THE BIGGEST LITTLE MAN: A Chat With Shaping Maestro Timmy Patterson

At a time when computer software and advanced pop-out technology is making the surfboard building process easier than ever many shapers are baffled by the fact that Timmy Patterson still insists on shaping every board—start to finish—by hand. When asked why he says, "Because I'm an idiot." But when the world's best pro surfers arrive in California every year dozens of them come looking for this amusing little round-bellied 40-year-old because they love his high performance equipment. In a town rich in shaping history Patterson's one of the most highly regarded craftsmen in the business, capable of handling any tool thrown at him, and renowned for inventing a few of his own. But before you peg him a throwback to a bygone era consider his role as a leading tow-board designer entrenched in the big wave revolution, and understand that as part of Salomon's R&D team he's helping spearhead the search for better board materials. Last month SIMA (Surf Industry Manufacturers Association) officially recognized Patterson's impact on the shaping world by nominating him alongside big name board labels like Rusty, Channel Islands, and Lost for their board builder of the year award. By doing so they're acknowledging a fact that many already knew…this little big man is a shaping guru. –Chris Mauro

You grew up with foam dust in your veins didn't you?

Literally…My dad was a sander at Hobie during the late '60s and early '70s, so I grew up running up and down the halls in that factory bringing my dad lunch and watching Terry Martin shape.
When did you decide to go out and shape on your own?

I didn't. I was forced into it. I shaped for Hobie for a while, and wanted to stay with them but in the late '80s they were getting more into longboards, and I was surfing beachbreaks and getting barreled. I also shaped for Chris McKelroy but he would take off for months at a time to Indonesia so business would stop and I wouldn't get paid. That's around the time when Archy [Matt Archbold] started coming to me for his shortboards.

And you started your own label?

Well, I was sort of hanging around looking for work, hoping to land with one of the big companies. I shaped some boards for Town & Country, doing Matt's boards. I did some Japan trips to shape a few stock boards, and my name floated around whenever people mentioned craftsman type things; shaping, glassing, sanding. I always wanted to put Local Motion, or Town & Country or HIC on my board, like, "I make it and you pay me." That was my deal, but it never worked out, so I went on my own.

But today you're doing boards for a lot of the big labels' team riders…

Well, yeah, that's one of the board industry's dirty little secrets. They like the fact that I'm independent, and so do I. My logo may not show up, but I love having access to the best surfers in the world. If I shaped for one big company I wouldn't have that kind of access.

You're also deeply involved with tow boards and the whole Salomon blank thing, both of which are surrounded by curiosity and some controversy. Was your involvement in these areas by accident or design?

Well, with the Salomon, it's one of those things where I've prided myself on staying open-minded to change. I like the fact that it's taking the best of the molded board technology and blending it with performance realities—meaning, we're still able to manipulate the shape when it gets in our hands.

So you still consider it a custom board?

Yeah, it's based on being a custom board built for high performance. It's molded technology, but with more power to the shaper. Nothing against the way molded boards like Surftech are built, but Salomon has built their whole company around being 100% into performance, not just durability. For a company with their resources, from the outside of our industry, to be looking to advance surfing, well, I think that's great. I say welcome. They're being totally receptive to all the shapers involved, so it's fun. I love working with them.

What about tow boards? How does a guy from Southern California become a go-to guy for big wave equipment?

Well, my involvement with tow boards had a lot to do with Mike Parsons. I did his board for Cortes Bank and after that I really started thinking about what it would take to ride waves like that and Jaws. You need a much heavier board at Jaws then you do at Cortes, and you need a smaller board for places like Teahupoo, where you're confined to this little bowl area that you have to ride in.

Is tow board theory being applied to regular boards?

Yeah, people are realizing you can get away with a lot less board in big waves, and perform much better. The average set of standard Hawaii boards has changed a lot because guys aren't riding boards way up in the high 7-foot range unless they absolutely have to just for paddling purposes.

How long can the traditional hand shaper stick around with all the new competitive forces facing them?

It's really all up to the consumer. The molded boards are good for the beginner, like little Johnny who wants to try surfing for the summer, so in that sense they probably do bring more people into surfing. But the best boards for high performance surfing are still the hand shaped boards. The molded boards are strong but they're also limited by their materials. The flex can change just from the temperature they're being ridden in.

Will the skilled surfer always demand a hand shaped board?

I don't ever see that changing. A lot of it just has to do with coming into a shop like this and inhaling the foam dust and the resin fumes. Nothing beats that.

But if you never set foot in a shaping room and you only buy off the rack why should it matter where or how your board was made?

It probably doesn't matter, but it should matter. People should know if a board was made overseas or shaped right there in their neighborhood for the type of waves that hit that area. Most people never leave their 20-mile radius, and it's good to have a board made by somebody who understands those needs. Waves break differently everywhere, and each area has its own perfect board that a local shaper is tuned into.

We always hear how it's been thirty years since we've done anything new with materials, and boards in general, but I've spoken with aerospace engineers who say that conventional surfboards are actually fairly advanced technologically. Has the standard polyester board gotten a bad wrap?

Well, yeah, but it's understandable because making a surfboard is so low tech. I mean, anyone can make this very modern looking foil in their garage using primitive tools, but the fact remains that nobody's come along and found a better way of making boards perform better, we're working on it but it hasn't happened, so in that sense they're still very advanced. Shapers are using tools that no other craftsmen use, and we're doing things other people can't. The people at Salomon are learning much more from us than we are from them. I think that's something to be proud of.