Shaping Without Skil: Confessions of a “Scrubber” Pt. II

Shaping Without Skil: Confessions of a “Scrubber” Pt. II

(Confessions of a Scrubber, Part I.)

Ghost Shaper in the Machine

Minimum Hand Tools

Minimum hand tools

The very same computer-aided (CAD) technology that helped globalize and liberate the surfboard industry from its cottage roots has provided niche shapers, and I dare say ambitious individuals, with a disruptively powerful design and cutting tool. These systems afford a level of precision, repeatability, and efficiency to allow anyone with a computer, some gumption, and a few hand tools to carve out a fairly respectable finished blank.

Be forewarned, however, that you will NOT save money taking this route and cutting out an experienced shaper from the process by making a couple quick knock-off boards. If you want to surf better, buy a reputable board off-the-rack or have the patience to order a custom board from a local shaper familiar with the region where you surf.

Fish Takes Shape

Fish takes shape

Not counting your time, labor and tools, each finished board may save you $100–250 after paying a good glasser to finish it properly, but even the pros will take a small handful of boards to get the system dialed—quickly eating up the apparent “savings” for a novice. And the pros have the advantage of a mental snapshot of templates, rockers, rails, tails, foils and bottom contours and how these elements flow together to make a board that works.

If you have any delusions of grandeur, find a copy of “Shaping 101” by iconic Hawaiian shaper John Carper, on how to mow a blank from scratch to gain a deeper appreciation for the art of shaping.

Or check out Todd Proctor’s short musical tribute to the dying art of start-to-finish hand shaping. If these videos still make your pulse race and your head swell, then read on, my friend—there are easier ways of doing it for someone committed to the process and with true love in their heart for boards and board-making.

Contrast this with how long it takes to cut a blank on a machine:

And then hand-finish it:

A New Quiver

My personal shaping odyssey started simply enough with the burning desire to create a functional beach break Fish under 6’-0” that would float my 185-pound mass and perform well in bouncy, windswept bowls that are endemic to most San Mateo County shorelines in the summer. Inspiration for the outline came from the Christiansen Fishes that I long-admired, but could ill-afford. With a nickname contrived by my good friend Bruce, my private label became the “Iconoclast,” due to my tendency to break from the pack and camp on my own peak, whether real or imaginary.

Nose View

Nose view of new fish

But for my first board I wanted to put a little more rocker in the nose and tail, with a modern concave bottom and pulled-in quarter-moon tail that would still accommodate a quad-fin set-up. In the end, I settled on overall dimensions of 5’-8” length, 21” width, and 2-5/8” thickness. The board turned out surprisingly well for a first attempt, getting up to speed quickly, turning on a dime and punching above its weight and holding in well in bigger, more hollow surf. It has become the fun mainstay of my summer quiver.

New Quiver

New quiver

On subsequent boards (five in all), with professional feedback from Matt Ambrose, Rick Eastman, and especially Vince Broglio, I gained greater understanding over foiling out the nose and tails, trimming down the stringer properly, and improving my rails. All these components were the greatest stumbling blocks to my success, but through variance and instant feedback in the water I learned more than I would have without making minor mistakes.

Quiver, top view

Quiver, top view

My second board was a 6’-6,” 19-1/2”, 2-5/8” shortboard with a staged rocker, somewhat flat in the middle for speed and soft rails up front that proved a bit clumsy in smaller surf, but actually works better as a forgiving semi-gun in larger surf. The third board was a 6’-0”, 20”, 2-5/8” roundtail, five-fin shortboard with sharp down-rails and very flat entry rocker. This experiment in speed requires some finesse at the take-off, but generates blinding speed and high lines in clean surf—not so much fun in the junk. One skilled local test pilot, Brian Inch, managed to pull a 360 on his first ride, proving what I already intuitively suspected: it’s not always the board, but the rider. Experiments with Alaia planks at Sunset and Waimea in Thomas Campbell’s film “The Present” visually argue that point.

Broglio and 5'-10" Frei-Fish

Broglio and 5'-10\

The final two boards were the first ones to be inflicted on my surf crew, with a full-outlined 6’-10”, 20”, 2-1/2” semi-Fish for Scott and a 5’-10”, 20”, 2-3/8” Fishy shortboard for Jochen—two very different boards for totally different surfers. Feedback has been good and the experiment continues. So, how did I do it?

Virtual Board Design for Budding Scrubbers

Be forewarned that this section provides only a loose outline of the steps required to design a blank worthy of being machine cut, and is not a comprehensive blueprint. It took a fair bit of trial and error, along with patient tips from Matt Ambrose and company to get to that point. However, a few simple suggestions could save budding “scrubbers” or hand shapers some time and avoid rookie mistakes. Having a strong sense first of what kind of wave you want to surf with your design, and how you want to surf it, is critical in dictating its shape.

The Aku Shaper provided the free software I used to design my boards, with tutorials on its main website making it relatively easy to grasp the fundamentals. If I, as a computer illiterati, can figure it out with a little advice, then it’s user-friendly. Simply follow the instructions by downloading a recent copy of Java and the software, and then you’re ready to start. Functions such as opening a new board, redesigning it, and “ghosting” an existing shape for comparison are available, along with viewing it all in a virtual shaping room (complete with a classic pin-up photo of Brooke Burke in the corner).

Virtual bay

Screen shot: virtual shaping bay

The first step is to pull up a new board and enter its basic dimensions, including length and thickness, while nose and tail rockers can be adjusted as you go. The next move is to create a top-down “outline” of your shape using a minimal number of control points to construct a natural, flowing template for your board that will be the main building block for the rest of the curves. It is here that you will adjust the location of the wide point on the outline, nose volume, and tail shape.

Board outline

Screen shot: board outline

The next tab over on the screen is the “slices” function, which allows you to literally view a cross-section in several places along the board in order to hone the slope of the deck, form the rails, and contour the bottom. Slices get a bit trickier and, for the purposes of flow and simplicity, Ambrose recommends using three of them all copied from an original slice to avoid waves in the cut, as the software blends the area in between. It is here that some of the shaper’s alchemy comes into play as the rail hardness migrates from nose to tail. Concaves or “vee” can be built in at this stage as well, and also change from end to end, possibly requiring an extra slice at the deepest point on bottom.

Board slices

Screen shot: board slices

Then come the “top” and “bottom” tabs where the rocker, or curve profile, is refined: a side view of the board, if you will. This is another fundamental step that will determine how a board flows; how fast or loose; how it takes the drop; how it holds off the bottom. Design a banana and it may handle hollow surf, but be a pig in softer waves. Make flat plank and it could be a dream in the mush, but pearl badly in larger surf. Finding the sweet spot for a board’s rocker and foil between the nose and tail can be one of the most challenging and vital factors contributing to its performance. One starting point is to simply pull the fins from a favorite board, put it on a flat surface and simply measure the distance from the floor to the nose and tail. But that will not get you very far.

Board rocker

Screen shot: board rocker

How did it go? Now is the time to check the new stick back in “The Bay” —your virtual shaping room. With a click and drag, the board can be viewed from all angles, top, bottom, nose and tail, and checked for its overall esthetic. Striking the ALT key while toggling “V” and “L” will change both the “view” of the board and its “lighting” for some surprising and exciting additional visual inputs.

Once satisfied with the results, the final step is simply to save the file to a drive and/or disk and forward it as an e-mail attachment to a shaping operation like Ambrose Industrial, who will select the best fitting blank, run it through the APS3000, and call you when its ready. The intersection between the software and machine will produce a rough cut surprisingly close to the design viewed in the virtual shaping room, warts and all. Go ahead and lovingly fondle the result, but at this point you’re only about halfway there.

Prepare to “Scrub”

Your design acumen will have a tangible result at this stage. Just how well the design stage went will determine how much work will be required to hand-finish the blank. In a perfect world, a little sandpaper and elbow grease would do the trick from here, but, alas, it’s not a perfect world. A minimum set of tools is required, along with some ingenuity for more complex tail shapes, like swallows, bats, or quarter-moons. Among the basics are wire sanding screens of 80–120 grits and a foam pad for backing, essential for smoothing out the machine tool cuts. You will also need a straight edge to measure concaves and “vees,” along with sandpaper grits 50–250.

Quarter-moon tail

Quarter-moon tail

Another vital hand tool is a surform for quickly taking thickness out of the deck, ends, and rails. At least three types of hand planes may be necessary to get the wood stringer shaved flat: a small block plane, a master planer, trim plane or even a small spokeshave for cleaning up the fine nose rocker area. Along with handsaws, a small round surform and micro rasp can also be useful for those of you determined to cut a swallowtail. Note that the majority of blanks that I got back from Matt did not have the bottom rail cut, though he has since upgraded his software to eliminate this problem. That means you have to be prepared to do some shaping on that important contact point with the wave. One tool that makes that roughly 30-degree cut with greater precision is the Fred Tool, invented by John Carper, that is essentially two back-to-back surform blades mounted and angled on sanding block.

More tools

More tools

Checking out and shapers’ forum can also provide some valuable insight from other hobby shapers, who may have faced similar problems.

More work in progress

More work in progress

Veteran hand shapers recommend you keep a loose count of the strokes you make on each side of the deck and rails as you go from the more coarse tools, such as the surform, to the finer sanding screens and papers. My approach was less disciplined and more tactile and done in my garage in late afternoon light to help see the texture and scratches. Ideally, access to a shaping room coated with blue paint and low louvered fluorescent lighting on the sides will allow a more refined finishing of the blank, but it is not as critical to the performance of the board, so much as the esthetics. In the end, a good glasser will be the one to make or break your board and give it the smooth protective coating that transforms it from a delicate sponge into a flexible precision wave tool.

Color: Do You Dare?

Mixing tints

Mixing tints

One of Ambrose’s machine operators, Don, offered some invaluable advice on hand painting color on blanks. The winning combination of green Frogtape and diluted water-based Acrylic arts-and-craft paint can be applied to create a relatively professional color scheme directly to the finished blank without the use of an airbrush.

Resin tinting can also be done by a professional glasser, but will cost more. Let your imagination be your guide, but be doubly careful at this final stage after all that hard work. Any logos can be printed out on an inkjet, but need to be done on translucent rice paper, which disappears when saturated by resin.

Shapers with Skill

Having gone through the steps of imagining a new board and how it might surf, to designing it online, hand finishing it, and then surfing it has been an extremely satisfying journey. For me, it has been the beginning of a new learning curve, an opening of a Pandora’s Box of questions and lines of inquiry, rather than an end in itself. It has given me even greater appreciation for what it takes to become a shaper, a better understanding of the shaper’s craft and skill, and how to better communicate with a shaper. Thanks go to Ward Coffey at Ward Coffey Shapes, Randy Cone at Randy Cone Surfboards, and Geoff Rashe at M10, who have all made me a better surfer and inspired me to become a design addict. Matt Ambrose especially deserves praise for patiently guiding me to make my first board.

8'6" Gun


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)

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