P.D. / Skull Skates

"I like the idea of skating for myself, not for someone else."
Interview by Asher Penn 
Portrait by Jeff Cole

Since I can remember, PD's Hot Shop has quietly operated as Vancouver's most un-compromised skateboard shop. Going in there today is the same as it was 15 years ago: almost everything black and white, with actually scary graphics that suggest an aesthetic rooted more in tradition than trend. The store serves as home to Skull Skates, Canada's oldest Skateboard Manufacturer, established by Peter Ducommun (P.D.) alongside his big brother when PD was just a teen. 35 years later, Skull Skates continues to consistently make high quality gear for skaters of all kinds while retaining an independence that is anomalous in the skateboard industry today.

You’re not from Vancouver, are you?
I was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1962.
What was it like there?
Saskatchewan is prairies, a lot of farms. It was really cold—there was a winter festival on the frozen river in the winter. I’d say that it’s a great place to be from, but maybe not the best place to still be. We moved out of there when I was eight. No disrespect to the people who are there, but we’ve thanked my pops several times for having the good sense to move us up to the coast.
You liked Nanaimo.
Nanaimo was great. That’s where I learned to ride a skateboard, and that’s where we as a family really embraced that whole West Coast lifestyle. We would dig clams and pick oysters and mussels, gojig for cod and have these big cookouts on the weekends. It was paradise, you know. Forest and mountains and ocean.

Death Rides a Skull Skate, Mike McKinlay, Halloween 2013

What did your Dad do?
He worked in the lumber industry as an estimator. But he’s also sort of a dabbler—picked up from him fixing up old things up and either keeping them or selling them. When he was a kid he fixed up and resold old bicycles.
How old were you when you learned to ride a bike?

I was four. I remember I refused to use the training wheels and basically crashed and burned until I could figure it out. Bikes were huge for me. Way before I knew what a skateboard was I was into bicycles for sure.
Were you a creative kid?
Drawing was always something that was real fun to do. Building model kits was something that I thought was real fun. I thought cars were pretty cool, you know. There were these old hot rod, racing type magazines that had cartoons that I liked.
Like Rat Fink?
That definitely would’ve been an early influence on me. Rat Fink is an interesting story—RF originally actually mean Rat Fuck not Rat Fink, but as Ed Roth became more popular that wasn’t something that was marketable to the general public. I still look to Ed Roth to this day—it was very do-it-yourself. For a lot of people that I associate with, that Hot Rod culture is kind of at the foundation of what we do to this day.
How did you get your first skateboard?
From my brother Rick, who was ten years older than me. I was around twelve. This was in ‘73 when skateboarding was still kind of under the radar. There had been a big boom of skating in the sixties. By ’74 it was just beginning to become a big deal again.

Family Home, 1976

Were you reading magazines?
Totally. Skateboarder Magazine was sort of the ultimate one but it wasn’t always that easy to get in Canada. There were a couple of other titles that seemed to have a wider Canadian distribution like Wild World of Skateboarding. They weren’t on par quality wise but from our point of view it was stories about skateboarders and pictures of skateboarding, and so that’s all that kinda mattered. Those magazines were what got me interested in the mechanical aspects of skateboarding as well.
Like the gear itself?

Yeah the decks, the trucks, the wheels, the maintenance, the tuning... just all those little details. You know, everybody’s different. Some people focus everything on the act of riding and don’t think much about their equipment. Some people are the opposite. Pretty early on it was clear I was really attracted to both the action and the mechanism. To me they were inseparable. I mean, if you want to get to a point where your skateboard is an extension of your body then it needs to be tuned and maintained in such a way that it allows you to get to that point.
How would you get your gear?
My brother would bring it up from Southern California. He was in the t-shirt business, making that 70’s iron-on stuff. All the manufacturers were based out there. He’d make trips a few times a year to get the latest iron-on designs and I started giving him lists of things that I wanted to get, because you just couldn’t get the stuff in Canada. My buddies that I would skate with would see the stuff and try it and ask for him to pick up some other stuff for them the next time he went.

GNC Demo Ramp, 1978

So you became an importer?
Well,people needed this stuff and you couldn’t get it. There was just a point where we went “this could be a business.” It wasn’t really an intentional move, it just sort of morphed into that.
How old were you at this point?
14 or15.
Wow.
It didn’t seem unusual that somebody who was a teenager would be involved in business. My brother being ten years older obviously could do things like open a bank account and transfer funds to suppliers in other countries and those type of things. Importation paperwork and stuff that they probably wouldn’t let a15-year-old do
What was the setup at the beginning?
It was just me with the stock in my bedroom and before the Catalog it was pretty much word of mouth. Eventually I started taking quarter page ads in the back of Skateboarder Magazine saying “Canada’s Finest Skateboard Mail Order.”
Mail order was a big part of the skate magazines, right?
Oh yeah. In the back of the skateboard magazines there would be these mail order ads with what we considered to be incredible custom gear. Bright, Colorful photos… it was sort of like skateboard porn. I think that’s why when we started our first store there was such an emphasis on the actual gear. A lot of our customers went from looking at these little minute thumbnail photos of these amazing skateboards on the back of magazines to being able to actually see and hold them.

PD's Hot Shop, Nanaimo location, 1988. Photo: JD

What did the first store look like?
It wasn’t really much different from how our store is now. We got a little bit neater in our displays and stuff but generally our shop looks pretty cluttered. Part of that is that we’re just so excited about all this gear—We bring it in and we figure out how to display it later. A lot of skateboard stores now are quite different. There’ll be a lot of shoes and clothing with a tiny little corner that’s their skateboard department. For us having the skate gear was central.
How did you guys get into making decks?
Other shops and distributors started realizing that this was stuff that you could sell in Canada so it was starting to get easier to get those other brands. It became clear it was just as easy to get into manufacturing our own designs.
How did you get the first decks made?
We approached people who were making the best skateboards. At the time it was a guy from Ontario: He was the first person to make the laminated kick tail skateboard. Before that skateboards were a solid piece of wood—when kick tails came about they’d just glue a wedge on the back of the board. This guy was a skateboarder and his father made laminated furniture so he used the technique to make a laminated skateboard. By the time we found him he was producing brands like Simsand Alva, which were really known as the best skateboards at that time.
So your decks were quality from the get-go?
We still tend to be picky about just the overall quality of our decks. A good skateboard needs to be made out of fresh ingredients. If you want a board that has a resilient, snappy, flex—that’s going to smash into something and get a little dent instead of exploding—you have to use high-density, fresh material to make it…

Vancouver Museum Skateboarding Vancouver exhibit, 2004. Photo:Ricky Long

How did the name Skull Skates start?
We’d already been making product, but we didn’t have a logo. All we had was a name, which was Great North Country Skateboards, but we didn’t have an identity or a marker. The Skull Skates skull was originally cut out of grip tape on my skateboard one day at the park. My brother saw it and said we should use that for a logo. I said I could draw a much more evil skull, but he said no, he liked the simplicity of it.
But it was still Great North Country Skateboards?
Yeah. Great North Country Skateboards became GNC Skates. If you look at the old Skull Skates logo there used to be a little GNC above the word Skate. The thing about it was that nobody was really seeing the GNC. We’d get these letters from our mail order customers addressed to Skull Skates. We just had a moment where we realized that we had to go with it. We didn’t really name Skull Skates, the people that were supporting our company did.
You dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade. What inspired that?
The opportunity to work in the skateboard industry full-time. I felt I’d had enough schooling to set me on my way in the real world. I mean, basic knowledge is really important, but I think at a certain point in schooling it just becomes either repetitive or specialized. Like, where are you ever going to get the opportunity to use algebra in your daily life? If your pursuit is a vocation that requires the use of algebra then of course you should study it but otherwise it’s just teaching you to be a student.

Pre-logo PD's Hot Shop shirt, 1970s

Had you been working at the store before dropping out?
Yeah. I was living in Nanaimo, and the store by that time was in Vancouver so I was commuting to there on the weekends. But those two-day weekends quickly became four-day weekends, and I wasn’t exactly spending a lot of time at school by that point.
So what exactly were you doing when you went full-time at the store?
I mean, everything. The list would be huge. Like one day you would get a shipment of boards in that didn’t have any graphics on them. They need to be screen-printed and have a clear coat sprayed on them and get packaged. Once the product is ready to go out to the customer it needs to be either put on display and priced or put into a box and shipped. Then the floors need to be swept up, the T-shirts need to be folded and counted and put into stock and on display. It’s funny, when you walk into a skate shop, or any retail store I suppose, it’s hard to appreciate what actually goes on to make it so that someone can make a purchase.
Were you dealing with distributors?
There weren’t really distributors in Canada up until the eighties so we became a distributor for several California-based brands. That was a bit of a nightmare to be honest. You’d be calling people because you had paid for a shipment and it hadn’t arrived but they wouldn’t pick up the phonen because the surf was good and nobody’s at work. That only pushed us further into creating more of our own products. It was hard to rely on people who really aren’t businessmen. They’re just skaters and surfers who much like ourselves by accident ended up in the business.

From Sex Magazine #7 Spring 2014
Labelled Skateboarding