The Art of Hand-Shaped Surf Boards

In 2010, only 63% of surfboards sold in the US were made there, down from 74% in 2004. Thanks to CNC machines, drafting software, new materials, and rising demand for inexpensive boards, more boards are being made in factories overseas.

20130528-SURFBOARD-SHAPER-030-660x440There’s something sad, which isn’t quite the word I’m looking for but it’s close, about the commoditization of surf boards.

Shaping a board is a painstaking process, and it can take a guy like [James] Mitchell six to eight hours to craft a single board. Meanwhile, a factory in Asia can use a CNC machine to turn out a board in minutes, and repeat the process hundreds of times a day. Those boards are, in many ways, the same as the boards Mitchell has been making since opening his shop in 2010.

But they’re also completely different. They’re a commodity.

For many people, surfing is more than a sport, it’s a spiritual experience. It’s also a sport defined by community, the “locals only” mentality that not only defines territory, but the friendships between a surfer and the guy who made the board he rides. Your shaper knows where and how you surf and what you’re strengths and weaknesses are, and uses that knowledge to build the best board for you. This relationship is, for some people, so important that legendary shaper Gary Linden says, “If I didn’t shape, the best shaper I knew would be my best friend.”

These days, however, a board can be ordered online as easily as socks and made to order like pizza. The speed and ease of large-scale manufacturing, compounded with the shortage of boards caused by the sports’ growing popularity, has factory-built boards from overseas pushing local shapers out of a lot of surf shops.

More than a fading art, it also signals a greater loss of community. More than any other sport, surfing has always struck me as less a man vs. man competition and more of a religious experience of man vs. nature, or even man vs. himself.

The high priests, then, are those shaping the boards. They are the shamans of the ocean.

This is another great layer to the endlessly fascinating culture that is surfing. Can one be a surfing anthropologist? Because I would like to do that job full-time.

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