Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Changing of the Tides

“I’ve never apprenticed. I’m one hundred percent self-taught. In those days there was no such thing as someone letting you come in to their shop and showing you what to do, or bringing in some hacked up blank that they’re going to glass for you and make it look nice. If you were going to do something you had to do it yourself.”

(Speaking with Surf Splendor podcast on how he learned to shaped)

Shaping and glassing surfboards are not simple skills to learn.

 The entire process is hands-on, highly labor intensive, and deeply dependent on one’s knowledge of an entire backlog of tricks and techniques. Often these tricks are less than intuitive at first. As a result, much of the industry has spent the better part of the last fifty years shrouded within  a steadfast veil of proprietary secrecy. People’s livelihoods depended on their ability to exclusively offer the greatest original designs after all.  If you wanted to learn you generally found a broken board in the trash, and sanded or planed it into something new in your garage.  If you wanted to play in the industry – you had better be prepared to set aside many hours worth of sweeping up someone’s shaping bay to earn the sparse nuggets of knowledge that were offered.  Thus, until recently, the boardbuilding industry was a sealed and self-contained establishment that opened itself up only to the determined and lucky few. Then came the Internet.

Admittedly, surfers were not the first to embrace this medium. It took a few years for the vision and innovation that technology would bring to catch up with the surfing world. Once it did however, the game would never be the same (think accurate and accessible long term surf forecasting, CAD shaping programs, higher quality board-building materials and testing, etc.). More specifically, it seems that the growth and presence of the Internet has spurred much greater interest in the building of surfboards in recent years by stripping back many of the barriers that previously existed. The mass dissemination of readily available information on all things surfboards meant that it is no longer merely a matter of whom you are lucky or diligent enough to know. It’s more rather about what exactly it is that you are looking to learn now. All of the answers are just a quick Google search away [insert sickening pun about ‘surfing’ the web here].

Slowly and steadily board-builders from around the world have developed a deep well of resources to refer to and share amongst each other. Resources that are perhaps for the first time ever available to anyone of any skill level.

 From websites and forums (i.e. Swaylocks), to YouTube channels and podcasts, and [of course] our own backlog of Foam E-Z curated resources (here and here for instance), anyone could pick up a rudimentary idea of what building a board involved if they were so inclined. 

This has been undoubtedly one of the preeminent causes for what I will glibly refer to here as the D.I.Y. Shaper Revolution that’s been running strong for the last fifteen or so years. But while this trend has gained popularity amongst the many folks who have taken it upon themselves get their own hands a little dusty, it is been met with its fair share of ire from some of the old guard of surf craftsmen.

I am referring to quite a broad range of builders spanning multiple generations who have dedicated their lives to building surfboards. These are the craftsmen and women who have spent many years paying their dues and making a name for themselves. The ones who have kept their tools honed and their craft sharp. These are the builders who have worked hard to continue to push the progress of surfboard design forward and defined how we think of what a surfboard is and can be. They have inspired an innumerable amount of curious surfers to roll up their sleeves and attempt to emulate some of their greatest designs. Conversely, they are also the ones who are at times the most critical of those looking to take up the planer and learn.

It is quite a brutal world out there for any shaper. Social media and surfboard building forums in particular make it quite easy to facelessly rip apart one another when we don’t agree with each other’s ideas or concepts. However, what you quickly learn is that in the eyes of the beleaguered veterans you aren’t a real shaper if you design your shapes on a computer, and if you like your boards a little funky and with two fins, you’re just a hipster kook. Mainly, there is an overarching theme that if you don’t know what you’re doing that it’s best to leave it all in the hands of the professionals who do. What is the source of this consternation?. Is it the fear of losing out on business from young up-and-comers?  Perhaps, but board building has never been particularly lucrative.  Is it the very real possibility that we may be becoming an industry oversaturated with ineffective designs that cannot be efficiently produced?  Or is it something more fundamental? 

While these are in fact legitimate concerns to consider, they seem to somewhat miss the mark. At the other end of the changes that the Inernet and social media have brought comes a lot of potential and opportunity.. The benefits of being able to easily share and be privy to new ideas from shapers from all backgrounds outweigh whatever negative may come with that. This is something we should fully embrace now because no matter what your skill level, this is the best way we can continue to grow and get better. Sharing in others’ ideas and experiences is what will continue to create better surfboards.

It’s true that not every idea you come across will be valid, and not all the opinions you read will be entirely sensible. It’s up to you to figure out what works when, and what doesn’t. It’s important to keep yourself educated, but even more important to always do so with an open mind. If I’ve learned anything from the patchwork quilt of a board building education I’ve received over the years from many different shapers, it’s that nobody does anything the exact same way. At times the methods are vastly different from one shaper to the next.  Yet somehow, no matter who’s doing it or how, they’re all still making the same things- quality surfboards. The takeaway? Well the most important is that there is no singular ‘right’ way to make a surfboard. Different isn’t necessarily worse.

The entire world of surfboards lies before you, past present, and future. So make an Instagram account and follow every shaper you come across. Read every single blog on surfboard design that you ever come across. Crack a science book and learn a little bit about hydrodynamics. Ride boards made by as many different shapers as you can and make your own as often as you can, and try to meet the person behind it. Respect what came before you, but feel free to entertain whatever wild ideas come to you. They won’t all be good, but the fun is in finding those answers. Just don’t limit yourself and grumble at the changing landscape of the board building world. The surfboard industry is open for the partaking and there’s a lot every single one of us has to learn still. Besides, if you ever begin to feel a little disheartened or stagnant, you could always just go it the old fashioned way and find a shop to sweep. 

- Joey Estrada & Joe Jeffery