Story by Lacey Jarrell
Photos and Multimedia by Branden Andersen
Tucked away in the single-car garage of an inconspicuous duplex in Eugene, Oregon, business partners and brothers Brian and Kurtis Hester effortlessly weave around each other, gathering tools and staging their work area with grinders, sanding pads, and saw horses. The faint sound of jazz floats them through the routine as Kurtis sands and contours a blank Canadian maple skate deck before Brian applies a carbon copy stencil to the freshly prepped wood. Shortly after stenciling, the sweet smell of burnt wood lightly threads its way across the room. Almost 20 minutes later, the process culminates as Brian puts the finishing touches on the face of a three-eyed hobo, the official company logo of Vagabond Skateboards.
At Vagabond, the Hesters draw on the same innovative spirit that inspired many of the world’s first skateboards, which were custom-made by nailing discarded roller skate wheels to a two-by-four. However, instead of haphazardly marrying two unlikely components together like their predecessors, the brothers use one-of-a-kind techniques like custom contouring and pyrography, or wood burning, to parlay used skateboards into recycled, functional works of art.
“We’re trying to bring something new to the Eugene skateboard scene, a creative outlet for ourselves and for people who want custom-made boards,” says Brian, who at 28 has been skateboarding for over half his life. A 2007 alumni, Brian graduated from the University of Oregon (UO) with a bachelor’s degree in digital arts, a major he says laid the foundation for drafting designs of his company’s unique product.
The brothers’ recycled creations have included titles such as “Death Banana,” a bright yellow skateboard redesigned in the shape of a banana with glaring eyes, bared teeth, and a pointy flared tongue, and “Tuna Fish,” a fish-shaped deck with a blue and gold scale-like pattern and anatomically correct fins. The outlines of each of the scales, as well as the fins of the “Tuna Fish,” were wood-burned by hand, giving it a rich mottled coloration and deep texture. In fact, every board the duo produces has a custom wood-burned element, whether it’s the Vagabond logo or a hand-etched tree.
“Wood burning sets our boards apart from other companies because it’s a technique that can’t be mass produced,” Kurtis points out. At age 25, Kurtis is currently studying history at the UO, and like his brother, has been skateboarding for much of his life.
But aside from the gratification of exercising their creative talents, recycling skateboards has a deeper meaning for the Hesters: preservation. The North American sugar maple, known for its durability and high-impact resistant characteristics, is highly sought after by skateboard creators worldwide. Many other manufacturers, including in the furniture, home construction, and maple syrup industries, prize the tree for the same qualities. The brothers take pride in knowing that recycling skateboards relieves pressure from this valued species and that their concept could someday play a role in conserving the tree.
“We have stacks [of skateboards], and our friends have stacks [of skateboards] so we’re taking advantage of a resource that’s already available,” Kurtis says.
To date, Vagabond has designed over 130 custom skate decks out of old skateboards donated by friends, as well as new blank decks and longboards, which are purchased online. The new decks are sold to skaters interested in doing tricks because the new wood is considered “crisp,” meaning it responds better to impact. Recycled skateboards, the duo’s first passion, can also be used for tricks, but are primarily intended to be used as cruisers for transportation.
“We’ve never made the same thing twice,” Kurtis says. “Sometimes we use the same design, but we always use different colors or put it on a different-sized board.”
An average recycled deck can take as many as eight to ten hours to rework, but greater attention to detail means longer hours. As each new design develops, used boards go through a stripping process before they’re reshaped, sanded, and smoothed over. After a board is prepped, one of the brothers will lay out the new design prior to wood burning, taping, and painting it with a premium quality spray paint.
“There are very few other brands that make skateboards like Vagabond,” says Portland skateboarder Garrett Weber. When buying a skateboard, Weber, who owns four Vagabond skateboards, says he looks for characteristics like the quality of wood and shape—two details he knows the Hesters pay close attention to.
Most recently Weber has been riding a skateboard called the “Vagabomb,” which is named after the slang term skateboarders use for skating down or “bombing” hills. With a rounded nose and a tail cut into two triangular fins, the design mimics the iconic outline of a nuclear bomb. It is also set up with 60-millimeter urethane wheels for cruising.
Reflecting fondly on their company’s start—Vagabond began in a detached three-by-five utility closet over two-and-a-half years ago—the Hester brothers contemplate their future.
“Back then, we had to run a 20-foot extension cord just to get power to the building,” Brian says with a laugh.
In the years since, the company has expanded, adding a table saw and a chop saw to their repertoire of tools. They have also created a Vagabond website and sold numerous skateboards at skate parks around Eugene.
“We would really like to see Vagabond grow into a full-blown skate shop someday,” Kurtis says.
But regardless of what the future holds, the brothers plan to continue producing their custom-made “Oregon-grown” skateboards. As Kurtis says: “Recycling skateboards is good for the environment, it’s good for the skate scene, and it’s good for us. It’s a win, win, win.”