Simple Ideas

Shape Shifter

Sport | October 15, 2011

  • It starts with a blank.
  • Surf board shaping is much like the surf business. The idea of surfing is centered on that relaxed blissed out moment in the sun. The idea of business is kill or be killed. It's a ruthless make the numbers work game . When you understand that surfing and business are diametrically opposed ends of the spectrum of the human experience, it is easy to understand why "surf business" is doomed. Surfers can't run a business, businessmen can't surf.

    And yet, surf businesses exist...somehow. And surf boards get shaped, somehow. The somehow I'm dealing with here has more to do with the shaping, but in the process I couldn't help but learn a bit about the business.

    I found the shapers website and it turns out it was a spiff website. The shaper was a former telecom worked like myself. He put together a nice site. I gave him a call. Phone was disconnected. Here is a critical moment in the interaction with a surf business. You can go two ways. First, assume that like any normal business, this means the business folded. Valid for a non-surf business. Complete bollocks for a surf place. So I drove over.

    Sure enough, there was a sign indicating it was a business. The door was open! I went in, no one there. I waited ten to twenty minutes when the proprietor wandered in.

    "Hi, I'm Greg" I say.

    "Hi, I'm Ray, I was doing some plumbing for the guy next door...this surf business barely pays the bills."

    "I was wondering about that..."

    I was there to drop off a board that was trashed the day before and inquire about a custom board. My initial thought was a Stand Up Paddleboard and he immediately offered

    "Oh I have a demo you can take..."

    Basically, I got a free three day rental of a board that would cost $9 to $15 an hour elsewhere. It was a $1300 board that I got with no collateral other than my $500 board that he was holding. If I were dishonest, or a business person, this would be a quick score. But I'm a surfer, so there was no score.

    I tried the demo board and whoa! No way. I'd been on a beginner board before. This was an advanced product that I was years away from using. Drop back 20 and punt. First I needed a year on a real long board, not the mini board I have.

    I brought the board back to his shop. No one there, again. No problem, I unload it and put it back in place, then I give him a call.

    "Ray!"

    "HI, I'm up the road, be back in 90 minutes!"

    "Ok, well I put everything back in place. I can swing back later to pick up my board."

    We talk a bit and I explain that the SUP didn't work, but that I'd like a long board that I could nose ride. He can make that he says and mentions he has one I can try. We chat amicably for a while and then he asks

    "Who is in my shop?"

    "Oh, just me and the lady singing on Pandora."

    "Oh" (long pause) "OK."

    Once again, its that surf business thing. Yes I could have walked out with as much surf gear as I could put in my car, but I'm still a surfer.

    Eventually, I get my damaged board board and we talk about building a custom board. He grabs his board, a 10'6" pintail and shows me that. Very sleek. Me likee!

    I talk about getting a 9'6" long board to add to my quiver. He says I really should come by and watch him shape it. What that really means is I come by and help decide the parameters of the board. That is the idea, and it really is the essence of the custom board. Of course I come by. I'm a surfer, my weekend schedule is the essence of flexible-as long as I'm in surf mode.

    He's going to buy the blank between 10 and 11 and call me when he gets it. At 12:30 I know what to do. I go by his shop and find he is working another project. He finishes that and says "I have your blank in my truck, lemme get it."

    Here is the deal with surf guys, they live in the present tense. Any reference to the future is purely hypothetical. Meaning, he might have called me when he was done with the present tense. But the present tense is so, so, so...present, that to get the board shaped I had to become part of the present tense. Which meant driving over to his shop.

    I'm a quick like that.

    The blank appears as do templates (top photo). The blank costs $100 bucks and with a stringer (wood core that is the backbone of the board) and polyurethane foam that makes the thing float. He selected a very low rocker blank that was also one of the hardest densities as he figured that was what I needed. I think that decision was based on my trashing my other board. I didn't take offense.

    The first decision was board length. I had said 9'6" the day before, thinking square tail, but he suggested pin tail. Doing the math I figured 9'9" pin tail was the same as 9'6" square tail, so lets go 9-9...

    We agree on

    that and he templates out the two tail configurations.

    I'm a bit concerned about the pin tail as that could put out an eye or fracture a skull, but since I already did the skull fracture thing I thought "What is the chance that could happen twice in lifetime?" Ok, pretty high actually, but I went pintail anyway. No one lives forever.

    He smiles and pulls out...a hand saw?

    Yup, he takes the blank down to the templated shape with a hand saw.


    As you can see, he mostly works with hand tools. There is the pneumatic hose and a couple of electric planers. But for the better part of three hours his primary energy was good old fashioned American elbow grease. No doubt the electric planer saved him an hour, but in the end, it was still a slow process to turn that original ironing board into a surfboard.

    They say that a good surfer can surf an ironing board. I've seen video's of this, it is in fact true. Likewise I can learn to surf most anything. That is where the fun is for me. Figuring out what they board wants to do, what the wave wants to do...and negotiating a settlement that between the two that involves me being vertical.

    So in that regard, the board itself isn't that critical to having fun surfing. But I wanted a board I could nose ride...and my current board fails in that regard. Too short, too narrow and way too much rocker up front.

    The challenge is getting this board to where it could be ride-able in that way. After a bit of research there are four keys, bottom contour, nose width, tail width and soft rails.

    What I really want is an all around long board that can be nosed on occasion, as opposed to a pure nose rider that rejects efforts to do anything else. I the end, I think I got that. But I won't know for sure for a few weeks.

    The shaping progressed. I saw a lot of rocker going into the tail. I ask

    "How do you control the rocker?"

    "Mostly I buy a blank that doesn't have much rocker, but I do put a fair amount of rocker in the tail so it can turn. I also leave the rear tail hard so it can turn."

    I credit the guy, he was able to say that without adding "Knucklehead Engineer". Because in truth I was busy with the design parameters. Of course all I had was math. He had 40 years shaping boards. Yeah, my math is good, But I'm deferring to the big guy with the hand tools.

    The big guy.

    The shaper is a joy to watch. Reminds me of my Dad when he was shaping RC airplane wings. Same level of focus and concentration. Work, check, feel, worry, repeat. TIme was moved to another dimension while he was working. It was simple, do what had to be done next.

    To the shaper, the nose and the tail are the keys. Lock in those and then get the middle to match. He worked long and hard on the bottom surface of the board. That made sense as that is where the function occurs. The bottom has to ride the water. I figured the top was a throw away, all that had to do was support me.

    He spent longer on the top.

    "This is the hardest part of shaping a board, this is where you can really screw the pooch!"

    I wanted soft rails and the top was critical to that as that is where most the rail material would be lost. He did that almost all by hand. He did use a planer, but it was the low power planer, too much risk to use the big boy.

    I looked and thought "No way this can work, its too boxy-maybe the fiberglass makes up the difference."

    Wrong again. It is cross hatching with a variety of sanding devices that gets the smooth curves. It was close to magic to watch curves replace the blocks.

    Shaping the stringer was a nightmare. There was an issue with the grain, that issue added a half hour and removed a quarter inch of stringer. I'd have written that off. But then, I'm not a shaper.

    His comment on my store bought board was "Too thick in the nose". He said that after looking at it for 10 seconds a week prior. Now he elaborated. "The guy who shaped your board got lazy at the end. A couple more passes and that would have been a great board. Now it just looks boxy in the nose."

    This board he was making was going to look good to other shapers, I got that now. It may cost me a bit in performance on the nose, but hey, that was my thing. I was the figure it out guy. He was the shaper, this board would represent him in the water.

    In the end, I was stunned that he could get such a sharp looking shape out of that boxy blank. I could hardly wait to see it glassed and painted and ready to ride. But first, there is the payment issue.

    I took money out of the ATM and was ready with that, but that wasn't the payment I'm referencing here.

    He writes on the stringer "Shaped for Greg Maffett by Ray..."

    That was the payment. That was the extra half hour of getting the nose and tail aestetically perfect. Of getting past the grain on that stringer. There is no way he could slop together an ugly yet functional nose rider. No way. Just like there was no way my Dad could tolerate an asymmetrical wing on his planes. This is how craftsmen craft.

    That is the only way any of us know to end up with something like


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