In California 009: The DIY Spirit with Kat Thomsen

In California 009: The DIY Spirit with Kat Thomsen


Palo Alto has long been a hotbed for innovation. Here is the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Tesla, Skype, PayPal, the list goes on. And here is where, in the thick of quarantine, 16-year-old Kat Thomsen built an electric skateboard, a quarter pipe, and a surfboard. A junior at Palo Alto High School, an enthused skater and surfer, a paragon of the DIY spirit, Kat and I caught up via phone.

How did you get into skateboarding?
I feel like I’ve been into skateboarding since as long as I can remember. The other day my dad showed me a video, I must’ve been in second or third grade. I was dropping in on this half pipe. I’m not really sure how I got into it, actually, because none of my family skateboards. I think I just always thought it was super cool.

Is there a skate scene in Palo Alto?
Not really. But I know some guys who skate, not a lot of girls.

Tell me about the electric skateboard you made.
I wanted an electric skateboard, thought they were fun, but they’re all super expensive, and I love building stuff. So I decided to make my own. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos and it seemed pretty easy, not too bad. I did a lot of research on web forums and YouTube.

Talk to me about surfing and then shaping and glassing a board.
I started surfing maybe three or four years ago. One summer my dad and I just thought we should learn—we’re an hour away from the beach and we don’t know how to surf. So we decided to learn and I loved it. And then I got my license so I can go more often. And I surf with this guy named Kalen who’s an EMT up there, he kind of teaches me, shows me around. He has a buddy named Tyler who shapes his own surfboards and has his own surfboard company. And at first when we were talking about it, we were just like, “Hey, Tyler should make you a board,” because I’d been just surfing these foams and whatnot. So I wanted to get a real board. Kalen hooked me up with Tyler and Tyler had taught people how to make boards before. It’s something he does a lot, I think, walk people through his system. I loved that idea. So as a Christmas present, my parents said I could shape and glass my own board. I absolutely loved it. I want to do it again very soon.

How does the board go?
It’s awesome. I made it super thick. So it’s very fast, which I like. It’s kind of my first surfboard. So it’s easy to paddle. I haven’t been able to ride it a lot because of quarantine but I feel like the more I ride it, the more fun I’m going to have. And it’s already a ton of fun.

And you built a quarter pipe. Where is it?
It’s just in front of my house.

First ramp that you’ve built?
Yeah, it is.

Tell me about it.
That was actually pretty easy. There’s this supplier nearby that my dad knows. So he’s like, “Hey, we should build a quarter pipe, because it’s quarantine, and we can’t go to skateparks and all that.” So I looked online, did some research, figured out what wood we needed. The wood came at two in the afternoon one day, and we built it that afternoon. It was pretty easy. It’s tons of fun.

What a great way to maximize quarantine time.
Yeah, exactly. And I’ve been teaching some of the girls around here in my neighborhood to drop in and do fakies and rock ‘n’ rolls and stuff.

Does that building-things-yourself spirit run in the family? Did you grow up around tools and making things by hand?
Not at all, really. My dad, he doesn’t work now because he takes care of my sister and I, but he was a social worker and my mom is in marketing. And my sister, she’s not really into the building stuff at all. So I’m not really sure where I got it, actually.

That’s really cool. Who are your heroes—who do you look up to?
Well, my grandfather, he had an amazing workbench in his house in New Jersey, so I look up to him. And then also I feel like a lot of my peers are on YouTube, because that’s how I learned everything. That’s how I learned how to build skateboards, ramps, all this. And so I follow a lot of really cool makers on YouTube, Jimmy DiResta, Laura Kampf. There’s all these people and they build incredible stuff.