In pre-PC days, only parents and kooks bought boards off the rack-the core always went custom. But with the advent of extremely close-tolerance molded polyurethane blanks and computer-aided design and manufacturing, surfing’s craftsmen are now able to crank out refined boards so close to the shaper’s original vision as to be indistinguishable from a custom job. And when you consider all the variables involved in getting the right custom board (shape, glassing, color, sticker placement, etc.) it might be time to take another look at those stock boards. You just have to know how.

Before you think about the type of board you want, think about the type of board you have. What’s working; what’s not? Take an honest look at your surfing and think about what you’d like to improve with the acquisition of your new board.

A lot of shops display their boards in two inch increments and this makes it much easier to choose the proper tool. But don’t be a single-issue purchaser. Your magic 6′ 1″ may have worked really well because of its foil, entry rocker or thickness, not simply because it was 73 inches long.

“People come in and have a preconceived idea about what board will work,” says Craig Gordon of Brave New World Surf Shop in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. “But I ask my customers a ton of questions about how long they’ve been surfing, what their last board was, and if they’ve ever had a board that worked really well. If you have an idea of what works for you, you’ll get a better board.”

The best way to learn what works for you is to think about what you’re riding. Take some time to examine it’s various components-entry and tail rocker, rail contours, bottom characteristics, thickness, width. Once you begin to understand how these elements affect your ride, you’ll have a better idea of what you need-and what it’ll look like when you see it.

If you go to a shop run by only intermediate surfers, you’re going to get only mediocre feedback about the design characteristics of a very refined piece of equipment. “Go somewhere where the people actually surf and know what they’re talking about,” says Jason Blake of Emerald City Surf Shop in Mission Beach, CA. “Maybe if you’ve seen the people in the water, then you’ll know that they can help you out.”

Remember that you are the one dropping the coin, so it’s okay to ask questions-lots of them-and listen to the answers. Also, divulge information about your self.

If a board catches your eye, pick it up and check it out-you can learn a lot about a board by putting it under your arm. Feel the rails, the width and thickness. Lay it on a rack so that you can judge the board’s contours from a few feet away. Inspect the rails and outline, and consider the weight. The only true way to measure a board’s bottom characteristics is to use a straightedge, so ask for one, and check the board’s concave. If none of this make sense to you, ask for the feedback of a knowledgeable salesman.

Unfortunately, many customers find themselves adrift in a sea of fashionable surfboards when they walk into a shop, and they end up with a board that looks great until it’s underfoot. If you don’t feel that you’re getting good service, or that the person helping you even knows what they’re talking about, don’t be afraid to leave. After all, your next great board could be waiting in the next shop down the street.

– Brad Melekian