Hand shaping a surfboard is an art form, and quite possibly the purest form of craftsmanship. Sure, that may sound like a cliché but it is also grounded in undeniable truth. The nuance that goes into crafting a well-balanced whip is staggering.
But it is also so much more than that. It is experience, intuition; being two steps ahead of the cut into the foam (aka the core of the surfboard) you've just made, it is feel, it is training a rehearsed eye across every aspect of your shapeless husk and seeing gold. And it is also unashamedly hacking foam to pieces, continually, with little remorse.
Let's take stock here, real quick. At one stage or another, every surfer has been interested in lovingly crafting a board, it's just, time, life, knowledge (or lack of) will often get in the way. Translating that idea you have in your head about a new board to the actual practicality of making something half decent is a lengthy and incredibly specialised process. And it's why I dipped into Open, set in a stunningly rugged corner of Cornwall, to finally try my hand at shaping a surfboard.
I'll use the term 'factory' loosely here. While Open is shaping and glassing bays, it's also a bright cafe, housing boards from shapers they've had guesting there over the years. The likes of Neal Purchase Jnr and Simon Anderson have graced these halls. Turning up, I was greeted by Steve Hendon of Oblong Surfboards, who guided me through the entire process with calm demeanour and an expert eye.
And this experience, it's something I'd recommend to anyone who's ever put foam under feet. Did it matter that I took more than a few mega gouges out of the blank? Nope. Did it matter that I can see the imperfections in something I'd created? Nah. Not when you take it for a spin and can actually turn a thing that you birthed into existence. I imagine it's similar to watching your kids graduate... but time'll tell if that analogy holds true (I don't have any sprogs yet). Let's get into it...
Sounds simple enough. You've a shape in mind and it's all about execution. Except, you need to think two steps ahead of the game at all times. After drawing the outline of your board using a template, it's time to hack away and you'll end up with some sort of roughly shaped chunk. You'll cut as close as you can to the outside of the template line, so for your first time, give yourself enough room to make mistakes. I haven't handled a saw in years, so to plan for any mistakes made a world of difference while getting the technique right – cutting vertically, not at a horizontal angle. Which brings me onto...
The first cut is (kind of) important
Everything can be rectified. Sand a rail back a bit more, square off the tail. But the first foam cut sets the amount of work you're going to have to do, which is fine, if you don't mind sanding for a while. Giving yourself that wide berth is a double-edged sword, one, you can allow for mistakes but two, you'll have to do a lot of filing back foam to get it close to your templated rail-line.
Always work from the bottom
Ok, this seemed kind of obvious when I thought about it, but handy nonetheless. To create most elements of a surfboard, entry, tail rocker, V in the tail, concaves; it's about planing and/or sanding and then smoothing through ridges. To get the rocker set, you'll sand from the underside of the board and work away from there. More rocker equals more foam removed – which sounds hugely like sucking lemons, but good to know.
Hack, hack and hack away
Don't be afraid to go full Freddy Krueger on the foam. Once you've cut the blank to a rough shape, it's time to sand it down, bring the rails in – using fine wire mesh to really get that line smooth. Scoop out the rocker and concaves... don't feel the need to be conservative with your foam once you have the rough shape. Get in there, hack it away and watch life take shape from a formless husk.
Improvise with tools
“This thing? I've had that for 20 plus years,” says Steve about a self-made tool used to make sure the board's all squared up. “Sometimes, you just gotta do it yourself.” Got something you don't have a tool for? Make the tool.
If it looks off, it probably is
Hard lesson to learn. We've all spent countless hours looking at surfboards and know their many intricacies. When I thought the cut of the 5'8” fish I was shaping looked spot on, taking a step back revealed some inaccuracies. One side of the nose was a few mms out. Back to sanding that edge down. Remember, hack, hack and hack away.
You're not Al Merrick nor Biolos, it's ok to ask someone with more experience to have a once over of your whip. Steve left me to get on with a couple of the heavy sanding duties, which was great. When I thought it looked up to spec, a quick glance from your resident expert revealed some slight tangents that needed ironing out.
But don't worry, you can tweak most things
“You're going to make mistakes. Boards come out looking like doors. It's all part of a process,” says foam wizard Steve. “But don't worry, most things can be corrected before it gets too out of control." Queue breath of relief.
And there you have it, a few little drips of information to take away before you shape your first surfboard. Now, go hack.