San Diego’s Mark Slingerland, making quality boards the old fashioned way. Photo: Ellis
We all know that the era of mass-produced handmade surfboards has come and gone. The biggest board manufacturers in the world rely on design programs and CNC machines more than skilled hands and power planers. But hand shaping hasn’t vanished from the earth—it just changed its address. Instead of residing in big factories, it’s moved into backyards, garages, and tool sheds. And while today’s hand shapers may not be able to churn out the same volume of boards as the biggest brands in the industry, they have more than a few redeeming qualities. Here are five reasons to order your next board from your local backyard shaper.
Local Wave Knowledge
Surf spots are like snowflakes—each one is unique. Your local shaper knows the idiosyncrasies of your local waves because he surfs them too. Take advantage of this. If you share a home break with your shaper, they will probably know exactly what you need from your next surfboard, even if you don’t. “I always add an extra inch and a half of nose rocker to my boards for people surfing locally, because here on Hatteras Island, you need that,” says East Coast shaper Scooter Halladay of Bone Surfboards.
If you’re lucky, your local surf shop might have 50 different boards on the rack to choose from at any given time. But why settle for a board that was made with neither your surf style nor local waves in mind when your local shaper can offer unlimited wave riding options, all tailored to your surfing and your waves? “There’s always a better or different way to approach a design,” says San Diego shaper Mike Slingerland. “The options in surfboard design are infinite, so the progression will always continue.” Armed with little more than a six-pack and a sketchpad, you can show up at your local shaper’s workspace and draw planlines until your heart’s content. Hopefully your shaper will save you from your most ill conceived ideas and meet you in the middle with something both unique and functional.
Perhaps the only thing better than getting a custom hand shape is getting your own hands dirty in the process. “Handshapes do offer more of an experience for the money,” says East Coast shaper Gary Wilson. “Rapping with the shaper, discussing shapes they like and dislike, or even hitting a session with them are experiences that are unique to ordering from local shapers. I’ll even let the customer help shape his own board if he wants to, as long as he agrees not to sue me when he cuts his finger off.” Even if you do end up losing a pinky in the shaping bay, it might be well worth it if you end up getting barreled on a board that you helped create yourself.
Local Economy Stimulation
On the East Coast, for example, many beach towns overflow with deep-pocketed tourists in the summer months, allowing a lot of local businesses to make the majority of their annual income over a short, seasonal stretch. But as summer turns to fall and fall into winter, the river of tourist dollars dries up, and many towns go comatose. But there are still waves to be had, and if you need a new board for hurricane season, why not get something shaped locally and keep your hard-earned money circulating through your community? You’ll be surfing a quality boards designed for chasing hurricane barrels, and your shaper won’t need to take a second job in the offseason. Everyone wins.
The world of surfboard production has changed drastically in the last 20 years. The production handshaper has become a thing of the past, and the number of knowledgeable craftsmen will decrease as it becomes a less viable career path. “Be prepared to sweat and struggle if you want handshape surfboards for a living,” says Steven Divita of Head High custom surfboards. “People want cheap boards, and that’s what the market will provide through new means of production. A lot of people don’t realize the amount of time it takes to build a custom board by hand, but in the end, you get what you pay for.” On top of getting a higher quality board from a local shaper, your business will allow them to continue crafting boards by hand, keeping surfing’s proudest tradition alive and well.