When he's not selling vintage recording equipment, painting, writing, DJing, or performing in his bands Coleman Youngbloods, Pinkeye, or Red China, Mike Ross likes to make skateboards.
"I was in Hawaii with my wife, and I had been looking for a longboard for a while," says Ross, who has been skateboarding casually since he was a kid (full disclosure: Ross is an occasional contributor to Metro Times). "I didn't want to just get a Sector 9 or whatever — with a longboard, I felt like there was a little bit more room to do something that was kind of handcrafted or whatever," he says. Ross eventually found a guy who made beautiful surfboards and longboards, which is when his wife made the simple suggestion that he should try to make his own.
"I had done some woodworking," Ross says. "It was a lot of trial and error. I didn't read anything — there wasn't really anything that said how to make a skateboard, at least a few years ago. At the time, I just kind of winged it. There was a few broken boards in the beginning."
Ross guides us through his basement workshop, where skateboards are strewn among many musical instruments. He says he started by using his old skateboards as molds to make new ones, using thin layers of wood, bonded together with wood glue, and pressed together with clamps to assume the curves of the mold.
"It was sort of half-assed, but it worked," he laughs. More recently, a friend who works at the foundry at the College for Creative Studies helped him make some new molds out of iron.
Ross then takes the glued-together wood and decides what shape to cut out of it. He takes a piece of paper and folds it in half, and cuts a pattern out of it. "Kind of like cutting a paper snowflake," he says.
Ross creates original artwork for his boards, which he etches into the board by wood-burning the design into the surface and painting it. It's a practice he also stumbled into.
"I had an old board from like 1986 that I skated when I was, like, 13 years old," he says. "It was all beat up. The edges were all frayed and cracked. I dug it out of my parents' attic." Ross wanted to cut it down into a new shape and sand it down, but wanted to preserve the image that was on it — "a cool skull with its mouth hanging open" by skateboard designer John Grigley. "So I thought, if I wood-burned the outline of the design, then I'll still have it."
Ross recently exhibited his boards as art at a show at Hamtramck's Cafe 1923. He sells the boards, which he says are rideable, mostly through word of mouth under the banner "Algae Skateboards," an offshoot of his label Algae Tapes & Records. "Aside from making them look cool, my main concern is how the boards actually ride," he says. "That was the main point of the trial and error when I started, getting the right combination of woods so that the boards are flexible enough to feel really good but also strong enough to ride hard." — mt
Find out more about Algae Skateboards at facebook.com/algaeskateboards.