The first thing you’ll notice when you enter Al Merrick’s unmarked shaping factory is the boards. Not the symmetrical rows of sleek new, shaped blanks lining the walls, the rat’s maze of hallways and cubby holes housing his xx-man shaping team or the background rattle of Rush Limbaugh on the radio, but the boards. The 7’8″ pintail stuck in a rack that reads, “Tom Curren’s 1990 title-winner” in black felt marker. Or the dented, 6’1″ roundtail lying in the corner of Al’s unadorned shaping room, which says, “J-Bay 2003. Thanks Al and CI. Love, Kelly” on the deck. The list goes on: Rob Machado’s 2000 Pipe 7’3″, Taylor Knox’s magic 6’2″ and a beat-up squashtail labeled “Dane Reynolds’ Reference Board.” It’s as if these magic pieces of equipment aren’t only there to remind Al of his past successes, but to encourage the dozens of fresh shapes around them to go and carve out their own piece of history. More than any other blanks, Merrick’s have done just that. The official craftsman for at least 15 world titles and countless historic images and classic moments, Al Merrick is the undisputed Shaper for the Stars. No matter where their loyalties lie or who’s paying them, virtually no top surfer goes through his (or her) career without ordering at least one quiver of “Als.”

Of course, Merrick didn’t reach this point in a day. The Carpinteria/Rincon surfer started out like most backyard shapers of the late ’60s: a little inspiration from a mentor (John Price from Surfboards Hawaii) and a ${{{300}}} {{{loan}}} from a friend for basic materials. He called his boards “Channel Islands Surfboards” from the beginning, has had the same downtown Santa Barbara factory since ’71 and hasn’t strayed far from his routine since then.

What’s his secret? His long relationship with the modern era’s most influential surfer, Tom Curren, certainly helped. But it takes more than one king to build a dynasty. And through the years, Al’s been able to engage the world’s best not by competing with their star power, but by keeping down to earth no matter who’s he’s dealing with. Way more interpreter than director, he treats every new order the same, whether it’s for Kelly Slater or Rincon buddy Scott Stanley. Lots of dialogue, meticulous record keeping, plenty of humility and the eternal question: “Where do you want this board to take you?”

His boards are taking more top surfers in more places than ever these days. From Rob Machado’s wide array of alternative vehicles to Kelly Slater’s high-performance mind machines, 60-year-old Al Merrick continues to define “what’s happening” in surfboard design. He’s never had to do it by making radical, overnight shifts in procedure, design or materials. Instead, our 2004 Shaper of the Year moves at the pace surfing itself moves: slowly, gradually, but always improving. Which is something all shapers can learn during these times of change. Keep an open mind, but never veer too far out of your element. And never forget those reference boards.

SURFING MAGAZINE: How does the creative process begin with the top surfers?

AL MERRICK: Well, it’s always varied from surfer to surfer. Some of it’s come from them, some from me. But more than anything, the best boards come out of an ongoing process of feedback and refinement. If I search back, going all the way back to Shaun and the twin fins I did, my first Thruster came out of my work with Shaun. And then with Tommy, developing the bottoms that would work best for his style, and nailing it with his Black Beauty board, the one that beat Occy at the Bells contest. And then there’s the breakthroughs that happen by chance, like when I gave Willy Morris a wide-tailed gun I shaped for myself. He used it in Hawaii, and I remember Shaun saying that Willy was terrifying on that board at Haleiwa. That was cool.

SURFING MAGAZINE: You’re probably not giving Kelly any of your personal wide-tailed guns these days.

AL MERRICK: No! Not these days, that’s for sure. He could probably saw one of mine in about a third and use it. Obviously, with Kelly’s boards, we used to work on the real minimal ideas. Narrow and relatively thin. Like that board he won on at Trestles in 1992. That one stands out.

SURFING MAGAZINE: Did he come to you and say, I want a board that does this?

AL MERRICK: No, I think with Kelly, he was already riding minimal boards. But as he grew up, he didn’t change. He didn’t go to wider, thicker boards like everyone else; he just sort of stayed with it.

For the complete interview with Al Merrick, pick up the Feb. 05 issue of SURFING. On sale December 28th.Or, click HERE to subscribe!