A SERIES OF INTERVIEWS WITH THE WORLD’S BEST SKATEPARK BUILDERS
INTERVIEW WITH TOM “TWISTER” PUTNAM
INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY JIM MURPHY
Tom Putnam was one of the thousands of kids who turned onto skateboarding during the skatepark craze of the ’70s. After the parks died, Twister began scabbing together half pipes in his parents backyard. As the backyard half-pipe scene progressed in New England, Twister began building them bigger and more functional, eventually building The Playground in Connecticut and the infamous Skate Hut in Providence, RI, run by Fred Smith and Rob Murphy. It was there that Twister built his first bowl and looked to head West for more work. After passing through Dallas to help revive the Jeff Phillips skatepark. Then, Twister moved to San Diego, and helped revive the vert ramp scene in Southern California. In the ’90s, he established himself as a well-respected ramp builder for parks around the country; most notably, Skater Island in Newport, Rhode Island. Now Twister is building wood parks in conjunction with concrete builders like Wally Hollyday as the skatepark craze rages on. Is concrete taking over completely? What is the future for wooden skateparks? Is there room for both? What is the future for vert ramps at skateparks? Why the hell do they call him ‘Twister’? All of this and more, answered by Tom Putnam- The Sid Vicious of ramp building.
Did you get that nickname, “Twister” from your stripping days?
I wish it were something good. I usually make something up when it’s time to impress the ladies.
Where did you grow up and how old were you when you started skating?
I grew up in Paxton, MA. The first time I stepped on a skateboard was 1976. I was ten years old.
“SKATEBOARDING IS ABOUT GOING FAST AND FALLING HARD, TESTING YOUR LIMITS AND GOING FOR IT. IT’S NOT ABOUT PLAYING IT SAFE.”
What was your set up?
Anything that anyone would let me ride. My brother was a big inspiration. He had a homemade board with Bennett Pros and Road Rider 2s. That board was great.
Did you have any cement parks then?
In ’76, there was nothing. Someone drove a Volkswagon into the cement pond in town so they drained it. We built all these crazy ramps, cranked up some Nugent and rode our asses off. Then they drained the country club pool. The cops weren’t clued up to it yet so they let us ride it. Then we started going to the parks in Boston.
Zero Gravity was the wood ramp park. That was where I met Kevin Day and Frank Lannon. They were doing airs in ’78! They had one vert ramp that was 30′ long. It had two big roll-ins, and it didn’t even have decks. I remember Frank Lannon doing frontside airs and putting his hand on the wall. It was so amazing.
In the ’80s, the skateparks started to die. What did you do then?
I was just riding those two empty pools in my town. Then my neighbor had this huge wooden deck, so we started building all these crazy ghetto ramps. I was just this young little squirt. I was just the little kid they sent to go get nails and wood. So, finally it got to the point, where I wanted to build a good ramp for myself. I asked my dad and he said, ‘Go for it.’ So, I built a few quarter pipes and they came out good.
Were you cutting tranny at that point?
We cut trannies when they were elliptical or banked. Each one kept getting better. And my dad was so cool about it. He’d come home weekly and there’d be a new ramp. I built one so strong that we couldn’t move it. I kind of conned my dad into letting me put two quarter pipes together to build a half pipe.
Was it a mini ramp or a vert half pipe?
It was 8′ wide with 4′ trannies with a broomstick for coping. It was 4′ high with 8′ of flat. Neil Heddings would love it now but back then it was death.
Then you got out of it?
Well, I had a death in the family and it affected me big time. It was my brother who turned me onto skateboarding. I stopped skating for almost a year. Then I was in my backyard one day looking at that ramp and I said, “Fuck that.” I started to skate and I learned how to ollie that day. And I’ve been skating from that day on. It’s just a mind fuck where you go down and down and then you snap out of it and you get back up.
When did you meet up with the boys?
I built a real vert ramp in my backyard in ’82. I drew it up in drafting class. It was 12′ wide and 9′ tall. Then we started road-trippin’. We heard about this contest in Naragansett, RI so we went down there. The park was called Base Camp. It was all asphalt with a rad bowl banked area with hips. We got there and it was a quarter pipe contest. There were 30 people pushed into a quarter pipe. I’m standing in the line-up and this guy says to me, “You gotta come ride my ramp.” The guy was a total goon. And his jaw was wired shut. I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. Then on the other side, this guy elbows me in the gut and he’s all gnarly looking with tattoos and it’s Fred Smith. And he says, “Fuck that guy. His ramp is a piece of shit. You need to come ride our ramp.” And I said, ‘What the fuck is this?’ We took off after the contest and we didn’t know where we were going. The guy with his jaw wired shut only lived a few miles away so we went over there and that ramp was so ghetto. I had Fred’s number so I called him to see if we could skate his ramp and he was like ‘Fuck, yeah.” We went to Sid’s house and Fred had this 10’ wide ramp. It was crazy. Those guys were rad. Fred was all tatted up and he had his AC/DC playing. He had his eagle, iron cross and little rat-tail haircut.
What a punker!
He was cool. The night before the contest those guys got arrested for sleeping in the parking lot. And I was like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck?’ I had been leading this totally sheltered life. I thought I was punk until I met those guys. It was crazy.
Where did you go from there?
Well, we skated there that weekend then they came to my ramp the next weekend. They thought my ramp was wide because it was 12′ wide instead of ten. I had a roll-in on the side but without the other wall so you could roll into it and do tricks off the corner. Then we started progressing. They introduced me to other people that had ramps. It was awesome. I’d go back to school on Monday and everyone was talking about how they spent their weekends and I’d been skating all over the place. I was only sixteen. We travelled and the ramps kept getting better. And we were just having better and better sessions.
You were skating more than building?
Yeah, I had no intention of being a ramp builder at that point. We just wanted to have something better to skate. We wanted fewer kinks, no splinters and real coping.
When did you start using pool coping?
I put pool coping on my ramp in ’84. We put on this one coping that was on The Hut. It’s still supposedly on some ramps back east.
Yeah, actually it’s in Attleboro now.
Yeah, at Iggy’s. Well, I was staying at Fred’s house one night and we were partying. I had my dad’s truck so we went and yanked three walls of square pool coping. They were like 3′ long and weighed like a 100 pounds each. We loaded up the truck and we were too tired to even unload it. It blew out the springs in the truck but, that pool coping is still around today. It was great. You didn’t have to grout it or do anything to it. Fred put it on his ramp. We put it on The Chip, and The Hut. It’s on ten different ramps.
What did you build at The Skate Hut?
I kind of led the whole crew, initially. The Skate Hut was the first bowl that I ever built.
How did you figure out how to do that?
I had the top radius of the coping worked out but I had to figure out how to make it go down from coping to flat. I was looking at Thrasher and stuff that Tim Payne had built. So, I just went for it and it came out pretty perfect. I did have some trouble with the layering but coincidentally, Dave Duncan was in town. He offered to help. He showed me how to layer corners quick. We had the one layer session.
How did you decide on the tranny?
When I was growing up I assumed that the transition had to fit in one sheet of plywood. Everything then was 8′ tranny. Then we went to California and rode Lance Mountain’s ramp and the Eagle Rock ramp. They had bigger trannies and it made sense. We saw you could build them as big as you wanted.
What was your next project?
The first big park was The Playground in Wallingford, CT. This lady, Bruna DaSilva, was awesome. She hired us to design a park with a vert ramp and a mini ramp. The street area was a 10′ hallway with tiny pyramids and a ledge and a little tiny rail. The street guys lost. You could only fit five or ten street guys in that park.
But the vert ramp was killer.
You could learn anything on that vert ramp. It wasn’t intimidating but it was still vert.
What did you build after the Playground?
We built the Blue Ramp in ’88. That was the first private project where I got to leave the crew there. People saw that I knew what I was doing.
And vert was going big then?
Yeah, all you rode was vert. That was the heyday. Christian Hosoi and the boys came through. And Chris Miller skated the ramp.
Talk about Cedar Crest.
As far as I’m concerned, Cedar Crest Country Club was the first real ramp. To me, these giant vert ramps I’m building now are intimidating. And that’s what Cedar Crest was. It was intimidating to look down the coping. People were doing face high airs. It was huge.
Where was Cedar Crest?
It was in Manasass Park, VA about 45 minutes outside of Washington D.C. ‘Come feel the steel’. Thanks, Micro. That ramp was bad-ass. That was the first ramp where the decks were bigger than 4-8 feet. It had stairs, railings, and catwalks.
It was the first metal ramp that I rode.
It was the first one to have steel on it, to my knowledge. That thing was sick.
How did that influence you?
I saw there were all these different ways to build ramps. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Billy Smith. Billy was Jeff Phillips’ partner down in Dallas. I had met him at Cedar Crest. He called and said, ‘Get down here, you got a place to stay and a guaranteed job to rebuild Jeff Phillips park’. And in 1989, for someone to say to you that Jeff Phillips wants you to rebuild his park – I was so honored.
This was after Tim Payne built the vert ramp and bowl there?
Yeah, the park was already built. It had a vert ramp, a bullet-shaped bowl, and a crazy spine hip ramp. But it was years later and things were starting to fall apart. Jeff brought me in and we pushed the vert ramp into the corner. Then we made this crazy L-shaped street area. It had a bowl, a pyramid, a cool hip and this crazy doorway. It was function and fashion. We made the doorway a wall ride because you had to have fire access. We made the hip because the bowl was there. You could ride underneath the deck of the vert ramp as part of the pyramid. We designed corners and hips and an escalator bowl corner. We had that huge wall ride. Jeff would kill that thing.
He’d drop in on the vert ramp with no pads and do an overhead frontside ollie.
That guy was one of my heroes. Did you see that four-minute run he took in Virginia Beach?
Oh yeah. I was there.
He was even riding backyard pools and shit.He used to ride a bunch of pools in Dallas then he’d go street skating.
I skated this ditch with him once. It was a piece of pipe over a deathbox. The drop from the pipe to the bottom of the ditch was 11′. It was a big old Texas size ditch and he was doing frontside 50-50s and lipslides on it.
Did you live there for awhile in Texas?
I was there for three months. I’d heard good things about Dallas, but I think I caught the tail end of it. All good things come to an end.
How was the scene when you left?
The scene was not happening. I built this killer park and no one wanted to ride it. Jon Comer, Dennis Martin, and some locals would come out to ride but the little kids wouldn’t ride it. It was too big.
How did you get to California?
Well, Rhino and Caleb Moore came by to ride the park and said if I ever wanted to check out San Diego, to come on out. So, I did. I went to Phoenix and rode some shit there. Then I ended up in San Diego staying with Rhino.
And in ’91 there is no vert scene?
Yeah, in San Diego, which is like skate mecca, you didn’t even see people skating. We skated the YMCA in Encinitas but that ramp was like a trampoline. I told the guy that worked there that we wanted to fix the ramp. So, we tore out the flat, fixed the vert and the coping, put steel on it and all of a sudden, it was back. People started riding again. And then this guy downtown with a 9′ ramp tore it out and had me build a bigger vert ramp. He said, ‘I’m going to resurrect vert skating.’ And he pretty much did. A lot of the vert dogs that are still riding today would kill that ramp.
When did Andy MacDonald move there?
Andy moved here out a month before I did. He would ride all the time and he didn’t have any sponsors. He had a ‘Jobless’ sticker on his board. He was killing it. That was when things got super tech. Slowly, things just started picking back up. Then there was this ping-pong between Encinitas and Mission Valley. The Mission Valley YMCA had a vert ramp from an ASR demo and it had blown over in a storm. It busted a hole in the vert and the flat bottom. Someone got my number and asked if I wanted to put it back together. We put steel on it and set it up. Then we went back to Encinitas and put steel all the way up the coping. It became a vert ramp war in San Diego. It’s still like that now.
Basically, there’s a lost generation of vert skaters?
I think the difference is that now, kids are in control. They’re telling the cities what they want to ride. I think a lot of the problems that parks are having now is that they are catering to the kids so much that they aren’t giving the kids options to progress. They aren’t building big vert ramps in the city parks. They aren’t giving kids the option of being scared to drop in. And I don’t know how it was when you were a kid, but when I grew up, if you didn’t try stuff the other kids were doing, you got heckled.
Yeah, if you didn’t drop in, you better not show up the next day.
Yeah, and it’s not like that now. I was at this park a few weeks ago and this kid was standing there just looking at it. I said, “Get out of the way”. My friends were like, “Why were you mean to that kid?” And I said, “When I was 13, I used to get a lot worse than that.” Kids should drop in or get out of the way. We’re letting these kids off too easy. That’s not what skateboarding is about. Skateboarding is about going fast and falling hard, testing your limits and going for it. It’s not about playing it safe.
Are those the main problems trying to build bigger stuff?
Yeah, most cities are really conservative. They want to copy other parks that have already been built. They want small stuff. They don’t want to progress. Half of the people think it’s going to die again in a week and the other half are more concerned with their wallet or potential lawsuits. In skateboarding, you’re going to get hurt no matter what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re skating down the street and hit a crack or you’re skating a vert ramp, you’re going to get hurt. What’s the difference?
In the late ’90s the demand for parks was back?
Yeah, the Encinitas YMCA and Mission Valley YMCA parks were the turning point. Then we did a project in National City for Graffix. And that was when I first met the Dreamland guys. That was the first ramp that I worked on with the Seattle/Portland guys, Neil Heddings, Sage Bolyard, Mark ‘Red’ Scott… And it was the same feeling I had in 1983. I thought those guys were awesome. I saw Neil ride and pet his dog mid-ollie. It was insane. And the Graffix guys let us build crazy corners and hips.
What was the first public park you worked on for a city?
The first public park was Escondido in ’97.
How did that go down?
The city planner from the Encinitas YMCA transferred to Escondido and had the chance to build a park. It had steel on the surface and a J-shaped spine ramp.
This is all flat wall?
No, the street course has bowled corners, but no vert bowls. The biggest corner is 7′. Then, I built a bowl for a guy up in Redlands, CA. It was shaped like Chicken’s. Every time I do a bowl I wanted to mimic a pool. That’s what I like to ride. That’s what everyone likes to ride, I hope. It was only 6′ deep. But it’s like what Duncan said, ‘It’s still the same curves. It doesn’t matter how tall you build it.’ Right after that, Skater Island called.
Tell me about Skater Island.
Sid ‘The Package’ Abruzzi called and said he wanted to build a park. I was stoked. I wanted to go home and build something for the boys. We designed a vert bowl and cut a round hip. That was a goal for me, to build a wooden pool.
You built stage two and three, too?
Yeah, in stage two we tore down the wall, expanded the vert ramp, made the street course longer, and built a mini ramp snakerun. In stage three, we turned the mini ramp into a wooden snakerun. It was cool because they let me design it.
What is your relationship with Sid and the owners of Skater Island?
I saw Sid at the tradeshow and he was partying. I know he got his shop back and that’s cool. Then, I met with Mary O’Neill and she wants to expand and do a recreational facility. And all the personal shit, I don’t even want to get wrapped up in that. It’s not my business. My business is building skateparks and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. And I hope nobody thinks I am.
Is there more of a demand for wood or concrete in public parks?
I think most cities want both. I’m working on a park now that’s half wood and half concrete. It really comes down to the money. You’d think when they do a public park they’d do concrete but if you don’t have a killer design with a concrete park, you’re screwed. That’s it. I mean concrete is awesome, I love riding concrete. But with wood, they can tear it out if it turns out badly. They can add to it or take away from it. And if the park doesn’t work, they can take it out completely.
Is the trend to use more concrete?
Well, the round wall is going to be concrete, but the flat wall is going to stay wood. The pyramids and rails will be wood because that will change. That stuff is for the young kids. When you’re younger you want to ride flat wall to learn. When you hit 20 you’ll want to ride more concrete. Once you start carving you want something more solid. I think the demand for wooden bowls might phase out to indoor parks and private facilities. I think public parks are going to be more concrete bowled corners, round hips and pools. But if the cities were smart, they would see the street guys lose interest after a week. A handrail is cool one week and next week it’s not cool. Why build out of concrete? I remember this one park was planning a rail. One week they wanted it round and the next week they wanted it square. In two weeks they changed their mind. It took me that long to get a welder out there then they wanted to change it.
Do you see vert being phased out?
It just depends on where the influence comes from for the parks. I put a lot of blame on the magazines. How many times do you see a vert shot? You might see one picture of Tony Hawk doing something you could never fathom. They make vert skating seem like a fantasy land. You can’t even comprehend doing the stuff they do. And that’s not the way it should be. Why not print a picture of a kid doing a smith grind on a vert ramp? Print something simple and then kids will see it and say I almost did one of those. But when they print these 360s it looks so unattainable that kids don’t even want to try. And the trannies are just getting bigger. Now it costs just as much to build a vert ramp as it does to build a whole street area.
Is the future good for skateparks?
Yes. since the WTC attacks people are thinking more about their kids. And kids used to be into football and baseball but now kids are riding their skateboards, surfing and riding their mountain bikes. And parents are letting kids do whatever they want. Luckily for us, most of these kids are riding skateboards. so there’s a lot more focus on skateboarding. Families are trying to keep the kids happy and the public skateparks are great places for them to do both. They can have a picnic while little Joey is doing a melon lien over the hip. Everyone’s happy. I think the cities are figuring that out. They see the amount of money they spend on tennis courts and baseball diamonds and there are 10 kids there at the most. And there are 70 kids at the skatepark every day.
You’re singing to the choir. How were you feeling the day of the WTC attacks?
I think the only good that will come out of this, will be that people will want to go surf and skate. We’ll all be building stuff, we’ll all be skating, and we’ll all be getting out and getting to know each other. It won’t be about what kind of car you drive or what kind of hair style you have. It’s already starting to draw people together.
Yeah, it’s good therapy.
You always feel like a rock star when you’re riding.
What parks do you have in the works?
I’m working on the Mission Valley YMCA Park in Clairemont. It’s going to be 80% wood and 20% concrete. Wally Hollyday is building the pool. It’s a 10′ egg attached to an 8′ square pool with the shallow end in the middle. It’s so good.
Anyone you want to thank?
I want to thank my mom and dad for kicking me out of the house. I want to thank everyone who has hired me and anyone that’s taken it a step further than just business. A lot of people are just cool. They make it about more than just a money transaction. It’s about way more than cash.