Making Surfboards in the 21st Century

Since the days millennia past when Hawaiian kahuna chipped at koa logs with stone adzes, surfboards have always been made, lovingly it could even be said, by passionate craftsmen, always working alone and often in secret. All the way through the modern surfing era, through redwood then balsa then foam and fiberglass, surfboards have always been a labor of love.

No one has ever gotten rich from building custom surfboards.

Used to be the shapers and glassers and designers that built our cherished wave-riding foils entered into the trade because it offered a lifestyle that let them work with their hands and because it allowed the freedom to go surfing.

In the domestic surfboard industry in the `60s, `70s and `80s, there existed a rigid equilibrium as far as output. The foam companies could only blow X number of blanks; the shapers, who had no alternative but to hand shape each board from start to finish, could produce only X amount of boards per week; and in the glass shops, too, there was a limit on how many blanks they could laminate and hot-coat and sand and gloss.

Then in the 1990s robotic shaping machines began to change everything. At first rudimentary parallelogram rigs, the technology quickly advanced to become the computer-controlled Sorceror’s Apprentices that presently carve out the majority of all surfboards on the market. These machines changed everything. The old rigidly fixed equilibrium was upended. In the historical centers of the surfboard industry shaped blanks piled up everywhere in the thousands———but of course there were no automated glassing machines and so enormous bottlenecks formed in the glass shops. Suddenly, the local bespoke shaper became like the village blacksmith at the advent of automobiles——-a quaint anachronism.

Before long the deluge of computerized design technology battered down the last bulwarks that kept the surfboard industry domestic——-now surfboards could be designed and built without ever picking up a planer. Complex three-dimensional coordinates could be transmitted instantly around the world via the Internet. Here there now loomed a Dark Side that edged into outright industrial espionage: Shaper A could copy Shaper B’s designs and load them into a file and have blanks cut to miniscule tolerances anywhere in the world there was a compatible CNC rig.

Then came the Asia manufacturing boom. Once, England was the workshop of the world. In the early 20th Century, America knocked the crown from the Brits’ heads. Now, apparently, it is China’s turn to be the Workshop of the World. The Great Surf Boom that ensured at the start of the 21st century only spurred the runaway use of offshore manufacturing. People were flooding into the sport with an incomplete or even non-existent indoctrination into our folkways, and certainly cared little for the so-called ‘soul’ of a handmade domestically built surfboard.

Now firmly embedded offshore, by necessity surfboard manufacturing in the 21st Century is thus inextricably wedded to the Information Age. It is all about the transmutation of information: the communication of designs into mold parts in a distant factory, into 1/16th of an inch tolerances of veneer skins and glass fabric, into Pantone swatches and Barcol numbers on molded resin cures.

Yet, thankfully, the tide seems to be turning. Though the local custom surfboard shaper seemed a few years ago to be facing the same extinction as did blacksmiths, surfers and classic surfboard aficionados are once again embracing the sweet vintages of small labels and local craftsmen.

But we backyard and custom shapers are not blacksmiths it turns out. The world might no longer need horseshoes, but by God it needs real surfboards designed and built by people who surf.