Illustration: Jean Jullien
Illustration: Jean Jullien

The Culture: Warts And All

Is learning to make your own surfboard even worth the trouble?

When it comes to my own DIY ethos, I'd drawn a line well in front of making surfboards. Sure, I'll brew my own beer, ferment my own sauerkraut and wrench on my own truck like the flannel- wearing, beard-growing, walking Northern California stereotype I am, but when it comes to surfboards, I'll take one off the rack, thank you very much. Why spend a bunch of time and money hacking away at a piece of foam to make a board that's probably going to be misshapen and barely rideable when there are perfectly good boards for sale at the shop down the street? Or even a custom order form away?

My interest in picking up a planer started only because I had a vague idea for a board I'd always wanted to ride but had never seen for sale anywhere: wide point up front, drawn-in tail, thruster setup, 6’5″ or so. I tried the custom route and ordered a few over the years that I'd hoped would look like the board in my mind's eye, but there was always something off. Too thick, nose template not exactly right or the board just simply sucked. (Do we ever stop and think how ridiculous it is to basically force your vision of a surfboard into the head of a busy shaper who is often just trying to make enough boards to survive financially in the dying days of the hand-built-surfboards world?) Finally, I figured, what the hell, I'll do it myself.

I showed up at a little joint called Sunset Shapers in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, where they offer shaping lessons and access to tools, shaping bays, etc. James Mitchell, the shop's owner and the shaper of the fairly widely distributed Las Olas board label, was my tutor, and together we talked over my hypothetical board. He understood right away the sort of board I was trying to build: a big shortboard that would be racy enough to ease into overhead surf and project confidently through sketchy sections, but floaty enough to cruise on smaller days while having enough handling ability to work over wide-open faces when I felt like pretending to be a ripper.

We selected a 6’6″ blank and got to work.

I was annoyed by the tools right away. Woodworking appliances made to shave down straight pieces of lumber seemed like the most ill-suited tools imaginable to shape a curved surfboard. But drawing the template and cutting the outline was easy. Sanding down the rails was not that bad at all. Using a sureform to shave down uneven sections like they were big blocks of Parmesan cheese felt natural. Firing up a frighteningly loud, heavily vibrating planer to skin the deck, however, was terrifying. I imagined every pro shaper probably spent the first dozen blanks totally unsure if they had any clue what they were doing with a power planer. I never felt like I had any idea what I was doing as I made awkward, stunted passes back and forth across the bottom and the deck, trying to turn a rectangle of foam into something resembling a surfboard, with a power tool built to carve mirror-flat pieces of wood.

Yet gradually, unbelievably, an actual surfboard took shape. When I finally put down the last sanding block after making a zillion passes (the most fun part, as you feel like a Renaissance artist smoothing the final rough edges of a marble masterpiece), I was left with an elegant, beak-nosed 6’5″ with a forward wide point, round pintail and single-to-double concave down below. It wasn't perfect. I had a hell of a time trying to get that beak nose even, and one side has a pronounced ridge running from tip of nose down the rail. There's a random lump or two on the bottom, as though the board is growing baseball-sized blisters. One of the rails is boxier than the other in parts. It's much thicker than I'd hoped.

To my own amazement, I absolutely loved it. Warts and all. In fact, I may have loved it more because of the little imperfections. Mitchell told me that legendary shaper Dave Parmenter also celebrated the little flaws in a board. He said that's what makes a magic board magic. Maybe it does, or maybe Parmenter was blowing smoke, trying to make up for screwing up somebody's rail. Either way, it turns out that when you've made a board with your own hands, you'll ignore unplanned asymmetries a whole lot more easily than you would when paying top dollar for a professionally carved board. Still, I may have been getting ahead of myself; after all, there was a chance my handshape wouldn't even turn.

The true test came a couple of days after the board was glassed, when a crossed-up southern hemi and a northwest windswell sent fun peaks up and down Ocean Beach. I waxed up and proudly strolled across the sand, hoping somebody would ask me who'd made the board under my arm. I made my way out to the lineup, immediately stroked into a shoulder-high wedge, got to my feet, projected off the bottom and wrapped the best turn I'd done in months right back into the pocket. I don't know if it's a commentary on my flagging surfing ability or a profound realization that we fuss way too much over minutiae of board design, but the first board I ever made with my own hands worked as well as or better than any board I've bought in the last couple of years.

As it turns out, surfing a board you made yourself is addicting. It connects you, in a small way, with the prior generations of surfers who saw building their own boards as a rite of passage. It deepens your relationship with the other boards in your quiver. It allows you to bring into being something that you've seen only in your mind's eye. It's devilishly difficult, but monumentally rewarding.

To any shapers out there, I'm sorry. If I've ever ordered a board from you and pestered you with naïve and annoying requests for updates, I really, truly feel awful. For the terrible things I've said about you to friends, my wife, random surfers at the beach and harmless non-surfing passersby in the grocery store who no doubt wondered what a "shaper" even was, and why some crazed-eyed weirdo in the checkout line was shouting, "My shaper said it would be eight to 10 weeks and it's been more than 12!" — I'm honestly very sorry about all that. You see, I didn't know how hard it was to actually make a surfboard, nor had I thought much about how amazing it is that, in 2017, so many surfboards are still built by hand. But after finally putting planer to foam and somehow cutting out a serviceable, honest-to-god surfboard, I don't think I'll ever look at surfboards quite the same again.

I'm now taking orders, by the way. I'll have your board to you in eight to 10 weeks. I swear.