It's impossible to really know anything about a shaper until you ride his work. It's just that simple, and Jake Moss knows it. And that's why I'm sitting shotgun in his pickup on a bright March morning, listening to reggae and bumping down to Cardiff with a pair of handcrafted boards in the bed of the truck.
The shapes are Jake's, but he's not trying to sell me on them. Not at all. Right now, we're just going surfing, and at first, we don't talk shop. Instead, we just cruise.
Moss Research Surfboards, Jake's business, doesn't come up until I ask about it, but when I do, it's plain he's spent a lot of time thinking about what he does and why he does it.
"I've been surfing my whole life," he says to me, turning down the radio and changing lanes, "since I was about 10 years old. I just grew up surfing. My dad surfed, and like my dad, I've also always been artistic. I come from an artistic family, and once I got into surfing, I figured one day I'd try to shape a board. I was always fascinated with the curves. They intrigued me beyond belief."
At 12, he and his father stumbled through their first design, and Moss recalls the experience and the resultant product fondly, but he says the bug didn't click professionally until almost 10 years later.
"I shaped my first real board when I was about 22," he says. "At the time, my dad had some tools, because he was getting into shaping as well. So I went and bought a raw blank and I went into the garage with a planer and I came out like eight hours later with my first board. I actually still have it. You'd laugh if I showed it to you, but it went OK. Then I had some friends ask me to do a few more for them, so I started getting feedback and I haven't looked back since."
Now 31 and settled in Solana Beach, Moss has been at it professionally for almost a decade. From a crooked, wood-sided shaping bay, bordered by a defunct vegetable garden, he runs a 400-board-per-year operation. Nearly all the product is hand shaped, and this aspect, combined with the backyard feel of the whole thing, gives the business a rootsy and personal vibe. It's a one-man show with a design philosophy that's dedicated to magic, customized boards, artistic expression and a product specifically tailored to each individual client.
"I shape because of the expression I get," says Moss in the truck, swinging a right-hand turn onto the PCH and craning his neck to get a look at the surf. "The release, the art, there's so much creativity in it. It's my outlet. It's what I need to exist. My intentions are to explore all the different possibilities out there, but my motivation is to have a certain experience in the water, and the one I long for as a rider, as a surfer, is to always have a session where everything clicks. I always want to have a magic board that's like lightning under my feet. That's what I'm chasing after."
But it's not like Moss's chase is approached whimsically. He may speak of loose design templates and artistic expression, but, like any good artist, Moss has a strong grasp of the underpinning principles of his craft and a sound work ethic. A meticulous approach to the finer details — he sometimes takes 50 measurements or more per board — and a constant stream of notes on his own progress are instrumental.
Beyond that, he says rider feedback is an elemental key.
"I work really closely with my team riders," Moss says, "and they've given me absolutely invaluable advice. I have a couple of riders who actually surf the exact same size boards as I do, and that helps. I'll take the board out, and then I'll give it to them and they'll give me a whole different perspective on it. And just from there, we'll build on a relationship that revolves around a custom board. We'll just continue the trend of improving what we're making till it's exactly right."
"That level of communication is important for Jake," says NSL Arch Angel and Moss Research rider Greg Strugach, "and it's all done on a one-on-one basis. He helped me dial my contest boards through all these little refinements that we made. We analyzed what I was riding before, and picked it apart, and made some subtle changes, and it's helped a lot. I mean, there's just a lot of personal attention there.
"And what I've found that Jake does really well," he continues, "is he'll have these R&D sessions, where he'll get a bunch of his riders together and we'll all go down to the beach and ride like five or six different boards. And then we'll come in and give him a critique on each, and he'll take that and go fine-tune the equipment. He makes sure everything is perfect before he puts a design out on the market."
Along those lines, Moss also works closely with non-team and non-pro surfers that come across his doorstep, and this openness to the layman, combined with a natural interest in experimentation, has led to two of his favorite and best-received designs.
"A client came to me and was like, 'Hey, I really want you to shape me a single-fin,'" Moss recalls. "He showed me a Nat Young board, from like 1969, and it was, way ahead of its time. There was a double-concave, which was almost unheard of, and it had a really smooth outline with a little wing on the rail that went into a pintail. So I was looking at that board and I was like, 'Cool, let's do something like this, but let's take it in a new direction.' So I went with it. I tuned the template in, brought the nose in and cleaned up the tail. I changed the rocker completely and I incorporated a fluted wing."
The result was the Moss Research SpaceCake, and a shorter, more explosive three-fin derivative known as the Moss Glider.
"It seems like everyone who tries one has to put in an order," laughs Jake, and sure, the claim is bold, but it's backed by a horde of positive feedback.
"I've logged a lot of tube time on that thing," says Casey Kurtis of his Moss SpaceCake. "I never would have traveled with a single-fin, but after riding it around here, and having fun, I took it to Indo and I was blown away. I was getting five-, six-, seven-second-long tubes. And Jamie O'Brien was with us on that trip, and he kind of made fun of me when I pulled it out of my bag. But then, one day, he took it out at like double-overhead Lance's Right and he got these incredible barrels. He was just going, 'I can't believe how fun this thing is.' It was pretty insane."
Back in California, more good grades came in for the SpaceCake when Moss left one at the SURFER offices. In early March, after being on the racks in the warehouse for just a day, the thing vanished and hasn't been back since. The conclusion is that it's been hijacked, commandeered and ridden by one soul or another for close to a month. Just getting a glimpse, much less a session on it, has been impossible, and that can only mean whoever it is, likes what they've found.
On the way to the beach I tell Jake this news and he laughs before adding a thought as we pull up in the empty mid-morning lot.
"If people come to me, I'll make them any board they want," he says. "I'll make something I've never even tried if they ask me to. But with the single-fins, the twin-fins, and the other wider boards that I've been working on, I don't want to be pigeonholed as a retro guy. I don't ever want to go backwards. My approach is to explore where these boards would have gone if, say, the single-fin had remained dominant, so I try to envision where they'd be today. I give them a modern bottom and include elements I learned from making performance Thrusters. I apply concaves and modern rails. I like to be forward-thinking with my shapes."
And with that said, we suit up and Jake hands me a Glider from the back of the truck. Turning it over in my hands, I realize I've never ridden anything like it before, and it feels awkward as I paddle out. But after a few waves I'm a believer too. Just like that, and now, just like everyone else who's ridden one, I know exactly where Jake Moss, the shaper, is coming from.