How To Shape A Surfboard
Hands, Brain, and Soul
(This How-to Guide was written for the ill-fated swell.com site back in 1999, which eventually perished in the infamous dot com crash. Some of the content I wrote for a sweeping, comprehensive surfboard department went on to live at Surfline, where this particular piece exists today. You can access it here, with a selection of accompanying videos, at Surfline.)
So, you want to shape a surfboard. Hey, why not? It's not nearly as hard as you may think.
Well, actually, there is a sliding scale for how difficult it can be. The more experience and knowledge you gather, the more things get complicated.
But at first it is simple — just you and the blank locked in a struggle to whittle out something resembling a surfboard. And guess what? No matter how your first board turns out, it'll work just fine, and you will someday look back on it — a thousand boards later, perhaps — with the same fondness that you would recall a first romance and with the same distortion of its merits that such nostalgic vantage points bring.
Anyone can shape a surfboard. But not every shaper can shape the surfboard he set out to create based on the exacting blueprint of the mind's eye. How quickly the novice shaper progresses to the stage where he has a certain degree of control over the blank depends on a few attributes you bring with you before you ever heft a power planer. I'll narrow these down to three basic factors that help enormously when one takes up shaping:
- Time spent in the shaping room watching other shapers at work
- Some aptitude and familiarity with basic tools
- Better than average powers of visualization
Okay, so it won't be this easy. But you should end up with something resembling a surfboard by the end of the day. There are many other things to consider, of course, but these are the most relevant right off the bat. You can shape a surfboard this very moment without possessing a single one of the above-listed attributes, but any or all of them will afford you a real head start. A reasonable timetable for gaining control was set down for me many years by a shaping mentor. He said that in the course of your first 10 boards, you would start to figure out the basic mechanics and routine, and after 100 boards, you would begin to have some real control over the finished product. I soon found this guideline to be fairly accurate, and you should be prepared for the long haul after the initial "honeymoon" phase of the first board or two is over.
If you need a shaper's tool kit, or are unable to borrow a set from someone, FoamEZ has a number of tool sets as well as a complete inventory of all surfboard building materials.
STEP ONE - ADDRESS THE BLANK
Before getting to work, most shapers will "address the blank" lying on the racks. For the experienced shaper looking down the sweeping side-lit lines this is the Zen-like waggling of hips before teeing off in golf. But for the novice it's more like the polite bowing to an opponent in a jujitsu match. For the next few hours that blank will be your adversary in hand-to-hand combat.
How brutal the tussle will be depends a lot on which blank you choose. Although it is usually best to have one that is closest to the desired shape, most of the newer line of close-to-shape (close-tolerance) blanks are meant for production shaping and may be a little too thin and sensitive for the beginning shaper. Since most surfers seem to pick a length in the 6'2" to 7'0" range for their first shape, I would suggest using either the 65R or the 71A (US Blanks). These blanks are slightly thicker (but have immaculate baseline rockers) so you can practice with the planer for an extra pass or two, and you'll have a little more foam in reserve in case you make a mistake. Use the SuperGreen density at first. The lighter weight blanks are easier to tool — for the expert. The firmer SuperGreen will behave itself better while you learn to control the tools.
You'll need a template (planshape) or two, as well. There are various types of templates and a number of ways that shapers use them. Initially, it would be easiest to make a template from an existing board that is similar to the one that you want to shape. This way you can take the dimensions from the "copied" board as well.
An easy way to make a template from an existing board is to trace around it. Lay the board, belly down, over a strip of thin 1/8-inch Masonite or heavy-duty poster board. Make sure the board is securely pinned down somehow so it won't move. Then, trace around it from nose to tail using a soft lead pencil taped vertically down a tall, flat-bottomed guide (a tennis ball can or charcoal lighter tin works good). See that it runs smoothly along the rail of the board. You only need one side. Cut out the template and true it up, taking care not to cross over the pencil line you have marked.
As you get more and more into your shaping, you will collect many templates, and you'll figure out which of the different outlining methods suits you best. Templates can be thought of merely as oversize French curves. They need not be limited to just one surfboard model but can be blended, broken up and spliced into many different shapes as you develop an eye for this skill.
1. With the blank on the racks bottom side up, take the handsaw and cut off the tip of the nose. With the existing rocker of the blank in mind, you'll usually want to center your board-to-be-shaped on the blank, e.g. if the blank is 6'7" long and you want to make a 6'3", cutting 2 inches off the nose will leave the board centered, with 2 inches at the tail remaining.
2. Starting from the nose, use the tape measure to mark off the overall length and nose and tail dimension spots. Pencil in dots on the stringer at A) the tail, marking the length; B) 12 inches up from the tail; C) the center of the board (ah, back to the heady schoolroom days of fractions and division) and D) 12 inches down from the nose.
3. Place the T-square along the stringer at each interval that you've marked and measure out the dimensions you want. Give yourself an extra 1/8 of an inch or so tolerance, since this is your first board and you may need a little leeway for correction later. Make sure to line up the shorter arm of the T-square directly along the center of the stringer, not the side edge of the stringer. Put shallow pencil dots in the foam, marking the nose, center and tail dimensions.
4. Set your template on the blank and adjust it (one side at a time), so the curve best connects all the dots. The larger the collection of templates you have, the more likely you will have a match. If it doesn't exactly fit, don't worry. It's better to trust the curve of a good template than to try and force it to fit your dimensions. Let the template find the best arc that is closest to your dots. Templating surfboards and developing an eye for good outlines may be the most difficult skill in the entire process, so don't get discouraged if it doesn't come easy. This area separates the designers from the shapers and often takes years to get a basic understanding of how subtle adjustments in outlines affects performance. Remember the old craftsman's adage: "Measure twice, cut once." I use soft 6B to 8B lead pencils (easy to erase if necessary with a blast from the air compressor nozzle) and sometimes change colors when I am working on a new or troublesome outline. Periodically stand the blank up against the wall and step back a ways so you can better appraise the one-dimensional outline you will soon commit to.
5. With the board bottom-up on the racks again, put a soft weight (dive weight bags with shot pellets in them work best) on its center to stabilize it. Cut out the desired shape with the handsaw. This is trickier than it seems. Take care to keep the saw cutting straight so your rail sides don't waver and dip. Give yourself an extra 1/4-inch along the pencil line if you aren't confident with the saw, as you can always true it up during the next step.
6. True up your rail edges to match the penciled outline using the sanding block with 36-grit sandpaper (you can use the 40-grit if the former is too rough on your hands). Try and get the rails as square and as true as possible. Sometimes it helps to place the blank in the crotch of the racks sideways, so you can more easily look at the outline and decide where you need to fine tune it.
STEP TWO - MILLING TO THICKNESS
While you are grappling with the tools and the actual nuts-and-bolts of shaping a surfboard, it is a good idea to save some spare mental energy to consider what you are doing, philosophically. Some shapers learn by rote. They'll doggedly stick to a rigid procedure for their entire career. It's good to deviate once in awhile, though. By trying new approaches, condensing or eliminating steps or using a new tool, you will often stumble onto a better routine or improvement in technique.
The ultimate goal is to produce the best surfboard possible, as close to your mind's eye plan, with the minimum amount of tooling and labor. It sounds contradictory, but the fewer tools you apply to the blank, the better. Why? Every time you touch the blank with a sanding block or planer it removes foam. The more often you sand, plane or shave the foam, you lessen the chances of being accurate and efficient.
There are many types of shapers: whittlers, scrubbers, butchers and surgeons are the main archetypes. Some of these types by definition create little in the way of real accuracy: they sort of even the table legs until the blank best resembles a surfboard. Then there are those craftsmen who could shape a good, glassable board with just a planer.
I bring this up now — even though you are just learning the ropes — so you can be mindful of an approach that you must inevitably evolve toward as you gain skill and experience.
When I was learning the trade, I took to the power planer with apprehension. The Surform was my preferred crutch; I was handy with it from years of ding repair and wood shop. As an apprentice of Rusty Preisendorfer, my fledgling technique often came under his scrutiny. Once, Rusty popped in to my shaping bay as I was busily scrubbing the tail of a freshly mown blank with a Surform. He watched for a minute, then pulled down his mask.
"Hmm..." he wondered aloud. "Why use a tool to do in five minutes what you could do with the planer in 15 seconds?"
Rusty is a surgeon and a minimalist. I was lucky to learn under him. But much more than just getting mere instruction on how to use the tools step-by-step, I was taught an over-arching philosophy of the whole craft. His philosophy is that of a surgeon. Precision is the goal. It is all so very romantic and craftsy to shape a surfboard painstakingly — as much by hand as possible — with a flurry of blocks, pads and rasps. But I was taught that you actually shape a board with the power planer. The rest of the steps — and tools — are basically aimed at cosmetics; they merely clean up the blank and prepare it for glassing.
Due to the nature of the foam, the power planer is the most accurate and efficient tool you will use in shaping. Many other tools, though you feel that you can control them or seem to smooth the foam, will ride over the high spots, clog with dust or just plain trick you into thinking you are doing something.
If you are serious about shaping, then you will have to befriend your power planer. You might goof up more at first, but try and resist the urge to fall back on more primitive implements. If you have to buy a few "reject" blanks to attack, using them to do nothing but practice your milling and banding technique, then it's all for the better.
1. Make sure you've put on all your safety gear: respirator, goggles and ear protection. After measuring the thickness of the blank with the calipers, deduce how much foam you need to remove to get near the desired finished thickness. Most planers take off about 1/8 of an inch per pass when the front shoe is adjusted to the deepest cut. (While you are learning, it's best to leave at least an 1/8 inch extra thickness to have as a cushion against error or the tendency to over-shape.)
2. Now it's time to mow foam. Set the soft weight on the blank to hold it steady — on the opposite side of where you'll be planing. Starting on the bottom (begin at the nose or tail), turn on the power planer and push it along the outside edge until it comes evenly off the end of the blank. The planer will cut best and be easier to control if you hold the bed, or skid, absolutely flat at a 45-degree angle to the stringer as you push it ahead. It will be frustrating at first, but a bit of practice will see you removing long, even bands of foam that should blend together with a minimum of dips or ridges.
3. When you near the stringer, slowly feather the running planer into the wood at the center of the board and carefully plane it all the way down to, and off, the tail. Then, return the planer to the remaining strip of stringer and do the same thing, only this time up to, and off, the nose. Take care to have the planer exit very gently off the nose tip so it doesn't chip off a piece of the stringer at the nose tip.
4. Mill down the other side of the board and go easy when removing the last narrow strip of foam. Without the ridge of un-planed foam to rest the front skid of the planer on, there will be a tendency to dig a rut into the blank if you don't keep the planer oriented correctly. Counter this by using a lighter touch and by trimming the weight of the planer onto its rear bed as you push it forward.
Congratulations! You have now taken one pass off of the bottom.
Repeat this step until you near the desired thickness. Save the deck for last. If you figure that you need to take three passes off of the blank, then take two off of the bottom and just one off of the deck. As the stronger, denser foam is always just under the crust of the deck, the less foam you take from there, the more compression/impact strength the finished glassed board will have. Don't worry if the surface of the blank looks as though you've plowed over it with a combine. Most of the gouges are worse than they look, due to the side lighting. Press on.
5. Adjust nose and tail rocker (if necessary) with the planer. You can use an 8-ft aluminum beam (found at most hardware stores) to measure rocker by putting a pencil dot on the stringer at the center point of the board. Place the beam lengthwise down the stringer and measure the nose and tail rockers with a T-square. Make sure you hold the beam down at the center mark with light (don't blend the blank) finger pressure. You can now mark how much more rocker you'll need to cut in. Use the planer to add desired nose and tail rocker. You'll find this to be easier to control if you adjust the planer cut to a shallow setting and feather in the cuts. Take care in the nose not to blow off a chunk of foam or wood — you might want to fine-tune the last bit of flip with a sanding block or Surform.
When cutting in tail rocker, you need to think about your vee panels simultaneously. Don't overdo it: most modern surfboards have a slight amount of vee. There are many different techniques used with the planer to do this, but the safest at first is to use a low-cut setting and shave it in. Also, it's best to have your favorite board at hand to use as a study aid. Check out the bottom contours and how they meld together; sometimes it's easier to learn if you can reason it out by looking at a finished board.
To create vee, you usually have to lower the bottom rail area near the tail. The rail line from nose to tail ends up having its own rocker and should follow and complement the centerline rocker down the stringer. Rail rocker just drops a bit more as it nears the tail. Tail rocker, too, should follow the natural arc of the overall bottom rocker. The ideal is to have all the bottom curves flare into what looks like natural bends or tapers. They shouldn't look stagey, straight or abrupt. This takes dozens of boards to get a grip on and thousands of boards to learn how to do this seamlessly. So don't get discouraged if it doesn't come easily. Your board will still work unreal!
STEP THREE - SHAPING THE BOTTOM
Most of the next step deals with refining the rough-shaped bottom of the blank. You can relax and breathe easy, as you'll be using a sanding block and Surform — not the planer.
It's funny that while the bottom shape of the surfboard is fundamental to its performance — it's in constant contact with the wave face — you really don't spend all that much shaping time dealing with it. Almost all the real labor comes later and involves the deck and rails because the bottom is relatively flat. Most of the compound curves meld together topside of the rails, so you spend a big slice of time blending the top of the rails into the deck in as seamless a manner as possible — even though this really satisfies aesthetics and/or demonstrates the shaper's craftsmanship more than it affects performance.
Surfboard bottom shapes can be boiled down into two very simple components. Flats or straights are your accelerators. Any curves or roll (including vee) are control features; they help you turn the board more easily, but they slow it down in doing so. How all these components are grafted together is the foundation of the (seemingly contradictory) fast-but-loose surfboard we all want.
The control elements that fall under the influence of the back foot are key in creating that ‘magic’ surfboard we all strive for, as they affect turning capabilities. The vee panels, tail rocker, thickness taper (foil) and fin settings need to mesh together directly underfoot. This forms the sweet spot that you always hear surfers yakking about.
Once again, the best way — for short-term understanding — to get a handle on this complicated area of design is to spend some time studying or measuring a few similar surfboards from established shapers.
For long-term education, I suggest the best way to gain detailed knowledge about surfboard design is to ride as many types and sizes of any boards that you can get your hands on. Try and figure out which features are the ones that either let it rip or make it suck.
It is also great if you have an experienced board-builder around to mentor you, but in my opinion the first-hand trial of different boards in the design spectrum is far more important.
1. Set the front fins with pencil dots (about 1/8 inch deep). This will help you envision where the back foot sweet spot will be when you fine-tune the vee or tail kick. Measure where the fins are placed on a similar finished board. Use your T-square to place pencil dots at the front and back of the fins. Fin settings vary according to length and type of fin array, so until you can learn it all by rote, the best thing is to take settings from existing, proven boards and keep careful records. The four setting measurements you will have to map out are, A, where the side fins (if any) are placed off the rail, B, how much toe-in the side fins have, C, how much cant, or tilt, the side fins have, and D, where the rear or center fin is placed relative to the tail.
2. True up the stringer with a hand block plane. Since the foam gives way much easier than wood, having a nice flowing arc to the stringer will help act as a 'guide rail' when you use the sanding block to make the bottom uniform.
3. Blend or accentuate your vee and/or tail rocker with a Surform; or use the sanding block with 40-grit sandpaper. If used properly, the Surform can even out all the bumps and ridges. Hold it at each end and pull it back toward you at a 45-degree angle to the stringer. You can also push it straight ahead (with the Surform parallel to the stringer) like a block plane to blend or to clean up rail edges. A somewhat light touch works best with this tool — never scrub in one spot since the Surform doesn't respond to brute force. Use it over larger areas with the same touch you would use if you were trying to level thick frosting on a delicate cake.
4. Clean up/smooth out the stringer near the tail, if necessary, and switch to the sanding block with 40-grit paper. Use it to fine-shape and blend the flats and contours of the bottom together. Don't scrub in one spot. Instead, glide the block over one side of the board, using medium pressure and with a sort of fencing motion. Work from the opposite side of the lengthwise half you are sanding. This way the sidelights (opposite the direction you are facing) let you see what you are doing more clearly. The white edge of the rail will be defined in contrast to the darker walls. Use the stringer to support a corner of the sanding block so the wood acts as a guide as you move from end to end. When sanding in the vee area, take care not to exaggerate it. Most novice shapers either end up with a big mound or no vee at all. For most modern surfboard shapes, it would be better to have too little vee rather than too much.
5. After you've cleaned up the bottom to suit your eye (settle out of court at the soonest opportunity. Don't be tempted to keep evening the table legs or pretty soon your board will be 1 1/2 inches thick). Now, it's time to cut in the bottom rail bevel. This will serve to form the rounded radius on the bottom side of the finished rail. Most shapers do this last, but I shape it in first because it helps you plan out and control your rail shape and volume better. Also, this rounded, tucked-under bottom edge is one of the most important components in determining the quality of the board’s handling.
Use the Surform (I use the Microplane blades on a Surform frame exclusively for this) to do this. Work from nose to fins, or fins to nose — whatever you are most comfortable with. The bevel should feather out and disappear just in front of the forward fin settings. The width and depth of this cut can vary and depends on the thickness of the board and what type of rail you want. For thinner boards or lower, tapered rails, the band you cut should extend down from the bottom edge to about 3/8 to 1/2 inches up towards the centerline of the rail. The typical medium-full rail on an average-thickness board will range from 1/2 to 5/8 inches, and thicker boards or those with soft, round rails can start at around 3/4 inches.
Get some measurements from other boards to give you an average to proceed on. Use your T-square to mark the amount of radius that you want (measured and marked on the rail at the midpoint/thickest point of the blank), and you can use the pencil mark to guide you as you cut in this small band with the Surform.
Once again, a lighter touch with the Surform works best. Placing a forefinger inside the tool and using it to set the bite seems to help you keep track of where it is cutting and will give you more control.
STEP FOUR - TURNING THE RAILS
Shaping the rails — and blending them neatly into the deck — will cost you the most time and patience of any stage in making your board.
You are trying to tie together all the complex curves so they look natural or organic, as if they'd grown that way, but you have to use flat, straight and seemingly clumsy tools to do it.
Before you take the planer to the rails, it's important to visualize what you want the rails to look like. It's a good idea to map out your rail bands on paper to get an idea of where to place and how deep to cut your bands. In fact, in your spare time, it is worth practicing your rail bands by doodling how you would arrange different sets of bands for different types of rails.
A few points to keep in mind: first, you may notice — after careful study of your rail band doodles — that most of the rail volume is adjusted farther up onto the deck than you would think. Beginners frequently will take too much foam off of the rail extremities rather than taper the bulk into the deck 4 to 6 inches inboard.
Then there is the concept of symmetry: Don't be compelled to have both rails perfectly identical if it means going back and forth to even them up to the point where they depart from the rail you had wanted. Tom Morey once wrote that when it came to surfboard design, "Symmetry is the biggest waste of time." He's probably right, but it's still the stamp of a master shaper to produce a passably symmetrical surfboard. But don't worry too much about it. Water-flow won't halt you and ask if your papers are in order. Water will bend and wrap and pour across even the funkiest board. Anything you shape will work well enough as long as you have a wave slope and gravity.
And if it makes you feel any better, close scrutiny would reveal that many of the name-brand, pro-endorsed boards on the market aren't any more symmetrical than our imperfect human bodies are.
1. With the board deck up on the racks, prep it for rail-banding (turning the rails) by evening out or cleaning up the nose and tail extremities with a Surform or sanding block.
2. Use the planer to turn the rails by cutting bands from nose to tail, single ones at first, then intersecting bands. You can do this with the board flat on the racks, using the soft weight bag to hold it steady, or you can place the board into the crooks of your racks so the rail edge points up at you from a 45-degree angle. Sometimes it is best to cut the first band with the blank tilted like this and then lay it flat to do the remaining bands. Also, it will help if you visualize and plan how much of the lower-middle part of the rail you will leave untouched. This strip of rail line will eventually form the blunt apex of your rail radius and is best left alone until the next step, where you'll blend everything together with more sensitive tools than the planer. You can mark this off-limits strip with a pencil line if it will help you see it more clearly.
3. Cut in your rail bands, starting with the lower bands and working up onto the deck. Try to make long, even bands — don't "short stroke”with the planer and end up cutting dips or gouges. The trick to using the planer in this step is knowing exactly where your blade is cutting (not always easy at first) and learning how to zero out or feather your depth of cut as you near the thinner nose and tail areas. You'll have to get the hang of turning the planer more perpendicular to the stringer as you near the upward curve of the nose rocker. It may help if you start by using a shallower cut until you get your mojo going.
Don't worry too much about bringing your bands all the way to the very tip of the nose and tail. It will be too easy to get in trouble at these sensitive, thinner areas until you have more fluency and control with the planer.
4. After you have cut in your three or four intersecting rail bands, you can blend them or extend them into the nose and tail using a Surform blade or light sanding block.
You can use a Surform — or just the blade itself — to shape down the tailblock to the desired taper. You can whittle the bands you have cut into a rounder shape with the planer if you are comfortable with it. If not, you'll blend them all together by hand in the next step.
Use a hand block plane to clean up and even out the stringer on the deck. Start from the nose and work toward the tail, unless the wood grain fights you and you have to work the opposite way (but never push the block plane off of the tip of the nose tip, or you will risk breaking off a tip of foam and wood).
This is the halfway point in this particular shaping routine. The board is now rough shaped, and if you feel like giving it a rest until later, this is the logical time to do so.
STEP FIVE - BLENDING IT ALL TOGETHER
You are now poised on the continental divide, so to speak, of the shaping process. All of the steps you have followed up until now have involved the actual shaping of the board, defined as forming vital elements that determine how it will perform.
The remaining steps more or less just smooth everything out for glassing. The main components of the board are already there, and though it may be a bit rough around the edges, you could probably glass it right now and it wouldn't work appreciably worse than if it were taken through to completion.
It may be important to keep this philosophy in mind. Since you are tying together all your lines and bands and transforming them into compound curves, you will use more and more exacting tools to blend everything into a seamless whole of compound curves, while at the same time eliminating tool marks and scratches.
1. Sand the deck flat and smooth, using the 40-grit sandpaper on your block. The idea is to clean up and adjust the two large deck panels either side of the stringer, so they begin to blend with the deck-ward rail bands.
2. Fine-tune and blend the rail bands into the desired rail shape. Use a Surform, pushing it lengthwise as if it were a block plane, and use your forefinger to trim it so you know exactly what it is cutting. If you haven't made friends with the Surform yet, you can use the sanding block instead. This won't give you the same accuracy as the properly wielded Surform, but some people are more comfortable with a sanding block. Use longer strokes, from nose to tail, and don't scrub in one spot.
3. By this time, the rails and the deck should look fairly seamless. You can adjust the rail taper and volume further with the sanding block, or use a 1”-thick foam-rubber pad set up like this: Put a sheet of 80-grit sanding screen on one side, and a sheet of 40-grit sandpaper on the other. It helps to glue two sheets of sandpaper back-to-back — it will grip the pad better and you can switch sides to vary the grit you want to use. This pad should be good and stiff, yet still pliant enough to wrap over the rail curves. Work the pad back and forth from nose to tail, feeling the contours with your hand spread over the top of the pad. Don't be tempted to over-shape the rails with this pad — just blend everything to suit your eye.
4. To eliminate the rough texture of the deck, use the sanding block with 60- or 80-grit sandpaper. It helps to put a thin cushion between the paper and the block, such as thick (1/8”) felt or even a few sheets of layered sandpaper. Lightly smooth out the entire deck and rail top surface, taking care not to reshape anything that doesn't require refinement. You're just trying to clean up any rough or furry areas.
5. Place a sheet of 80-grit sanding screen on the foam rubber sanding pad. It will grip solidly, like Velcro. Apply this pad, hand placed over the center, as a final smoothing/blending tool to get the deck to its ready-to-glass state. Work nose to tail, mostly along the zone where the lower rails blends into the deck.
6. Place the board in the crook of the racks at a 45-degree angle so the rail is pointed up toward you. Using a single sheet of pliant, medium-worn 80-grit sanding screen, begin to blend the entire rail together. There are quite a few methods of using the screen. Keep in mind that it is a blending tool and isn't a very good shaping tool. Some people wrap it around the rail and pull it toward them, while others push it as they walk down the length of the board. You can use a corner of the screen, wrapping it down from the deck. And you can grasp the sheet with your fingers close together so that just a narrow strip of it cuts. You can experiment with all these techniques and more. The screen tends to work best as a blending implement when a larger area of the sheet bites at the same time; it can be used effectively as a shaving or Surform-like tool when a small area is applied. Using the screen is a very tough skill to learn. There is just nothing like it in any other trade or art form. Like many tools used in shaping, the sanding screen wasn't meant for this job. It was developed, I believe, for drywall finishing. I've seen a lot of established shapers misuse screen, so don't feel bad if instant fluency eludes you.
7. Flip the board around on the racks and do the other rail. As stated before, don't freak out if things aren't perfectly symmetrical. Don't keep screening and scrubbing until you've got a 15-inch-wide board. Get it close and call it a draw. Don't try to mess with the tucked-under bottom radius yet — it is best to tackle that in the next, and last, step.
Sometimes you'll have to lay the board flat, deck up, and use a corner of edge of the the screen to tie together or adjust the ends of the nose or tail so everything flows together.
STEP SIX - FINISHING WORK
Finish work on the shaped blank often becomes a pitfall for many shapers. Usually this is because they overshape the board. There are two kinds of overshaping. Normally this term refers to the excess removal of foam from a blank, such as when a shaper uses the wrong blank for a given design, and exposes too much weaker interior foam.
This means that the denser, stronger foam beneath the deck crust is mowed away because the foil or deck rocker doesn't conform to the desired shape or thickness. A far weaker board is the result; the conscientious shaper strives to use the right blank with the proper rocker for the job (usually the glasser gets the blame for a mushy, delaminated deck).
The other type of over-shaping originates in the tendency to keep fussing with and touching up a shape that is, for all intents and purposes, finished already. Some are compelled to even the table legs until the table is fit only for a Japanese tearoom.
Others simply don't want to admit that the board is done, perhaps due to some innate streak of perfectionist stubbornness.
Don't overdo it. Remember that every time you apply a tool to the blank, there should be a deliberate purpose. Even soft, worn screen removes foam with every pass. So if you don't really want to remove foam, resist the urge to keep fussing with it. Whittling something like a polyurethane blank is far different than molding and re-molding it as if it were clay.
Deliberate use of and control over the fine tools applied in the last steps is the key to finishing a really clean shape. These skills will take time to master, so don't be hard on yourself if the lines are a bit muddy. If it were as easy as building a soapbox derby racer then everyone would routinely make their own boards.
1. Place the blank on the racks, bottom side up. Using a sanding block with 60- or 80-grit sandpaper, proceed to fine-sand the entire bottom. Try and remove any coarseness or scratches, but don't reshape what you have already formed.
2. Redefine the tucked-under part of the rail so it has roughly the radius that you want. This could well be the trickiest part of the entire shaping process, as this area of the rail affects so much of the speed, leverage and overall temperament of the board. You can use a Surform with a Microplane blade (these cut finer and are more precise) or 60-grit sanding block if you like. This is a good time to go and take a look at one of your favorite surfboards. Study how the rail wraps from the deck to the bottom edge and see where it zeros out near the fins and rolls into rounder softness at the nose.
3. After you are satisfied that the amount of bottom rail radius suits you, use a sheet of medium-worn 80-grit screen to blend it gently in with the rest of the rail. Take care not to let the screen bite unevenly, or to put too much pressure on the middle of the rail, as you may change the position of the apex and, thus, the shape of the rail. You may find that you'll have more control of how the screen bites if you apply a smaller area by holding the sheet with your hands and fingers only about three or four inches apart. Sometimes you may need to turn the board up onto its rail and fine-tune (with the screen) any seams, or make other small adjustments to suit your eye. Again, use only complete passes from nose to tail; try to avoid scrubbing in one spot.
4. Gently trim down the bottom stringer with a sharp block plane, being careful not to bite into the foam and shred it up. You may need to blunt the tip of the nose with a sanding block (60- or 80-grit) so it's square or flush.
5. That's it! You're done. All that remains is to measure out your dimensions if you want to record them and set your fins. Draw light pencil lines to connect the dots for the front fins, and put a dot on the stringer where you want the rear of the back fin to be set. Fin settings vary according to length and type of fin array, so you will want to take settings from existing, proven boards. Sign the board with a soft pencil, if you like.
6. Don't forget to clean up the shaping bay if it was lent to you — that way you may be invited back.
Following directions for any task is difficult, even those as apparently simple as assembling a toy or programming a VCR. Shaping a surfboard from written instruction is similar to those situations in disaster films where a character who has never flown a plane in his life finds he must take the controls and be "talked in" by radio.
If you've decided, after making your first board, that shaping is something you would like to pursue seriously, then it would really help if you can locate an experienced shaper to watch or, luckily, be a mentor to you. Ask questions — no matter how silly or elementary you think they'll sound.
Of the number of people who I've taught to shape, only a handful have stuck with it. Some needed constant guidance to progress, but the ones who showed the most promise seemed to be the kind of individual who could reason things out on their own. Try not to paralyze yourself with fear. The blank is only $50 or $60; the satisfaction of bringing your hands and mind into synergetic focus is priceless. As in any campaign or career, it's a good idea to keep the momentum going. Your first 10 boards should be grouped together as closely as time and/or budget will allow. This will help boost your learning curve.
Keep a notebook so you can log each board you shape. Include all the dimensions, templates used and blank specifics. Photos help, too. That way, you can refer back to past boards to help you more precisely duplicate design features you want to move ahead with.
Learn as much as you can about the range of blanks, and their rockers, that are available. There are many close tolerance (or close-to-shape) surfboard blanks on the market. They make surfboard shaping easier, faster and cheaper for production builders, but sometimes the the variety of blanks can prove a bit bewildering for the unescorted novice. Nowadays, 80 to 90 percent of what used to be wrought with blood, sweat and dust can be eliminated in the correct ordering of blank and rocker.
Probably every artist's studio or workshop has -- tacked onto the walls -- some version of the following adage: "The laborer works with his hands... The craftsman with his hands and brain... The artist works with his hands, brain and soul..."
Which of these you as a shaper end up becoming depends on which of the above-listed physical and emotional levers you choose to exert force upon.