The Polyester King
Walk into a surfboard factory, any surfboard factory, and the hierarchy is the same. It starts at the top with the head shaper, the guy with his name on the boards, then beneath him is the sander, the glasser, the glue up guys, and towards the bottom is the ding fixer. Levi Jones, however, began his career even lower than the ding fixer - he was the ding fixer’s little brother.
When Caleb Jones wanted to move up the hierarchy of the Wizstix factory on the NSW Central Coast he brought in his 16-year old kid brother to start fixing dings. Thus did Levi Jones take the first step towards being the best ding fixer in the business, a guy Mark Richards now considers a genius.
But this story is about much more than fixing dings.
Levi’s workshop isn't easy to find. After turning off the highway between Sydney and Newcastle, I wound through quiet country backroads, tried to follow the numbering system on the occasional farmhouses, and pulled up where I thought it may be. A collection of shipping containers stood on the lot, perfectly colour-matched to gum leaf green. No surfboard. No sign. But at the back of one shipping container I spied an exhaust duct. It had to be.
Through the open door I see Levi using an orbital sander. He gives a slight nod of the head, kills the power, and lifts his dust mask exposing his bloodnut beard that falls to his chest. Pleasantries exchanged we walk into an adjacent container where four surfboard stands occupy the middle of the room, and along both walls and across the roof are surfboards of varying vintage and condition.
Levi rattles off the merits of each board: some are his personal boards, some are for clients, some of them he found and he’ll fix them up for a sale. All of them are significant in one way or another. “This is Terry Fitzgerald’s personal rider,” says Levi, pulling an early-80s Hot Buttered Drifta off the rack. It’d been snapped just forward of the fin and was mid-repair.
I recall reading an obituary for that very board penned by Terry Fitz himself; an unequivocal announcement of its death at the hands of eldest son Kye. “Big Red died in a beach break tube,” wrote TF, “on a crisp clear spring morning, with an offshore blowing and nobody out. Kye buried Big Red in a poetic end.”
“Big Red is Dead. Long Live Big Red.”
Long live indeed. “When it’s finished you won’t be able to tell it’s been snapped,” says Levi, who’s a surfboard reanimator. Through divine intervention he brings them back from the afterlife.
Further up the rack is a stubby Outer Island single fin that’s in one piece, but that’s its only redeeming feature. The board is hopelessly discoloured and the deck has a huge delamination patch.
“It’s a rare bird that board,” Mitchell Rae tells me later. “It was made in 1970 at the Palm Beach boathouse, which makes it one of the earliest surviving Outer Islands.”
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” explains Mitchell about how it ended up with Levi, “but I’d been observing his work on Facebook, seeing him do increasingly complex work and I was really impressed. Clearly he was the man for the job.”
Levi learned to mix and fix under the tutelage of Gary ‘The Wiz’ Loveridge at Wizstix, but the Wiz is quick to point out that it was much more than his knowledge that got Levi to where he is today.
“He came in to fix dings,”says the Wiz, “so I showed him all the basics of mixing resin and colour matching, but before long he’d found new ways to do things. Levi just has a flair for it. He’s quicker, more efficient, and he gets better results than anyone.”
“He’s the best ding fixer I’ve ever come across.”
But, as already mentioned, this story is about much more than fixing dings.
Australian surfers are recent students of surf history. Up till the late-90s it was standard practice to toss old surfboards away, maybe hock them off at Cash Converters for a few bucks, or just leave them by the side of the road for the twice-yearly clean up. It was mass genocide. Generations of boards were destroyed, while others were maltreated, many of them historically important.
Maybe they were crucial links in the design timeline, or they had a famous name under the glass, or perhaps they were representative of a bygone era. They were laid to waste by a culture that didn’t care. Cut down, turned brown, left to rot.
The attitude has changed since the turn of the century, and over the last decade Facebook has allowed vintage board collectors to gather and exchange thoughts. Knowledge that would otherwise be lost is shared freely on pages such as the Vintage Surfboard Collectors.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge to be found on the Vintage Surfboard Collectors page,” says Gavin Scott, who’s a regular contributor. “Some of the information that gets shared on there is phenomenal. It’s the only place you can find that depth of history.”
The Vintage Surfboard Collectors page also provided a platform for Levi Jones to display his expanding skill set. For years, before and after shots of Levi’s projects would extract gushing praise, rare glee amongst the social media spite. The page itself isn’t immune to outbursts. Like all niche communities, surfboard collectors follow a byzantine code of ethics and any transgression is put under the social media griller.
“Some collectors just want their old boards to look brand new,” explains Gav. “For them it’s about money or status. But Levi gets it….he gets it.”
Gets what? I ask.
“Look, if you’ve got one of MR’s personal riders, those heel impressions are from MR himself. Those dings, they’re part of the board’s history, all the marks on it.” And it’s not just personal riders, all old boards tell a story, according to Gav. “The history is all that matters, and Levi is maintaining our history.”
Unfortunately not all of Levi’s customers abide by that principle. “Sometimes customers want a complete overhaul of an old board,” says Levi. “Something you wouldn’t really call authentic. Thankfully it’s the minority. There’s a growing recognition that the history matters.”
As we chat, a machine whirrs in the background and the wind blows through the gum trees overhead. Levi is softly spoken, I lean in to hear him, but I can’t catch a phrase he’s saying and ask him to repeat it.
“Kintsugi,” he says a little louder. Now I can hear him but I have to ask for an explanation of the word. “Kintsugi is a Japanese tradition where broken things, pottery for instance, are repaired and they become more beautiful for the repair.” So here I am, sitting barefoot beneath gum trees learning ancient Japanese philosophy from a bloke sporting speed dealers and a nipple-length beard.
Kintsugi, as it happens, rests comfortably alongside Gav’s explanation of maintaining our surfing history: the boards are made waterproof again, but they display the battlescars from their years in service. “Boards are only original once,” says Levi profoundly. He’s wearing a beatific smile as he says it.
Not all the boards Levi works on follow the kintsugi philosophy, some are restored to near new condition, with airbrush sprays to boot. In fact, the machine I can hear in the background is an airbrush being operated by Martyn Worthington. Made famous through his work at Hot Buttered, Martyn’s art inspired a thousand panel van sprays.
About ten years ago Levi was doing up an old Hot Buttered and on a whim he called Martyn and asked if he could spray it. Martyn had moved away from Sydney’s Northern Beaches and by chance he lived just a few suburbs from Levi. Martyn sprayed that board and the two have collaborated ever since.
Like Levi, Martyn is aware that his input must be sympathetic to the board’s history. He tells me of a recent customer who had an important board but wanted a spray at odds with its age. “It’s the customers board of course, but Levi and I felt we shouldn’t be displacing anything.”
Levi has a kink for old Hot Buttereds, so more than a few times Martyn has come into work and stared at a spray he did when Whitlam was in power and colour television was taking off. “They take me back there,” says Martyn of the emotions that arise seeing his old work again. “I get a pleasant feeling seeing them...for the most part. I wish I could still surf like I did back then!”
He’s also amazed at the way the old boards are still being appreciated, albeit in a different way. Martyn went to art school and views all art through the prism of movements, he speaks of how his 70s psychedelic sprays gave way to new wave and punk-inspired graphics with harsh colour contrasts, and then onwards to 80s optimism with checks and squares. All art can be tied to broader social movements.
The same can be said of the resurrection work he’s doing with Levi. “I think it’s a good thing," says Martyn, “because it’s evolving into something else. Something else is coming from the synthesis of old art and new.” There’s no name for it yet but there’s no shortage of demand for it either.
Perhaps you’re wondering what all this board restoring malarky is about? Oh, it’s riddled with nostalgia, no doubt about it, but there's more to it than that. Amongst board sports, only surfing has customised equipment so our attachment to craft runs deep. Maybe it’s an age thing, I’m not sure, but just as old photos can conjure great memories so to can surfboards, and I struggle to see anything wrong with that.
Meanwhile, speaking of customised...
Aside from the restorations, Levi also does his own shaping work, though his boards are unlike any I’ve ever seen. He shows me a few recent pieces and they more resemble something wheeled out of Ed Roth’s garage then craft to be surfed. One board has curves that are wickedly accentuated, points made lethal, and fins curved like exhaust pipes. Another is a mashup of an Erle Pederson jet bottom and a Peter Townend sting.
Part modernist art, part freeform surfboard compositions, Levi says he “doesn’t think about the outcome in advance but just shapes whatever comes into my head”. Once shaped, the boards are then adorned with Martyn’s kaleidoscopic murals and glossed to a mirror finish. He runs updates of the projects on Facebook. Each one is sold before he’s finished.
But it’s fixing dings that’s given Levi Jones his notoriety. The gig he began twenty-something years ago and which he got so damn good at that he didn’t bother moving up up the factory hierarchy. No, he went and turned ding fixing into an artform.
Like all artists he works at his own pace. “Some of these boards have been here a few months,” says Levi, before continuing sheepishly. “And some have been here over a year.”
However, Levi’s unhurried pace isn’t a matter of apathy but inspiration. “Every resto requires a unique solution,” explains Levi. “So I think about the boards a lot. I’m always thinking about them, and then when the idea comes and I think I can pull it off then I get to work straight away.”
My favourite board of Levi’s involves a deceptively simple fix. It’s another Mitchell Rae design, though this one was shaped out of the Nirvana factory on the Central Coast. Levi found it on a garbage pile where it was heading to landfill. Fibreglass was hanging off it and the foam was dirt brown. The board was one great big ding.
Levi stripped the glass off and retained all Mitchell’s original contours including persian slipper nose and flex tail, then reglassed it with period decals. It’s fitting that Levi restored the board to a rich yellow lustre. Like an alchemist he took something wretched and worthless and turned it into gold.