Agave and the distilled spirit of board making
It was late 2005 when my then girlfriend (now wife) and I made the two-pronged announcement that we were, a) getting married, and b) moving from the north coast of NSW to South Australia. The first response from just about everyone to point b) was an incredulous "Why?" swiftly followed by references to cold water, hostile locals, and, of course, sharks.
For the record, I can confirm that the water is cold – although the ice cream headache wears off after 10 minutes – whereas the locals are actually a more pleasant bunch than many of the self-entitled deadshits that frequented my old local (you know who you are). And as for the sharks, well if recent news stories are anything to go by, they seem to have swapped places, except for that one seven metre monster spotted off Marino Rocks in February. But the less said about her the better…
The tyranny of distance and the addition of one child, quickly followed by a second, soon began to test my resolve as a surfer, particularly now that I was landlocked in the middle of the Adelaide Hills. I went from surfing three to four times a week, to considering myself lucky if I got wet more than once every six weeks – hence my Swellnet handle ‘Surfstarved’. My fitness suffered, and with it my surfing skills, to the point where it was less like surfing and more like pushing shit uphill. It just wasn’t fun any more.
But I wasn’t going to give it up. I’m a surfer. I may no longer be any good at it, but I still love surfing. But for all of that, I wasn’t getting any waves and withdrawals were setting in. I needed to find an alternative way to get a fix. Then the solution came to me - why not try my hand at shaping? My shed wasn’t being used for anything except storing mixed bags of crap and my evenings were relatively free. The idea quickly took hold.
I knew nothing about design, working with the tools, or even where I could get hold of the materials, but Google and eBay were my friends and I soon got hold of everything I needed to get started. Google also introduced me to a new and dangerous addiction – the shaping forums of Swaylock’s. I spend uncounted hours rifling through discussion threads on everything from design theory and physics, to the comparative performance qualities of different bottom contours, to arguments about fin placement.
Once the blanks arrived, I dove headlong into it and from that moment I was hooked. The adventure of my first shape was documented in detail and can be found in the Swaylock’s archives (minus the photos, which disappeared in a later software update – some of these can be seen on my poor, neglected blog).
I’ve now shaped over a dozen boards of varying lengths, breadths, and categories, but after the first few, a niggling disquiet kept asserting itself. Surfers are in general a pretty environmentally conscious crowd and I’d like to think that I’m no exception. So the idea of using all these toxic, non-renewable materials to construct what was, ultimately, a recreational implement, didn’t sit well with my ideals. I found myself wishing for an alternative and, as it turned out, the shaping forums soon provided one.
I love driving around, exploring my rural neighbourhood and discovering all the back roads and short cuts, and having young children was the perfect excuse for me to get in the car and do a bit of sightseeing. I don’t know about your kids, but when mine were young, a boring drive in the country was sometimes the only way to get them to go to sleep. Once they were out to it, I’d turn off the main road and hit the gravel, aiming to get back home just in time for them to wake up again. At this stage you’re probably thinking 'where the fuck’s he going with this?' but bear with me…
It was during these excursions that I made a chance discovery that changed the path of my shaping exploits. The early settlers in South Australia made many mistakes in their colonisation of the state’s arid inland, but one thing they got right, at least from my perspective, was their use of various Agave species in their gardens. I suppose they realised that the Agave, a native of the drier regions of the Americas, was ideally suited to the climate in what is now acknowledged as the driest state in the driest inhabited continent.
Many of the original settlers’ buildings are now nothing more than ruins – a couple of walls, maybe a lone chimney standing on a hillside – but the Agave has proven more resilient. All over the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, and further afield I encountered large stands of Agave which, having spent hours trawling the Swaylock’s forums, I knew could be used as an alternative to the polyurethane/EPS foams ubiquitous in the board-building industry. Pretty soon I’d built up a comprehensive Google Earth map identifying all the clumps of Agave within a 200km radius of home and I’d taken to stashing a handsaw and gloves in the car. It wasn’t unusual for me to appear in the driveway after a morning’s excursion with a number of Agave logs strapped to the roof racks.
Agave (Agave americana) is a bastard of a plant. It’s a succulent that grows in a spiral pattern to about two-to-three metres wide, each ‘leaf’ tipped with a bayonet-like spine about three inches long which can, according to Wikipedia, “pierce to the bone”. While the crushed leaves provide a sweet, sugary gel that’s used as both a sugar substitute and the base ingredient for Tequila, the fibrous timber of the Agave flower stem contains a corrosive oxalic acid that can badly irritate the skin and quite literally take your breath away if you breath it in as dust; a fact I discovered first hand.
At the end of its life, in a final burst of energy, the Agave plant sends up a flower stalk from its centre which on some species can reach heights of five metres or more. It’s this stalk – dried, milled and glued into a blank – that is used to make the Agave boards. The material inside the stalks ranges from a soft, spongy pith at the centre, to a tough, fibrous wood closer to the outer skin. Depending on their size, it takes 10-15 stalks to form a finished blank for a standard short board, so it took a lot of driving around and opportunistic pilfering before I had enough to even think about the shaping process.
Most of the plants I found were actually growing on private land, so it was often a case of parking behind a tree and furtively jumping over barbed wire fences, then alternating between sawing furiously and hiding behind whatever cover I could find if any cars passed. Thankfully, the rural areas of SA are fairly sparsely populated and most of the back roads only see a car every half an hour, making my work that much easier. That’s not to say that it was easy – those spines meant I bled profusely for every stalk harvested.
Of course, given their high water content, the stems needed to be cured in the shed for at least six months before they could be milled. During this time I set about locating someone with a bandsaw big enough to process the stalks. After a couple of false starts I managed to link up with a surfing shipwright in Port Adelaide, fully equipped with all the heavy machinery I needed to get the job done (thank you Ben Stone).
Each step in the process threw up its own unique challenges, but I won’t go into too much detail or else this article will turn into a book and never see the light of day. Most of it was documented in a build-thread on Sanded. Suffice it to say that after much cursing, improvisation, glueing and clamping, I ended up with a 20-inch wide blank that I dubbed the Carny, after the Nick Cave song of the same name.
As with the rest of the process so far, shaping the blank became an exercise of equal parts frustration and improvisation, but slowly the final shape emerged from the wood. One of the stalks had been attacked by borers, so I had to back-fill the holes with a mixture of resin, q-cell and the last minute addition of phosphorescent pigment provided by John from Aussie shaping site Sanded.
Why? I hear you ask. Why not?
Like EPS, agave doesn’t partner well with water, so much so that you should wait for low humidity days to do any shaping (not a problem in SA). With this in mind, the shaped board needed to be well sealed against the elements, which was achieved with a standard glassing job. In an ideal world I would have used a plant-based, sustainable epoxy, but I had a bucket of polyester resin sitting in the shed, so that’s what went on in the end.
Eventually I reached the point this February where the board was rideable and I couldn’t wait any longer. Stepping tentatively onto the sand at an undisclosed southern beach, I strapped on the leggie, paddled out through the channel and caught my first wave on the agave board. Unfortunately it’s been a horrible summer for surf in SA, at least in my neck of the woods. Because of this, I still haven’t had the chance to really put the board through its paces, but the early indications are largely positive.
It’s heavy, weighing in at around 6.4kg. For a 5’10” x 20” x 2” board, that’s very-fucking-substantial. As you can imagine, this has its drawbacks, not the least of which is how slow it is to paddle. You really need to be right on the take-off spot if you want to catch a wave, and getting caught inside is even more of a mood-killer than usual. Another drawback, which I’ve only recently discovered, is experienced when the board transforms into a projectile aimed at your head. Three stitches in my lip, a significant volume of blood in the lineup, and a tetanus shot highlighted that particular lesson.
On the flip side, the weight becomes a benefit when it comes to duckdiving. It gives you a real advantage when you need to get extra depth to get under a big sneaker set. And once you’re up and riding, all that weight converts really quickly to momentum, so it gets up to speed right off the mark. I shaped in as many performance features as I could, to counteract the additional bulk – single concave to four channels, with a gentle vee through the tail and down rails from nose to tail – but unfortunately I haven’t had it out in good enough surf to tell whether these have had the desired impact. Hopefully as we enter the colder months the banks around here will clean up, the winter groundswells will start rolling in and the crowds will thin, making conditions more amenable to testing out the board’s limits.
Having made one agave board, I’m keen to get into building another soon. I’m sure the next one would progress more quickly, now that I have a better grasp on the process, but it’s a long-term commitment however I approach it. Hopefully, however, the one board I’ve already finished will prove itself performance-wise, and also be far more durable than its foam equivalent, meaning I won’t need to replace it as soon as I would a PU or EPS board.
Meanwhile, I’m already onto my next project – the phoenix-style rebirth of a 30-year-old long board that’s been sitting in the shed for the past decade, too dinged up to ride and slowly disappearing under an ever-expanding pile of rat shit. But that’s another story for another day… //CASS SELWOOD