DIY Surfboards

Ryan Burch and the art of shaping your own dream board

Ryan Burch and a pair of hand-shaped masterpieces. Photo: Glaser

An epic day can turn into a lesson in frustration if that off-the-rack thruster doesn't make you surf as much like Kelly Slater as you'd hoped. Even custom shapes can fail you if you can't articulate exactly what you need to your local craftsman. San Diego's Ryan Burch has only been shaping for three years, but he can make himself a better board for his homebreak than anyone else on earth. He argues that if you can muster the time and energy, the best board you've ever ridden might come from your own two hands.

What made you decide to start shaping in the first place?

I rode for this guy who made me shortboards and he didn't want to shape me a longboard. I wanted to try making one, because it's always flat at Cardiff. After the first one I was just so fricken psyched on the process that it was almost a letdown being done with it because I had been so excited everyday about going to work on it. I shaped it, glassed it, and at every step I was so fricken' psyched on doing it. I'm just super duper stoked on the hands-on aspect of it--actually building a surfboard is one of the best things in the world.

Do you exclusively ride your own boards?

I love trying other boards, but recently when I get other people's boards, they're not as fun as the ones that I've made for myself. And now that I'm a shaper, I feel bad getting deals from people. I know what goes into it--the effort and all the work behind it. I want to get paid to shape boards--I don't want to do it for free--so why would I expect anyone else to feel differently? In the end, it's cheaper for me to make my own, and I tend to like them more. And anything that I see that I'm interested in riding, I want to try to shaping myself.

You don't have to make ends meet as a full-time shaper, which gives you freedom to devote a lot of time to experimentation. Do you think that if all shapers were given that kind of time, we'd see more creative and inventive designs?

I'm in a position where I'm so lucky to not have to shape full-time, and that gives me a creative freedom that means the world to me. I only do it out of my own desire to create something--I don't have to do it for anybody that I don't want to. I can go in there and do whatever the heck I want and there's no obligation. I can make a stupid-looking board 'cause I just want to go straight, and I don't have to worry about selling it. And I can make boards that are unforgiving or weird and they would never catch on with anybody else, but maybe that's what I want to ride. I know really creative shapers whose minds wander as much as mine, and they want to try everything, but they're kind of forced to slow that evolution in their designs. They have to generate a buzz around one thing that will eventually catch on so that it's marketable, because the media and the consumers only catch on as fast as stuff can get out there to them. By the time a photo ends up in a magazine of someone riding a certain board, the shaper is already two steps past that. But they kind of have to slow themselves down. It's like almost any other market where they have to produce a product for 2013 and 2015.

So it's like a self-handicapping kind of thing?

Yeah, it just slows down the process. But luckily I don't have to do that. By the time people see me riding a design, I'm probably two steps ahead of that...or two steps backwards [laughs]. But it's all relative.

Equipment testing. Photo: Glaser

How does your environment play into what you do?

Around here I get to see Joel Tudor at the beach a lot, and he's been a massive influence on me and what he rides and the way he approaches waves. And just the stuff he talks about and what he thinks is good surfing has had the craziest impact on me. I absorb a lot of what he's said. And he talks a lot, so I've learned a lot. Some people see something different and write it off, where as he gets psyched on it. And he describes these little, intricate parts of surfing that lots of people might not even realize exist. San Diego has had some pretty soulful, radical people as far as surfing and board design goes. I think I've caught a little bit of that bug from them. I feel like my biggest challenge is to do what I do here elsewhere. I can make myself a board that will work better for me at Seaside than what any other person could make me. It's not because I'm a better shaper who can shape a better rail or have better rockers, or whatever, but I just feel like I know that place. When I shape boards I go into it looking for a certain feeling, like I'll want to surf like Joel on a mid-length. But he was inspired by Wayne Lynch, so I'll look at his surfing and I'll want to surf like that. Sometimes I'll see Rob Machado totally destroying Seaside on a tiny shortboard, and I'll want to make a tri-fin and try to rip. I'm very easily impressed, and I get stoked off anything. I feel like I am really scattered with what I ride and the moods I get into. I can't really do the same thing for days in a row--I just freak out. Shortboarding is fun, but sometimes it seems like the most boring, repetitive thing in the world because you do it too much. I'll get excited to go out and go straight and cross step and look like a ballerina or hipster or whatever you want to call it. But that gets me psyched. But then the next day the waves will be doubling up and I want to go rip again.

What do you think makes a great board? Do all magic boards have something in common?

That's really hard. I always break it down into two categories: There's a surfboard that's, I guess you could say, "high-performance"--but I don't really like that term. I like to call them "athletically surfed." It's like the board that you're ripping, trying to push yourself on, and you have to be fit and a good surfer to ride them, and you're doing stuff influenced by what is considered modern progressive surfing. And then there's a whole other criteria which is, well, I don't know what to call that either. It could be called "retro," but maybe it's beyond that now because people have been doing new things in that field for a while. That's the cruisy side of things. But in either case, a good surfboard is what helps you best achieve your mindset. From the shaping side, a surfboard is the result of the effort that you put into it. I feel like I can rush out a board in a day, and even if it looks good to me, and even if I think I'm getting good enough to shape it fast, it just sucks. A good board comes if a shaper spends his time on it, and all his intentions were good, and it suits the rider's mindset, whatever that may be.

Is there such a thing as an awful board, or do you think anything can work once you get used to it?

No, I definitely have made some that I totally hate. Sometimes its not even the way it rides. I've made some boards that I've surfed three waves on and came in thinking, "That one just doesn't work." I try to keep those to a bare minimum because it's definitely one of the worst feelings in the world.

Burch has a craft for every set of conditions. Photo: Glaser