To the average soccer mom or baseball fan, one surfboard pretty much looks like all the others. But as surfers, we know that the smallest variations often make the biggest difference. Millimeters matter. Fractions of millimeters matter. Choosing the Top Ten Shapers of All Time brings about a similar situation. just like with our equipment, a slight detour can change the entire course of materials and design. The names on this list should not shock you — these are the great ones, the true legends of shaping — the ones whose small contributions made the biggest difference.

“He may be twice as old as me, but he keeps me in check with the future, constantly challenging me to look ahead.” — 2001 World Champ {{{CJ}}} Hobgood

Rusty is big. So big, in fact, that there’s not a surfer out there who doesn’t recognize the definitive “R.” logo. And the amazing thing is: he achieved much of this international notoriety with his bare hands. La Jolla’s Rusty Preisendorfer has the credentials to qualify on any “great shapers” checklist. He has the genes: a mathematician father, occupational therapist mother and artist’s mind, giving his shapes a perfect blend of accuracy, practicality and beauty. He has the mentors: Mike Hynson — who worked closely with Dick Brewer at the time — was the town’s shaping guru. He also has the design breakthroughs: Rusty helped bring Thrusters out of the down-rail, dome-deck ’70s and into the ’80s with fuller rails, flatter decks and a boxy, sharp-edged rail in the back one-third of the board. His C5 design in the late ’90s — a Thruster with two small lead fins — proves he still has an eye toward innovation. The list goes on. There’s his classroom of star students: Dave Parmenter, John Carper, David Barr and a six-man shaping team including Rick Hamon, Bill Johnson, Mike Russo and others, most of whom have been working for Rusty for at least 10 years. And, of course, his world-famous test pilots, from world champs Peter Townend and Shaun Tomson in the {{{Canyon}}} days to ’01 world champ CJ Hobgood today. But no era compares to the early ’80s, when a young Mark Occhilupo blazed the ASP trail on an unadorned, 6’1″ squashtail, setting a new standard in performance and equipment. That magic board and a string of others led to the ultimate showdown between Tom Curren and Occy (and Al Merrick and Rusty) in ’86, a rivalry Rusty doesn’t deny. “Sure, there was competition between Al and I,” says Rusty. “It was just great for us to watch our careers blossom alongside these two incredible surfers.” Rusty’s shaping career didn’t just blossom; it bore fruit larger than any craftsman has seen before or since. Not only has the R. brand pumped out around 15,000 boards a year since the mid ’80s (more than any other surfboard label), his clothing company under the same name (started in ’88) currently does about $45 million in sales. If there’s ever been a case of a shaper growing larger than his own signature logo, it’s Rusty. But the Big Man himself knows his castle would be a mere cottage without his board-building foundation, which is why he still spends more time in the shaping bay than the garment district. Literally big (6’4″, {{{240}}} pounds), Rusty developed a series of plus-size hot-dog boards for real men who still want to hit the lip. He’s in constant R and D with Futures Fins’ Curtis Hesselgrave, exploring the formerly flat side of the fin. And he’s addicted to his SurfCAD/DSD shaping machine, saying it’s allowing for custom-board refinements never before possible. In other words, Rusty continues to evolve as the craft evolves. And as long as he continues to thrive on foam, he’ll keep growing and growing and growing . . . Evan Slater

Boards shaped: 30,000 Mentors: Dick Crouteau, Mike Hynson, Skip Frye, Bill Barnfield Test Pilots: Mike Parsons, Mark Occhilupo, Taylor Knox, Pat O’Connell, and Hobgoods Personal equipment: 7’8″ “Desert Island Series” rounded squash

“His boards just really gouge. Al’s shaped me boards that made me feel I could crush the lip on anything” — Tom Curren

“I enjoy designing boards with really good surfers. I’ve always admired the talent they have.” Al Merrick says this sitting in his den, below famous framed surf magazine covers of his team riders, somehow still seeming aloof to it all. Living quiet and comfortably a few miles north of Rincon with his loving wife Terry and loyal dog Ray, he isn’t one to showboat his talents. Besides the keepsakes of his riders and close friends, there isn’t much star memorabilia set around at all. But maybe that’s the secret to his success: he’s the silent partner, the one who does his part, then steps back and watches them go.

If you haven’t noticed before, there’s a kind of magnetic pull between Al and the best surfers in the world. From the newest NSSA dominator to the six-time world champ, he’s the one they call. It could be something in his rails, so smooth and forgiving. Or in the way he can watch them on a couple waves and know exactly what they need. Maybe his boards are so popular because of all the world titles they’ve won or the classic heats we’ve seen.

But more likely, it’s because of something closer to his heart: “Sometimes a design will come to me while I’m in bed at night, and I’ll be up for hours figuring how it might fit a wave.” He has a real excitement when he talks like this, causing his eyes to perk and his hands to move in ways that might describe a board’s contours or outline. And while we know he’s been blessed with some of the greatest test pilots around, his place on this list goes much deeper than that.

Kelly Slater’s six world titles didn’t just happen overnight. In the early ’90s he wanted to ride new parts of a wave, places even his hero, Tom Curren, had yet to go. All he needed was someone who could translate that vision into polyurethane foam. “That’s why we made those minimal volume/high rocker boards,” he remembers. “To try and accommodate Kelly’s creative ability on a wave, because, obviously, the less board you have to drag around…you know, if you could surf on your feet, just imagine the places you could go.”

Obviously, Al Merrick was the right man for the job. He still is. If you’re not convinced, then take a look at the Thruster’s evolution since the early ’80s. Every step of the way, from Curren’s first “Tri-Plane Hull” to Dane Reynolds’ “Flyer” today, Merrick has been instrumental in setting the evolutionary curve. Why? Because he cares — more than you or I can ever imagine. “I’ve always wanted my boards to work so badly,” he says. “That if someone is dissatisfied, I’ll work night and day until I get it right.” Hagan Kelley

Boards Shaped: 30,000 – 40,000 Mentors: Dick Brewer, John Price Test Pilots: Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Lisa Andersen, Bobby Martinez, Dane Reynolds, Malloy Bros, Tom Curren and more Personal Equipment: Anywhere from a 6’6″ x 20″ x 2 7/8″ Flyer 2 to an {{{M}}}-13 at 7’2″ x 21″ x 3″