When a group of designers working in the small town of Greensboro, Alabama, decided to help revive local manufacturing, they started with an overlooked resource: stands of roadside bamboo that have grown in town since the late 1880s, and that most people consider weeds. The team’s newest design reinvents the wooden skateboard in woven bamboo.
“You can end up making a pretty high-tech material in a pretty low-tech environment,” says Lance Rake, a design professor from the University of Kansas who partnered with MakeLab, a collaborative design group developing social enterprises, to design the skateboard. In 2012, the team created HERObike, a line of bikes that uses advanced techniques to create a strong bamboo frame.
The skateboard was inspired by less common methods of using bamboo. “I spent five months on sabbatical in India, learning local techniques for splitting and weaving bamboo,” Rake says. “It opens up possibilities for all kinds of products, when you can make three-dimensional forms like that. It’s strong because of the fibers being woven together. That’s what made me think skateboards would be ideal.”
Woven bamboo, on each side of the deck, sandwiches together a core made from fiberglass, balsa wood, and some carbon fiber in certain spots for extra strength. The result is a board that may actually be easier to ride than a traditional maple veneer deck.
“By layering up a composite, you can really tweak some of the performance issues,” Rake says. “You can make it stiffer in certain areas and a little more flexible in other areas. You can get some feel and also some performance that you can’t get out of a normal maple board. We just have more versatility with what we can do with it.”
The team is hoping that the uniqueness of the skateboard will help drive support for a Kickstarter campaign and future sales–and that, in turn, may bring new jobs to a town that has one of the highest poverty rates in Alabama.
So far, it hasn’t been clear that a new design industry can succeed in Greensboro; as the workshop manufactures bikes, it can only afford to employ two people full time. But the designers are hoping that will change over time.
“We’re training young people on the job to make products using local resources, and build up this sort of craft knowledge base,” says Rake. “When we started building bikes, the people didn’t have knowledge of building anything that precisely. When they have that knowledge, you can plug more products into the pipeline.”
The challenge is choosing products that can make enough money to truly grow the local economy. “We have to be able to build products that are desirable enough, done well enough, that there’s a market and a high enough price point that you can pay the people making them,” Rake says. “We’re trying to keep the price down, like everybody does, but it’s really about making sure that the value’s there that people are willing to keep paying the money to support this.”