Sculpting Foam and creating fun with some of the world's most dynamic surfer-shapers

BY: TODD PRODANOVICH PHOTOS BY: GRANT ELLIS (UNLESS NOTED)


“On day two I got some other tools, because the cheese grater wasn’t really cutting it,” deadpanned a dust-caked, purple-haired Andrew Doheny. He was describing his first handshaping experience—one that apparently involved various kitchen utensils—as we stood in front of a barn-turned-shaping-bay nestled among towering pines in Moss Beach, California, some 8 hours north of Doheny’s home in Newport Beach.

Unsurprisingly, the board that came out of that first slapdash shaping session looked like “quite a piece of shit,” according to Doheny. “But, sure enough, the board kind of worked. My friends were riding it and they were doing airs on it, and it was pretty cool to have a board that looked like a piece of shit, but was really fun and could still put a smile on your face. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on shaping my own boards.”

Ten years and a whole lot of handshapes later, Doheny was just finishing up a nearly-rockerless, 5'6" swallow tail in the makeshift shaping bay. The low rocker is a staple of Doheny’s boards, which you’ve likely seen him putting through their paces in web clips filled with wild fin-ditches, layback snaps and white-knuckle carves in everything from pulsing Newport Beach to perfect pointbreaks in Mainland Mexico.

“I enjoy riding small, fast, flat-rockered boards in good waves—waves they’re not meant for,” he explained. “Even if everything else sucks on a board, with no rocker, you’re going to go fast. You’re really feeling the wave. You’re really flying.” Doheny is an interesting case study in professional surfing, backyard board building and where the two intersect. A surfing prodigy who grew up in the surf industry epicenter of Newport Beach, Doheny turned heads and telephoto lenses as a grom by slashing and punting all over 54th Street peaks, earning himself sponsorship at an early age. Doheny had access to the best surfboards in the world, spending much of his early competitive career riding for …Lost, a label widely considered the standard bearer for modern high-performance surfcraft.

Photo: Ryan Craig

So why is it that Doheny (or any professional surfer, for that matter) would opt out of high-end, tailor-made surfboards to instead hack away at foam blanks himself, diving headlong into the ever-humbling, often-frustrating, endless learning process that is handshaping your own surfboards? Hell, even after years or decades spent sweating and mowing foam in a tiny, dust-filled room, odds are you still won’t end up with a surfboard as technically “perfect” as one you could easily get from one of the monolithic surfboard manufacturers churning out uniform performance craft for ‘CTers and average Joes alike.

“It takes a certain type of person to figure it all out,” Tyler Warren had told me earlier in the barn as he ran a sanding block over a nearly-finished fish. “To want to be in this room with these lights on and make a board and do it well.” Doheny and Warren, along with Ryan Burch, Jared Mell, Derrick Disney and Zack Flores, are all that type of person, which is why we invited them to this isolated Northern California nook. The group drove over 400 miles, cleared a small mountain of cobweb-covered junk out of the breezeway of a barn and set up sawhorses holding LED shop lights and shaping stands cemented into spray-painted Home Depot buckets.

Why the hell would we do that, you ask? Did Southern California suddenly run out of shaping bays? Had there been a sandpaper shortage at lower latitudes? Not quite. We wanted to gather a handful of surfer-shapers who inspire with both their handmade creations and the lines they draw on them in the water. We wanted to get them together in a room (or, more accurately, a barn) to break from routine, get rid of any and all distractions and put these characters in a situation where they could swap ideas over beers, share tools and templates and mow foam until 5 a.m. if they felt so inclined (which, as it turns out, they did). Once they’d each finished a board, we’d drive the shaped blanks up to Playland Glassing in San Francisco, where a crew of (clearly- masochistic) glassers volunteered to work around the clock to get six handshapes rideable within 48 hours of dropping them off. And hopefully, at some point, we’d surf.

But more importantly than capturing these shapers building and testing handmade craft, we wanted to explore the draw of handshaping in the modern era, and better understand the ways in which shaping the things that you ride in the surf can end up shaping you.

Photo: Ryan Craig
Photo: Sage Burgess

The sun had been down for hours and the foggy, tree-lined canyon just outside the barn was dark and still and, by some in the group’s assessment, at least somewhat haunted. And perhaps it was. Inside the barn, Warren, Burch and Mell were shaping like men possessed, cackling maniacally as they took sandpaper, surforms and files to various parts of a blank simultaneously.

The funny thing about handshaping today is that when you pick up the tools and put them to foam, you’re following the same process used by Dale Velzy to pioneer the wide-hipped pig design, by Mark Richards to rejigger the early twin-fin and by the Campbell brothers in pursuit of the first bonzer. Some might call it backwards to cling to those old school tools and methods to make yourself a board when you can literally design a surfcraft on a laptop with the right software and get it machined to near completion without getting so much as a grain of dust on your shirt. But Warren, Burch and Mell would argue that you develop a deeper understanding of what makes surfboard’s tick when you build them by hand. They’d also argue that it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

“I just love learning, always, and making your own boards helps you better understand what you’re riding and why it works the way it does and what waves it’s good for,” says Mell, who made his first handshape from the core of a soft top he pulled from a dumpster some 4 years ago. “It’s really fun to learn those differences, which are pretty much never ending. Plus when you shape your own boards you can make whatever you want, there are no real rules about what you can and can’t make—even though it might not float or go that well [laughs]. But you always have the freedom to do whatever you want.”

From the outside looking in, handshaping may seem like a grueling, solitary act. There you are, in a cramped, windowless room for hours on end, alone with your tools and your thoughts. That night in the barn, however, you’d have been hard pressed to hear yourself think over the din of ‘70s rock and buzzing conversation that was starting to feel more like the beginnings of a house party than your standard shaping session. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a productive night. Earlier in the day, Burch had busted a few templates out of his van and brought them down the steep walking path mostly trafficked by hotdog-sized banana slugs, then through the tunnel of shrubbery that led to the barn. There might not have been audible “oohs” and “aahs,” but the other shapers instantly gravitated toward some of the more alien outlines of Burch’s asymmetrical-tailed, picklefork-nosed, double-sided templates, and mulled them over in their hands.

The template that really held everyone’s attention, however, was that of a tiny fish with squiggly, parabolic hips. A fan of surf cinema would instantly recognize the template as similar to the tiny rainbow fish that Burch used to practically re-invent what a fish can do with massive swoops and carves at a South American point during the filming of Volcom’s “Psychic Migrations”. Mell recognized it instantly from elsewhere—he’d borrowed a flextail version from Burch for a few waves while they were both in Indonesia last year filming for an upcoming Thomas Campbell project. Mell said he’d been “freaking out because it was so much fun” and wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to borrow the template and make one for himself.

Fast-forward a few hours and Mell’s new fish had become a group project. At some point, while Burch and Warren were whittling away, Mell wordlessly disappeared into the cool night fog just outside the barn door, perhaps lured by some kind of woodland spirit. Twenty minutes later he returned, and it was clear that he had been possessed, namely by an urge to bake an enormous plate of bacon nachos, which the group promptly tore to pieces.

Disney was the last one in the barn that night, having picked up the tools after Flores finished a winged twin-fin around 2 a.m. Completely losing track of time, Disney churned out an incredibly-fun-looking, subtly-asymmetrical 5'5" twinzer, putting the final touches on the board just north of 5 a.m. For reasons he couldn’t fully explain, Disney drew an outline of a pair of feet on the board.

Photo: Matt Tromberg

“You know, the funny thing is, I don’t even think that’s where I put my feet when I surf,” he said with a laugh after examining his creation the next day. For the first two days of the trip, the crew would hardly put the tools down to eat, and the barn was only really empty when everyone had finally fallen asleep. Most of the time, however, it was a hive of activity, buzzing as the group built boards, talked about their processes, gave and took notes and borrowed templates.

“It’s a lot of like-minded people, but we’re all from different zones and have our own approaches and backgrounds,” says Warren. “Andrew grew up riding shortboards, I grew up riding longboards, Burch grew up riding shortboards and then gravitated toward longboards and everything else. It’s cool to see everyone’s approach to surfing and shaping, and these creative minds that are just like, ‘I’m going to do it myself.’”

Warren is likely the most experienced board builder on the trip, having shaped his first board, a 5'6" single-fin, when he was just 14 years old after he and a friend were bored one day and decided to tear all the glass off of an old 7'0" sitting on the side of the house. He’s shaped thousands of boards since that single-fin, under his label Tyler Warren Shapes, and has become one of Orange County’s foremost builders of traditional surfcraft with a modern twist.

Warren first learned the traditional techniques that he applies to everything from tiny fish to hefty noseriders from the masters themselves, namely production shapers who cut their teeth in the days before machine shaping, when the biggest surfboard labels had to employ armies of skilled shapers to churn out quality craft at high volume.

“At first I’d just shape a couple boards a year, but I’d always work with an established shaper,” says Warren about his early days behind a planer, which saw him making boards with the late shaping legend Terry Martin, who Warren cites as his greatest shaping influence.

“I didn’t really know the level of shaper he was at the time, but he’d made boards for Phil Edwards, Gerry Lopez, Stussy, Stewart, Hobie—he handshaped more boards than anybody by the time he passed away. Probably more than 80,000 in his life—all handshapes—and he could shape a board in 45 minutes,” recalls Warren. “He taught me the steps, the processes, the tools and how to blend things. I think an important part of shaping is just knowing the process and the different stages for doing different things. It keeps everything in line.”

Warren was a good student, and has become a bit of a perfectionist. The 8-foot, three-finned performance egg that he built himself in the barn came out looking like an immaculately-conceived piece of foam, so perfectly symmetrical, so flawlessly foiled, it’s hard to imagine a cleaner board made by hand.

Handshaping as an industry has changed dramatically from the height of Terry Martin’s era to Tyler Warren’s, but the actual act of handshaping itself and the creative outlet it provides have changed very little. Perhaps that’s why, even in an era of cheap, functional, mass-produced boards, surfers continue to pick up planers and put in the time to figure out how to actually use them. To get a good look at handshaping’s future, you need only look as far as Zack Flores, the youngest surfer-shaper on our trip, who built his first board when he was 11. Now at the grizzled old age of 17, he could probably take on an apprentice himself.

The short stretch of coast from Moss Beach through Montara isn’t known for great surf. In fact, it’s known for freezing cold water, fog so thick that you have to actually be in the lineup to check the waves and an abundance of raw, disorganized swell. Oh, and sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.

Still, after all the boards had been dropped off at San Francisco’s Playland Glassing, we were itching to surf, so we took the windy coastal road just north of our house to an isolated beach break squarely in the middle of a massive cove framed by dramatic cliffs.

The shifty, cobalt peaks littered with nervous-looking seals weren’t the most inviting, but the crew found a kind of strange rhythm in the lineup and managed to throw a few stylish arcs at the wonky lip lines.

It’s a funny thing, watching someone surf who you’ve just watched shape. The connection between the way they hack into a wave and the way they hack into a blank becomes immediately apparent, and you wonder to what extent the two influence each other. Mell looks carefree in the shaping bay, practically dancing as he jazzily moves the tools back and forth across the foam, seemingly unconcerned with a little scratch or bump here or there. In the water, his surfing has much the same freewheeling exuberance, taking off on any and every wave, switching stance at random or bashing the lip with a kind of stylish abandon seldom seen on single and twin-finned surfcraft. Warren is almost the opposite, calculated and meticulous in the shaping bay, everything carefully planned and executed in proper succession. On a wave, he draws equally precise, graceful, intentional lines with nary a limb out of place.

“Your personality comes through in your shaping, the same as your surfing,” says Disney. “It’s funny to see Zack’s longboards, which are super thin, and he’s probably the only person who can noseride them and make them still look like logs. Then Ryan is so into the weird little design flairs that he’s thought about and explored, and that’s his personality too—he’s always curious. A self-shaped board is a little portrait of yourself.”

Burch may be the most obvious example of why some pros feel the compulsion to learn something as difficult as handshaping, and the avenues that it opens for their surfing. According to Burch, one of the biggest reasons he got into shaping is because no one was making the boards he had in his head. He’d been inspired by the designs of asymmetrical guru Carl Eckstrom and by the many talented makers of traditional fish in his San Diego hometown, but he wanted to play with those designs and put his own high-performance spin on them. Today, his asym and fish designs are some of the most intriguing surfcraft you’re liable to find anywhere on earth, and a testament to what a surfer can achieve with a few wacky ideas and a fundamental understanding of surfboard building.

Photo: Al Mackinnon

“It’s made surfing so much more dynamic because I’m always problem solving when I’m surfing,” Burch told me out by the barn one day. “You’re riding something that’s new that you’re trying to break down and figure out what went right, what went wrong, what I want to incorporate into my next board and what I want to change about it. It’s a lot more interaction between you and your board, plus the interaction with nature. It’s just fun to do, fine tuning it, and the wheels are always spinning—it’s always exciting to be trying something different and trying to break it down and figure it out.”

With surfboards, there’s a lot to figure out. The variables are innumerous, the learning process is infinite and the perfect board for one surfer in a given set of conditions is almost certainly not the perfect board for another in those same conditions. Needless to say, it’s easy to understand why most surfers will never feel compelled to pick up a planer themselves—especially in an era when they can ride cheaply-made, factory-perfected boards selected for them instantly when they type their height, weight and ability level into an online widget.

Surfer-shapers like Burch and co., however, provide the most interesting counterpoint to mass manufacturers offering up “the next big thing in surfboard design” every season. Watching them build their own boards so specifically-suited to their approach, so emblematic of their personalities, makes a strong case that no one can build you a better board than yourself—if you commit to the gargantuan amount of time needed to get legitimately good at handshaping. Whether most of us actually realize it or not, when it comes to surfboards, there’s probably a massive rift that exists between the next big thing and your next big thing.

“The best part about shaping your own boards is that you can think of an idea, and then you go after it. You make what’s in your head, and there’s no person or thing between you and the blank, no other form of communication except this,” Warren told me in the barn, standing over a skinned blank. “And that’s cool. To get exactly what’s in your head into a board, that’s the best thing.”

At the end of the trip, before the crew would depart to various corners of the globe to chase waves, we made a pit stop at the glasser to pick up their freshly-sanded boards. From Warren’s elegant 8'0" egg to Doheny’s angular 5'6" shortboard, each craft had some line or curve that caught the eye and looked wholly unique to what you’re likely to find in any surf shop. But beyond the designs themselves, there were other elements that gave these boards a distinctive charm—pencil-drawn logos, Sharpie-scribbled text, outlines of footprints, smudges from blanks being set down in the dirt outside the barn and handwritten notes from all the other shapers on the bottom of Mell’s fish. The boards looked special, like they had stories to tell, even before they’d been ridden. Even at a glance, you could tell that they were handmade.

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