A Case For Off-The-Rack Surfcraft

Sometimes the only thing better than a custom board is walking out of the shop with a sure winner

Surely one of these boards will work just fine, and it's right there, no waiting. Photo: Burgess
Surely one of these boards will work just fine, and it’s right there, no waiting. Photo: Burgess

Of all the quirks that make up the inexplicable delights of our strange little surf world, the romance of the custom-built surfboard might be the most cherished quirk of all. I don’t really know if the market backs up that claim with actual financial statistics or anything, but anecdotally speaking at least, the cult of the shaper is one of the primary foundations of coolness upon which we’ve built our house.

And it is pretty cool.

Hardworking craftsmen and women using their hands—sometimes that involves plunking the keys on a computer, but still—to make a board loosely tailored to whatever it is we’ve decided will make us surf just like whichever famous surfer we’ve decided to model our style after. It’s enough to make even the most vocal hipster hater take a moment to appreciate the charms of a bespoke, handmade thing as a piece of art. What’s not to love?

Well, actually, a couple things have come to mind lately.

The inexplicable amount of time it can take to actually get your board, for one. Baffling, really, how this works. I once custom ordered a new car. Picked out the color, transmission, trim level, the options I wanted, all of it. Had to wait for that exact combo to be manufactured. Then I waited while it was shipped by boat all the way from Japan to California. Whole process took about six weeks, less time than a typical custom board order. I know this, because I ordered a board from my regular shaper a week before the car, in an ambitious bit of financial insanity, and the car arrived a few weeks before the board did. Think about that for a minute.

The next time I ordered a board from that very same shaper, it came in roughly three weeks. It seemed I’d barely put the phone down and it was ringing again to tell me the board was ready. There’s just no way to divine the time it’ll take to actually get your board. You cast your dice, you take your chances, the whole time checking in with passive aggressive phone calls and emails: “Hey, uh, got a trip coming up and I’m just trying to plan my quiver…think my board’ll be ready?” Maybe the shaper’s got orders coming out of his ears. Maybe he can’t afford to pay his glasser. Maybe his glasser is in jail. Maybe the EPA shut down their whole operation. You’ll never really know.

Then consider that, in addition to all the waiting, you’re basically throwing a couple hundred bucks’ deposit down on a board that doesn’t actually exist yet. After the order, you’re left to only hope that your hypothetical board actually looks remotely like what you imagined when ordering. And of course, to hope that it does make you surf just like whichever famous surfer you’ve decided to model your style after. A really good shaper will talk with you about your surfing when you’re ordering the board to suss out your ability level and what sorts of waves you plan to ride the thing on—all the while trying to decipher how much bullshit you’re spinning about your fantasy surfing life—in order to build the board to a spec that makes the most sense for you. A really good shaper is also occasionally capable of carving out a board that makes absolutely zero sense for the customer, because, for a million different reasons: woke up in the night with harebrained ideas about bottom contours or foam distribution, decided that asymmetrical chined rails will be the thing that saves performance surfing, or possibly his hand just slipped with the sureform—the whole thing is a borderline crapshoot.

Which is why I just no longer care about custom boards. Or at least, custom handshaped boards as daily drivers.

My surfing odometer ticked past 23 years earlier this summer. After a couple decades in the water, I’ve finally, mercifully, learned that a board ain’t gonna be magic just because it has my name on the stringer. I see a good-looking board on the rack made by a shaper I respect? I buy it. At this point, I can tell that a board works with a glance at a few key curves. After that, I pick it up, heft it under the arm a bit, and I’m good to go. Cut by a soulless machine, according to dims that weren’t dreamt up with me in mind? As long as it works, I’m happy. “There’s no soul in foam,” Al Merrick famously said.

The benefits are instant gratification, and no wondering if the board I order is going to match the pretty little picture I’ve got of the not-yet-built-thing in my head. Predictable off-the-rack boards are godsends, really, all hail the CNC-machine that’s taken the guesswork (or magic, if you’re one of those types) from the equation.

Then again, there are a couple areas where custom boards are totally and completely worth it. You want a board from a legendary shaper, made just for you, specifically because it’s a bespoke, craftsperson-made piece of high art? That’s awesome. Me, too. I’d love to have a Skip Frye glider made just for me, maybe a Dave Parmenter makaha gun hanging in the rafters, with my name on it just to impress guests. Perhaps you fancy a shaper’s wares who’s strictly custom only and doesn’t make boards for sale at a surf shop, or who only sells boards at shops hundreds of miles away from where you live. Well, then, sure. Custom’s your only option. Nothing wrong with that.

Or, if like me, you’re built like a stork, and therefore have weird dimension preferences, a custom job is occasionally necessary for high performance boards. Though you can sort of bypass the wait-and-hope of traditional customs with the aid of a little digital wizardry. Nowadays lots of boardmakers are letting you pick a board model you like, then plug your own dims into a 3D imaging thingy and it’s absolutely great. I can tweak the shape to my skinny-ass heart’s desire, see the board right there on the screen, and it’s almost as good as seeing it live. It’s custom without the mystery.

Don’t get me wrong, I think a master craftsperson breathing life into a handshaped board is absolutely romantic as all hell. But you know what? So is getting a board in a reasonable and fixed amount of time, without having to cross your fingers and pray.

For all the information you need to find your next favorite sled, visit our 2016 Surfboard Buyer’s Guide, presented by REAL Watersports.