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A surfboard shaper is someone who builds and designs surfboards by hand. Originally made from wood, most modern surfboards are made from pre-formed polyurethane blanks or styrofoam and then fine shaped by the shaper using an array of tools ranging from surforms, rasps, sanding machines and power planers. When the form is sculpted in the foam core, the shaper may complete the build by layering fiberglass sheets over the deck and bottom and laminating these with a thermosetting resin such as polyester.
Most shapers today design surfboards using computer programs to generate data that can be supplied to a computer cutting facility which will mill the raw foam blank within 90% of the finished shape, leaving the shaper to fine-tune the blank to its final state before glassing. This method allows the shaper to have a very exacting and reproducible design which can be easily fine-tuned and adjusted. Wooden surfboards are making a comeback as an eco-friendly alternative, requiring ultra-light boatbuilding skills.
Many professional shapers outsource the highly specialized task of lamination to specialized "glassers", who laminate fiberglass to the foam core of the surfboard using thermosetting resins like polyester or epoxy. Fins and assorted plugs are usually installed after this process and the final product is fine sanded and often glossed with buffing compound and special glossing resin. When shaping, the shaper often takes into account the specifications of the client surfer, and molds his medium to best accommodate the user's personal surfing style and wave of choice.
Shapers play a design role in some companies that mass-produce surfboards.
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards
In modern-day surfing, we see tiny, lightweight, fiberglass boards that range from 6 to 7 feet, hardly taller than the surfers themselves. Considering that surfboards are relatively simple things, being made out of fiberglass and foam, it may be difficult to imagine just how far surfboard technology has come since the first recorded surfboards seen in Hawaii. In 1778, Captain James Cook of the HMS Discovery had just begun his third discovery voyage and came across the Sandwich Islands, now known as the Hawaiian Islands. It was there he saw the natives riding large pieces of wood on the faces of waves. In the early days of Hawaiian surfing, surfing was a highly religious and spiritual affair for the natives. The art of surfing itself, praying for good surf, and the process of making a surfboard were all much more than recreation for the early Hawaiians. Surfboards were valued so highly that the type of surfboard someone rode was an indication of their social standing. The chiefs and noblemen would be seen riding boards called “Olo”, while the commoners would ride boards known as “Alii”. The main distinction between the two boards was the length. “Olo” would range from about 14–25 feet, while the “Alii” paled in comparison measuring only about 10–12 feet. The boards were constructed of either the Wili Wili, the Ula or the Koa tree and weighed anywhere from 140 to over 200 pounds depending on the size.
The Hollow Board
The largest technological change to date came in 1926 when Tom Blake, one of the pioneers of surfboard innovation decided to drill hundreds of small holes in the board and sandwich it in between two very thin pieces of wood in the pursuit of weight savings. The first hollow board was 15 feet long, 19” wide, and 4” thick and weighed roughly 100 pounds. This was a huge step for surfboard innovation as it decreased the weight of most surfboards by 50 to 100 pounds. The boards design was originally ridiculed by surfers, but when they saw how much faster the board traveled through the water. In 1930, the hollow board became the first mass-produced surfboard the world had ever seen and were hugely successful. In 1936 the board saw the addition of the fixed fin. This gave surfers increased stability, speed, and maneuverability in the water and opened the doors to coming innovation.
The Hot Curl Board
As surfers began realizing the potential for maneuverability with the addition of the new lightweight construction and the fin, they realized that shaping the tail of the surfboard allowed for even more agility. By shaving off parts of the tail and shaping the rails of the board, it allowed surfers to not only pull more extreme maneuvers but also pull into the “curl”, or the most powerful section of the wave that just begins to curl over the face, and ride inside the barrel.
Seeing as weight savings led to increased agility, speed, and overall ease of use, people began building their surfboards out of balsa wood as opposed to the original redwood. The trend began in South America in the 1930s when surfers began making boards of balsa and saw significant weight savings of up to 50% dropping the boards to roughly 40 pounds. However, at that time it was difficult to acquire large amounts of balsa. So they began using balsa and redwood to form boards. Balsa was lightweight but redwood was much stronger and more durable, so they used balsa to make the center of the board and formed the rails of the board out of redwood to increase rigidity.
Taking it another step further, Pete Peterson decided to utilize fibreglass in the construction of surfboards. The second World War prompted this decision as materials such as plastics, styrofoams, and most notably fibreglass. The addition of these new materials led to boards being smaller, lighter, and gave manufacturers the ability to shape the boards. Once surfboards began being shaped from foam and fibreglass, the public saw the direction of rocker, new fin orientation, and leashes.
The addition of rocker has been among the most innovative designs added to the surfboard and has forever changed how surfers could maneuver through the water. Rocker is the bend in the board from the nose to the tail; it creates a slight bend which allows for much better water flow under the board and ultimately lets surfers move faster and with more agility.
As board became easier to build and shape, fins also became much easier to implement. Adding more fins and being able to attach and remove fins has allowed surfers to customize their boards and greatly decreased the cost of repairs. Boards can now be seen with up to 4 fins. The addition of more fins on short boards allows for more stability when making sharp carves on the face of waves. The 3 and 4 fin set-up seem to be the most popular on short boards as it offers unparalleled speed and maneuverability, while beginner boards tend to have a single fin set up as it’s very stable and there is no need for the added fins.
The addition of leashes came along in 1971. Designed by Pat O’Neil, leashes had a much more significant impact on surfing than many would assume. Initially, leashes were created in order for surfers to keep track of their boards after falling. Lost boards were also a large danger to other surfers. Many surfers were frustrated by having to swim after their boards after being knocked off and the implementation of the leash easily remedied their frustration. However, big wave surfers soon realized that the leash can act as a life preserver. Being caught in big surf is very dangerous for even very good swimmers, as large waves have been known to hold people underwater for up to several minutes. However, the leash acts as a floatation device and keeps the surfers aware of the direction of the surface when being tossed around by the current.
How Surfboards Are Shaped
Surfboard shaping is not done so easily; it takes patience and determination to properly craft a surfboard. Starting from the room where it’s crafted and finishing with its glassing process. Surfboard shapers use a shaping room to begin their craft. Usually the rooms are 16’x8’ and consist of fluorescent lights. The standings where the blanks are shaped are nailed to the floor with lighting aligned near them. Lighting is a crucial part of the crafting process to make sure the board is perfectly constructed with the right dimensions. There are four key steps in building and shaping a surfboard: Shaping the template, preparing the fin setup and rails, rounding rails, and smoothing the outline.
Shaping the Template
Start by adjusting the template paper over the blank, then cut the blank with a handsaw on both sides. Sand the rails until the edges are square. Then measure the size and thickness of the blank this will give you the measurements of foam needed. Remove the extra foam by passing it perpendicular to the stringer from tail to nose. Then repeat the process on the opposite side. Shape the tail and rocker by passing the planer over the areas.
Preparing the Fin Setup and Rails
Mark the front fins positions on both sides then mark the back fins. Carefully remove all mistakes on the blank with sandpaper. Finally, cut the rail bevel from nose to fins to give a rounded-edge shape to the board.
Start by turning the rails with the planer (nose to tail), then create a 45-degree angle from turning point on the deck to the top. Make sure the symmetry is correct on the other rail. Then with a sanding block round the rails to reduce sharp edges.
Smoothing the Outline
Sand the deck until it blends with the rails. Then round and smooth the rails on both side. Then confirm the overall symmetry of the board. Measure and take note of the dimensions of the board. Finally, sign the surfboard and send it off to glassing.
- Hobie Alter Also known by his nickname “Hobie” who lived his life between the years of (October 31, 1933- March 29, 2014) is well known for his part in the surfboard shaping process with the foam and fiberglass surfboards. As well as the company in which he started “Hobie” is one of the most well selling surfboard brands to date. Hobbie was a surfer in his younger days and won many different contests. In the works of starting his idea with his brand he soon opened up his own shop in Dana Point, California. It was important to him to take part in giving people something they could enjoy and have fun with generated around the area in which he lived in and his love for water sports, thus building a business behind creating the perfect surfboards. This whole idea began in 1950, when he had converted his Laguna Beach family garage into a wood shop to build surfboards. Well into his years of creating surfboards for his friends in his summer home garage it began to become to cluttered. His family had invested time and money into Hobbie and bought him a shop in which he could have more room for his production. In 1954, his shop was pretty much in the works of being up and running for business and orders to come in. Hobbie talked a lot of about the fact that there were very few that believed his business would ever prosper and that it was frankly silly to be opening a surf shop for the type of thing he was doing. But, despite the ridicule he had constant orders coming through and was continuously busy with the work he was creating. After working with creating foam boards for so long he later changed his ways and figured out a new way of improving these conditions for achieving shape ability and strength which ultimately changed the game for his work. The newer foam boards were in the works and he was creating about 250 to 300 boards a week. This became a prospering business and he is forever remembered for his legacy on the surfboard community.
- Skip Engblom Born on (January 4, 1948) had a huge impact on the surfboard shaping business. Currently owns a surf shop in the Santa Monica, California area. He grew up in Venice, California and when he was a young teenager bought his first surfboard. He got his motivation from surfing at a young boy while watching someone surf a wave of the Pacific Coast Highway and knew instantly that surfing was what he wanted to do with his future. Skip was a frequent surfer and participated in many surfing activities in the Ocean Park and Santa Monica beaches.Around 1972, he cofounded the Zephyr surfboard productions still at a very young age when this began. Skip was a proud sponsor of the “Z-boys” who were a skateboarding and surfing group and created the Zephyr Boys team. This inspired the movie “Lords of Dogtown” which was a huge movie that explained a lot about the surfing and skating culture and generation at this time. The movie was important to this generation at the time because a lot of people didn’t understand the style behind those who were involved with this kind of sport. Skip also played a small role in this movies production. He was a surf and skate legend and entrepreneur. He created a movement within the surfing revolution with his board shaping knowledge.
- Donald Takayama Born in (November 16, 1943- and died October 22, 2012) and was known as a professional surfer and surfboard shaper. Living in Hawaii for most of his life and moving to California in his later years dated around the 1950s. He started surfing as a young 5 year old in grade school. He grew a passion for surfing even at this young age. He won many contests and competitions for his surfing expertise most of which took place in Hawaii. He actually is considered one of the world’s first professional surfers. He had a passion to start creating his own surfboards in his own way so he started shaping his own surfboards at the age of 9 and became part of the business when he started partnering up with “Jacobs Surfboards” who at this point in time was one of the most well developed and popular surfboard brands. There grew some complications with Donalds business, he was charged with cocaine possession which put him in federal prison for about a year. But, as soon as he served his time, he began right back up with his production of shaping and producing surfboards. His main focus when producing the perfect surfboard was creating long boards. This was what he did most of his surfing on and considered to be an expert with this type of surfing platform. When the 1990s rolled around his long boards created a huge hit in the surfing community. Working for his “Hawaiian Pro Designs Label” that was based in San Diego, California created the most reliable and unique surfboards that people would want to collect and keep for years to come. These surfboards that his has created with his label are still some of the most collectable surfboards that buyers are willing to pay big bucks for even today and has brought a lot of competition to the surfboard shaper business.
- Simon Anderson Born July 7, 1954 in the area of Sydney, Australia. Anderson is a competitive surfer, surfboard shaper, and writer. In 1980 he was awarded for the invention of a three-fin surfboard design named the “thruster”. October 1980 Anderson created a prototype for the design, the idea stemmed seeing a twin fin surfboard with a “trigger point’ fin. Once the “thruster” prototype came to life Anderson took it on tour with him to Hawaii and California. Returning to his shop in Sydney, Energy Surfboards, he created two additional surfboards with the same design. Anderson won the Bells Beach Classic’s competition in 9181 using his created surfboard and since then the “thruster” design became one of the most popular fin design for surfboards for 30 years. In the midst of the 80’s he decided to retire from professional surfboarding and never patent his invention because he assumed a lot of people at the time were working towards the same achievement, he was just “fortunate and happy to contribute”. Later in the years Anderson published an autobiography called Thrust: The Simon Anderson Story which was placed into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
- Robert August Born in 1945 in Hermosa Beach. August gained the interest of surfing at the age of six on the coast in Seal Beach. At a young age August became successful at contest surfing which gave him the recognition to appear in the movie The Endless Summer. Filmmaker Bruce Brown chose August because he “represented surfing in the positive way he perceived the sport”. Along with being casted in Endless Summer August also starred in Brown’s movies, Slippery When Wet (1957), Barefoot Adventure (1960) and Surfing Hollow Days (1961). Endless Summer was named one of the 10 best movies of the year in 1966. In 1965 August worked for Jacobs Surfboards in Hermosa Beach as a salesman then a shaper before becoming a freelance shaper in 1966. He shaped for multiple companies throughout the 60’s and 70’s. In 1974 August opened the first Robert August Surf Shop in Fullerton, California and then relocated it to Main Street Huntington Beach a few years later.
- Richard (Dick) Brewer
- Mike Diffenderfer
- Gerry Lopez
- Mickey Munoz
- Dale Velzy
- John Whitmore
- Jimmy Lewis
- Johnny Rice
- History of the Surfboard
- Evolution of the Surfboard
- How to Shape a Surfboard
- Brief History of the Surfboard
- Visuals on How to Shape a Surfboard
- Hobie surfboard and sailboat innovator
- Skip Engblom surf and skate legend
- Donald Takayama
- Simon Anderson
- Robert August