There’s foam dust coating my clothes, stuck in the hair on my forearms, and tucked under my fingernails. I’m sweating, and every time I wipe my forehead, I deposit additional epoxy remnants under my hairline. Derrik watches me fire the planer up and make another pass across the bottom of the blank, the shrieking machine kicking more dust into the air as the contours of the board begin to take shape. When I’ve finished the pass, he adjusts my technique, so that the next pass is cleaner and more efficient.
I’m in a bright blue room lit with incredibly bright lights, standard issue for surfboard shaping bays. This is Shaper Studios' location in North Park, a fully-functional surfboard production space tucked behind several neighborhood bars. What’s different about the boards made in this location versus the hundreds of other shaping bays in San Diego county is that the people making these boards are, for the most part, not long-tenured craftsman churning out boards for customers. Instead, we’re the customers churning out boards for ourselves under the watchful eyes of people who know what they’re doing.
Surfers have the opportunity to be incredibly hands-off in their board purchases these days: you can walk into almost any surf shop, point at the brand that currently tickles your fancy, and say, “Give me whatever model Dane/Jordy/Parko/Mick/Kelly is riding,” and rattle off some dimensions (probably deluded by your ego) that you think will work for you. 6-8 weeks later, your ‘custom’ surfboard is ready for pickup. This can, undoubtedly, work, especially for talented surfers who can adapt to ride whatever board is under their feet in a variety of conditions (which, for the record, I am not).
While I’ve certainly gone down this route, and browsing the latest model descriptions from my favorite surfers feeds my obsession with gear, I’ve found that I prefer going and talking to a shaper. With my last custom shape, I went in and said, “I have this board, I want to make something similar, but an inch shorter, and alter the tail shape. The rest is up to you, here’s how fat I am and how often I ride and where, do your thing.” And let me tell you, that board rips. It kept all of the things I liked about the board I based it on, and tweaked the last few things I didn’t. So you might think, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I think it’s only natural that at a certain point, if you love something, you want to find out more about how it’s made (except hot dogs: don’t ever venture down that road or they’ll be ruined forever). So despite the fact that I love my ...Lost board and the one made by my local shaper, I couldn’t help but want to peek further under the hood. I think the process of creation brings you closer to the subject you’re working with, even if what you’re creating might not be of the same caliber as someone who practices their craft day in, and day out.
I was always the guy who took delight in applying grip tape to my own skate decks, who took a strange satisfaction in adjusting snowboard bindings and waxing up the night before hitting the mountain. I’ve worked construction, and built more than a handful of things with hand tools in the past, so I wasn’t too daunted by the prospect of attacking a chunk of foam. I figured with the right guidance, maybe, just maybe, I’d make something that would actually float.
So one day this spring I walked into Shaper Studios for first of a two-day course in shaping my own board. Derrik, one of the owners and the instructor who would be shepherding me through the process, and I discussed what exactly I wanted to make. I figured something with a fair bit of foam and mostly flat rocker would have the best chance of getting my fat ass down the line in smaller waves, so I elected to shape something based on one of the leading manufacturer’s boards for regular “joes” in “average” waves (wink wink, nudge nudge).
With making surfboards, unlike most of the other things I’ve ever made, the process is 100% about reduction. As Derrik reminded me several times throughout the process, “you can always take more foam away, but you can never put it back.” You start by cutting the outline, and then sanding. When the outline is correct, you begin using the planer to adjust the rocker on the bottom and deck. There’s more sanding and surform-ing to smooth everything out. Then you tackle the rails, and finally the concaves in the bottom.
Remember when I said that I was comfortable with hand tools? That’s 99% true, but I was completely convinced that I was going to ruin the board with the planer. It’s the most violent of the tools you use in the process, chewing through the top layer of foam as you pass it across the blank. In the end, a mistake with the handsaw during the outline process is probably far more detrimental (and unfixable) that a bobble in your planing technique, but it doesn’t feel as likely.
Despite that nervousness, and the fact that I was pretty sure if the board floated and went straight it would be a miracle, I cannot describe the absolute joy and satisfaction producing this unwieldy watercraft gave me. There’s something very zenlike about gradually reducing a blank and willing it into shape. I could have spent hours sanding the imperfections out, running my fingers across the outline, deck, and rails, trying to confirm whether what I thought were trouble spots were, indeed, warbles created from my own unsteady hands.
When it was all said and done, I was left with a bit of a funny looking board, certainly not a high performance short board built for maximum shredding in critical waves. What I had was pretty close to what I set out to make, however: short, flat, wide in the front. In short, it had the same features as my pug, so it was christened as such: The Pug. And after a brief wait for it to get glassed (which is also done in house, and lessons are available for that, too) the board was returned, and self decorated, and set out to get its sea legs.
Then a funny thing happened. Its first trip was an early morning in small, short period windslop at Tourmaline, a day when even the longboards were struggling to paddle into the mushy lumps of water. The board held its own though, gliding in fairly easily thanks to its girth, and even pumping nicely through a few sections. After a few sessions and learning my way around it, though, I discovered an unexpected surprise: it kinda rips. In fat faced waves it gets in early, and come off the bottom with a decent turn and it’ll respond by coming back off the top pretty damn well, especially backhand. I’ve surfed it up to five foot or so OB and Scripps, and as long as you don’t stuff the nose during the drop, you’ve set yourself up for a pretty damn fun ride.
Once I got over the initial shock that it outpaced my original expectations, I looked at it with a more critical eye. The outline definitely isn’t even. With the way I surf and my own naturally narrow stance, it’s about an inch too long and the wide point should probably be at center, rather than an inch or so in front. I probably should have run a single to double concave along the bottom, instead of just a gentle single to vee. I won’t be quitting my day job and become a full-time surfboard shaper any time soon.
But who cares! First off, when the time comes for another small wave board, I’ll just go back and shape another, and make a point to fix everything in that list. And there is seriously NOTHING like the stoke of getting a great wave on a board you made. It’s an absolute ego boost. You’re never going to love a board you bought off the rack the way you will something that you poured your own effort into. I’ve ridden that board almost every session since I picked it up in May, and I can’t see myself slowing down until the waves increase in size this fall begin to outpace the low rocker in the front.
I’m not ditching my regular shaper or the big surf companies for boards where the tolerances will be tighter, designed for more critical sections in bigger, faster waves. Not yet, anyway. But I will be heading back to the shaping bay several times in the near future to make a wide range of fun stuff to put in the water. So go mow some foam: that old Rob Machado quote about foam being your friend applies doubly when you shape it yourself.
A HUGE thanks to Derrik at Shaper Studios, who not only helped me shape the board, but was also awesome enough to grab my camera and help me document the whole process. Additional thanks to my good friend Andy, who took time out of his own surfing to help me document the fact that the board is indeed surfable, even if I don't ride it well.
And yes, I am aware that the video below proves I'm the world's biggest kook, but feel free to remind me of it in the comments.