Independent shapers across the UK have seen a dramatic uptick in surfboard sales over the past few months – likely due to the world reopening after COVID and the relaxing of the Orwellian nightmare we've all grown accustomed to.
Isolation sure can make you reflect. Is that 6'1” x 18.75” x 2.25” ancient toothpick really the board you need for Fistral mush? For the majority of surfers, no, it's not. Never has been.
And while some sat on their hands waiting for lockdown to ease up, many turned their attention to their next board – many wondering how their surfing would be impacted by weeks of inactivity. Quelle surprise it's taken a nose dive.
Anyway, as orders start to mount up, we decided to check in with the movers and shakers of the UK scene; Nigel Semmens (Ocean Magic, Cornwall), Charlie Catling (Skindog Surfboards, Newquay), Jason Brunett (Jay Surfboards, Edinburgh) Luke Hart (Fourth/Toy Factory, Newquay) and Simon Day (Fitzroy Surfboards, North East) all chip in here. Good news is, business is booming. And if you're looking for your next board, here's some handy things to think about.
How was business during lockdown?
Nigel Semmens: "We closed for nearly a month, but since we reopened business has exceeded expectations. We’re not even at full production but we expect to finish the year on par with last year. Wholesale trade is still strong and we have a lot of custom orders."
Charlie Caitling: "Absolutely mental, we were closed for a month but we continued receiving orders for when we reopened. Our order books are very good.’’
Jason Burnett: "I was fine, as I ordered up enough blanks to keep me going. I managed to nail some custom orders beforehand as I could tell would be told to stay at home. It was inevitable. The first two weeks I stayed at home as I was unsure what I should and shouldn’t be doing regarding work."
Luke Hart: "Lockdown gave us the opportunity to rebuild the factory, which we had already planned to do so it kinda came at the right time. We didn’t know what to expect after lockdown, but as soon as we finished the building, the orders came flooding in and we haven’t stopped! We’ve noticed a massive increase in custom orders. Literally. Huge."
Si Day: "Crazy! There has been such a demand for boards we have had blank and resin shortages in the country. Its amazing to see the sport growing from the back of such a traumatic event for the world. It can only be healthy for people to be enjoying themselves in the water."
Ok, that's great to hear a unanimous boost for everyone. But why do you think there’s been such a sudden boom?
Nigel Semmens: "People were furloughed or had government grants, as well as refunds for cancelled holidays."
Charlie Caitling: "A lot of people are spending money on hobbies because they’ve realised what’s actually important to them. They also have a bit more time on their hands."
Jason Burnett: "People definitely have more money to burn as they haven’t had a chance to spend it."
Luke Hart: "There wasn’t as many options to buy from a shop and that was the start. Ordering customs sometimes starts a chain of orders. When someone has a good experience with a shaper you often see their mates start ordering based off of the other guys feedback, it catches on and we’ve ended up with loads. They also didn’t have much else to spend their money on! I’ve heard people say they’re now a ‘pro surfer’ because they’re furloughed and getting paid to surf."
Si Day: "People have been restricted in travel and been guided to exercise outdoors so they have been investing in outdoor activities. I notice families wearing head to toe outdoor clothing now and being creative with bikes adapting them to carry children to get around its fantastic. Surfing is mentally and physically so good for people. An activity that all ages can enjoy and with the beaches staying open it has been a positive form of exercise for many people."
Are more people inquisitive about design, or do they know what they want?
Charlie Caitling: "They know what they want and it’s pretty much all the Skindog models already in the range. But they’re customising the dims, the artworks, resin tints..."
Jason Burnett: "I’m known for asymmetrical boards and that hasn’t changed."
Luke Hart: "People are being a little more inquisitive because they had more time to think about surfing and they weren’t able to just ‘buy off the rack’, so by talking to the shapers they could be swayed in another direction based on what is or isn’t the right board for them, based on what they tell us. I love talking to everyone I make boards for."
Si Day: "Massively! They have the time to learn more about the board or their style of surfing and therefore have been able to enjoy the craft process more. We have also noticed colours are back. We really enjoy working with people to create their perfect board so this new influx in interest has made the process even more fun and creative."
Any noticeable changes to what people are ordering?
Nigel Semmens: "We’re seeing a lot more ‘added extras’ like artwork, tints and S-glass upgrades. The demographic has changed slightly, there seems to be more city surfers buying boards as well as the reliable core surfers."
Jason Burnett: "I’d say more mid-lengths. But is that just the trend coming through? I’ve had less repairs than usual."
Charlie Caitling: "A lot of requests for mid-lengths and we continue to fly on longboards and SkinPup grom boards. We’re working double time and orders are about 30 per cent up."
Si Day: "Fun boards, fun boards, fun boards. Performance has always been the leader as surfers want to rip like John John Florence but this summer our customers have all had one thing in common that they need from their next board...they want it to be fun. Easy entry to waves and something that can handle a bit of a bigger session if it's given."
We know one board can’t do everything despite some claims they will, what’s the benefits of talking to a local shaper?
Nigel Semmens: "Saves a lot of money. You’ll buy it once, not twice! It’ll be built for you and your local waves."
Jason Burnett: "This has always been a statement that I don’t understand. Why say one board will do you when we all want to surf different types of surf craft. They are just shooting themselves in the foot if you ask me. We all know it’s best to get a board tailored to your style and ability and I believe 100 per cent hand shaped customs will always be better.
Luke Hart: "Some boards do have those capabilities and they come in phases, but it's really hard to get it right and it's more likely to come from a shaper than off the rack."
Si Day: "This is super important, local shapers know the local waves and know what boards will work best for which breaks. When I started shaping I was convinced I'd be versatile and be able to recommend performance boards to people down south but that just wasn't doable without collaborating with our team riders and their expertise on those breaks. It's because of them we can offer such a range of boards on our racks. Keeping it local will also help the economy, supporting a local surf scene will give a brand identity too. Only good will come from it."
Also, people get so hung up on volume over dims - do you think that’s an aspect of shaping that needs to change? Like, when you ask 'what do you surf', people will respond with the literage, which makes no sense, right?
Nigel Semmens: "All literage tells you is will it float you or not. You need to know the level of the surfer's ability and you can do this by talking to your local shapers."
Charlie Caitling: "We tend to lend demo boards, nothing better than trying before you buy. Literage is only a guide."
Jason Burnett: "This is the big debate huh. For me, I only hand shape so volume isn’t a factor. I do get customers asking for the same volume in one shape and wanting it in another. You can only get volume from a board that’s been computer shaped. I have to talk about volume in a different way. Moving volume up or down the board will totally change the board. You can’t read about this stuff online when buying that off-the-shelf board. They don’t tell you where the volume is in that particular board. Some customers will come in for a certain shape and leave ordering something completely different after talking about board design."
Luke Hart: "As a designer, literage is only an outcome. It doesn’t consider the curve or the tail width and so on. But people do shop for literage before everything else. Don’t buy your board on volume, but use it as a gauge and part of a collective of factors in an overall design."
Si Day: Now then! When I was a young lad this wasn't even a thing [laughs] I think it is very important to keep in mind the literage of your boards as it greatly effects how it sits with you, but it seems to take over the other qualities of what builds up the creation of a board. I'd say to people to be open and flexible with it. Don't let it dictate your ability to surf and let's talk shapes, where you're surfing, how you're surfing... There's so much more to look at than litres, and it is easy to get lost amongst it."
What can the UK surf industry do to help support its stable of shapers?
Nigel Semmens: "UK shapers can manufacture a quality product that will stand up against any imports. They just don’t have the global riders who the big brands have as their marketing tools."
Jason Burnett: "Buy from a local shaper and keep it local. More than ever now we need to help our economy grow locally. More coverage is needed showcasing these amazing custom surfboard shapers here in the UK, producing some of the best surfboards in the world."
Luke Hart: "It's good to buy local, but don’t support local just for the sake of it. They still need to be the best at what they do and produce a quality product. Even the biggest surfboard brands started somewhere local, they just got really good at it and opportunities arose because of that. There’s also always a place for the shops. Some people don’t want to talk to shapers, so working with good board stores is also good, but as a shaper, you’ve got to step up to sit alongside the biggest names and offer the very best service possible. Work with them, they’re also local. Strangely you can see your impact as a surfer more clearly as many of us take our local spots for granted, but now we’re exploring our backyard and re-evaluating whether those big trips abroad are really worth it. It's made me shop locally too and support our local business in all sectors."
Si Day: "Get behind your local shaper! Support them and understand that this is an industry and labour of love, not profit. We do this because we love the craft, we love to see the smiles in the water and share our passion in surfing. Lets celebrate the nomads and drifters, we have some insanely good talent in the UK and we should shout about that."
And what about hardware? Brad Rochfort, from Surf Hardware aka FCS in Europe added: "In the middle of March, Surf Hardware’s HQ and warehouse in Hossegor announced they would have to close within 24 hours following the French Governments guidelines. The UK was only a week or two behind France so I knew we would be next, with no idea when we would be back open.’’
All the FCS stock is held in their French warehouse where it’s delivered to shapers and surf shops all over Europe. Last minute contingency plans were made and a mountain of FCS plugs were delivered to the UK in order to keep UK manufacturers in business while France went into full lockdown, followed by the UK two weeks later. ‘’Plugs are a vital part of the surfboard manufacturing process and shapers still had a lot of orders in production," Brad added. "Many shapers continued to work in isolation in order to keep going.’’
Oh and Brad's a local shaper too. Here's the evidence.
Cover shot by Andy Holbrook. Additional reporting by Brad Rochfort