There are about five parking slots in the driveway facing the warehouse at Basham's (also called "The Factory," or "Basham's Factory") in the industrial area on the north side of San Clemente. A carload of surfers pulls in and piles out, their hair salt-crusted from the session they've just had, burrito wrappers from Pedro's Tacos swirling like kites in the air behind them. Inside, one guy buys a quart of resin, a bottle of catalyst, and cloth for ding repairs while his buddies peruse the used boards--more than 100 of them--battered veterans of months-long Trestles campaigns, some walking wounded in their number, with snapped-then-patched noses from shorepound folly at State Park. A buffed and polished SUV pulls up and out steps an equally well-maintained mother with her young son who wants a board. Terry Martin, the living legend, shaping in Dana Point since the 1950s, has the back doors of his old Econoline open to load the four longboard blanks he just picked up, but he's deep in conversation at the counter with a hobbyist-shaper who has plucked up the courage to ask the old master a question.
"You need to set the blade on that block plane really shallow," Martin tells the hobbyist, explaining the best way to trim the outside stringers on a three-stringer blank. The drums of resin, the slabs of foam, and rolls of fiberglass cloth give this discussion context. We're talking surfboards here. And this is the place to build them. The focus is on essentials for the act of surfing alone--wax, traction pads, leashes, boardbags, and a giant fin selection, from D fins for logs, to every FCS or Future setup available. But what truly sets Basham's apart from a lot of other well-stocked surf shops is its proximity to the craft of shaping, and its accessibility to the craftsmen themselves.
Nearing 60 years of age, with flowing gray hair and a long beard like Walt Whitman, Brad Basham is constantly moving at The Factory. "I could make arrangements," he says, "to shift things around and just take off surfing somewhere." He finishes the statement not so much with a shrug, but with a gesture that suggests an understanding of his true life's calling: "But once you cut out sleep," he continues, "most of the rest of your life is made up of what you do for work."
For Basham, this consists of maintaining a staff that can handle the steady stream of shaped blanks that come through his glass shop. Obviously, thereare busy and slow times, but 11 men make a living working for Basham, and in this economy (particularly with a product that demands a skilled labor base and is performed, start-to-finish, in the United States) that is an achievement itself. He does the resin tint glassing himself, while Greg, his other laminator, handles the rest of the boards. It's a six-days-a-week production--shaping, airbrushing, laminating, setting fins, hot coating, sanding, as well as selling gear out front.
Three shapers call Basham's home: Chris Kaysen, Maurie Gyenes, and Mark Ellis. Each has a line of boards and each his own approach, but between the three of them, they have all bases covered--a surfer at any point in his development can come in off Avenida de Los Molinos and get the design they need to attain the next level of progression. Rooted in the stretch of coast between Trestles and Salt Creek, the in-house shapers have made boards for virtually all of the area's core surfers--everything from big-wave guns, to classic noseriders and fish.
For the stream of hobbyists, or the apprentice-to-journeyman shapers that rent the extra shaping room onsite, the three professionals represent a deep brain trust of shaping knowledge from which to gain insight. This is not to say that The Factory is set up as some kind of shaper's learning center, but that, instead, over time, working next door to one another, conversations happen, projects are discussed, and learning occurs. Basham's is also the kind of a rare place where a person can buy a planer and the rest of the tools to shape a surfboard, then select a blank from a fully stocked inventory and head into a shaping bay fully equipped with lights, racks, and an air hose to try their hand at the subtlest of the surfing arts.
The openness of The Factory, the fact that the space is there to serve surfers, creates an artisan's cooperative that results in wildly experimental craft. Deep channel-bottoms finished in dark pigment share space with an experimental 18-foot SUP (God help us). Tyler Warren's stubby, rectangular "Function-hull" keel-fin sits on the rack next to wildly sculpted mid-length boards with parabolas cut into the outline at the tail. Meanwhile, Chris Kaysen, commissioned by Herbie Fletcher for an art show in New York City, works a three-foot square block of foam into a curving form with a variable-speed sander.
But on the level of craft, it must be said, that for all the precision of the in-house crew (their boards are dimensionally and otherwise "perfect"), some of the hobbyists' efforts yield boards that are less than ideal--edges where there should be curves, high spots where there should be lows. Shaping, of course, is a learning process with a steep curve, but Basham and his staff are largely encouraging. (The glass jobs they offer cost the same, after all, whether the design comes from an expert or a beginner.)
In keeping with the overall low-key nature of The Factory, a 6-foot surfboard (an old Bronzed Aussie single-fin) with the word "surfboards" stenciled across the bottom, serves as the only sign, and hangs horizontally from two eyebolts and two short lengths of chain at the corner of the building during business hours. Basham recently mounted three more wall racks outside, but one could definitely blink and miss the place driving by. There is also this thing called the Internet, and there has been some serious talk at The Factory about getting a website together. But as it is, the computers they do have are still only used to tally sales, design boards, and run the C & C shaping machine.
Brad Basham's connections, both in San Clemente and the greater surfing world, are the products of a life given to surfing and building surfboards, and The Factory is the perfect expression of this life in its lack of extraneous focus. In other words, the materials and equipment at The Factory make little nod toward fashion, except as it might attach to the process of turning polyurethane foam, polyester resin, and fiberglass into surfboards. As the owner of the building where these arts are practiced, Basham is similarly one-dimensional--his clothes covered in resin and pigment spotted, his attention given to board building. Shapers Timmy Patterson, Matt Biolas and his crew at ...Lost, Cole Surfboards, Hamish Graham, Terry Senate, and Dewey Webber each have production areas near The Factory, which reinforces the surf-community feeling of this industrial part of town.
Back on The Factory floor, the mother and son who arrived earlier in the shiny SUV have been looking at the boards for a while now. Chris, who works the counter, has given them some guidance and then excused himself to ring up a guy who came in for ding repair supplies. The kid seems like he wishes his mom wasn't there, especially with the older surfers hanging out, but he's found a board he likes--a clean little "Move or Die" Thruster that Maurie Gyenes shaped.
"That board looks killer," one of the surfers says to him, and the kid looks down shyly. But he's stoked too, and a little smile breaks through. The surfer's buddies agree. Then Terry Martin, the old master himself, wraps up his conversation with the hobbyist and gives the final decree: "Hey man," he says to the kid in a conspiratorial tone (the mom a bit perplexed by all this attention). "You're gonna have so darn much fun on that board."
And then, one by one, the surfers and the mom and her son, and Terry Martin too, get into their cars and drive away. Behind them, the Bronzed Aussies "surfboards" sign makes its solemn announcement at the edge of the building, and the sound of a planer starts up, whining away from further inside.