Tom Parrish is an elusive man. He first made his mark on surfing by building boards for the world's best during a revolutionary period in Hawaiian surf history, but few know much about the man behind the crafts. I tracked Parrish down in Maui, where he lives on a large property belonging to longtime friend and fellow shaper Charlie Smith. Although he isn't shaping nearly as much as he did during his tenure with Lightning Bolt, he stays sharp handshaping three to five boards per week under his own label. When I arrived, he had just finished shaping a board reminiscent of his single-fin pintails that dominated the North Shore some 40 years ago, and we sat down to discuss a life of foam and fiberglass.
How did you get started building boards?
I started by stripping the glass off old longboards and reshaping the foam, and then one day I went to Clark's [of Clark Foam] in Laguna Niguel and bought 10 reject blanks. I shaped those and gave them away to all the guys in the neighborhood. By the time I moved to Hawaii I had made about 50 boards. That first winter after high school I somehow got a job shaping with Surfline Hawaii. I remember Fred Schwartz started me with three boards, and at the time it cost about $65 to make a board from beginning to end. I set up a little shaping room in a shed and used some cardboard to turn a spare bedroom as a glassing room [laughs]. When I finished the first three boards, I brought Fred and he said, "I can't believe you put our stickers on these! Get them out of here!" I was devastated. That was all the money I had, but he gave me one more chance. He said to bring three more the next week, and if those didn't cut it then I was out of the job.
That's a lot of pressure.
Yeah. I somehow got the money together and thankfully my next boards were acceptable. So I was the bottom guy on the roster at Surfline Hawaii, which was the biggest shop in town at the time. We had Gerry Lopez, Dick Brewer, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Reno Abellira, and Randy Rarick—pretty much everyone that later went on to Lightning Bolt. I was stoked just to be the low guy on the totem pole. And then when Gerry and Jack started Lightning Bolt, there was an exodus. Everyone wanted to be with Lightning Bolt.
At first they didn't have room for me. It took about a year, so I stayed at Surfline Hawaii and continued to improve as a shaper until Jack Shipley, the co-owner of Lightning Bolt with Gerry, made room for me at the bottom. Gerry, Barry, and Reno were all such great surfers, but shaping boards was just a way for them to spend more time in the water. I saw that as my opportunity to work hard. I took making boards as seriously as they took surfing.
What was your relationship like with those guys?
At that point I hadn't caught their attention. Because of them, Lightning Bolt was in such high demand that Jack was able to sell more boards than those three could possibly make, so I started to cover some of that overflow. I was still glassing boards then and Jeff Hakman brought over a Brewer to get glassed. After that he let me try making him a few boards. He was so critical, not in a negative way, but he was just so intent on getting what he wanted that it forced me to improve fast. It made me more versatile and taught me to process and translate feedback. Once people saw him riding my boards, it shot me onto a whole new level and Gerry, Barry, and Reno started to notice my boards.
READ: A Lesson in Fins
What was it like working with Gerry?
Around 1975, he had a Lightning Bolt shop on Maui and we had an arrangement where for 10 days out of the month I would go to Maui and he could come to Oahu. He'd do his Oahu boards in my shop and I'd go do my Maui boards in his shop. We'd trade houses, cars, and shaping rooms. Imagine that. I was in heaven, living on Maui, driving Gerry Lopez' car and working in his shaping room. It felt like being God's right-hand man. Gerry had a really different approach to shaping. He learned from Brewer, but it didn't take long before he developed his own style, which was really nothing like Brewer's, because he was more interested in Pipeline while Brewer was more oriented toward Sunset. And Jeff [Hakman] was always a Brewer guy, so I had two very different influences, but also the two that I liked the most. I found a nice middle ground by studying the two and found a solid client base of hot locals like Charlie Smith, as well as great surfers from all over the world—mostly the South African and Australian guys that came over. I made Rabbit Bartholomew a few boards that he traveled with, but most of the boards I made stayed in Hawaii.
You're known for the single-fin pintail that Lightning Bolt popularized in the '70s. Do you still make any of those?
Sometimes. A few surfers who have full quivers of thrusters or quads want to ride something different and like the forward glide a single fin offers. But for the most part, board designs and surf styles have changed so much that those narrow tails aren't very conducive to how people want to surf today. And of course some collectors are interested in the single fins as wall-hangers.
What are your design interests currently?
I just make what people want. I don't really see myself as the Messiah of design—I view my job as being an interpreter. I really enjoy the interaction and working with good surfers. I rarely try to influence people and tell them what they should be riding. Working with Charlie and seeing each other's boards allow us to bounce ideas off of each other, and keep us from going too far off on any tangent. Design is always changing, and in the last couple years I've noticed the wide point coming back up and the noses filling out more like they were a long time ago. Those changes happen slowly and incrementally, but if you took a board from 10 years ago and compared it to a board from today, they'd look entirely different.