What do you look for when choosing a new sled? Dimensions play an important part, of course, as does rocker, concave, the waves you want to surf – it all factors in. But do you ever spare a thought about the material from which your brand new pride and joy is created?
The idea of buying a wooden board over a standard foam shred stick sounds like an idea which disappeared in the 1960s. But, increasingly, surfers are choosing a durable wooden buy-one-and-it-hopefully-lasts-a-lifetime model over a cheaper foam wrapped in fibreglass equivalent – with its large large environmental footprint.
Should we be considering the environment when purchasing new boards? As part of our Makers & Shakers series, we talk to James Otter, owner of Otter Surfboards and creator of bespoke wooden crafts, about sustainable surfboards, some of the criticisms and benefits of using wooden boards and the similarities and differences of the under-the-foot feel between foam and wood.
So first up, how did the business start?
JO: I began making the surfboards whilst studying a degree in 'Designing and Making'. I enjoyed making them so much that I simply had to keep it up when I finished at University, so spent the next couple of years making them for myself and friends in a barn on a friend’s farm. When interest in the surfboards and the process of making them began to grow, I formed the business.
How long has the business been going?
The business officially began in 2010, but I was making the boards for a couple of years before that.
In a market dominated by foam, why start a business shaping wooden boards?
From studying and work placements, I was heading into a career in timber framing and furniture making, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was working with wood and in great teams of people, but when I made my first surfboard the enjoyment and excitement that I felt was like nothing else - I knew I had to keep it in my life.
My dad has always said to me 'stick to what you enjoy and you'll end up doing something that you love', so from a very young age I have followed my heart and my passions, leading me to where I am today.
When starting the business - was sustainability at the top of your list or more seeking a niche market?
When starting out, for me, it was all about the sustainability. I was fed up with how my foam boards were clearly not made to last and after a couple of years of surfing it was perfectly acceptable to simply buy yourself a new surfboard.
The sustainability of what we do is still of paramount importance to me on a personal level.As a maker I felt I could do something better and as a woodworker the obvious material choice was timber, as time has passed and the business has developed, we have now been taking people through the process of making their own surfboards for nearly five years, so the driving force has shifted, but the sustainability of what we do is still of paramount importance to me on a personal level.
What benefits are there surfing a wooden board?
Performance-wise, they tend to be a little heavier than a traditional surfboard (30-40per cent), so carry momentum and glide much more and also deal with surface chop much better. This also means that they suit smoother surfing styles and more 'traditional' shapes - your longboards, midlengths and smaller twin-fins. So it comes down to personal preference really.
I think that a long forgotten, or overlooked, characteristic of a surfboard is its longevity. Our surfboards are made to last a lifetime, and by doing so, they have a deeper connection to their owner. Not only do you have more waves and memories with them, but this allows you to learn exactly how to surf that surfboard to the best of its (and your) ability, and the more memories you have the deeper that connection becomes, increasing the care you take with it, again helping it last longer.
Anyone (or thing) you draw inspiration from?
People I have worked with before, with their constant pursuit of perfection within their craft are an inspiration. To always be looking to improve is something I believe to be an important part of everything in life.
The natural world around us is such a gift and it's important to never lose sight of how lucky we are to find ourselves here. It's a huge part of why I love living where we do, where stunning beauty surrounds us.
Wooden boards vs foam - what's the real differences in terms of performance vs footprint on the environment? A criticism of wooden boards is they're heavier and under-perform?
Yep, they are heavier, that doesn't mean that they under-perform, it just means that they ride in a different way. They have their own momentum and glide, which is something you learn to work with to get the best out of the board, the wave and yourself and it ultimately smooths out your surfing - or at least that is what I have found and it's what I see of friend's when out surfing with them.
Re, footprint on the environment, the core of our surfboards is all wood. A plywood framework grown and produced sustainably in Spain, surrounded by timber that is grown and harvested in sustainably managed woodlands from the south west of the UK, nothing further than about 200-miles from the workshop doors.
The strength of the wood means we use about half of the glass fibre to finish the boards compared to a typical foam board and we use this in conjunction with a bio-epoxy resin widely recognised as the resin on the market with the least environmental impact.
Make it to last a lifetime and make fewer of them. The ultimate impact on the environment of anything you make is still its longevity, it is impossible, or extremely difficult at least, to make a surfboard that is truly Earth friendly and even then, the lifetime of the board will come into question. Make it to last a lifetime and make fewer of them.
And how does it feel bottom turning?
With the momentum that you get from a wooden board, they feel very purposeful when you're surfing them. There is not much room for quick, short adjustments to your line, so you end up being very smooth, much less bum wiggling [laughs]. As a result of this, the bottom turn is oh-so enjoyable because you pick your line and your trajectory and just feel the speed increase so much as you work with the board through it.
Who has tested them and what kind of waves suits the boards best?
We make various different shapes that suit all kinds of waves, small waves, I'd go for a longboard or single fin mid length, then as the waves creep up, I'd use a smaller twin fin, or maybe pop another couple of fins into my midlength and then as the waves increase more.
I have a trusty 7'2 that I love to use when it's pumping. As it gets bigger still, we have a 7'9 singlefin, which is a pretty serious surfboard and the biggest waves we've tested them in (so far) were about 10-12ft with Ben Skinner riding a gun at the Cribbar. Having said that though, we've also had Matt Smith getting decent barrels in the Maldives on one of our small twin fins, so each to their own really. I do think they excel in UK waves though, as often we'll be fighting a little bit of wind or lumpy and bumpy waves and that glide that the wooden boards has, really helps smooth that all out and allows you to flow through flat sections.
How about repairs - have you had a board snap/dings and how do you repair that?
No snapped boards (yet), but dings have happened. If its just the glass that gets damaged, any ding repair guy can fix them, but if the wood gets damaged, often it's best if we take a look at it, possibly dry it out and then patch it back up.
How many boards do you produce a year?
We produce about 30 boards a year
Tell us a bit about the shaping process, similar to foam?
Very similar to foam, although the majority of the shape is already determined by the framework inside the board, so the part that we focus on is the templating and the rail shaping.
The tools are a little different too; we mostly use planes, then work down to a rasp and then finally a succession of sanding blocks. Working with wood makes for a nicer working environment too, think fragrant wood shavings as opposed to foam dust.
Can you walk us a bit of a virtual tour through the workshop and describe a typical day-in-the-life-of?
As you enter the workshop, you'll be greeted by the sweet smell of cedar and the sound of my excited labrador as he comes to the door to meet you.
To the left of you, there are three work stations, a rack of surfboards at various stages of completion and a couple of large tool walls. To the right of you is all of the bigger woodworking machinery that we use to process the timber from planks down to the components that make up our wooden surfboards.
A day in the life, with our workshop courses, we find that we have a rythm to the workshop as opposed to a daily routine. Every 5-6 weeks, we hold a 5 day surfboard making course and before this we will be preparing the materials for our customers (about three days prep per board). We limit the courses to three people to ensure that everyone has the necessary amount of tuition and guidance and this makes for quite special weeks for all of us involved - I love them.
Outside of this, we do our best to enjoy the sea as much as we can and also run one day courses for people to join us to make bellyboards and handplanes - any excuse to get in amongst the waves! The 'down time' is also a chance for me to get back on top of custom orders and all the other aspects that come along with running your own business.
Most people, I think, really want to better understand how exactly their boards are made - and you offer a shaping experience right? How popular have they been and what sort of feedback are you getting?
The workshop courses are massively popular. I think about 9 out of 10 of our boards are now made through them. Virtually everyone we speak to about what we do would love to come and join us for a week to make their own board, I think it's something that will certainly change your surfing life, but with the confidence, excitement and energy that the experience can give you, it has changed even more in some of our customers.
What sets Otter apart from other wooden board manufacturers?
The care and attention for what we do. When we first started, there were two things that I promised to always aim for. To be authentic and to be the best, and this is - and will always be - what we actively pursue in everything we do.
And finally, some quick fire qs:
Favourite Otter board made?
Quad, thruster or twin?
[laughs] Single most of the time, but then quad for the bigger days.
Touche! Leash or no leash?
Busy line-ups and rocky cliffs - leash
Wax or grip-pads?
That's great, thanks for the insight James, always interesting to hear about construction methods and sustainability. For more information about Otter click here