The magic of surfboards, and those who create them. Words: Tim Hain. Photo: Anthony Dodds.
A surfer can’t be a surfer without a surfboard. Period.
Without it a surfer simply can’t surf, can’t experience the visceral thrill of paddling out into the lineup, catching a wave and either getting barreled, making a few turns, maybe even boosting an air, or just cruising down the face of a cleanly peeling wave as the board responds to every hint of movement and the ever-changing wave like it’s a mind reader.
A real surfer is by no means a “normal” person that just happens to have a surfboard and uses it once in a while as a hobby or even as a tool in a vocation … I think those of us who are surfers, or who know surfers, will readily agree that being a surfer is much more than a person just riding a wave on a board.
Your surfboard as the medium for your enjoyment is never something you take for granted.
A surfboard, to the uninitiated at least, is just a foam plank with a couple of spiky bits sticking out the bottom, often garishly painted with a rope thingy attached. But enter the world of the surfer and the surfboard creator and you will be amazed at the depth and breadth of both the applied science and the pure magic involved in the creation of what shaper, Rich Pavel, calls “an instrument for tapping a rarified experience”.
Certainly the advances in technology and applied science have been a boon to the surfboard shaper, but without a doubt it’s the genius of these “magicians” themselves, who are constantly seeking to expand the frontiers of what can be experienced while riding on a plank of foam and fiberglass, that has resulted in there being almost as many styles of surfboards today as there are models of cars on the road. And those who rise to fame for their ability to share that “rarified experience” are revered accordingly.
For Rich Pavel (who hails from San Diego and has been building boards for more than 40 years) it was very simple.
“When I grew up in the ’70s you made your fin, you bought a blank, and then you brought it home and you built your board. And you did that because that’s how you got to go surfing. Guys that had store-bought boards didn’t even have a place in the lineup where I grew up.”
Talking to Ryan Lovelace, who is just 27 years old, comes from Santa Barbara and has been shaping for almost 10 years now, he says: “My first board was a 6’4 x fat x huge twin fish that I made because a friend told me he had made one for pretty cheap and I was too poor to afford a new board.”
Cross the Pacific Ocean to Australia and ask Thomas Bexon from Nusa Heads about his first board: “The first board I shaped was a 7’6 eggy mid-length that was pretty ugly and didn’t work that well but it started everything. I started shaping because at the time where I was there wasn’t anyone shaping the kind of boards I wanted to ride.”
Japan’s Takuya “Tappy” Yoshikawa has been shaping for more than 20 years, and got his inspiration from watching his sister’s boyfriend, Nobuyuki Tazuka, shaping his surfboards, then decided to try his hand.
“I learned from Nobu, and my first board turned out surprisingly good, so I just kept doing it,” he says.
Bali’s own Mochamad Yunus started surfing at Kuta Beach at nine years old, and as smaller boards were very hard to come by back then, he decided to cut down an old broken longboard and make his own custom shortboard.
“It was about 5’4” and very flat, almost no rocker, kind of ugly but it worked. I was so proud of it. I used my mom’s kitchen knives and other things I found around the house to shape it, because there were no tools available. I didn’t know that I should use different resin and cloth either, so I used the heavy stuff that is for repairing boats,” he says.
So a surfer gets hooked on shaping and starts to produce enough worthy product to call himself a shaper, but how do some become known for having that special ability to create those “magic” boards and others just “average” surfboards? Is it some applied scientific methodology, or state-of-the-art equipment and materials, or is it some metaphysical attribute that the shaper was born with?
The easy answer is that it’s a combination of all of the above, coupled with a bit of luck and being at the right place at the right time.
Dave Verrall says: “Even after 25 years in the business I still froth with the challenge of making each individual board right for the customer, and getting feedback as they grow into the board’s characteristics.”
For Ryan Lovelace, it’s like a dream come true. He says: “I still don’t believe that this is reality … there are so many facets of what I do that I love. The shaping of course, but on top of that the glassing I love dearly – the colours and the design work, the freedom and the perfection.”
Takuya Yoshikawa adds: “I think every step of the process is exciting for me, from design to production to getting feedback on the result. From the beginning I was just a short board shaper, but now I do many other variations. So many things have changed, and now I’m even shaping boards for snow surfing.”
The question often arises nowadays regarding the use of machines in the creative process of shaping a surfboard and whether it takes the “magic” out of it. In the old days it was basic hand tools, a keen eye and sensitive hands that formed the finished board out of a block of foam. A truly handcrafted product, a unique and one-of-a- kind creation like a sculpture or a painting, it could never be exactly replicated. If you happened to have one of these “magic” boards, and it broke or was damaged beyond repair, chances are you’d never get to experience that very same magic again.
But now, that magic handcrafted board can be scanned by a computer and turned into bits and bytes that are fed into a shaping machine and duplicated forever, creating the ability to share that magic with countless others.
Dave Verrall thinks it depends on what the surfer is looking for in a board, saying: “I hand-shaped for 12 years and have used machines for 13. Nowadays I drive my own machine and I get exactly what I want from the software. It’s a great tool that helps progression and development.”
Ryan Lovelace says he prefers to shape by hand exclusively, though he admits that machines do have their place.
“I respect their existence and understand their necessity with regard to filling the market’s needs for new boards, as well as their ability to replicate a shape countless times. That being said I find them extremely boring, generic, and sterile,” he says.
“I try to be very transparent in my work at my shop – to bring people in and show them what it all means, why I like to do it by hand. I feel like that’s the best way I can convey that connection for them and involve them in it, without making them build the board themselves.”
There is a direct correlation between how long a surfer has been surfing and how interested he or she is the intricacies of the surfboard itself. As their ability to surf in a variety of conditions improves, or when their progresses may be stymied, they look to the surfboard itself to provide them with a different or richer experience, much like a poker player seeks larger and larger stake games.
The experience of receiving a new custom-shaped board and being able to see your own name written on the bottom next to the shaper’s name is something you never forget.
When asked why shapers are often revered and given a “god-like” status in the surfing world, Rich Pavel had an interesting angle, saying: “I don’t know that it’s appropriate to worship any man … but if you’re looking at a creator or a creation, there is probably an appropriate context for this consideration.”
Ryan Lovelace’s reply was much more simple: “Shapers are like gods to people because they somehow hand off these magical devices that bring you to a point of pure and maximum happiness.”
DAVE VERRALL – DIVERSE SURFBOARDS
Where from: Gold Coast Australia, now lives in Tuban, Bali
Years shaping: 25
Specialty: Complete diversity – all kinds of shapes and constructions
TAKUYA “TAPPY” YOSHIKAWA – REVELATION SURFBOARDS
Where from: Chiba, Japan
Years shaping: 20 plus
LUKE STUDER – STUDER SURFBOARDS
Where from: California, now lives in Bali
Years shaping: 14
Specialty: Barrel boards and flextails
Where from: Noosa Heads, Australia
Years shaping: 15
Specialty: Longboards, but bit of everything
Where from: Santa Barbara, California
Years shaping: 9
Specialty: Down the line speed, specific shapes. Specific gap-filling boards for a solid quiver
RICH PAVEL – GREENROOM SURFBOARDS
Where from: La Jolla, California
Years shaping: 40
Specialty: Being able to analyze a wave and translate what board will work in those conditions.
RICHARD EVANS – LIGHT SURFBOARDS
Where from: Maroubra, Australia
Years shaping: 45
Specialty: Loves shaping everything