Johnny Airtime's 20 Rules of Ramp Design

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This list will come in handy when you're designing a ramp. Although the 20 Rules of Ramp Design doesn't give you any specific information on ramp structure, materials or drawings, it does give you the freedom to pursue the more important aspects of good ramp design. You can create a ramp that complies with these rules and you'll have a good one when you do. These rules should be followed as a minimum.

1. Ramps need to be portable. "Albatross" ramps (blocklike, solid non-collapsing structures) are difficult to transport. Don't depend on 18 wheelers to haul your ramps - it's not necessary. Design your ramps for portability. You should be able to pull your ramp on a 16' flatbed car hauling trailer so you can park it in a normal parking lot, only taking up two spaces with the truck and the trailer. This is more convenient than a 40' long trailer and it eliminates the additional costs of putting a 40' trailer on the road, stopping at every truck scale, etc. 

2. Ramps need to be shaped for the kind of jumping you intend to do. Distance? Freestyle? Quarter pipe? Constant radius? Elliptical transition? Decreasing radius? Increasing radius? Don't just look at a Kraft cheese commercial as a way to design a ramp. Don't just take three straight lines and connect them to make a ramp shape. Ramp design is a lot deeper than that. Learn the limitations of each ramp shape. The right shape makes it easy to do freestyle. The right shape makes it easy to do distance. Try to do one type of jumping with another type of ramp and it becomes difficult.

3. Ramps need to be sized for the kind of jumping you intend to do. Little ramps produce relatively little jumps. Don't try to break a world distance record with a little ramp unless you just like working too hard, risking life and limb and "overjumping" the launch ramp. Hitting a little ramp in an attempt to break a distance world record is like hitting a steep one foot kicker at super high speed. It's not worth messing with.

Another point on ramp size: if you're jumping obstacles that are 4' high, it's cost prohibitive to build a 35 foot high ramp.

4. Ramps need to be well engineered to be very strong to withstand the punishment dished out by a fat, aggressive pro riding a four stroke weighing in at a combined 500 pounds stomping into the face of the ramp, suspension bottomed out, wide open. That kind of force can bend a launch ramp's frame structure if it's not burly.

5. Ramps need to be easy to set up. This is where a good design makes a huge difference in your lifestyle. Make it easy to set up. This means a lot of things. It shouldn't take machinery to set up the ramp unless you're building a really big ramp. It should go together without a lot of stress and strain.

6. Ramps need to be quick to set up. Design it so you enjoy that benefit. It takes longer to fabricate the ramp so that you can set it up on location very quickly, but your troubles are over as soon as the ramp is fabricated.

7. Ramps need to feel solid when set up. This feeling should be easy and quick to attain with a properly designed ramp. Albatross ramps look solid, but then you discover that they like to teeter on any bumps under the ramp. This forces you to either (1) Groom the ground underneath the ramp over the entire footprint of the ramp and hope you don't high center on a 1/2" pebble, or (2) Shim the ramp underneath, all the way around. Both options lag.

8. Ramps need to store small. If you need a huge construction yard to store the damned things, you'll wear out your welcome at the construction yard, that's for sure.

9. Ramps should be reasonably cheap to build with the best quality materials you might need without overkill. It wouldn't be very economical to have a huge ramp frame machined out of solid billet 7075 T-6 aluminum. You also wouldn't want to buy three times the material you need to get the job done right. Proper design and engineering will keep material and labor costs down.

10. Ramps should be built to last. It takes so much effort to build a ramp. It might as well be built to last the test of time from quality materials, properly engineered. Don't build a ramp out of wood unless you like wasting your time. You might as well spend a month building a snowman. The ramp will last about as long as a snowman if you make the frame out of wood. Steel, my man – STEEL! Don't even bother with aluminum.

11. The design and parts of a ramp should be standardized. When you bolt the sections together, they need to be a certain exact distance apart, using the same size bolts throughout the ramp structure, the plywood gets screwed down with one specific type of fastener, and the ramp deck frame, leg and brace designs should reflect a consistent theme. Funky, odd, cumbersome braces and overly complicated and different parts make a strange looking contraption that is hard to set up fast and hard to repair when a part gets bent and if a part gets lost, it might take too much fabrication time and running around to find these weird parts made of unobtainium. If it takes 12 different types of fastener to assemble the ramp on location, it creates problems: you lose off-sized bolts and have to replace them, you have to maintain 12 different types of bolts and other problems will crop up.

12. Ramps should be made with a simple design, from commonly available materials and hardware. If you are the only guy in the world who knows how to put your highly complex and weird ramp together, you'll have to be there every minute of the way, every time, for setup and teardown. If the ramp doesn't construct in a step by step, simple and straightforward way, it might even be dangerous for the crew to handle heavy, cumbersome, off-balance pieces above their heads. Keeping it simple keeps it easy to learn for your crew, easy for you to teach others how to set up, and every aspect of the operation goes smoother. Simple things just work more consistently and reliably.

You also need to use commonly available materials and hardware when you build a ramp. Making a lot of funky, one-off parts and complicated structures are a waste of time and make for chaos when you damage or lose a part. Complicated things involve more human error factors, more mechanical failures, more manufacturer's defects, problems that are more difficult to figure out quickly and the benefits you gain with more complexity are sometimes canceled out when you aren't able to perform because your ramp fails to work when you need it.

13. Ramps should be made of relatively few parts. This point is related to keeping it simple, standardizing, keeping it cheap to build, building the ramps to last, making it easy to set up, making it quick to set up and making it portable.

14. The ramp frame and deck should be protected with the proper coatings. A bare steel ramp frame needs to be cleaned, then painted with an oil base primer/sealer. Rust can be quickly removed with a 4" grinder with a heavy duty twisted wire wheel. Re-paint scratches that go to bare metal. The frame can then be painted with gloss paint, but it's okay to just go with the oil base primer because ramps get scratched, slid across pavement and concrete, stacked up with sand painted decks sliding across painted steel and they go through some rough handling and guys with oily gloves that put marks all over the ramp. People step on the ramps while they're stacked up, putting unsightly footprints on them, and all kinds of things make them look bad. You just have to clean them up and re-paint them every once in a while. The deck should also be painted first with a primer/sealer on both sides, then screwed to the ramp deck frame.

15. The ramp deck should be made so that the rider gets traction when he's on it, even if it's wet. The best way to do that is to paint the deck with sand paint. Sand paint is expensive, but I like to make my own, which costs a lot less. Sand paint the way I make it consists of masonry sand with gradient particle size mixed with a 5 gallon bucket of flat exterior latex paint. I find 5 gallon buckets of flat exterior latex for $50 to $60 these days, and that price has been pretty consistent over the last 10 years. Masonry sand is $3 for a 60 or 90 pound bag. So, it costs me $10.60 per gallon if I throw all the extra sand away after I paint, but if I keep it and mix it in the next bucket, the price actually works out to about $10.10 per gallon.

16. The joints between ramp sections must not fail. Therefore, to ensure against ramp failure, backup systems should be incorporated.

17. The ramp should be easy to repair. For instance, when you screw the plywood down to the ramp, plan on replacing it eventually. If you take care of the steel frame, it will last many, many years. The plywood will get hammered and will need to be replaced more often. You can keep paint on all of it, but one time I had to leave my ramp in the mud and standing water in northern California for a month. It suffered some plywood delamination damage as a result. Things like this can happen to the best of us. Therefore, when it's time to remove the plywood, it can be a real pain when you see that the primer and the sand paint filled in the phillips heads on all the screws. It dried and hardened, and now you're in a hurry to remove them. Well, you better get out the small flathead screwdriver, an awl, a pocket knife and your dental tools to pick the paint out of the phillips heads. You might even have to use a pry bar and snap some of the bolts under a tensile load.

I use a more convenient method. I use tek screws with a bolt head, and even if they're covered with paint or sand paint, when I take my 1/2" drill with a socket attached and push it down on the bolt head, it shears the paint off the faces of the bolt head and works like a charm. Another thing the tek screws should have is ears. The drill bit on the end of the tek screw starts drilling the hole in the plywood, then the ears hit the wood and bore a slightly bigger hole. The drill bit breaks through the plywood and hits the steel, drilling a hole through the steel. Then the ears hit the hole and break off. The screw threads start tapping into the steel where the ears broke off. The screw threads don't grab the plywood and raise it off the steel deck frame as you drill because the ears cleared a hole through the wood big enough for the wood to clear the threads.

18. The ramps should be easy to fabricate. It takes a lot of work to build a ramp that satisfies all the requirements of a good ramp, but there are many ways to build a ramp. Eliminate lots of cuts, lots of welds, lots of grinds with sound design. Eliminate excessive material handling, difficult work, time consuming processes that are less effective than quicker methods. Some operations can be done with two people, some might require more. Always have enough people so one can hold the material in place while the other welds, two people can carry a heavy piece instead of one person straining too hard, and when you need lots of people, schedule them, get them in, let them do their job and go home.

19. The ramps should be quick to fabricate. Going back to the idea that there are lots of ways to build a ramp, you might as well design it with pieces and segments that eliminate a lot of excess time in fabrication. Sometimes you can spend a little more on certain materials that are strong enough that they eliminate a lot of manhours trying to create a weblike structure out of spindly frame members.

20. The ramps should be easy to expand. When you want to add height onto your ramp, it should be part of the design to easily accept such additions if necessary.

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