Editor’s Note: On Saturday, August 23, San Clemente shaping legend Jeffrey “Midget” Smith passed away after a recurring battle with cancer. Smith was a surfer who gave back in as many ways possible. A forerunner of the late ’70s/early ’80s performance push, he shared the stoke by making state-of-the-art boards for his loyal customers. He dragged his good friends down to Mexico to key into some of the best pointbreaks in the world — before there were WCT contests there. And he was a fair, level-headed judge for decades, giving young surfers an accurate contest-by-contest gauge on how to improve their surfing. I still remember the event Midget gave up an 8.5 for one of my waves. It was never easy getting an 8.5 from Midge. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and loved ones. Midget will be dearly missed. To memorialize this local surfing legend, we’ve run a profile on Smith written by contributor Dave Prodan for the San Clemente Times.
The word “institution,” as defined by Webster’s, means “one long associated with a specified place, position or function.” Within the surfing community, few embody the idea of an “institution” better than San Clemente stalwart Jeffrey “Midget” Smith.
A well-respected shaper, surfer, businessman and contest judge, Smith has been prowling the San Clemente lineups and shaping bays for decades. He began his love affair with the ocean in the punchy peaks off of Beach Road before progressing to Doheny and then San Clemente Pier. “Believe it or not, the pier got pretty good back in those days,” Smith, 54, admits.
With the San Clemente reefs and beaches as his training ground, the diminutive natural-footer quickly advanced and began a competitive career. And it was during these competitions that the “Midget” moniker came about. “When I was competing, there was another kid named Jeff Smith, so I started going by ‘Midget’,” Smith said.
At a time when modern surfing was in its infancy, Smith was privy to one of the most important eras within the sport: the shortboard revolution. The advent of Alby Falzon’s immortal Morning of the Earth film had surfers around the globe chopping their longboards down in favor of the smaller, more maneuverable shortboards, and overnight, board length shrank from 10 feet to five.
This uprising provided the perfect opportunity for Smith to delve into board making. The enterprising youngster’s first shaping experience involved going out to the backyard, stripping the fiberglass off of his longboard and whittling it down to the new standard—and this was just the beginning.
Upon graduating from San Clemente High School in 1969, Midget went to work at Hobie Surf Shop in Dana Point. It was there, under the tutelage of renowned board maker Terry Martin, that Smith developed his skills as a shaper. Following a brief stint with Natural Design Surfboards, Smith started the Midget Smith Surfboards label and quickly cultivated a reputation for crafting some of the best boards in California.
At the time, amidst the growing number of accolades Smith was collecting as a surfer and shaper, a third passion came along. “I was competing and I used to complain about the judging all the time,” Smith said. “Finally I went, ‘Why am I complaining?’ I didn’t even know what those guys were going through, so I figured I’d try it out. And I had a blast; I loved it.”
Since his first judging experience at 24 years old, Smith has judged for the Western Surfing Association (WSA), the International Surfing Association (ISA), the elite Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) and has served as head judge for the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA).
Competitive surfing aside (both in the jersey and in the tower), Smith has never strayed from the forefront of high-performance shaping. Over the years, he’s crafted boards for legends including Mark Occhilupo, Martin Potter, Dane Kealoha, Andy Irons, Chris Drummy, Mikala Jones, Homer Henard, Jason Weatherly, the late Jason Bogle and San Clemente local Jim Hogan.
Hand shaping anywhere from six to eight surfboards daily, Smith does so without the use of a computer numerical control (CNC) shaping machine. “I don’t have anything against the CNC machine,” Smith admits. “It’s just too slow. If someone comes in and orders a board, I have it finished within two days—you can’t do that with the CNC.”
Virtually all of Smith’s customers either come in or phone in for custom shapes, with only a handful of boards made for the sales rack. And with shortboards competitively priced at $400 apiece, an array of materials available (traditional polystyrene, epoxy and XTR) and a new Web site preparing to launch (featuring a shaping bay cam where people can actually watch Smith shape their board), the “institution” that is Midget Smith remains at the head of board innovation.