anticipation of the coming grunge fad. Like skateboarding, sub-cultures were also in shift during this period, with the ’80s stalwarts of punks, skins and goths fading out in favor of the more generic alternative. I had let my squeeb grow out past my shoulders but my hair was thin and straight so I normally kept it pulled back and wore a hat. Marc, with his much thicker hair, had some of the nastiest dreads, just big tangled, matted clumps.
A younger boy, Mike, also had a ramp. If I remember correctly it was a small mini, good for technical tricks but overall a bit boring after a while. Mike was one of the only younger kids we associated with. The only other one of note was Brandon Novak. Now known primarily for his drug problems and affiliation with Bam Margera, back then he was a wunderkind Powell Peralta prospect that my friends used to drive around to contests. There weren’t many other younger kids skating. Despite what Denny Riordon said in his interview, I do think skating kind of died at the start of the ’90s. In our area it had shrunken down to a small handful of core skaters. As I talked about in some of the first posts, those of us of the Bones Brigade generation grew up when it seemed like almost every kid skated or at least owned a skateboard. Boys had to have been of a certain age to catch on to this craze. You had to have been a tween in 1986. Much younger and you were still too much of a child; older and the Bones Brigade began to look like “cheesy boy scouts”, as their contemporaries labeled them. As the massive amount of mid ’80s skater kids slowly thinned throughout the rest of the decade there was very little in the way of younger kids replenishing the ranks.
For a couple of years we were dependent on the older Jeff B to drive us around. Once we were all driving many more spots opened up for us. Many of the ramps I skated I never even met the owner. It’s strange to think about now, but we would just drive somewhere, park and walk into some stranger’s backyard uninvited and skate their ramp for a few hours. Often it was only us there. Some of these houses were seemingly abandoned, we never saw anyone home. A few of the ones we went to more frequently were a five foot mini in Towson, a big, near vert ramp in Hunt Valley and a smaller ramp out across from the horse farms in the area my mother always called “the valley”. There were many more.
Then there were also kids who we knew but didn’t hang out with, except to skate their ramps. One of the better ramps in the area was one of these. It was in the backyard of this boy Kevin. Kevin and I had gone to middle school together and I think we even attended the same church but I don’t think I knew that Kevin even skated until I heard he had a ramp. He had his own group of friends that didn’t interact with mine. I didn’t like him. It wasn’t anything personal or that he had went to a different high school, it was that he was in a different clique. He was more hip hop and we were shaggy haired punk kids. There was definitely an enmity between our groups at the time. It was the narcissism of small difference. I only skated his ramp a few times because of this, which is a shame because that ramp was great. It was very wide, taking up almost his entire backyard, and very smooth. It was also tricky. One side was flat while the other side was eight feet even, an eight foot escalator and than eight feet of extension. I sprained my ankle there during one of the first days of my junior year. I did a backside disaster slide up the escalator and came in at that weird angle. I slid out and my ankle turned under me. It was a bad enough sprain that it put me off the board for close to six months. I never fully recovered. My ankle was fine but I was much more cautious after that. I held back a lot more. That injury also led almost directly to me losing my virginity. I had to sit out of gym class and I met a goth girl who was also sitting out the class, but that is a story for another kind of blog.
Jimmy was another guy from outside of our group who had a ramp. I knew him through Eddie but we never hung out with Jimmy, except at his ramp. I don’t think he even really skated anywhere else. He definitely never came to any of our ramps. He wasn’t part of some warring teenage faction, in fact he was a perfectly nice guy, he just wasn’t “cool”. He was rich, at least by our standards. Rich enough to have a pool and a tennis court. Jimmy and his older brother both skated, though Jimmy was the better of the two. His father had built them a giant awkward ramp in their backyard. It was pretty poorly put together but it was a lot of fun nevertheless. They had obviously not planned it out ahead of time. It was a large wide mini with a spine to a smaller mini. The far side of the larger part had an eight feet wide extension to near vert with a four foot section of extension opposite it, on the side with the spine. Instead of just making the smaller section of ramp four feet narrower to accommodate this, the extension on the spine side hung out over it instead. They rigged up some random banking there. You can see all of this below. The smaller side was also almost too tight to skate and lacked coping at the back end. The ramp was on uneven ground and up on stilts and the whole thing bounced, flexed, creaked and rattled constantly. It was still fun to skate even if his parents forced us to wear pads.
Jimmy and I skating his ramp. Filmed by Eddie.
My friends built their final ramp before the summer of 1992. The Jeffs collaborated and built it in our friend Claire’s backyard. She lived a bit farther north, in a slightly more rural area, and therefore had a much larger property and no immediate neighbors to annoy. I, oddly, had absolutely no part in the construction of this ramp. I don’t really know what I was doing that summer but I was obviously already starting to fade out from skateboarding. This was the summer before I went to college. I would move to Philadelphia that August. I took a trip to Europe at the beginning of the summer. I went to the beach for senior week and again with my family later that summer. I was working full time, or close to it, and still mowing lawns on the weekends, trying to save money for school. I went to an increasing number of punk shows and was becoming much more interested in drinking, smoking weed and chasing girls. I was still skating but I only ever skated Claire’s ramp once, and I literally mean once. I dropped in on it once, that was it. Which is a real shame because what they built was amazing. It was by far the best ramp we had built yet. It was very wide and split level. The smaller section was five feet high with metal coping, the larger, six feet with pool coping. It was slightly too big for me. I barely had any tricks on it. Then Bucky Lasek showed up. I just sat down, watched him rip it, got discouraged, gave up all together and never went back. That was the last backyard ramp I ever skated and, in hindsight, was a rather inglorious way to go out. I’m feeling frustrated and disappointed with myself right now, just typing this. I wish I would have skated it more but I can only guess my priorities were changing and it wasn’t important to me at the time. I know that all sounds pretty negative and like it is leading up to me talking about quitting, which it is, eventually, but I have a few other spots to talk about first.