Watch and read: Graeme Smith on living in the shadows of the surf industry
By his own conservative estimates, Graeme Smith has overseen the production of 200,000 surfboards, arguably more than any other shaper in Australia, yet you won’t find his name written down the stringer on any of them. Not one. Graeme, and his brother and business partner Murray, are shadow men of the surfing world, not only are their names not on the many boards they’ve built, but they’re almost unknown to the surfing public.
Graeme and Murray Smith’s involvement in the industry stretches back to the mid-80s. They arrived on the scene during the infancy of surfboard shaping machines, and by combining their skills - Graeme with computers, Murray with mechanics - they created some of Australia’s first shaping machines and so placed themselves at the coalface of surfboard production.
Video interview of Graeme Smith by Jesse Anderson
“We built these machines to address a problem,” says Graeme while sitting behind the keyboard of his computer, “and the problem was we couldn’t get enough [boards] made here to satisfy export requirements.”
Licensing was a solution, but it presented its own set of problems, mostly around patchy quality control. For internationally renown shapers the options were limited: put your reputation in the hands of overseas licensees, let the demand go unmet, or cast about for a technological solution.
The Smith brothers established Abroboard, and initially worked with Jim Lucas of Force 9 Surfboards at Cronulla, developing a pantograph that could shape two boards off a master shape. The pantograph was a shaping machine but wasn’t run by computer, instead a roller ran over heavily glassed master shapes and the cutting heads followed the movements of the roller.
Shortly thereafter they worked alone to build a pantograph that could shape six boards at once. There were other people swimming the same waters: Greg Webber was working with team rider Barton Lynch and Steve Fosterling on their own two banger machine, and John Gillis and software designer Ian Pearce were also developing their own system.
Each system had its strengths and weaknesses. Greg Webber had been experimenting with concaves since the mid-80s, yet his machine could only cut to flat, which was fine for Barton as he was still riding vee bottoms, but when concaves took off in the early-90s their system was redundant.
The Smith brothers pushed on, making the transition to a computer interface that allowed for greater flexibility. Using computer software the output was no longer dictated by a master shape, the range of curves far greater, and only bound by the movement of the machine. And when that became a hinderance solutions were usually found after a brainstorming session at the pub.
By the early-90s the Smith brothers were fulfilling the domestic and export requirements for some of our biggest labels: Nev, Insight, Simon Anderson, Maurice Cole. “Maurice would order 240 of the same board,” says Graeme.
The very last Maurice Cole preshape from the original Abroboard pantograph - 6'3" x 2 ⅜
However, the pushback was swift with a philosophical rift emerging, and what Graeme called the “guru effect” of hand-shapers: that their boards had more soul. Yet it wasn’t said out of spite. “If I was a surfboard shaper I’d feel the same [about computer shaping],” says Graeme. “They’re extremely proud of their work, and extremely talented, and they produce beautiful pieces of work.”
“We didn’t build these machines to put anybody out of work,” says Graeme, but the charge of techno displacement stuck.
Nev Hyman - who Graeme calls their “first and most enthusiastic customer” - immediately went on the front foot in the pages of Tracks. “I think it’s really important that I’m honest with the public,” said Nev, noting that some manufacturers were using machines without their customers knowing.
“I challenge anybody to at least phone me and ask me about it. I welcome other manufacturers to argue the point with me because its common sense that this is a benefit to the industry.”
Says Greg Webber of the handshaping debate: “Anyway, the coolness of the handshape was meaningless to the top pros. All they cared about was getting the same thing again, or the same thing again with a very slight change. That’s impossible with a handshape from scratch.”
Regardless, the argument rolled on and on. It would be many years before shapers could admit using shaping machines without requiring a justification. Interestingly, in the Tracks article, the Smith brothers were referred to only as “a board manufacturer who had quietly been developing a sophisticated shaping machine”. They retained their anonymity, much as they do to this day.
The Abroboard shaping machine cutting three identical boards
The late-90s saw the board industry change again with the rise of Asian shaping houses, and suddenly hand-shapers and machine-shapers had a common enemy. “It really annoys me that we buy so much shit from China,” says Graeme. “Why do we let the surf industry of China dictate what we buy? We should support these local shapers.”
Continuing with the theme, “At least that way you can go up the street to the guy who made your board and say thanks very much. If more people thought like that the industry would be in better shape.”
So despite cutting 200,000 boards Graeme Smith still believes in the personal touch. He’s a machine shaper yet he still considers the intimacy of the object. Which is all the more peculiar because Graeme Smith doesn’t surf. Never has. “Oh, I used to bodysurf at Cronulla,” he says by way of explanation.
Sound ridiculous? A non-surfer who knows more about your craft than you..? Greg Webber doesn’t think so, saying emphatically. “I had no issue at all with Graeme being a non-surfer. He was replicating forms, and anyway, the design program worked well.”
After thirty years behind the levers at Abroboard, Graeme Smith hasn't the slightest trace of arrogance when he says, “I could shape a board for anybody.”
Just not for himself.
(Special thanks to Jesse Anderson for the video interview)