Bear Walker looked forward to completing his senior project in 2011 at Clemson University and moving on to graduation. He studied graphic design and was tasked with creating some kind of innovative printing technique. Experimenting with how to use colors on a holographic surface was the goal, and he needed some type of medium to get started.
Growing up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, Walker spent much of his time surfing, spearfishing, and skateboarding. A skateboard seemed like a fun object to work with, and Walker got to work. Having experience working with his carpenter’s father helped. He combined his artistic skills and craftsmanship to build a one-of-a-kind board.
“That was my first time ever making a skateboard, so it was kind of just like a side thought,” he says. “And then in the middle of the project, I ended up designing like 40 boards because it was just fun.”
What started out as a school project and then a hobby is now a nice business for this craftsman who now calls Alabama home. His custom-made boards are more than just a piece of equipment to hit the street. They’re real works of art. Celebrities like Jason Momoa, Billie Eilish, and more have all purchased one of his creations.
Despite that initial interest in skateboards as an art canvas, Walker didn’t jump right into the design business. The economy was sluggish, and he needed cash, but he revisited that school project in 2012.
“I didn’t really do another one for a few years,” he says, “and I was working at a sign company, carving high-end wooden signs. And the inspiration just kind of hit me that all these carvings could create friction for your feet. I started making skateboards, and people started asking where I got them from, and it kind of just snowballed.”
The woodworker carves unique intricate designs on the top of the board. Like life on a skateboard, starting a business can come with some bumps and bruises. He was young and needed more capital to run the enterprise. A partnership also didn’t work out, and he ultimately closed that first venture.
A relocation and change of perspective, however, proved fortuitous. In 2016, Walker moved to Alabama to work on a family farm. He soon was carving boards again and this time bootstrapped his way to success. The experience came with valuable lessons about mastering his art and craft and managing a business.
“The first time around was more about the art and less about the business savvy,” he says. “That first one broke me a bit, and I took a couple of years, educated myself, and remodeled houses to save money to buy my own equipment. I had a little bit more skin in the game, and learned the hard way. But I think that’s kind of the better way to learn.”
Now with seven years under his belt and plenty of skateboards designed, Walker’s artistic endeavor is thriving. He has a staff of about 30 making limited editions and customized boards, from the wood to the trucks to the wheels.
When the entire process began, finding the right wood came with some experimentation. Because he and his crew carve the boards, a different material was needed. The material needed to be pliable for carving but also serve well for riding. He settled on a nine-ply custom maple that he has custom-made.
The design process for an actual board can take a week to a couple of months, depending on what Walker and his team have in mind. The process comes with some high-tech wizardry. He uses design software to convert his images into a three-dimensional CAD file.
The woodwork then begins. The edges are filed for smoothness, and then each deck is sanded, hand painted, and clear-coated. The trucks and wheels, which Walker designed and shipped in from California, are then added to finish off the skateboard. Customers can then hit the sidewalk or halfpipe – although 80% of buyers prefer hanging them as wall art or leaving them in the box as collectibles.
The Walker team usually completes a limited run of about 250 boards. Depending on the complexity, each board takes three to five hours to manufacture, costing around $200-$400. Custom-made boards, which run as high as $3,000, can take up to 20 hours. But getting one of those isn’t easy as the craftsman puts in his personal touch.
“I like to do those personally, so I only do about 25 per year,” Walker says. “And there’s been a two-year waiting list for those.”
Beyond just building boards for celebs, Walker has found success with specific limited-edition licensing lines. That has included deals to create boards for Pokémon, Marvel, and DC. Some included Spider-Man, Black Panther, the Avengers, the Hulk, Wolverine, Star Wars, Stranger Things, the Joker, Flash, and more. Robert Downey Jr. even grabbed an Iron Man board.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to get a job where I combined all my passions – woodworking, surfing, skateboarding, and pop culture,” Walker says. “I’ve always been into comics and movies and all that. So when I started going toward the pop culture stuff, it started to get a lot of recognition from people playing those characters. Every time I’d make one for someone who would kind of lead to a new opportunity.”
For those thinking of starting their own business, Walker offers some advice from someone who’s had the disappointment of hitting bottom and then returning in force.
“One of the biggest things for me is following my gut, and I wish I would have followed it more,” he says. “But also know when to say no. You worked hard to create space for opportunity. Be ready when opportunities are there, but don’t be afraid to say no, even if it is a big deal, if it doesn’t coincide with what you want to do.”
The board biz has been good, and Walker is also branching out to designing guitars. Now that the company has grown, he’s involved in much more than design. Navigating licensing deals, managing a larger staff, and organizing higher production numbers are a long way from that project in college and cruising on his skateboard as a kid.
“It’s crazy when I started this again. I was just hoping I’d be able to pay myself enough to make a living wage,” he says. “The first few years of me working, I made $14,000 a year. Even the idea of making $50,000 a year off of this was a big dream. Now we’ve got 30 employees and are working with some of the biggest companies in the world. It’s far beyond what I thought I could do.”