Surfboard models and the relentless pursuit of perfection
“Every time I change the position of a legrope plug I've gotta give the board a new model name!” Though Chris Garrett is laughing as he says this I can sense dismay in his voice - many a serious word said in jest and all that. The cause of Chris' consternation is the model system of surfboards. In 2016 there's an expectation that shapers present their boards as 'models': fixed, identifiable, and replicable shapes that customers can choose from.
Surfboard models supposedly simplify the system, they remove customer guesswork. Yet for Chris Garrett, who “mass produces his surfboards one at a time” - his line not mine - the model system doesn't necessarily work that way. And when I began to speak to other shapers I found he wasn't alone.
“Customers can have their car painted any colour they want so long as it is black,” said Henry Ford about his Model T Ford, the world's first mass produced car. Historians believe old Hank was being playful, in later years the Model T came in red and blue, however those words betray his revolutionary thinking. Ford invented mass, standardised production with over 16 million identical Model T units rolling off Ford's Detroit assembly line. It was cookie cutting on an industrial scale and Henry Ford subsequently became one of the most influential people of the 20th Century.
Ford's thinking caught on and mass production rapidly spread, from food to building materials to clothes...and even to surfboards. In the 1920s the few surfers that existed in Hawaii and California had to make their own boards by hand. This changed in 1930 when Pacific Home Systems, a building company from Los Angeles, swung left and turned their attention to surfing.
Pacific Home Systems constructed their boards from laminated redwood and balsa, joining the pieces together with waterproof glue. As each board rolled off the production line it had a swastika symbol – sanskrit for well being - burnt or printed onto the bottom. Thus the improbably named Swastika model became the first commercially produced surfboard, though when the Nazis goose-stepped into Poland Pacific Home Systems wisely changed the name to the infinitely sunnier 'Waikiki Surf-Board'.
Compared to the Detroit assembly lines, the Waikiki board was a rudimentary affair; it was available in six sizes, each having a square tail, near-parallel sides, and a round nose. They were made in production runs of 15.
In the 1940s balsa superseded redwood, which was itself superseded by foam in the late-50s. The qualities of foam, being easy to work with and create complex shapes, made it ideal for customisation – the opposite of mass production. Yet still the urge to standardise crept in, only this time with a twist. In 1963 Hobie Alter created the first celebrity model surfboard, the Phil Edwards signature model.
Signature models created a brand within a brand, capitalising on the surfers' fame to sell units. Hobie Alter subsequently offered signature models for Joey Cabell, Joyce Hoffman, Gary Propper, and Corky Carroll. And though the boards had consistent features, they were ultimately hand shaped and suffered inconsistency in the detail.
Here in Australia, Shane Stedman followed Hobie's lead with the Russell Hughes 'Excellor' model. Yet, again, they were hand shaped and though the differences between boards were minor they'd effect performance, hence nullifying the standardisation. It wasn't until 1970 when Shane released the appropriately named Standard that surfboards achieved an element of duplication.
“The price of surfboards was heading toward $100 and it was causing everyone anxiety,” says Shane explaining the motivation for the Standard. $100 was how much a chippy – a carpenter - earned in a week and it became a proxy guide for board prices – such were the times. The Standard was a way to reduce costs and keep boards under the $100 milestone.
Shane achieved that by blowing foam in a mould the approximate shape of the finished board, which came in two sizes: a 5'10” round tail and a 6'3” square tail. The foam still had to be hand finished but, says Shane, “instead of 1½ hours per board it took 20 minutes.”
The Shane Standard was a radical innovation, however the new boards took some getting used to. “At first, surfers didn't like the stringerless look,” says Shane, “so we strung black cotton down the centre to imitate a stringer!” The memory causes Shane to convulse with laughter.
The Standard was the closest the surf world had got to Model T replication and the public loved them. At their peak Shane had a team of shapers pumping out 200 Standards a week all for less than $100 a pop.
$100 a pop? An unfortunate choice of words...
In the early 70s, surfboards were a cottage industry and artisanal skill was emphasised. While the boards sold well the blowback from purists was quick and sharp, the boards were coined 'popouts' while his principles were brought into question. “Yeah we copped grief. 'Course we did!” Shane bellows.
“The shaper was supposed to have his arse hanging out of his pants,” says Shane of the critics who railed against him. “Shapers were supposed to provide a service for no money. You know that whole tortured artist thing? That's how they wanted shapers to live.”
“We worked 24/7 on those surfboards and the people opposed to them were a small but vocal minority.”
You don't have to spend long in the company of Shane Stedman to understand he's no tortured artist or that he'd ever be a victim to other people's expectations. So how did he react to the criticisms? “Ahhhh, I couldn't have given two stuffs,” says Shane before delivering another round of roaring laughter.
Pioneers get the arrows and settlers get the land, so the old saying goes, and this was the case with modern surfing's first attempt at standardisation. “We were innovators,” says Shane of his pioneering efforts. It'd take a while, around 25 years in fact, for Shane to be proven right. During the intervening quarter century shaping machines would be conceived and created, while public perception would shift from repulsion to acceptance.
It's impossible to pinpoint when public acceptance of machine shapes occurred, but around the turn of the millennium a choice of moulded and machine shaped boards hit the market. First Salomon S-Core, then Surftech, and in 2004 Firewire began operations. The machine shape stigma was slowly eroding as surfers realised the benefits of replicable shapes. The popularity of these boards gave traditional shapers – those custodians of artisanal skills – little choice but to also start thinking in terms of models.
Stuart Paterson has been shaping at Cronulla for over thirty years, the last fifteen under his own label, PCC Boards. “At first there was a resistance to machine shaping,” says Pato, his wild hair flecked with foam dust. “The 90s were the dark ages really, but people accept computer shaping now, and rather than stifle creativity it's allowed shapers to create and replicate a wide variety of shapes.”
For Pato, creating surfboard models – and he's a got a few - is a way of file keeping as much as anything else. “It's a system of keeping track of what I've created so customers can come in and get something the same, or maybe something similar, the next time around. Otherwise I'd just have a long list of numbers to refer to.”
While talking, Pato and I riff on the idea that giving boards various model names is similar to categorising music by different genres. “Imagine walking into a record shop and it was just wall to wall vinyl, none of it categorised, but you were looking for, say, punk or hard rock. Where would you start?”
The starting point, at least for Pato, is the model name and from there he can make variations, either on screen or after the blank is cut, if the customer wants them. Call them sub-genres if you wanna stretch the music shop metaphor. “From the model's master file I create a personal file for the customer so we've got a starting point for the next visit. They can get exactly the same board or a similar one with variations.”
It's clear then that surfboard models, at least how Pato uses them, are fluid. Rather than the rigid mass produced output of Surftech, Salomon, and Firewire, modern computer shaping provides shapers such as Pato a degree of flexibility while also exerting quality control.
Before I leave I ask Pato if other shapers use the model system in a similar way to himself. “I've no idea” says Pato earnestly. “But I have an inkling they might.”
A cursory survey conducted by Swellnet revealed that many shapers do indeed work similar to Stuart Paterson. Rather than adopting a Henry Ford-style of mass production they've subverted it by using models as a starting point then adjusting them for their regular customers. An exception is Torquay's Corey Graham, notable because he rejects the model system. If walking into a surfboard factory is akin to walking into a record shop then Corey Graham's is the jazz section. Freeform jazz, played in the 50s tradition without regular beat or structure.
“Everything I do is hand shaped,” says Corey, “but I very loosely shape upon models. To me models are a premise, a thought, or an idea.” All Corey's customer know this, and it seems they love him for it. He's a shaper who's carved out a special niche as a shaping virtuoso, though the freewheeling jazz analogy only goes so far. Corey is also a strict bookkeeper.
“I keep a record of everything I do, everything that people have ordered,” says Corey. “I can recreate a board with all the variations a customer wants.” Like Chris Garrett, Corey “mass produces his surfboards one at a time” but he still relies upon a system to give order to the process.
However, Corey's resistance to models has put him at odds with the retail system. “Yeah, it's been hard,” says Corey. “There's just that expectation that boards are sold by the model now. Some people don't know how to approach my boards because I don't work that way.”
He's not being purposefully obdurate as much as he's being true to his beliefs. “When a board model gets made it's like putting a full stop at the end of its life, and I don't want that. I don't want the story to end. You've gotta leave room for evolution, growth, for further versions of that board.” In other words, that sax solo can always be improved.
Both Corey Graham and Stuart Paterson are regional shapers, they service their local beaches and a smattering of surfers that live beyond them. The next tier up are the large scale board manufacturers that sell nationally and internationally. These companies can best capitalise on the model system - at least how Henry Ford envisaged it - as their customers most often buy off the rack and rarely speak to the shaper beforehand. They're also the companies most likely to sponsor pro surfers.
Models are now so ubiquitous they appear as a regular statistic on all WSL webcasts. It sits alongside a surfer's other vitals such as age, height, and nationality. Yet when Joe Turpel says Mick Fanning is riding a Ducks Nuts – that's one of Mick's models and a big seller for DHD – just how close is it to the model being sold off the rack?
“Sometimes it's the exact same board,” says Darren Handley matter-of-factly. “Mick has even done that; at Bells one year he pulled a board off the rack at the Rip Curl shop and rode it. He's done the same at the factory here.”
“Other times,” says Darren, “He'll be riding the model but with tweaks for the particular wave. For instance, if J'Bay gets 3-to-5 foot he'll be on a Ducks Nuts that'll be the same as one off the shelf except with a slightly pulled tail.” The explanation is similar to the way regional shapers work: the 'model' as a starting point with individual customised changes.
Mick and Darren
Often webcast viewers hear that surfers have spent the off season working with their shapers, yet if they're only riding stock boards, or boards very close to it, then what work is there to do? I put this question to Darren.
“Look at someone like Jack Freestone,” he replies by way of example. “He rode a DX1 last year through the Qualifying Series, and all year he rode pretty much the exact same board. That's because it's a board made for beachbreaks. Now he's on the CT he needs different boards for different waves.”
“Also,” says Darren continuing the point, “CT surfers might get 50 boards exactly the same, yet only three work for them.” It's hard for average punters to get their heads around the hair trigger sensitivity of a full time pro. “It could be the wood used in the stringer,” says Darren explaining the subtle differences. “The way the foam was blown, or even just their attitude on the day they rode the boards.” He's not being dismissive, mindset is crucial for professional athletes.
Travis Lee spent many years working for Channel Island and is now Firewire's marketing manager. He's had similar experiences with his riders. “Stu Kennedy sometimes rides exact stock models of the Sci Fi in his heats,” says Travis. While on the other hand Kelly Slater is less likely to ride a model with the same dimensions as an off-the-rack board.
“Even though Kelly may have had a magic board that we froze in time and launched as a model, he definitely isn't done with it.” Kelly Slater's eternal quest for perfection touches every facet of his life: mind, body, diet...and his surfboards too it would appear. His desire to constantly evolve largely prevents him from settling for an off-the-rack model. “Kelly's constantly working to see if by changing variables he can make it even better,” says Travis and it doesn't sound the least bit surprising.
What does sound surprising is that Firewire are one of the world's largest surfboard companies, they're surfing's heir to Henry Ford's mass production, yet Kelly's desire to constantly improve his boards sounds much like Corey Graham's justification for staying outside the model system: the desire to keep evolving and developing ideas.
In truth it's a desire possesed by most shapers, even those who've wholeheartedly adopted the model system - 'new season models' are more than just cynical marketing devices, they're the next stop in the design continuum. It's a never ending sequence of creativity that fits awkwardly with mass production.
By any measure, Shane Stedman truly was an innovator but what's evident now is that standardisation in surfboards isn't enough. A large percentage of surfers - from pros such as Mick Fanning to anonymous locals - not only want consistency in their surfboards but they also want them to evolve and improve. That's where surfing is at right now. So while the model system has indeed simplified matters for the customer, it's more complex than rolling surfboards off the assembly line like old Model T Fords.