Tom Wegener: From killing Bambi to quoting Socrates
Few surfers have done as much to strip surfing down to its fundamentals as Tom Wegener. The Californian expat eschews legropes, thinks fins are optional, and that wood is the finest of all materials - much the same as the ancient Hawaiians did on their olos and alaias. According to Tom, surfing requires nothing more than rider, board, and wave.
But such minimalism belies a sophisticated appreciation of surfing. In contrast to his actions, Wegener has cultivated an ornate secret garden, and in Surfboard Artisans he opens the gate to curious wanderers.
As books go, Surfboard Artisans had the most peculiar of origins and some backstory is required. In 2010 Tom Wegener approached Global Surf Industries (GSI) to mass produce two boards he’d designed. Collectively called the Seaglass Project they were EPS and epoxy resin alaias, more buoyant than usual and hence more user friendly.
Tom received unconditional support from GSI and set to work. When finished, the models had only modest sales, however the greater drama came in criticism from Wegener’s peers. This involved private warnings from family and colleagues before the project, and then two very public spats, one with George Greenough and the other with Derek Hynd. Hynd famously said Wegener had “killed Bambi” by “selling out to the crass mass”.
Thus begins an extended rumination of what it means to sell out. And if you think you’ve spent some time pondering the concept then consider that Surfboard Artisans is essentially Tom Wegener’s PhD. Yep, he’s turned one of surfing’s most enduring gripes into an academic undertaking, so rather than just a carpark grievance the argument about selling out assumes great moral weight. He challenges various positions, including his own, with an extended exposition.
(Photo Dan Prior)
When Gordon ‘Grubby’ Clark began blowing foam blanks in molds he also gave shape to the ethics that would embody the surf industry. Clark’s business methods were infamous, on one hand he was an aggressive businessman who crushed his competitors, and on the other he treated all his customers the same whether they were big labels or mere backyarders. This fair-handed approach prevented monopolies from forming and crucially meant that the barrier to entry was low. Anyone could start their own surfboard company.
The result was that creativity in the board industry proliferated as there were no impediments to experimentation nor the successes that flowed from them. Information was shared, built upon, and evolved freely. Clark’s business practices left a lasting imprint on surf culture. “Young surfers did not have to look to the brands to find what they wanted to ride,” writes Wegener. “It was up to them and their imagination.” Creativity trumped capitalism in this ideal and the attitude suffused the culture.
Wegener terms the outcome ‘high art’ and it’s essentially where surfboard design heads when unadulterated by commercial imperatives. It’s what Wegener himself was doing pre-GSI. It’s also what keeps many surfboard shapers in a permanent state of penury. We’ve come to expect our shapers to be paupers.
GSI employ a very different business model. By licensing and mass producing designs they act as benefactors to the shapers on their roster. “I feel that GSI has been a patron of the arts” writes Wegener equating GSI to the art world where rich benefactors bankroll talented artists. However, GSI’s fixed business model stifles the tide of creativity - at least in theory. It kills the innovation process, which is what Hynd meant by ‘killing Bambi’. Tom Wegener had reservations before approaching GSI with his Seaglass Project, but he did it anyway and was subsequently pilloried by two people he respected greatly.
The resultant examination of surfboard culture makes fascinating reading. Amongst other things Wegener discovers that George Greenough’s great, great, great grandfather was Horatio Greenough, one of America’s greatest writers on art who coined the term ‘form follows function’. “George Greenough is an astonishing human example of his great, great grandfather’s ideas,” writes Wegener citing how Greenough the younger took principles from the hull design of boats, or from the fins on tuna fish, and applied them to surfing.
Yet George Greenough, like Tom Wegener, also licenses his art to other people. Over the years Greenough has licensed fins, surfmats, boards, and even a boat called the GARC (Greenough Aquatic Rescue Craft) used by the US Navy, Coast Guard, and National Guard. Clearly the notion of selling out is more complex than first imagined, especially if one of surfing’s Noble Elders can straddle both sides of the divide.
Through 300 pages Wegener (mostly) avoids cloying justifications for his own actions. He ain’t trying to get square with those who he’s fallen foul of, the objective instead is to make sense of what it means to sell out in the context of the surfboard industry and help small businesses - read: shapers - bust the stereotypes that’d hold them back. It's also a celebration of the shaping profession. Wegener describes his love for creating boards by way of culture, art, and philosophy, the work of George Greenough, Bob McTavish, and Donald Takayama boldly placed alongside the thinking of Socrates and the Stoics.
And though the content is exotic the delivery is dry - it’s an academic work after all. Clarity of thought is paramount so Wegener’s language is as refined as his workmanship. The reader will decide if that’s a good thing or not.
In a recent conversation with Swellnet, Wegener said that now the book is out he’s, “at peace with all the decisions I’ve made. I’m at peace with Derek and everybody yelling at me.” If you’ve ever thought the accusation of selling out is a touch too reductive then here’s a book that peers deeper into the question. Don’t expect the carpark conversations to change anytime soon but at least you’ll be able to hold up your end of the debate.
'Surfboard Artisans: For The Love' is available from Tom Wegener's website or from bookstores.