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Interview with Bill Erickson, Pike Place Market’s Longboard Craftsman

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Bill Erickson makes longboards from reclaimed American hardwood

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Bill Erickson makes longboards from reclaimed American hardwood

Seattle artisan Bill Erickson makes longboards out of reclaimed American hardwood. Pam Mandel spent some time with him, chatting longboards, lumber, and travel.

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Produce, fish, and flowers—that’s what you’ll find as you enter Seattle's Pike Place Market. Wander north between the stalls and the grocery items turn to crafts: jewelery, knitted hats and scarves, various city-themed souvenirs. Then there’s the cigar box guitar guy, the blown-glass rubber duckies, and, finally, Bill Erickson, founder of Erickson Longboards.

When he’s not at Pike Place talking to visitors, Erickson can be found in his Ballard workshop making longboards and using the remaining scraps for cutting boards. We caught up with him recently at his studio to talk about how you snag a coveted spot in Pike Place, the best places to salvage wood for your own creations, and why you should give your bike a break and pick up a longboard instead.

PM: How did you get started forming longboards?

BE: Back in 2008 I decided I wanted one. I was 42: I didn’t want something with a skull and crossbones or tribal tattoo patterns all over it; I didn’t want something that made me look like I was desperately hanging on to my youth. I got a piece of reclaimed walnut from a central Missouri farmer, a friend of mine, and made a longboard out of it. I didn’t have the right tools, but I made it work. I put black wheels on it and I rode it everywhere. People would stop me to ask where I got it, and I’d say, “Oh, I made it.”

Then, about a year later I got laid off from my real job—and I started making longboards full time. I made a Facebook page and sold them to friends, I worked the Fremont Sunday Flea Market for a few years, and then I sent an application in to Pike Place Market. Six months later I got invited to be a member. It was really short—two to ten years is the typical wait time to get a spot at the market; six months is borderline unprecedented.

No, but why longboards? Are they in revival?

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Longboards are a fantastic and versatile toy. They’re the perfect backup plan when you can’t go skiing or surfing or snowboarding. If we go all year with no snow, what are you going to do if you're a skier or snowboarder? If there’s no snow, you can go up to the mountain passes and longboard. It’s a good form of transportation, and it's good exercise. Think about it: You're working your core the entire time.

Where do your source your materials from?

My longboards are either salvaged or reclaimed domestic hardwood. Some of the stuff I put in the cutting boards isn’t, but the longboards are all made of domestic hardwood, including Hawaiian. If I get hold of koa or ohia or kiawe wood, I’ll use that, too. There was a car dealer that got torn down a couple of years ago and all the doorjambs and trim were koa. I went to the salvage company and I couldn’t believe it. There are a lot of woods that look similar—like monkey pod and different acacias that kind of look like koa, but they’re not koa. I spent the better part of a day going through every single piece. They were all ten inches wide, one foot thick, and ten feet long—ten feet long! I made 20 koa longboards and they sold like that.

There are a couple of sustainable wood mills nearby. There’s one on Vashon Island, one in Portland—I get a lot of walnut from Portland. I go to Aloha Woods in Kona.

People know I’m looking. They’ll call or email, or come by the shop, too. There are a handful of sustainable arborists who will come by. And there’s a guy in Kirkland who salvages stuff from all over the world.

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A few years ago this guy pulled up with a bunch of wood, told me it came from his cousin’s barn in Tennessee. I didn't even know what it was, but it was heavy, and I bought it. When I started milling it down, I realized it was cherry. It was stunning. I did the math on it—when were we building barns out of cherry?—and figured out it had to be well over 100 years old.

If you could take your longboard anywhere, where would you go?

Andalucía, Spain. I drove through Andalucía in May, rented a car in Seville and drove through Cordoba. We took a back road from Ronda to Setenil de las Bodegas, a town built under overhanging cliffs. There’s a fantastic little winding country road and nobody around.

That, or Icefields Parkway [a 144-mile scenic route from Banff to Jasper]. I went with a friend from Pike Place Market. It was early October, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was probably in the high 30s, low 40s. We were driving this road and when we got to the bottom, I said, "You know what we're doing?" We went back up, and she drove and picked me up at the bottom. I was flying, just flying. That was a great place.

Any quiet back road, really. Ideally you want to be someplace where the road comes back up. I like the places where you can at least see you’re going back up. It’s like a bull ride, you have to hang on for eight seconds, well, longer, and you know that you’re gonna get going 35 miles an hour, but you can see where the road goes back uphill again.

What would you say to someone who is hesitant to pick up a longboard?

People come to my booth at Pike Place Market and say, “Oh my god, I’ll kill myself.” Here’s the thing: I was in a car accident a few months back. I have two herniated disks, I’m in pain, and I’m limited as to what I can do right now. But given the choice between wrecking on my longboard or getting hit by that truck in British Columbia, I’ll take the longboard.

You can visit Erickson Longboards in Pike Place Market. The stall is open Sundays and Mondays from 9:45 a.m. to around 5:30 / 6:00 p.m.

>>Next: An Inside Look at Japan's Modern Crafts Movement

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