Tom Wegener: From killing Bambi to quoting Socrates

Stu Nettle
The Depth Test

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.

Comments

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 1:04pm

It kills the innovation process, which is what Hynd meant by ‘killing Bambi’.

Umm, no he didn't. You should probably contact Derek Hynd to clarify what he meant.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 1:11pm

"Then I asked again, "What did you mean by 'Killing Bambi'?" Hynd replied that I had killed the innovation process, I had killed the collective movement of my fellow finless and friction-free surfers and shapers by putting out a cheap, commercially produced board that the masses will buy. People could buy my board - which had not gone through the evolutionary cycle - and be discouraged from ever trying this new type of surfing again. I had prematurely killed the process of high art and turned to mass-production. Hynd said, "I am Bambi", meaning that his life was focussed on developing the new type of high art, I went to the mainstream and ended the growth of what might have been."

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 2:09pm

the whole quote makes much more sense, though `i still don't know if i trust Wegeners word for word direct quote.
Not how I've heard Hynd describe it.

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 2:36pm

Lets hear it freeride76 ...

nogo's picture
nogo's picture
nogo commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 1:26pm

Bit of an over reaction from Hynd, not everyone is interested in sliding around...

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 2:04pm

Not to mention , where are all these popout seaglass tuna boards ?

nogo's picture
nogo's picture
nogo commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 3:40pm

Yea, Didn't see too many of them in the water...

Tarzan71's picture
Tarzan71's picture
Tarzan71 commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 5:05pm

I believe that the beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder, There are people in the world that consider Bambi's head mounted on a plaque in their drawing room to be tasteful (I dont) and there are other people that find the works of Monet to be dull and boring.
The analogy I am trying to illustrate is GSI boards have their place in the world just as much as a hand carved, solid timber alia, but not every punter would appreciate both.
Ive also found it very rare for a surfboard artisan to appreciate the works of another and actually witnessed an old waterman shaper from my area publicly abusing another well known shaper for trying out another guys boards. I know who came across as more open minded in that exchange.

jayet-010's picture
jayet-010's picture
jayet-010 commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 5:07pm

Interesting that oppression can breed creativity.

"Clark’s business methods were infamous, on one hand he was an aggressive businessman who crushed his competitors"

and

"The result was that creativity in the board industry proliferated"

jayet-010's picture
jayet-010's picture
jayet-010 commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 5:19pm

A bit like an apex predator really!

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 5:39pm

I think you put the two wrong things together there to draw your conclusion Jayet-101.

It was this: ......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.....

which led to this: The result was that creativity in the board industry proliferated as there were no impediments to experimentation nor the successes that flowed from them.

jayet-010's picture
jayet-010's picture
jayet-010 commented Thursday, 22 Jun 2017 at 9:45am

Like jsc said "Anyone could start their own surfboard company..... as long as they used Clark Foam".

Not sure I can sum it up any better!

jayet-010's picture
jayet-010's picture
jayet-010 commented Thursday, 22 Jun 2017 at 9:54am

Sure there was creativity with board design but not so much with board construction.

All I'm saying is that there can be unexpected consequences to our actions. Some positive and some negative.

And then extrapolating this to the shark debate!

jsc's picture
jsc's picture
jsc commented Wednesday, 21 Jun 2017 at 10:56pm

Anyone could start their own surfboard company..... as long as they used Clark Foam.

Pfffft - if people don't like mass-produced versions of popular surfboards, then don't ride them. Nothing morally wrong at all with making these kind of boards from industrial materials.

Imagine if golfers labelled other golfers who did not use clubs with hickory shafts kooks. Same same, but different.

The problem with the surfboard industry is everyone wants the accumulated knowledge and personal attention of a master shaper, but no one wants to pay for that knowledge and attention.

If you do not want to pay AUD $5000 per board from a master shaper, then you should be riding mass-produced versions of popular boards from automated, industrial processes.

radiationrules's picture
radiationrules's picture
radiationrules commented Thursday, 22 Jun 2017 at 11:51am

"Not how I've heard Hynd describe it."
"Lets hear it freeride76"
I'd be keen to hear the alternative truth too Freeride?

bigtreeman's picture
bigtreeman's picture
bigtreeman commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 6:19am

When I saw Tom doing the GSI popouts, I saw it as a cop out to his wooden creations.
He explained to me it was a commercial necessity and it wasn't cost effective hand building woodies.
I felt he went too far, going to foam core, plastic boards, instead of being a bit lateral about improving wooden board manufacturing.
As a bit of a purist myself, I think foam core wooden boards should be labelled as foamies not woodies and plastic boards .....
In this age of awareness of plastic pollution, we should be aiming all surfboard production away from petrochemical based materials to a sustainable future.

Go well,
Colin

Optimist's picture
Optimist's picture
Optimist commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 7:03am

And Dylan seemed a copout for playing electric but the creativity was there for a broader range of people. He still loved acoustic best. I met Tom when he first turned up at Noosa with his cool little movie "Siestas and Ola's" . A nicer bloke would be hard to find. Always a grin on his dial and will be a grom till the day he dies. Who cares if he has a few popouts, I wish I was smart enough to make a living from surfing and still maintain that cruisey headspace he has.

sharkman's picture
sharkman's picture
sharkman commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 8:52am

bit of a worry , when you see Tom's Clarke foam description , when in fact Clarke created a monopoly , made more money than anyone in the industry , did not back his product when the blow thru problem happened , in fact he screwed all the surfboard makers world wide and if they went to another blank maker they were banned from Clarke forever. He then took no responsibility for the monopoly , and when he was facing law suits from workers , he shut his factory and fucked surfboard makers worldwide , for a couple of years and now the general consensus is best thing is he got out so there is more competition , better blanks , a much more creative environment now , than before!
As for the Derek/Tom feud , who really cares , such a specialist part of surfing , not much design creativity , at least Tom raised awareness of finless , made cheaper copies of his designs , which meant good for the consumer , and not all surfers have the $'s to get a handcrafted custom of a master shaper.

x

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 11:40am

You're bang on the money Sharkman. A longer article would include the part where Tom Wegener calls Gordon Clark "a complete contradiction". He did all those things you listed. The monopolies he prevented were in the board industry, but of course he created his own monopoly in the blank industry.

As for stimulating creativity in board design, it's kinda hard to argue against; young kids with not much money but lots of ideas could easily turn them into reality because of Clark's cheap rates.

The same is also true that Clark's exit from the industry inspired new ideas in materials and construction. It was creative destruction and the industry is better for it.

sharkman's picture
sharkman's picture
sharkman commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 3:10pm

I think one of the main reason Clarke sold blanks cheap was to stop the Australian Blank makers , and also his blanks were very close tolerance , you could get blanks from Rawson/Rusty etc , which when you cut the planshape out , there were great rockers and deck lines , whereas the Ausssie blanks were big thick ones where you really had to know your rocker lines , so yeah young guys were able to buy cheap blanks and also have nearly a profiled blank!

x

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 9:09am

The seaglass tuna alaia was one of the best surfboards ive ever had the pleasure of riding . It was a popout without no unique handmade characteristics but once i began riding, it became my beloved board and i accepted it, considering it a prototype for future advancement if better manufacturing techniques were used ,Or better still if tom made a custom . Many or all ppl must be oblivious to the incredible performance of those craft . As far as i know to this day nobody else on earth thinks the same way about the performance of the 6"2 seaglass alaia . I have no idea why they /( tom) has been singled out for criticism . Its Completely ridiculous, how about the rest of the world and production techniques ?
The seaglass was made of eps core ,no stringer (no trees chopped) & epoxy resin , standard asian production . When i snapped my favorite in half there was nothing else similar to replace it . i wish someone took notice of the incredible performance of the design . But no , it was criticized and failed to sell or be manufactured .
Im looking toward getting hold of a toms new corky flexible alaias .
"Good things come to those who wait"
I hope these ones go as good as ol seaglass tuna

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 12:18pm

Pretty sure Camel used to rave about his Seaglass Alaia on here. He'd know a good board from a bad one.

caml's picture
caml's picture
caml commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 1:35pm

Yes blowin good memory.
I got a drifter from bryan bates a 7"0 thats goes insane .
Do want one of toms alaias , it might be a corky . Anyone seen or ridden the corkies ?

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Friday, 23 Jun 2017 at 6:03pm

I've got a 7'2" drifter from Bryan- a loaner- I've been mucking around on....great fun.

the-bower's picture
the-bower's picture
the-bower commented Saturday, 24 Jun 2017 at 8:21am

From GSI's point of view we knew sales of the Seaglass Project boards would never be record breakers but I thought it was a good opportunity to help support Tom and give him some exposure to the global market. He continues to get royalties today on the soft finless Albacore model we released a few years ago.

I've supported a number of creative shapers over the years. Thomas Meyerhoffer being the highest profile of them. I will always look at opportunities to help support creatives and introduce them to a global market if we think there is an opportunity.

Cheers

Mark Kelly
CEO / Founder
Global Surf Industries

Kel

LuckyRiver's picture
LuckyRiver's picture
LuckyRiver commented Tuesday, 27 Jun 2017 at 12:05pm

I've got nothing but thanks to Tom and GSI for the Seaglass Project. I surfed my 6'2" Tuna to death and have since gone on to build more finless boards for myself. Learning to ride that board opened up a whole new world of possibilities and really rejuvenated my surfing journey. Good on Tom for thinking outside the box and wanting to share his stoke with as many people as possible and good on GSI for supporting his vision.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 17 Jun 2019 at 2:40pm

Today Tom Wegener was awarded his PhD for Surf Culture, essentially for the book written about above, which was his thesis.

the-u-turn's picture
the-u-turn's picture
the-u-turn commented Monday, 17 Jun 2019 at 9:08pm

Applause to Tom for the Doctorate, that's one tough cookie to crack and he didn't give up. I know it's taken a while.

Ahhh Surfing, the only thing consistent about the characters within it are the prevalent ego's.

Look, talking to Tom & DH is always an experience I cherish. You can go from one topic to the next, to the next and on to the...next, within seconds. Joy & Entertainment.

As to the GSI Seaglass Project boards my son, who was about 12yrs old when they came out, picked it up in next to no time and, importantly because of the construction, lent the board out to at least half a dozen mates who all had a go. I think that was, in part, the purpose of what DH originally wanted to see being achieved - free thinking.

Now on the subject, grab a copy of 'Musica Surfica'. A time when Tom W & DH we're, as they say with a little Southern accent, 'like two peas in a pod'.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urtbRmPuLpk

The U Turn
...a little Aloha goes a long way.