Throughout the course of surfing history certain surfers have become synonymous with certain aspects of the sport, be it with a certain kind of board, a style of surfing, or in the case of Gerry Lopez, a location. Lopez rose to international notoriety in the seventies for his cool and elegant surfing in waves of serious consequence, most notably at the reefs of Hawaii’s famed Pipeline. The calm focus that Lopez was able to achieve in situations that would keep many surfers on the beach was due in part to the confidence that comes from knowing you’re riding the right equipment for the waves at hand, in this case, equipment that he himself had helped design. Gerry and his iconic Lightning Bolt Surfboards played a huge role in the shortboard revolution that was happening in that era and helped to establish a radical new style of surfing and its accompanying aesthetic. Over the next few decades he helped lay the groundwork for what we consider modern high performance surfing while influencing several generations of surfers and shapers. It comes as no surprise that Lopez will be joining the ranks of such influential shapers as Rusty Preisendorfer, Dick Brewer, and Ben Aipa among others to be honored in this years Icons of Foam shape-off for his contributions to the surfing world. Six shapers (Ryan Burch, Ryan Lovelace, Roger Hinds, Pat Rawson, Ron House, and Ward Coffey) have been chosen by Lopez himself to attempt to recreate one of his classic Lightning Bolt boards, so we sat down to talk with the Mr. Pipeline himself about The Boardroom show, surfboard design, and his insights on the past, present, and future of surfing that could only come from a lifetime spent in the water and in the shaping room.
- Joey Estrada
FOAM E-Z: When did you
first find out you were going to be honored for this years Boardroom Show, what
was your reaction to that?
Gerry Lopez: I was down here in January working with Robby Naish at the HanoHano Race, the first event of the stand-up paddleboard season. Rob Machado and I were surfing in front of his house at Cardiff Reef and ran into Scott [Bass, creator of the Boardroom Show] in the parking lot, and he asked me if I could come to the show this year. I came one year when he had it up in Ventura and I came I think the year before that when they had it in Del Mar, just briefly, and so I said ‘well I don’t know…’ And he said he wanted to do the Icons of Foam thing, and I said ‘I don’t know, I don’t know…’ And he just kept pressing me, so it was kind of hard to say no to him so finally I said o.k. [laughs].
FOAM E-Z: Sounds pretty informal.
Gerry Lopez: Yeah kinda like most surfer things, so… here we are [laughs].
FOAM E-Z: How did you go about choosing the six shapers for the
shape off to replicate one of your classic boards?
Gerry Lopez: Well that was really easy, I just thought about all these guys that I’ve shaped with and some of the young guys I’ve seen and when he [Scott Bass] said ‘Who do you want?,’ I just reeled the names off. The only guy who we couldn’t get a hold of was Tom Eberly so I said ‘Well what about Rawson? See if he wants to do it.’ And Pat said he would.
F-EZ: No doubt they all jumped on the opportunity. It seems like your choices cover several
generations of shapers, was this the intent?
Gerry Lopez: Yeah I feel like we’ve really covered a lot of ground here. Ron House and I used to build boards together, you know back in the late sixties and all through the seventies. And Ward, he was younger, but he was always that shaper who I really admired his work and his surfing. And Roger, I’ve known him forever, and he was the returning winner*. With the Two Ryan’s I’ve always really liked the work they do and the stuff that happens on those boards that they make. So that’s what I suggested to Scott and he said that sounded good to him so I said ‘Okay then.’
F-EZ: How often do you find yourself shaping boards these days?
Gerry Lopez: Oh, well I mean as much as possible. You know, the shop is about ten minutes from my house, and my son is very interested in shaping so, yeah I spend a lot of time down there. I don’t produce a great deal, but I’m in there a lot.
F-EZ: You spend a majority of your time living in Oregon now, what is your shaping set up like there? Is it pretty similar to what you would have somewhere else, say in Hawaii or California for instance, or is it something much different?
Gerry Lopez: No, I mean yeah my shop's in Bend, but you know, I’ve set up a lot of surfboard factories in my time and they’re pretty easy to do so it's pretty much like all the rest.
F-EZ: You’ve got it down to a science now eh?
Gerry Lopez: [Laughs] Yeah I guess... it’s a nice little set-up though.
F-EZ: Has the change of climate affected your processes much?
Gerry Lopez: The resin actually works really good up there, the air’s really dry. I mean it’s cold so you have to heat it, but in some ways it’s easier to work with the resin and the foam there than it was in Hawaii.
F-EZ: Has your knowledge from shaping surfboards affected how you approach shaping stand-up paddle boards, or has what you’ve learned from shaping SUP’s affected the way you approach shaping surfboards at all?
Gerry Lopez: No, I mean the stand-up boards are just big surfboards. That’s all a standup board is.
F-EZ: It seems like the level of interest in events like The Boardroom show and surfboard shaping /design in general continues to grow every year. Would you say that the shaping community is more open and willing to share some of it’s secrets and processes to the average surfer who is just curious or looking to learn shape their own boards now than was in previous decades?
Gerry Lopez: Well in a nutshell, first of all there aren’t any secrets [laughs]. Everything that’s being done now had been done before. Definitely Bob Simmons has done most of it before anyone, shape and construction-wise. Secondly it's really not that hard to build a surfboard. If I can do it anyone can do it, and you know once someone does build their own board, whether they just shape a board or go through the whole process and glass it as well, they figure that out in a hurry. Then they also experience the satisfaction and everything else that comes with taking that board that they made out in the water and riding it and seeing that it actually surfs pretty damn good. From that point forward it’s just they want to do it again and do it better. And I don’t think that that’s changed, going back to the ancient Hawaiians, even though maybe it was a little more...eh, it wasn’t as easy to do back then.
But I think the steps are the same, as far as going surfing, liking it, wanting to get better at it, and getting to a level where you’re pretty good at it, but not being able to go beyond a level that the shape of your surfboard kept you at. So you either get a better board or build yourself a better board and in that way you advance your surfing skills. And so if you build a board yourself at least you’re understanding the design of the board. Like I said, I don’t think that has changed since the very beginning of surfing.
F-EZ: Would you say that having knowledge of surfboard design and the shaping/glassing process has the ability to improve a person’s actual surfing ability? If so, in what ways?
Gerry Lopez: I think so. I think when you understand things better you get a clearer picture of how it’s supposed to work.
F-EZ: Briefly, what do you think are the some of the most progressive as well as most detrimental trends in surfboard design happening right now?
Gerry Lopez: Well I think it all helps in one way or another, just that some things help more than others. I think that there is really a lot of people interested in what was done in the past more now than ever before. At one point everybody was looking ahead and didn’t maybe grasp the concept that it’s all been done before, but maybe in the wrong combination of design features and factors. So putting them together in a different way might have a different outcome, and you really see almost as much experimentation in shape now as you saw when the boards first went short in the late sixties. The understanding that comes by seeing guys like Ryan Burch or Craig Anderson, or these guys that are riding these boards that are really not considered mainstream-type designs and are riding the hell out of them in like heavy-duty kinds of waves, or any kinds of waves, really making them work like you wish you could surf. Like Rob [Machado], he’s been riding boards here that are way off the grid for a long time and really riding them well. And you look at the board and you go ‘wow, I didn’t think you could do that on that board.’ I think that and I’ve been surfing boards for, shit, almost sixty years. And I thought I knew some stuff about it, and the more time goes on I realize more and more that I hardly know anything.
F-EZ: Especially now with the internet as a factor, it’s not even
just about what you’ve personally experimented with, there’s also everything
you can see or read about that other people all over the world are
experimenting with, which you can take and apply to your own shapes and
Gerry Lopez: And that’s being done especially now because there’re way more surfers, on a greater scale than it was when the first short-boards started coming out and no one knew what they were supposed to look like, but everyone knew what they were supposed to work like. They were just supposed to work better than the boards we had before [laughs].
F-EZ: You’ve said that one should not try to ride the smallest board they possibly can ride, rather they should aim to ride the biggest board they can that will allow them to do what they want to do, why is this an important rule to keep in mind?
Gerry Lopez: Well I saw a trend back in the eighties, where everybody was trying to ride a board like Kelly was riding, and I tried it too. Potato chip boards are really narrow with a lot of rocker, and I couldn’t catch any waves on it. And I realized right then that I was kidding myself- that I wasn’t as quick or lively, or as good as Kelly or Rob were. I needed more surfboard and I think that I’m more of what most surfers are like, I'm an average surfer, and someone like Rob or Kelly or any of the top guys are the cream floating on the top. Generally speaking, what they ride is probably way more advanced than what most people could ever figure out how to ride. So I think it’s better for the mainstream to pull back a little and just catch the wave before you figure out how you’re going to ride it because you can’t ride it until you catch it. A bigger surfboard is going to allow that to happen way easier than one that’s way too small.
And you see that, I mean surfing is a sport of tremendous and continual frustrations, I think even for the really top guys, in lesser degrees of course. But if that’s all it ends up being for guys of medium ability then how long is it gonna be before they just go ‘screw-it, I’m not having any success, I’m gonna just go play tennis or baseball or something.’? So yeah, with a little bit more foam you can catch more waves and maybe learn a little bit more about riding because then instead of missing all the waves, you’re actually getting some.
F-EZ: It seems like you and Grubby Clark are pretty close, did you ever help him design/test any of the blanks back in the Clark Foam days?
Gerry Lopez: Oh yeah I'm pretty sure I used, at one time or another, all of them.
F-EZ: Were there any that you had a particular attachment to, maybe that you put more time, effort, or attention into refining?
Gerry Lopez: Well I had a blank in 1980 that was one of the biggest selling blanks that Clark Foam had just because that particular blank was a size (I think it was 6’9, I can’t quite remember anymore) that was the size board that everybody used. I mean you could get a lot of different sized boards out of that blank. So it wasn’t really super specialized, but it was close enough to shape and you could build a pretty strong surfboard out of it. When I built it for Clark I just made a blank that they didn't have, and one that I could use to shape the majority of the boards that I was riding at that time.
But all the way through Clark Foam Grubby and I were very close, we experimented with a lot of different stuff, you know. The tow-in high density blanks are another thing that comes to mind. I told him we needed to make the boards heavier and stronger, and trying to do it with stringers or fiberglass wasn’t the way to do it because the weight distribution kinda went askew. So I asked him, can you do it with the foam, so he made up some tow-in foam that he said were just about solid resin. But the foam was capable, it was actually really easy to shape, like all Clark Foam Blanks were, and it was really hard too. But still managed to have enough flex to have that factor into the design as well.
F-EZ: Where did you turn to for blanks after Clark Foam closed its
doors in 2005? What sort of blanks and materials do you like to work with now?
Gerry Lopez: Well U.S. Blanks, ‘cus that’s where everyone from Clark went [laughs]. Yeah I still use P.U. [polyurethane] foam and polyester resin. We do epoxy just because the paddle boards, SUP or prone, with polyurethane foam would just be too heavy, so pretty much you have to do them with polystyrene [EPS foam]. But yeah, I have a close relationship with U.S. Blanks, I think their service has just carried on what Clark Foam had become at the end, and maybe even better now. You can pretty much order what you want and get it pretty quick, the service at US Blanks is really outstanding.
F-EZ: Do you work with a CNC machine and shape design programs ever or do you stick strictly to hand shaping?
Gerry Lopez: Eh a little bit but not very much. Most of my shaping is from scratch. You know, I’m old school. I can probably, if you include the indexing of the blank, beat any shaping machine around with my planer [laughs]. And for me that’s the best part of the shaping, the planer work.
F-EZ: What sort of direction would you like to see surfing and surfboard design head next?
Gerry Lopez: Well what I want doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going to happen. I just enjoy watching what is happening, because like I said, I think right now more is happening at the present than has almost ever happened in any other time in my short history of surfing. You can build a surfboard for any kind of wave and any level of surfer and make it so they can have fun on it. I think that now more than ever guys that are building surfboards understand that more clearly. That’s why you see such a wide variety of boards, and also so many surfers.
F-EZ: Will shaping always be in the picture for you or do you intend to retire from it at some point?
Gerry Lopez: Well why would I do that? [Laughs] I mean as long as I continue to surf I’m always going to want to make my surfboards and all the boards for all my friends and everyone else.
*Roger Hinds won the 2015 Icons of Foam shape-off honoring the work of Rusty Preisendorfer.