Shaping Without Skil: Confessions of a “Scrubber” (Part 1 of 2)

Shaping Without Skil: Confessions of a “Scrubber” (Part 1 of 2)

Shaping Without Skil: Confessions of a “Scrubber” (Part 1 of 2)
In the Green Room with Mike Wallace

Over the course of the past few months I have computer-designed and hand-finished five new surfboards and, despite minor character flaws, they have all been functional and fun. Let me make it abundantly clear up front that I do not own the traditional shaper’s plow horse, a “Skil 100” power planer; I have not paid my dues. Nor have I earned the right through curvature of the spine, inhalation of pounds of toxic polyester dust and resin fumes, and hand creation of thousands of boards, to call myself a “shaper.”

Shaping room dust

Shaping room dust

True shapers are a justifiably stubborn, quirky, masochistic and self-righteous breed who have honed their craft to the point of attracting a following. It is an increasingly narrow group of high-volume foam messiahs who make some serious coin. Others eke out a living, doing it for the love and satisfaction of creating functional art in what is one of the lower-margin business models in the surf business. Those with bigger ambitions and deeper pockets have created global manufacturing and distribution networks with which to supply both team riders and the masses. Many of the rest of us are just board “scrubbers,” perhaps a solitary craftsman whittling away and sanding relatively pre-formed blanks into something resembling a rideable surfboard…until now with the advent of computer-aided design.

APS3000 trims a blank

APS3000 trims a blank

Board Design Cracked Wide Open

Surfing savants like Tom Curren, Joel Tudor, Kelly Slater and Rob Machado have always pushed the style envelope in the water. Accordingly, they have been very influential in experimenting with and pushing alternative design as their surfing has matured. Searching for new challenges and placement on waves, they have helped revive retro shapes, push the boundaries on what can be surfed in bigger waves, and opened us up to the alternatives.

Most recently, Slater turned the Pipeline contest on its head, winning the event this year on a 5’-11” Fish hybrid that he designed on computer by combining the nose of a K-board with the tail of a semi-gun. Al Merrick finished the board out and the result was a ride that gave him paddle speed, dexterity in the tube, and purchase on the steeps. He broke a 5’-3” version of the board in Indo; otherwise he would have ridden that one – almost unheard of in big, hollow surf. The board is now called the “Deep Six” and undoubtedly will become available at a surf retailer near you soon.

In lulls between contests, Curren was notorious for prowling vintage board shops for interesting shapes, which he then would test in challenging conditions just for fun, hacking off and reshaping fins on the spot if the board didn’t go right. In the Sonny Miller film “Chasing Curren,” the shy guru was captured riding a short Fish in solid double overhead Indo. In his appraisal of the experiment, Curren remarked, “You couldn’t go as deep in the barrel, ‘cause the width of the tail would draw you up the face. Sometimes when things aren’t going the way you want, you have to break out of it… break the pattern. If you focus and think about it, it’s best to act on that feeling. Part of surfing I think is experimental; with so many different boards, getting involved in what you’re actually designing and what its function is.” It would seem that Slater finished off Curren’s Fish experiment by narrowing the tail to great effect.

For more “alternative” ideas, see Rusty Preisendorfer’s informative Surfline blog “Talking Design”: http://www.surfline.com/blog/entry.cfm?id=26651. Joel Tudor’s retro shapes can be admired on http://www.joeltudor.com/, while Rob Machado’s latest projects can be found on http://www.robmachado.com/thelatest.asp. Even more interesting is a snapshot of Machado’s current working quiver on http://www.surfline.com/surfnews/photo_bamp_900_v03.cfm?id=26114&ad=1.

Steve Coletta, Designer-Shaper

Mr. Coletta of Natural Curves Surfboards of Santa Cruz had a long history with a Skil planer before adopting computer shaping as his mainstay. Far from killing off the skilled board builder, Steve argues that it has refined his capabilities, with technology allowing a level of accuracy and repetition that greatly enhances the process and the end-product. Translating the experienced shaper’s tactile memory into computer files and breathing life into a virtual board all take a high level of skill, not to mention the hand finishing and tweaks that put the “magic” into the final shape.

PS3000, half-way there

APS3000, half-way there

Steve himself has written several very insightful articles on digital shaping and is living proof that the computer and hand can coexist and drive the boundaries of performance. As he says, “Machine or computer shapes by a master shaper totally involved in every nuance of the final shape can indeed have magic and soul. Shaping great surfboards requires imagination, observation, and skill to translate designs into reality. Master shapers are part scientist, artist, and craftsman. Hand shaping great surfboards takes years to master. Combine the experience of decades of hand shaping with current technology and the results are awesome.”

CAD software fine tunes cut

CAD software fine tunes cut

Coletta dismisses the view that the computer destroys the artistry of shaping, convinced that the more efficient process affords the shaper more energy to apply to the design process. “Hand shaping surfboards with planers, grinders, and the other tools of the trade is very physically and mentally demanding. Computer technology allows an abundance of this energy to be focused on design. Now, more than at any time in the history of shaping surfboards, technology offers surfers the benefit of accelerated design evolution, relevant custom design, and accuracy in the never-ending pursuit of perfection.”

Top and bottom finished

Top and bottom finished

The next step in the evolution is designing remotely, creating a database of shapes and forwarding the board file directly to a cutting machine or center via e-mail. The shape is then machined and hand-finished locally. Coletta has been an avid user of the APS3000 system since December, 2005. “We have produced thousands of functional, relevant, and ‘magic’ surfboards in the brief time we’ve been using the system. The system also allows us to provide greater service than ever for our surfer/clients. We regard it as a great tool in the evolution of surfboard design and production.”

Creative Destruction of Board Building

From rough-hewn redwood planks, to chambered balsa logs and foam blanks, each quantum leap in the surfboard’s development has come at the callused hands of individuals who were convinced there had to be a better way. One central figure in the CAD process is Miki Langenbach (www.aps3000miki.com), a German engineer and mathematician with a passion for sailboarding who, beginning in 1984, made some rudimentary attempts to mechanize shaping of larger windsurfer blanks. By 1997 he constructed a low-maintenance machine that would kick out up to 12 blanks an hour, but his vision of a digitized and air-conditioned clean room for cutting all kinds of board blanks from 5-foot “glass slippers” to 12-foot “stand-ups” culminated in the APS3000 machine by 2003. Miki says the acronym stands for the Australia colloquialism “Ants in Pants,” roughly translating as “hot stuff,” or “da kine” if you favor Island pidgin.

Top and bottom finished

Top and bottom finished

Nev Hyman of Australia received a $30,000 grant from Queensland in 1999 and partnered with Miki to develop the machine and fine-tuned software needed to maximize its functionality. They contracted with Emmanuel Vilmin, who spun off to create Shape3D (http://www.shape3d.com/). Other competitors are Digital Surf Design’s Surf CAD, masterminded by Brazilian surgeon Luciano Leao, while still others include the Aku Shaper (http://www.aps3000.com/) and KKL Machine (http://www.allaboutsurf.com/articles/kkl)

The dirty little industry truth is that the foam “blanks” that are sculpted into the core of the surfboard under a fiberglass skin have been mainly pre-manufactured ever since Dave Sweet perfected the first polyurethane foam blank in 1956 and Hobie Alter sold his blank business to his glasser Gordon “Grubby” Clark. Clark refined that process to such an extent that close-tolerance blanks were created very near to marquee shapers’ specifications, requiring minimal planing of foam or adjustments to the key basic rocker.

After dominating with nearly 90% the industry, Clark’s abrupt exit from that business in December 5, 2005, shifted the balance of power to CAD machines, which were just beginning to find favor among foresighted shapers like Jeff Rache of M10, Bill “Stretch” Reidel, Jeff “Doc” Lausch of SurfRx, among others. Board manufacturer Randy French of Surftech also crossed over from the windsurfing industry that had been at the forefront of molded materials and technology advancements.

Ambrose Industrial Surfboards

Matt Ambrose enlightens shaper

Matt Ambrose enlightens shaper

One enlightened early adopter of this technology was Maverick’s veteran Matt Ambrose, who ordered an APS3000 machine in late 2003 from Miki. One of the first three on the mainland, he received the machine in March of 2004 just before Clark’s demise, and set himself up in the computer-shaping and blank distribution business in Pacifica, forged into a company aptly named “Ambrose Industrial Surfboards: http://www.ambroseindustrialsurfboards.com/contact.php.

Ambrose selects a blank

Ambrose selects a blank

As Matt says, “AIS is a Northern California cutting center designed to help shapers get what they need to manufacture surfboards. AIS is a one-stop shop, specializing in design assistance and milling boards to exact specifications, as well as supplying blanks, resins, cloth and special order items.” He literally stocks hundreds of blanks from only top producers: Surfblanks America (polyester) and Marko (EPS). In his choice of blanks, machinery and shaping supplies, “quality” is his calling card of choice.

Ambrose’s blank check

Ambrose’s blank check

Realistically, he says, “If you don’t have experience riding boards and intimate familiarity with their performance characteristics, you won’t be able to shape a board remotely anything like an experienced master shaper like Dick Keating.” He agrees wholeheartedly with Steve Coletta that computer shaping has refined board design to such an extent that, for most, there is little point in hand shaping boards end-to-end. Such is the system’s capacity to refine the process.

Ambrose dials it in

Ambrose dials it in

Without Ambrose there would truly be no story here on SurfPulse. While he doesn’t gladly suffer fools and has a hard business-like edge, he also has an infectious enthusiasm for offering design and shaping tips to those alert enough to pick up on his invaluable rapid-fire insights and sharp wit. The same qualities of focus and ruthless efficiency that he exhibits in the water apply on land: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1w0BDO4Txk. Matt is a waterman in the purest sense of the word: his business is boards, his sport is surfing the heaviest peaks, and even his recreation is scuba diving.

He charges off on trips with friends to dive for abs and lobster in remote areas off the California coast and its islands. Matt once even helped investigate the craggy underwater topography of the Maverick’s bowl with divers for a Surfer’s Journal article on a rare day that was barely clear enough. He’s dived the spot several times—with and without tanks—advising against lingering too long anywhere but the bottom, then making a beeline for the boat. Few other Maverick’s chargers have demonstrated that depth of commitment.

Ambrose slicing through a boil

Ambrose slicing through a boil

He lets his skills do the talking in the water and his business acumen on land. More than one surfer has respectfully noted, “If you find yourself sitting deeper than Matt at the peak, you’re positioned way too deep.” In a testament to his experience and persistence, his Maverick’s contest bio notes, “Once known as an underground warrior, Ambrose has become an established name after reaching the Mavericks finals in 4 of the past 6 contests” against increasingly youthful competition: http://www.maverickssurf.com/Surfers/SurferBio.aspx?id=598.

Matt’s father, John, was a veteran hardware engineer from the early days of computing at RCA and IBM, who transferred from the East Coast to Silicon Valley. He settled with his family in 1973 in Pacifica, and currently runs a software consulting business. Effectively acting as Matt’s chief technology advisor, John was a key resource to draw upon when Matt first imagined his business plan. Another luminary who mentored the young surfer-shaper was Pacifica legend Dick Keating, who still actively contributes his design experience and co-shaping skills on big wave and specialty boards. A truly spectacular history of surfing in Northern California, traced to its Hawaiian roots and the aqua-exploits of the Keating family in Pacifica, can be found in the Surfer’s Journal (Volume 10, Number 4) and on http://www.surfingoods.com/articles/article2_2.html

WanderInn with Eastman

Rick Eastman of WanderInn Surfboards is another prolific shaper who actually houses his well-equipped shaping room on-site upstairs at Ambrose’s shop. Soft-spoken Rick showed me the ropes, always ready with a few well-timed insights, from tricks to planing down nose stringers to advice on smoothing out concaves and how to make an inexpensive and solid set of adjustable shaping racks.

Work in progress

Work in progress

Rick vividly recalls getting the word about the very first murmurs of the shortboard revolution directly from Dick Keating, fresh from the inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Invitational contest in Hawaii. In 1968, Australian Bob McTavish introduced deep “V” bottoms on the Greenough-inspired 8’-8” “Plastic Machine,” which he rode at the Duke at Sunset, but left an indelible impression at Haliewa and then later Honolua Bay in Maui.

Hand-finishing a modern shortboard

Hand-finishing a modern shortboard

With the design imprinted only in his mind, Keating was the only one in Northern California to see the new shorter shape first hand. Picturing how well it would work in less forgiving beach breaks in Pacifica and Rockaway, the local crew immediately went to work stripping and chopping down their longboards and buying factory second blanks from Grubby Clarke for $10 apiece. This was truly the genesis of the garage shaper. Surfboard factories like Noll, G&S, and Hobie recognized the threat clearly, trying to keep Clark blanks from being liberally distributed to lower-volume guys, especially in Southern California. So there is a strong, local precedent for individual craftsmen to shake up the board-building industry with the right know-how and tools.

Garage shaping, circa 2009

Garage shaping, circa 2009

According to Eastman, that gave “creative and resourceful underground Northern California shapers a head start on the shortboard revolution.” The “paradigm shift” was settled once and for all by the epic duels between David Nuuhiwa and Nat Young, he said. Not only did Rick take part in the shortboard revolution firsthand, but he is also helping shepherd the next generation of rippin’ local groms—his grandkids Kadin and Brogie Panesi, who already have amassed an enviable competitive resume on the NSSA circuit.

Mach 10 with Geoff Rashe and the DSD

As Geoff Rashe of M10 tells it, he was introduced to Dr. Luciano Leao shortly after visiting Eric Arakawa on the North Shore in the summer of 2000. Arakawa had acquired one of the first dozen of Leao’s Digital Surf Designs (DSD) machines in operation since 1998-99. The earliest versions reportedly went to shapers Jeff Bushman and Bill Barnfield in Hawaii. Arakawa had invited Rashe over to design and cut a test board; he was immediately hooked after the painfully honest Hawaiian shaper swore it was the real McCoy. Rashe received his own machine in January 2001. Prior to that, Channel Islands had been getting boards scanned by the KKL Motion Master and Procam CNC (computer numerical control) machines, which were essentially large surf blank Xerox machines. Unlike the DSD, these machines didn’t allow the shaper to design and cut individually-tailored boards.

That’s where Dr. Leao came in—as a genius former surgeon from Brazil, he had shaped some boards in college and began tinkering at night with the design for a computerized shaping machine in 1995. SurfCAD was the software developed to provide the brains behind the machine and make it so smart. Rashe quickly realized the potential of being able to “tweak and replicate” any shape in a database in order to customize it with a high degree of precision, then save the result for future custom boards. As he says: “I vary, sometimes I have a bad day or get tired, but the machine is always consistent.” He had tried to outsource machine cutting at one stage, but found it was more efficient when shaping 1000 or more boards per year to have his own, which he upgraded in November, 2007.

Unlike the APS3000, the DSD doesn’t anchor the blank with suction cups, but rather it grabs the board by the wooden stringer down the middle, which requires a little more hand planing when all is said and done. The cutting tool on the APS is an 8- to 10-inch circular blade that runs perpendicular to the blank, while the DSD is “essentially a large standard router” that runs on tracks the length of the board.

Vince Broglio Glassworks and “Solarez”

Glasser-surfer Vince Broglio

Glasser-surfer Vince Broglio

One of the top independent production fiberglass laminators on the North Coast is Vince Broglio, who got his start in the business working as a volume glasser for Pearson-Arrow in Santa Cruz. Working like a dust-covered ghost from horse stables a few miles north of town, Broglio has a very professional work ethic and a unique operation that keeps custom boards churning out of his shop like hot loaves of bread. Vince knows what it is like to be a valued customer, and says he just treats others like he expects to be, remembering being a grom and jonesing for that long-overdue promised board.

VB, a man of his word

VB, a man of his word

As he says, “Never believe a shaper when he says the glasser still has it,” which I can vouch for after he once turned a board around for me in two days. The range of services run the gamut, from polyester and epoxy glassing to in-demand resin tints, all the more remarkable as he is color blind and consults his wife Nancy to help with special customer requests. His new pup, “Roxie,” supervises the whole operation.

Guard dog Roxie

Guard dog Roxie

Everyone starts somewhere in the board building business and Broglio vividly recalls glassing his very first three boards for Pearson back in the day. He had two polished up and sitting in the racks and had just one to go when the surf Jones struck the young apprentice bad. As sponsored competitive surfers, Vince and a friend planned to bolt for a session just as he polished off the last board, but there was just one catch: the board had glassed-on fins. When he hit them with the 5000-rpm polisher, the board flew off the rack like a scalded cat, pinged off a couple walls and then slammed into the rack with the two finished boards. All the boards were damaged, and even after repairing them he wasn’t paid for his handiwork. Broglio did “gloss and polish” work for both Pearson and Haut through the late 1980s and credits Tony Mikus and Mike Walsh for showing him the ropes. He went into business for himself in 1991 at his home and then took over the space of West Cliff Glassing, after his wife kicked the smelly operation out of the garage.

Juggling boards

Juggling boards

Years after his inauspicious start, Broglio today has the formula down pat for juggling multiple boards at a time (and not dinging them). The secret ingredient is powdered “Sun Cure” that replaces the usual toxic MEKP resin catalyst or hardener that normally sets within 10–20 minutes. “Sun Cure” is triggered by ultraviolet light either from a florescent light box or directly from the sun. Created as a class project at Flagler College in St. Augustine Florida by Dale Christenson, this much more environmentally-safe product has been employed by Vince for years, even as other pros are just coming around to its benefits. Namely, the hardening process can be controlled by the glasser: slowed or sped up. Excess resin can be filtered, reused, and not wasted, “going off” only when hit by UV rays. This allows more time to squeegee off the fiberglass perfectly during lamination and kick off the hardening of the resin in stages for a stronger board, as well as keeping multiple boards in motion. Added strength comes from eliminating the “guesswork” of adding the catalyst. Vince has branded this as “Solarez.”

Polyester vs Epoxy

Poly resin with this UV process is pretty efficient and controllable, allowing Vince to laminate and sand a couple of finished boards in a day, but epoxy glassing is a more drawn out affair altogether and will cost you an additional $50 as a result. Epoxy resin is much more temperature-sensitive and the “prime” curing range is precisely 72–80ºF, more often than not requiring a hot box to control the reaction. This is less of a problem during lamination on hotter days, but the resin bucket can kick off unexpectedly. This happened once mid-job on an Iverson stand-up board he was working on, and he nearly scalded himself while working in the resin out to the rails. Epoxy has a “better flex memory; like I always try to explain the difference, it’s like the old fiberglass fishin’ rod compared to a newer graphite or epoxy rod. It’s like you cast that thing and it has that dead feel and you cast the epoxy rod and it just flies. And the memory lasts longer—you get double the amount of time out the boards.”

Checking the laps

Checking the laps

With Broglio’s method he “really likes to pull his laps,” as the fiberglass is stretched like a drum on the overlapping rails as the next best technique to vacuum bagging. He tries to avoid working “wet” with lots of resin that gets absorbed into the blank and adding weight, following closely behind a stiff plastic squeegee with the bucket for a light coat before going back over the area.

Kiteboards awaiting their turn

Kiteboards awaiting their turn

With a poly board you just laminate the bottom, file the rail, then “lam” the top, but with epoxy you have to sand the lap on the rails in addition for adherence. If the epoxy job sits too long, you have to sand again and wipe, so you really have to stage it carefully with roughly a step a day to ensure a really strong bond. An epoxy board done right can take up to 6–7 days, though unlike the poly finish, you don’t have to add a surfacing agent for the final coat since it’s already in the epoxy finish. The “pop-out” manufactured boards are vacuum-sealed in a bag then placed in a mold that “sucks all the air out and all the excess resin” leaving a pure, thin lamination that would be flat without a rocker jig. Yet he sees a world in which the market got flooded by pop-outs and is now recoiling, a backlash over cheaper boards as surfers move up the food chain and become more discriminating again.

Shaping with an Original, “Da Bull”

Pioneer shaper, film maker and surf explorer Greg Noll recently visited Half Moon Bay for the first annual Maverick’s Film Festival to host a compilation of the his best “Search for Surf” film series, narrated with Bruce Brown. Like a profane Santa Claus of surfing, the gregarious icon traced his early hot dog years, along with pioneering breaks on the North Shore, mainland Mexico, and California. One scene about the early days of shaping solid balsa boards shows a mechanical router-jig set up to cut the top and bottom rockers of the cumbersome balsa blanks. There on celluloid was an early version of the shaping machines of today. As Noll quipped, “All the new stuff you’re trying today, we did it long ago.” From this vintage example, it would appear the shaping machine has really been in the works since the 1950s.

(Click here to read Part 2 of this article.)

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his blind dog, Moose. Comments? Mike(at)surfpulse.com

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