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Inside Shaper Studios

Rentable shaping bays are enabling long-time surfers to become first-time shapers

Surf culture has always prided itself on its DIY ethos. Fixing a board yourself is better than sending it to the ding repair shop. Checking the waves in person is better than looking at the cams. Exploring the coastline is better than sticking to well-trodden surf spots. This self-reliance is heavily engrained in our culture, and the ability to make your own boards from start to finish is the logical zenith of that ethos. But there have historically been many barriers to entry for would-be shapers, such as renting a workspace, buying tools, and, most importantly, finding a decent shaper willing to hold their hand through the first few shitty boards.

In the last few years, however, these barriers have been dissolving as the concept of all-inclusive shaping bays began emerging in coastal cities throughout California. Shaper Studios in San Diego is one such workspace. Started less than two years ago by Bay Area transplant Chris Clark, the idea was that Shaper Studios would provide the shaping bays, the templates, and the tools in exchange for a membership fee—like a gym for foam and fiberglass buffs.

Shaper Studios represents an opportunity for young surfers to do something tangible: to deepen their connection to surfing by building a board with their own two hands.

Clark expected most patrons to be experienced backyard shapers looking for a convenient place to practice their hobby and hang out with like-minded individuals, but the bulk of his business came from an unexpected source: average surfers with little or no shaping experience whatsoever. Clark was surprised that this group made up the majority of his clientele, but maybe he shouldn’t have been. Most young middle-class surfers today aren’t nearly as familiar with the teeth of a handsaw as they are with the apps of a smartphone. They’ve been raised on the young American diet of high tech products and social media, where the things that they create exist only in the cloud. Shaper Studios represents an opportunity for them to do something tangible: to deepen their connection to surfing by building a board with their own two hands.

I’m part of the same club. I walked into Shaper Studios a few weeks ago ready to put some callouses on my keyboard-softened hands. For roughly $100 per foot, you can use one of the shaping bays to shape whatever you can dream up. The tools, materials, and instruction are all provided. Being my first board, I wanted to keep the design simple: a relatively straight plan line, low rocker, high width and thickness, and no concave. I figured if I made the board short enough, it should be easy to turn regardless of concave, so I cut it down to 5’4’’. For the tail, I simply chopped the tail to avoid any complications that may arise from attempting a swallow or diamond. “Keep it simple,” I told myself. “You’ll probably fuck this up.”

I grabbed a full-nosed template, got the outline on the blank, and got down to business. My cuts strayed from the lines, my passes with the planer wavered, and my sanding was uneven—it looked like drunken carpentry. Anyone who has seen a master shaper at work knows that everything is smooth, uninterrupted motion like a dusty waltz. I was perpetually stumbling. But Shaper Studios expects this from first timers, which is why they paired me up with Kory Nutter, an in-house shaper and production manager for the facility. He pointed out asymmetries, showed me his planing technique, and kept me from sanding off the down rail in the tail, which I nearly did several times. By the time I was done, sweat had caused the white dust to cling to my every pore. I was a walking powdered sugar donut. But the board was done, it looked beautiful, and I was proud to say that I had made something with my own two hands that would one day be under my feet, high lining through speedy sections and carving the open face.

Two weeks later, I met Kory at the top of the road at Black’s, where he handed me my glassed board: 5 feet and 4 inches of wave destroying potential. As soon as I had it in my hands, I realized just how ugly my creation actually was. I didn’t compensate for the cloth and resin, so the board was substantially bulkier than I had intended, and the rails weren’t uniform, changing shape every few inches from nose to tail. It was a hideous creation, something that most parents would have smothered on sight. But I was determined to love it in spite of its horrible appearance.

I wish I could tell you that I stood up on the first wave and my concerns melted away—that I dropped into a set and linked polished maneuvers through to the inside, coming full circle in my journey from surfer to craftsman to surfer again. But I can’t. I got hung up at the lip, lost my balance on the bottom turn, and bogged on the cutback.

After a few more waves, I started to feel out the board’s limitations and adapted accordingly, and I had an awesome time riding it. In fact, I’ve ridden it everyday since. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s too short with too much nose rocker to be very good at catching waves, and the lack of concave makes it very resistant to turns. Not to mention the problems that I’m just not design savvy enough to pinpoint.

I still love the board, because as its creator I feel warmly obliged to do so, but the odds are I would want nothing to do with it had it been made by someone else. After the session, I was left with one question: If you are paying a similar price to a custom board, and odds are it will ride somewhat worse than a custom board, is it really worth it?

I still love the board, because as its creator I feel warmly obliged to do so, but the odds are I would want nothing to do with it had it been made by someone else.

There’s a reason we turn to master craftsmen to build our surfboards. Taking an unshaped blank and turning it into something that can effectively ride waves is an art form that you can dedicate your life to and still never come close to perfecting. Did I really believe that I could shape myself a magic board on the first try? Was it hubris of Homeric proportions? If I kept shaping my own boards, would my surfing suffer because of it?

The truth is that it if you decide to shape your first board at a place like Shaper Studios, it really doesn’t matter how it turns out. Standing on the other side of the planer has numerous benefits, and there is no scenario in which a surfer shapes his or her own board that doesn’t lead to the betterment of that surfer. The worst-case scenario is that you make a shitty board, learn something about the nuances of concave, rocker, and plan line, and go back to your usual shaper with a much deeper appreciation for what they do. The best-case scenario is that you make a functional board that you enjoy riding, sparking a fire that will lead to you making even better boards in the future. Who knows, you might even become your own favorite shaper—but don’t get your hopes up.