The idea of having a surfboard custom shaped has always been a great mystery to me. It’s not like finding someone to paint your house or landscape your front yard. First of all, you gotta find one. Where does one find a shaper? The only surfboard shapers I knew were Chandler and Eden, but I’m pretty sure they were fictional. Seriously though, it’s not like you can just go on Google and find a surfboard shaper…..well, you kinda can, but you also get slammed with big manufacturers pushing mass produced “imported” boards. It’s very confusing.
I’m talking about the guy (or girl) covered in foam dust while they plane down the rails to create a shape that specifically fits your surfing and style. The Michelangelos of the surf world. And let’s not forget that with shaping, glassing and artwork, you might be working with three Michelangelos. These are the artisans who are extremely passionate and proud of their creations.
However, it starts with a relationship, so you have to talk to a shaper and see if it feels right. Again, how do you find one? Ask a surfer. Most experienced surfers I spoke with knew at least one shaper, and many of them had firsthand experience ordering customs boards. That’s how I met a shaper. That’s how I met Sean Tully.
Sean was gracious enough to answer some questions that will hopefully pull back the curtain on the world of custom surfboards:
How did you get started shaping surfboards?
I have always been interested in the design features. As a teenager I was able to get boards made for me by Josh Martin, the son of legendary shaper Terry Martin. I always appreciated the fact that Josh would allow me to watch, and even video tape his work in action. I also always enjoyed the combination of left and right brained activities, the blend of art and detailed design, which is exactly what shaping was.
I was a senior in college at the University of California Santa Barbara when two good friends of mine gave me a blank for my birthday in November of 2001. I had always wanted to give shaping a try, and at the time was living at a house where we could set up a make shift room under the carport. So I decided to make a George Greenough inspired single fin shortboard. I shaped and glassed the board start to finish. The board actually came out pretty good. This gave me inspiration to make more.
I continued to shape boards for friends and family while living in Santa Barbara. I soon moved down to Cardiff by the Sea, where again I was able to find a house with a shaping room, but this one was already set up in the backyard. There was even an old blank left in the shed from the previous tenant. This would play a huge part in my surfboard building. I soon built a glassing room off the back of that shaping shed, and after that was up and running as a small time backyard board builder.
Because I did every board from start to finish, each one was really a custom board for a specific customer. At my busiest time I was making about a couple boards a week, shaping and glassing included. It was a ton of work, but well worth the effort. I was able to improve my shaping and glassing skills all at the same time. I always kept it at a low production level and never really got into making hundreds of boards to keep up with mass demand. I was more about making a special board for the customer that wanted the customized service of going to a one man show.
Describe the typical surfer who is going to contact a shaper rather than buying a board off the rack.
The surfer that will contact a shaper for a board is someone that is getting a little more in tune with their surfing equipment. At this point they probably have ridden enough different board shapes to be able to tell the difference in how they ride. They most likely have things that they like about some boards, and things that they don’t like about other boards. As soon as they are comfortable in being able to describe what they are looking for to a shaper, they are ready to get a custom board.
Of course there is the monetary aspect as well. Getting a custom board built is definitely a few notches above buying a beat up old used board to learn on. It takes a bit more dedication to surfing to buy a brand new custom board, and to know how to take proper care of the new board.
Do you feel that there is a segment of surfers that are selling themselves short by not considering contacting a shaper?
This question is a little tricky. I would have to say no, and yes. I feel surfing is truly about the pleasure that you experience. It’s about connecting with the ocean and nature. So for those people that are out there surfing on whatever board that they can get their hands on, and love it, then they don’t need a custom shape. I imagine there is a huge population of surfers out there that have never had a custom board built yet surfing is their favorite thing to do. They found their pleasure in riding waves on whatever board they ride. I don’t feel that these people are selling themselves short.
On the flip side, I know that there is another population of surfers out there that are looking to take their surfing to the next level yet are hesitant on contacting a shaper. Maybe they feel that they don’t surf good enough to get a custom board built, or maybe they feel that they don’t have the cash. For the surfers out there that are thinking about the design of their board, or are into riding all different types of shapes, it would be very beneficial for them to someday get a custom board built. The experience between a good shaper and the rider can be a very educational and exciting experience. The surfer can describe the ride they are looking for, and watch words translate to design as the shaper transforms their concept to a final form. These people would be selling themselves short by not contacting a shaper.
What shapes and styles are being requested these days?
Every shaper’s customers vary according to the boards that shaper is good at shaping. Of course there are guys out there like Takayama, Campbell Bros., Pavel, Terry Martin etc. that can shape anything and everything, because they are the masters.
But more often than not, shapers are really good at a few shapes that most of their customers like to order from them. I would definitely fall into the traditional/retro/old school/experimental board shapes category. I don’t really shape any potato chip thrusters, mainly because I was never into riding those boards. I always approached surfing as an art form, and not a sport. This has translated into the boards that I ride and shape.
Most of my customers are looking for traditional shapes such as a heavy longboard, single fin midlength, single fin short board, twin fin fish or quad fish. I pride myself on giving my customers a very personal experience and personal surfboard. So my customers are also coming to me for the inlaid fabric, photo of their dog or favorite band on the deck of their board. Whereas I do not have one shape that is most popular among my customers, I do have that very personalized, custom experience that I give all of them.
What is the price range for a custom shaped board?
The price range for a custom board has definitely changed, as all things do over time. The cost of resins has risen significantly over the last several years causing board prices to soar ever higher. Obviously the board price will vary according to the shape and length of the board. For a shorter board they would start out at about $400, and go all the way up to $1500 for a super nice custom longboard done by one of the masters. These prices would include the glass jobs.
What should the newer surfer that is moving up from a beginner board be looking for?
A good board for a surfer looking to transition from a beginner longboard to a shorter board is the midlength. These boards are usually about 7 to 9 feet long, and are ideal for that transition period. They still have a little length so that they are fairly easy to paddle, and catch waves. However, they are not as big as a longboard, and thus are easier to turn, carry and generally maneuver through the surf. It can be a dangerous situation when a beginner surfer is riding a board that is too big for them to handle. The midlength will be easier to turtle roll, or duck dive out past the surf, as well as quicker to spin around to catch the approaching wave.
Midlengths are also awesome boards for the advanced surfer wanting a different glide or feeling on the wave. You can get in early on a wave like a longboard, but stand on the tail and surf it more like a shorter board. They are good all around boards that can be ridden in 2 foot surf to 10 foot surf, and thus a good board to have if your quiver is small. A must have for all surfers looking to ride alternative equipment.
What kind of questions would you ask someone who comes to you looking for a new board?
Some important questions that a shaper would ask a customer would generally be inquiries to get a feel for the surfer’s ability, experience and favorite surf spots.
The shaper would want to know how long they have been surfing, what boards they currently ride, and what they like or dislike about those boards. They would want to know where they like to surf as this may give clues as to the surfer’s ability. A surfer battling it out at Lower Trestles everyday may have a different ability/experience level than the surfer cruising small Doheny. Other important questions would be the surfer’s height and weight so as to be able to make the board correctly for that rider. They may want to know where the surfer wants to ride this exact board being made. Is it a specialty board made just for their go outs at Pipeline, or maybe Malibu? Or is it meant to be an all around board ready to ride all sorts of beaches and breaks. These questions should be sufficient enough for a shaper to determine what type of board to make their customer.
What changes have you seen in surfboard trends recently?
The most significant changes that I have seen in surfboards have been in design aspects. Shapers all over the world really dove into experimental design on shapes and materials used for surfboards. Surfboards have gone from thrusters to twin keel fins, to quads, to 5 finned bonzers, all the way to no fins at all. The Alaia boards really changed the way that people looked at riding waves by taking an ancient design and modernizing it a bit. The Alaia being a very thin piece of wood with no fins was revolutionary in forcing the surfer to focus on trim and wave positioning instead of looking for the next section to boost an air.
The Bob Simmons designs have also become popular these days by taking another very old design concept, and modernizing it a bit. The Simmons design gave us very small, short twin fins, and the detailed concept of hydrodynamic theories and displacement hulls. Hull surfboards have thus seen a rise in popularity along with the Simmons approach to board design.
Besides the design changes that have become very apparent in recent times, there also lies the change in materials that has swept the industry. More and more “greener” concepts have been brought to the surfboard industry in an attempt to make the building of surfboards a little safer for the environment. People are using recycled foam blanks, balsa wood and bamboo. With the surfboard resin, epoxy has become a more favored “greener” option versus the polyester resin.
So what are your feelings on Epoxy vs. Poly Urethane?
The epoxy vs. PU question is a difficult debate for me. I am completely for anything that helps to make this planet cleaner and safer. I also own a screen printing business and we pride ourselves in using environmentally friendly inks and cleaners. My customers come to me specifically because we are an environmentally friendly printer.
However, the feeling of a PU board versus an epoxy board under your feet is completely different. They float differently and ride differently. My opinion probably has mostly to do with my view on surfing and being more of a traditionalist. For me, I prefer the PU boards because of they feel and the way they ride. There is also nothing else like a beautifully glassed board with resin tints or pigments, and nice pinlines. It’s like a classic car. The epoxy board may have pros like the newer Toyota Prius, but that PU surfboard is like that beautiful ’64 Ford Galaxie cruising down the road. It just demands your attention and admiration.
Anything else you would like to add?
I guess to sum it up, like I said before, surfing is all about the joy and pleasure that you get out of it. It is a special experience that surfers get to share, an interaction with Mother Nature in an intimate relationship. Not everyone needs a specific wave riding vehicle to get that experience. They may enjoy that feeling on a wave no matter what is under their feet, or knees, or belly. Others may take a special interest in what actually goes into designing and building a surfboard. For those people, a relationship with a shaper may add to their level of interest in board design. Who knows, that relationship may even develop into transforming that surfer into a shaper himself. In fact all shapers, no matter how big and famous or small, were once at that point in their lives. That point where they were interested in surfboard design and decided to give it a go. With a little persistence and dedication, you too may someday be a skilled surfboard shaper.
I truly believe that good board builders are a part of a tribe of craftsmen. They have a set of skills that are passed down from generation to generation, a good eye, and the ability to work well with your hands. They have that ability to be artists, and very technical at the same time. That is the board builder that I strive to be.
Sean Tully currently shapes boards in Southern California and also runs a screen printing business using environmentally friendly inks and cleaners. If you would like more information, contact Sean at 760-597-8738 or firstname.lastname@example.org.