INTERVIEW WITH JIM BARNUM
INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY JIM MURPHY
When you think Canada, you think of the Great White North, eh? Mooseheads and hosers, eh? But have you thought about the complications of building a skatepark on soil that maybe and will be exposed to frigid temperatures and tons of snow, eh? Well, Jim Barnum has to because it’s his job and building perfectly smooth skateparks is hard enough without racing the clock against the first signs of frost and snowfall. Jim has proven himself as one of the premiere Canadian skatepark builders who can skate what he builds. Jim came to this profession due to the simple fact that he wanted to ride concrete. He learned from the best and created his company Spectrum Sk8parks to build parks for skateboarders by skateboarders. To us, those are the only companies that should be building skateparks.
“I WANT TO KEEP DOING THE KIND OF PARKS THAT WE BELIEVE IN, TO KEEP OUR MINDS OPEN AND KEEP DOING NEW AND TOTALLY DIFFERENT STUFF.”
Hey, this is Jim Murphy from Juice calling. Do you want to get this interview going?
Yeah, let’s do it.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Vancouver. I’m living in Vancouver now in British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. Growing up here was amazing because it was one of the only places in Canada that had skateparks. We grew up with the snake runs from the ’70s. They were all down hill from my house, so I learned a lot about speed and flow. It was an amazing place to grow up. There’s a lot of nature and great stuff to do.
What year were you born?
When did you start skating?
I got my first board in 1980. It was a wooden banana board with Makaha trucks. That’s when I started skating. I got that board for Christmas. It was a winter where there was no snow, so I took it out on the sidewalk. We had a little cul-de-sac, so we’d go down the sidewalk and carve down the cul-de-sac and come back out the other side. That’s what skateboarding was, rolling down the hill.
Did you and your friends know about any concrete parks or did that come later?
No, we didn’t know about the parks. There was a couple that existed like Seylynn and China Creek, but we were pretty young, so we didn’t know they were there. Our first skatepark was the sidewalk. We set up our neighbors’ garbage cans and smashed through them. We found the parks later. I remember the first wide board that I saw was in ’83. These dudes they were skating along the seawall at Stanley Park on these wide skateboards and on these wheels that were totally quiet. I asked them what was up with that and they said that they got the boards from California. It was the new thing. They’re the ones that told me about the two parks Seylynn and China Creek.
Were you stoked or what?
Oh, yeah. I went and got one of those wide boards and it was such a different thing. I had Kryptonics wheels. They were so soft. It was such a different feel.
What kind of deck and trucks did you get?
I made the mistake of getting Tracker Ultra Lights. They broke pretty quick and somebody told me man get Indys. It’s been Indys ever since.
There you go.
But those bowls were insane. We skated Seylynn and it was like perfection. It was amazing to skate. There was so much flow and speed. My dad would drop us off there on his way to work in the summer. We’d go down there at eight in the morning before all the big dudes got there. We’d carve around and then all the big dudes would show up. They’d chase us out of the park, so we’d sit and watch them skate. That’s how I learned to skate.
What was it like transitioning from sidewalk riding to skating these parks?
We didn’t even know what to do. We didn’t even think about doing the snake run. We just crossed through the channels between the big waves and they were steep. To this day, it’s a pretty tight little park. The trannys are pretty tight and it’s pretty quick. There’s not much flat on it. It’s kind of gnarly just to roll through the channels. Then we started skating them like half pipes. Then we’d try the snake run and we’d be going super low on the waves. It was really easy to learn. When we first saw the older dudes skating, it was just unbelievable to see what they could do.
Was this a public park?
Yeah, it was a free public park. It’s right by the river in a gorgeous spot. It flows down the hill next to the river. All of our public parks up here were free.
That’s killer. In the early ’80s, skateboarding died out, but was there still a big population of skaters in Canada?
Yeah, there were some dudes, but I wouldn’t say it was a big population. It was always the same. There were about 15 older dudes that skated there. That was about it. There was probably another scene going on at China Creek, but it wasn’t much until it really seemed to blow up in ’85. That’s when the vert contest came up here and all the pros came up. Then more people started skating. In ’86, they had that EXPO contest. I remember a bunch of Alva dudes being up here for that contest. Skating just took off after that. That was a big contest. Everyone was there and they came and skated at Seylynn. They had a contest after the vert ramp contest, which was the contest at Seylynn and that was insane. That’s when I really got to see that there were a lot of skaters in Vancouver that came from all over. People came up from Seattle to see it. Cab skated so good. Chris Miller ripped it and Craig Johnson was killing it. It was like, “Look what you can do in this thing” It opened my eyes. It was cool to see.
At that point, had you been reading the magazines? Did you know these pros?
By ’86, I was into the magazines. A friend of mine gave me a Transworld. I think that was in ’84. By the time ’86 came around, I started getting into those magazines and I knew who those dudes were. I was a full grom running around and getting all of their autographs.
You must have been blown away to see those guys ride.
It was so cool. It was unbelievable to see the height they could get off the vert ramp and to see them in person. You’d see them in the magazines and then to see them right in front of you, you got to see that they’re just regular dudes. They’re just people like me, but they happened to really rip on their skateboards.
Did you meet any of the pros?
I pretty much just got autographs and that was that.
Who was one of your favorite skaters back then?
Hosoi was one of my favorites to watch for sure. He could go so big and had so much style. I just loved watching him do backside airs. Hosoi and Lester Kasai were my favorite guys to watch because they were just so fluid and went so big.
Then you had Craig Johnson, sketchy as fuck.
He was gnarly. At my age, to me, those dudes were scary. Craig looked so gnarly and he was just so crazy to watch.
What was it like when those guys left town? Did you have a good crew skating then?
Yeah, we had an amazing scene here. A lot of dudes went on to get super good like Rob “Sluggo” Boyce and the McKay Brothers. Colin and Casey McKay were super good and a friend of theirs was Jerry Wong. Jerry built a vert ramp in his backyard that was eight feet wide and eight feet tall and went to vert. It was a two-minute skate from high school, so we’d all go there. It was super sick to have a ramp, so my dad and I built a ramp in our back yard. It was six feet high with a six foot tranny and it was eight feet wide. So we’d go and skate that thing. It was the five of us in our school and that was it. It was awesome. You could go downtown and street skate and run into tons of people. It was good.
So you built a ramp in your back yard. Was that the first time you experienced building something for skateboarding?
No. We had built a quarter pipe in the driveway. It was funny. The driveway was a steep hill, so it was perfect. You’d start up at the top of the driveway and just roll down to the quarter pipe, which was seven feet. We built it out of an old bed frame and random wood. We didn’t even know about cutting a tranny. Instead of cutting a template out of plywood, we used 2x10s and cut the ends on angles to make up the trannys. Then we nailed ribs to the 2×10 in a rounded tranny layout and we put that up in the driveway with no deck. It was sick. We’d roll down the driveway, hit the quarter pipe and then go back up. It almost worked like a half pipe.
That’s all you needed. You were stoked.
It was insane. We just did backside kickturns on it forever. It was so much fun.
So your dad was stoked. He let you guys build something big in your backyard.
Yeah. He was great, man. He was fully down to help us out and help us build it. He helped us figure it out. We slapped it together and it was solid. It lasted for years. One of the decks ended up being my dad’s garden shed after I moved out.
That’s cool. So in the late ’80s, you guys were riding concrete parks and backyard ramps?
Yeah, we did a lot of street skating too. We’d go downtown and hit all the stairs and ledges. Downtown was amazing then because on the weekends the security guards weren’t around and it was so much quieter. Now you go downtown on a weekend and it’s packed full of people. Back then it was a ghost town. It was like our private skatepark.
For the Canadians that didn’t skate, were they into you guys skating or were they bummed like every place else?
They were pretty much bummed like everywhere else. You’d see the occasional cool person who actually recognized what you are doing. They’d say, “That looks sick. You look like you’re having fun.” For the most part though, nobody was too stoked on what we were doing.
Did you ever road trip down to the lower 48?
The first trip we took was in tenth grade. It was my friend Steve Boyd, Alex Chalmers and me. Alex has gone on to become this amazing skateboarder, but at the time, he was two years younger than us. At that age, two years is a lot. He was our full-on little tag-along kid. He was always hassling us to come along. So we all drove to San Francisco and slept at EMB. We skated the street spots around San Francisco, drove out and skated some giant ditches and checked that out. That was an insane trip. We were just sleeping out in the street.
Punk rock. Was that in the late ’80s?
That was in ’89.
Did you see any locals hanging around there?
No, we never did. The next trip we took was in ’91 and we ran into Jamie Thomas. We had no clue who Jamie was at the time. He was like, “Oh, I just came out from the Midwest and I’m just gonna stay out here and skate.” I remember he had a busted up ankle and he was like, “I don’t think I can do the Gonz gap. My ankle’s wrecked, but maybe if I did a frontside 180, then I’ll land most of my weight on my front foot. I’ll do it.” He went and frontside 180’ed the Gonz gap first try and we were like, “What?” He was awesome. He was running around mooning people. He was awesome. He was a funny dude. Later he started showing up in magazines and we were like, “We know that dude. Yeah. He did it.”
When skating died in the early ’90s what was the scene doing up in Canada?
In the early ’90s, some other concrete parks got built. We were still in high school, so I didn’t have anything to do with them, but there was another snake run that went up in North Vancouver. It was downhill from our high school. We saw it and we didn’t know what we were doing. We went there and pulled off the tarps when it was curing and started skating it. Then a few street parks started going up. Canada’s skateparks started going up in the late ’80s and early ’90s and they didn’t stop. They were all free, so we were lucky. We were kind of insulated from whatever fallout happened in the States even though skateboarding had kind of died in popularity again. I didn’t even notice because all of my friends skated.
They wouldn’t jack your parks and bulldoze them? They would just leave those parks from the ’70s and not touch them?
Exactly. There was one park that got shut down. I think the bottom got knocked out of it and they filled it up with dirt. We keep trying to get them to dig it out. It was a dual snake run, side-by-side snake run over in West Vancouver, not far from where I am now. I remember seeing it when I was a kid and going, “Whoa! What the hell?” I didn’t know what it was, but it just looked so cool. I’ve seen photos of it since. It was a side-by-side snake run and it funneled into one bowl. So that one got closed down. West Vancouver is a pretty rich area and I guess the neighbors were pissed off with it, so they filled it in due to one neighbor that kept complaining. Other than that, none of our parks have gotten destroyed. They just kept on building them.
Who was building the parks you were skating in the late ’80s and ’90s?
This conglomerate of guys built the really good snake runs. It was slightly different guys from park to park. One guy that was really involved was Calen Sinclair. He had never skated before in his life, but he was this crazy sculptor. He skied a lot and rode motorbikes so he had an understanding of the flow and everything. It was him and Nelson Holland. There was one other dude, Monty Little, who was really involved in the Griffin and Whistler parks and together they built all the snake runs. They built an amazing snake run up in Whistler that’s still there. They were building all the really good parks that still rule to this day. Landscape architects were designing the other parks. They’d go and talk to a bunch of kids and the kids would want banks, rails and stairs, so the landscape architect would put it together. Sometimes it turned out not bad and sometimes it would turn out to not work out at all. It was a mixed bag, but a lot of those early parks turned out okay.
It was all snake runs right?
Exactly, it was mellow, roll-out lip or street stuff. The street courses started getting really popular in the early ’90s. That’s all the kids wanted.
Were you down with the street stuff or were you looking to get some pools?
I like skating everything. If a new street park went up, I’d go skate it. Having grown up in North Vancouver, it’s really interesting to see all of the different segments of this city. People skate differently depending on where they live. We were growing up with hills and snake runs, so we were definitely more into tranny. I started seeing pictures of big bowls with pool coping, so we were more interested in bowls.
Was there a certain point when you started getting your hands dirty and learning how to build concrete?
In the late ’90s, I was living in between Vancouver and Whistler. I was going to Whistler for the winter and going snowboarding, and skating there in the summer at the snake run. My involvement with skate parks wasn’t something that I thought much about. That always seemed like something that was done by the government. In Whistler, the snake run had been built with that old construction method where they pour the concrete and then do a half-inch skim coat over top. The skim coat started popping off and cracking and soon the snakerun was pretty much un-skateable. It was literally full of holes, so we went to the city and we were like, “We want a new skate park.” They said, “Okay, well, you better design it.” We said, “Oh, really? Okay, thanks.” They were cool. They just totally put it in our hands, where most cities wanted a landscape architect. They were like, “Go draw it up and we’ll build it.” So we went and drew up a plan. It was a bunch of the locals. Rick McCrank was involved in it. We drew a bunch of massive quarter pipes, bowls and vert walls. Somebody wanted a massive four-foot fun box, so we just drew all this stuff together. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We weren’t thinking too much about lines. We were pretty clueless, but it turned out great. It’s still super fun to skate. After we drew it up, it was like, “Who is going to build it?” I got really involved in making it happen and doing some fundraising. The local concrete plant gave us some concrete. The city said, “You’re doing good. You can be the project manager.” I said, “Dude, I’m a dishwasher. What’s a project manager?” They said, “It’s no problem. You seem like a smart guy. You can do it. You can figure it out.” So I hired a bunch of friends from Whistler and got this guy James who knew how to do shotcrete and we just figured it out. It took us a couple of years to build it because we didn’t know what we were doing. The first year we laid down our sub grade and compacted all the gravel into the rough shape of the trannies and the bowl corners. Then we built the street stuff. We tried pouring and then shooting all the concrete into place. We were building a nine-foot deep tranny with this big wooden screed that hooked on to the coping. That way we’d get the proper bump, but the whole set-up was just so big and bulky. We poured a couple pieces and then we had to cover it in tarp over the winter. Then we got the idea to put in templates at either end of the pour. So we started cutting templates and putting them in place. Obviously, the top of template is the finished grade of the bowl, so we’d start screeding off those. That was so much easier. So we just kind of figured it out and it turned out really good. There are no wobbles in that park. It’s still good to this day.
Were you guys doing shotcrete or a rough coat with a skim of plaster?
We did a full six inches of shot crete. We had such a bad experience with that skim coat on the original park. It was all falling off, so we put rebar in our park and six inches of shot crete.
When you were building that stuff, because of the super cold temperature up in Canada, are limited in when you can build the concrete? It has to be a certain temperature to do shotcrete. What’s your cut off point when you can pour and put concrete into the ground?
It’s couple degrees below zero Celsius. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit. I think 38 is freezing. What is freezing in Fahrenheit?
It’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our cutoff is a little bit below freezing. What they do at the concrete plant is they add hot water. They call it “adding heat”. There’s an extra charge for it. We also build little tarp shacks all over the site wherever we’re pouring, bring in a couple heaters and pour away. Then we have to keep the shacks heated for at least a week to let the concrete cure. This only happens at the end of the season when we’re way behind and it starts snowing and we just have to get it done. We try not to do that.
If the shotcrete starts to freeze then you’re fucked, right?
Yeah the concrete’s fucked. You have to have insulated tarps and bring in propane heaters. It ends up costing a little bit of money, but if it’s at the end of the season and we have to get it done, we get it done. They add the hot water and we seal it up and insulate it, try to keep it warm and pour away. Most of Canada is frozen right now, so we can’t really start building until May. Usually, the end of October is our cut off.
Wow. So you have to bust out. The job hits. Boom. You have to get that thing done.
Yeah, we’ve got to hit the ground running.
What happens after you finish a park? What’s the concern over the winter when things get really cold? Is the concrete affected at all? Is there a lot of cracking?
No. From what I’ve learned, the concrete that you use isn’t really the issue. The most important thing is the ground you build the park on and frost heave. The concrete isn’t directly affected, except for a bit of expansion and contraction with temperature changes. We use really durable concrete. You guys measure hardness in PSI down there, so I don’t know what it converts to. Our hardness measuring system is in MPa and so our concrete is supposed to come in at 42 MPa, which is ridiculously high, but it usually comes in at like 60 MPa, which is roughly double what the guys use in the States.
So it’s super hard, super burly concrete, but it’s got to be ultra fine and smooth?
Yeah. We use this thing called silica fume. We want this stuff to last,, so we use really expensive concrete. Silica fume is like a smoke particle, so it’s beyond dust. It’s so fine and smooth that it fills in all the little voids or micro-holes that are in regular concrete and makes the concrete super tough and super durable. It lasts a long time.
So water can’t get in there and get trapped and freeze and break the concrete?
That’s it in a nutshell. As far as avoiding cracking problems, the other big thing that we concentrate on is the soil conditions and minimizing frost heaving. At some sites, the ground is going to hold a lot of the moisture over the winter and when it gets cold, it’s going to freeze and buckle and crack the park. In some cases, we have to dig down six feet and fill it in with good gravel. Sometimes we have to build up above ground from there. We can spend $40,000 or $50,000 just on site prep just so that these things won’t crack.
Instead of a dirt fill, you go with a gravel fill?
Exactly. In some cases, we use a really good free-draining structural fill. If any water gets in there, it’s just going to run through all the gravel, right down to the bottom. The bottom is equal with the lowest level of frost penetration. We have to look at the charts and see that the frost penetrates six feet in this town, so we have to dig down six feet. They call it making a frost-free sub grade. No water can ever stay under the park at a level that the frost penetrates, so it can’t frost heave.
Wow. You have to be a civil engineer.
Yeah. We work with a really cool engineer. He’s been with us since our first job in Whistler. He’s a structural and civil engineer. We always get a Geotechnical engineer to tell us about the soils on the site. We have to be diligent up here, because we could have some major fuck-ups otherwise.
After you guys built your first park were the people blown away by how well it went down?
Everybody was stoked. Whistler’s a really cool town. It’s pretty outdoor-oriented and sports-oriented so people are more open to that kind of thing. People were definitely stoked. We had ten-foot walls and whatnot, so people were impressed with the scale of it. Then people started phoning the city of Whistler and saying, “We heard you guys have a sick park down there. Who did it?” The city would give them my phone number and I started getting calls from all these random people from all over the province. They’d say, “Can you do a park for us?” I’d be like, “Yeah, I guess. Why not?” Soon enough it so busy that I got fired from my dishwashing job because I was always taking off to go do parks.
Was that when Spectrum Skateparks started?
Yeah. One day I realized it was a business, so I got a name and printed up some cards and got it going.
So you started with the crew that built Whistler Park? Did you tell those guys that you wanted to start building parks around the country?
Well, no. At first, I still thought I would hold down a regular job and just do a couple of parks here and there. I didn’t see that big vision of building parks around the country. It was just like, “These guys want a skatepark. Can you quit your job for a couple months and do this and then get your job back?” They’d be like, “Yeah, my boss would hire me back.” Eventually, it was like, “Okay, let’s go full-on.” This one dude Mike Hager did the finish on that first park in Whistler and he’s still working with us. James Parent has too. They’ve been with us since the beginning, building and finishing. I’m more of the office guy now. I don’t get out on site anymore, but Mike and James are hands-on to this day.
Do you see a big difference in the way the government operates in Canada as compared to the United States in regard to building public skate facilities?
It seems to me people up here are really pretty open-minded. I think part of it is just because people don’t sue each other as much as people in the States. In the United States, it seems like a lot of people are nervous about lawsuits. In Canada, people aren’t considering that as much. It’s not something that would cross a lot of people’s minds. In Canada, most people are super supportive of skate parks.
Did you have it set up so that when a kid came to skate at your park you had to make them sign a waver or is it just wide open?
It’s wide open. Most of them don’t even have fences, so it’s just wide open to go skate.