Al Emery // Emery Surfboards
From hippy children during the Age of Aquarius, to mid-fielders on Bob Hawke's Surf Team, and onwards to Murfers and Hollywood A-listers, Byron Bay has been a stage to all manner of stereotypes.
Yet beneath the public face, Byron is a hardcore surf town, home to many great surfers and equally great shapers.
Increasingly, the black and white colourway of the Emery Surfboards logo has become a motif for high performance at the regions many points and beaches.
In the second instalment of his shaper series, Alex Mitcheson chats with Byron born shaper Al Emery.
Swellnet: When did you start surfing and how did you get into it?
Al Emery: I was born in Byron but early on we moved out to Lennox Head. I began mucking around with some mates when we were ten, mainly boogie boarding but within a year, by the age of eleven, we were all seriously into it. From there I went into Le-Ba Boardriders in those teenage years and got into some competitive stuff.
At the age of eighteen, my dad bought my brother and I blanks. We had all the necessary tools because he was a woodworker at the time and had a shed where we could get to work. It was a competition between my brother and myself to see whose board would come out better. For some reason, the resin on his board didn’t go off properly! In the space of a day, I’d shaped, glassed, and sanded mine, and was surfing it the following day. The passion started from there.
How did that first board go?
It was a beast, but it went alright. It was symmetrical — mostly. Think I’ve got a photo somewhere of me surfing it...
OK, word association time: What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say:
Shaping bay Bright lights
Airs Love them
Competitive surfing Rashies
Free surfing Slabs
80s outlines Flyers and swallow tails
Single fins Retro
Step up board Hawaii
Hypothetical: Somebody asks for a rub of wax in a car park, but never returns it, what do you do?
I’d just let it go — I’m pretty easy going and giving when it comes to stuff like that. Plus, I’d more than likely be too excited to get out for some waves to care.
Did you have an early shaping inspiration and do they still inspire you?
Back in those early days I was watching a lot of Taylor Steele-type movies and getting amped to go surfing off those. Because of this, I was looking and focusing a lot on those American designs, your Merricks etcetera. However, when my friends and I weren’t competing we’d have a lot of fun riding retro 80s-style twin fins. Take into account this was the 90s! We found a few Scott Dillon boards I remember.
These things were lying around and in people’s back sheds, so we’d copy their outlines and were a huge inspiration for me in the beginning. In my eyes, the thruster was a bit stale back then, so I’d have way more fun experimenting with these shorter twin fins: dropping their rails, adjusting the tail, and then go out and give them a go. Adrian York was a local guy who I looked up to and by a twist of fate, he now works for me. He does some amazing sanding.
How do you see the shaping industry changing as time goes on?
We’ve certainly started looking at different types of materials in the shaping industry in the last ten or so years. I’ve said it before: I think we’re quite stuck on the traditional PU, people’s mentality and the fact they have reasonable longevity keeps it this way. There is certainly some way to go with materials though and I look forward to seeing what eventuates.
Design-wise, I can’t see us moving too much anytime soon. We’ve seen that shorter wider movement, and then the resurgence of twin fins in the last couple of years as well.
Interestingly, customers have slowly opted to come back to Australian surfboard manufacturers with our current global situation, seeking good quality products, and it’s great to see this.
Does Byron Bay and the surrounding area influence your shaping? As in, do you think you’d approach the vocation of making surfboards the same way if you were based elsewhere?
Oh definitely! Byron Bay and Lennox Head are what I have tuned from the water into my surfboards for sure. We get some powerful waves here and everything I make is made to fit with those conditions — even the very curves of the waves. We have such a diverse portfolio of waves here and are so lucky because of it.
What’s your favourite break in the world and your preferred equipment to ride it?
I might be biased but I would have to say Lennox Point. When it’s on it's mesmerising. A close second would have to be Desert Point as I’ve had some incredible waves there also.
With a board...hmmm, I’d probably have to ride one of my Raven models. For a classic 5-6ft day at Lennox I’d opt to take a 6’1”. It has a slightly wider tail and big concaves and just holds in so well.
How important do you think a surfer/shaper relationship is, and do you think it has been lost over the years?
It is important, especially for me as a lot of my work is return customers. They want the same board again or perhaps tweaked slightly. I’ve always been keen to hear from people and chat but because I’m so busy these days I have a sophisticated online system where people can fill in exactly what they want. People can request a call back and I’ll make sure we are both on the same page.
I don’t think the relationship has been lost, it’s just changed slightly, and for the better in my eyes.
An aspect worth considering is those people who just walk into a surf shop and buy them straight off the rack without much thought. This is when the relationship suffers. Yet, saying that there is a wealth of information online about these boards, there are reviews etcetera. Nowadays, if you do your homework you can be really up on a board — without having to reach out to a shaper in the first case.
A custom board order is a whole different scenario though and it is paramount that a good line of communication exists between the customer and shaper. Especially when it’s a board that’s going to be shipped to another area and ridden in different waves to what we have in the Northern Rivers.
Does the perfect board exist? Is there a unicorn out there for every surfer?
Hard question (laughs). I’m still chasing my perfect board. I’ve always pictured a perfect board on how you want to surf and what you want to do. I’ve had some really good boards and then I’ve also made some boards which I looked at and thought they weren’t great but went amazing.
An example is I made a board some time back and left it in my garage and didn’t touch it for a few months. For some reason, I had this feeling I’d done something not quite right with it. I took it out one day and jumped up — it was one of the best boards I’ve ever surfed!
You can tweak and refine to your heart's content, but the only real measure is when you jump up to your feet and hit the right spots. You feel like you can do everything you want to. They are the boards where you stop and think, yep, this is sick!
// ALEX MITCHESON
Homepage photo Shannon Mackie