Shaped by Software

How new technology is shaping the designer

Photo: Lowe-White

As the tools of a craft evolve, so too do the craftsmen. The late '90s saw the first glimpses of computer-aided design (CAD) being applied to surfboard manufacturing. Since, the programs and processes have improved, allowing an art once left solely in the hands of traditional shapers to be accessible to those with little or no hands-on shaping experience. And, consequently, with this shift from handsaw and planer to keyboard and mouse comes a simultaneous shift in the profile of the surfboard shaper.

"There are world-class surfboard designers who can't use a planer," says Matt Biolos, of ...Lost Surfboards. "The CAD program is a tool. All tools--a planer, a tractor, a violin--require a lot of time to master." Biolos argues that his hand-shaping experience has equipped him with an exceptional grasp of what he is designing, which applies directly to his mastery of the CAD software. But can surfboard designers really become "world-class" without mastering traditional methods?

While new designers may lack extensive shaping experience, they're finding innovative ways of applying their own practical knowledge to the craft. Chris Gallagher, who began making boards on CAD software after his career as a World Tour competitor, notes that surfing professionally is what formed his understanding of design: "I rode for and worked with a lot of great shapers as a pro, which gives you that feel for a magic board under your arm."

Despite shaping only 200 boards by hand--less than what many hand-shapers produce in a couple months--Gallagher is no amateur designer. He regularly makes boards for the Hobgoods and other top pros. Although he lacks a traditional shaping background, he's worked backward to gain some irreplaceable knowledge of the craft. "The art of CAD design is still trying to copy the very best handmade board. You have to learn in the CAD software to create characteristics that are more hand-shape oriented."

Christiaan Bradley, who's built a successful career designing boards for Jeremy Flores, Matt Wilkinson, and other World Tour pros, is yet another top designer with nominal hand-shaping experience. He attributes his understanding of the CAD tool to his work with talented hand-shapers while finish-sanding already-glassed boards. "I've never really had to do the hand-shaping thing," says Bradley. "I worked with a lot of great shapers and there were always good boards coming through. So in my head I came to appreciate what a good-looking board is, and you tend to carry that into your own shapes."

The work of Gallagher and Bradley indicate that an understanding of board design must take root in the deep knowledge of experienced hand-shapers. However, this skill can now be acquired in abstract. It seems that today's designers, unlike their predecessors, don't need to shape thousands of boards to become competent.

Still, preserving the art of hand-shaping is more than just a matter of nostalgia. Jimmy Freese is a developer of the CAD program for the AKU Shaper machine, one of several options on the market used by JS Industries, Chilli Surfboards, and other major brands. He attests that the process of refining this software relies heavily on input from seasoned shapers: "When I work with them, I see a whole different level of knowledge, and more confidence with what they want out of the software."

Despite the pervasive increase of CAD-use in the industry and the progress of designers without much hands-on experience, it seems that pieces of the time-honored craft will continue to be passed down through generations, even if only through downloadable files. "Shaping with a planer and handsaw are narrow and deep skills that we would hate to see disappear," says Biolos. "Some of that is getting lost already."