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The Board Shapers

Five unsung heroes reveal the creativity behind their craft and where they stand on the long vs shortboard debate

For those of us easily seduced by the fabled notion of an endless summer, there can be few occupations more appealing than surfboard shaper: the perfect blend of artist, craftsman, designer, athlete and dude. The know-how required to transform a slab of foam (a “blank”) into an elegant, functional piece of wave-riding hardware requires uncommon creative talent. And surfing ability (board shaping demands lots of “research”).

Modern board shaping began in the late 1950s around the South Bay area of Los Angeles when a new material – polyurethane foam, developed during WWII – signalled the decline of the wooden board. Today it’s a discipline that sits somewhere between art and craftsmanship (with a bit of spirituality thown in), depending on who you speak to.

To better understand the way of the board, MR PORTER visited a select number of the US’ top workshops, asking some phenomenal makers to share their thoughts on their own creations as well as their heroes, habits and philosophies.

El Segundo, California, native Mr Tyler Hatzikian (43) has been surfing since the age of seven, and making boards since he was 12.

How did you get into surfboard shaping?

My dad made my boards when I was younger. When he was too busy, I picked up the tools and started making them myself. I sold the second board I ever made and knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

How do you approach board shaping?

You’re sculpting. You start with a block of foam that’s kinda rough and crude, then you taper and foil and soften and sharpen.

Who’s your surf icon?

Dale Velzey. He was the first guy to mass-produce boards in the 1960s. He died a few years ago, but I got to hang out with him.

Longboard or shortboard?

I was a shortboarder when I was younger, and my dad was a longboarder, so I’ve always had an appreciation for both. Where would longboards have gone if the shortboard hadn’t come in? Now I make surfboards that look like the longboards they rode in the 1960s.

Most memorable surf moment?

I was in Fiji in 1994, riding a traditional board. The other guys were like, “Go ahead, we’ll be right behind you.” They thought I wasn’t going to be able to handle it, but I ended up being a standout on the trip.

Any interests outside surfing?

Cars. I need to work with my hands. I’ve done an apprenticeship as a paint-and-body guy.

What’s your philosophy?

Use your hands. Build something.

A long-time resident of Venice, California, Mr Guy Okazaki (67) was born and raised in Hawaii. He cut his teeth as a board shaper more than 40 years ago, at the start of the shortboard revolution.

How long have you been shaping surfboards?

Since the early 1970s. I was surfing for Dewey Weber, as a team guy. I would spend my summers in Hawaii, and tell Dewey and Harold Iggy, the head shaper at Dewey Weber Surfboards, about the changes in design that were happening there, and that I wanted to try these shorter boards.

How do you approach board shaping?

I cannot shape a board until I can visualise it. Whenever I try to do it otherwise, I always run into problems.

Who’s your surf icon?

I have too many to name, but Dave Sweet was an extreme influence. He was a shaper and his greatest invention came in building moulds for the surfboard blanks. He was an incredible innovator.

Longboard or shortboard?

There was a period of time from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s when longboards vanished from the scene. Today, it’s all out there. New people are coming into the sport and they want to learn the way I did, on a longboard, then transition.

Most memorable surf moment?

Surfing in Hawaii in the winter of 1969. I’d just done my final exam and drove out to the North Shore. It started out a nice calm day, and the swell began to build. It went from 6ft to 15ft and bigger. I got to surf it with only a handful of guys. It was magical.

Any interests outside surfing?

I love the music scene in LA. And I love to read. If I were left alone in a library, I’d be completely happy reading books all day long.

Favourite surf spot?

Wherever I can find the best wave. Some days it can be right in front of the house.

What’s your philosophy?

Be happy. Let the universe guide you. Today is the best day.

Mr Ryan Sakal (37) is based in San Marcos, California. He’s been making surfboards since he was 14, following in his father’s footsteps.

How did you get into board shaping?

Every time my dad made me a board, I would watch and ask questions. When I was 14, he let me make my first board. We took it up to Santa Cruz for a surf contest, and I did really well.

How do you approach board shaping?

It takes artistic ability, but it’s more of a craft – like a tailor making a suit. I enjoy making boards for specific people. I look at them and we have a conversation. Then I try to problem solve.

Who’s your surf icon?

Al Merrick. Pretty much every modern surfboard has been influenced by his designs.

Longboard or shortboard?

I grew up primarily with shortboards, but right now we’re being influenced by fashion. A lot of people are picking and choosing what era they want to emulate. I’m embracing all of it.

Most memorable surf moment?

There was a trip I took to Indonesia and it was our last day, my birthday. In the morning the sea was flat, but then the waves just kept getting bigger and better. Everyone was high-fiving me because it was my birthday.

Favourite surf spot?

I live in front of a surf spot called Beacon’s. It’s not known for having great waves, but I love coming home from work and running down to the beach.

What’s your philosophy?

It’s all about having fun.

Born and raised in California, Mr Chris Williams (28) now lives and works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. His family has roots in carpentry, shipbuilding and sailing. His brand, Union Surfboards, will be launching its first clothing collection later this year.

How did you get into surfboard shaping?

There was this guy, Gordon, in San Francisco when I was living there, who worked in a surf shop called Las Olas. We made about three surfboards together. He taught me the basics and I pieced the rest together.

How do you approach board shaping?

When you’re shaping a surfboard you’re always thinking about the person who’s going to be riding it and the type of surfing they like to do.

Who’s your surf icon?

Todd Proctor. His business has succeeded through a genuine interest in making surfboards that fulfil certain niches and surf conditions.

Longboard or shortboard?

I don’t favour either side of whatever argument may exist. What I care about is plain old functionality.

Most memorable surf moment?

There was a day at a beach called Silver Strand a little while ago. I was riding a Channel Islands Proton surfboard, and it was a significantly different experience. It clicked with me that you could come up with various surfboard designs for different wave conditions.

Any interests outside surfing?

Sailing, just being around the ocean in general, and running my business.

Favourite surf spot?

Rincon, Santa Barbara. I went to university in Santa Barbara and spent so much time in the water. It holds a lot of sentimental value, and the waves are some of the best in California.

What’s your philosophy?

Creating opportunities to surf.

Mr AJ Finan (44) grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida and has been making boards since he was 10. For the past seven years he has been perfecting a “vacuum bagging” construction technique.

How did you get into surfboard shaping?

I dabbled as a kid. Then when I got into college… I didn’t really mean to do it. I shaped a couple just for fun. And everybody wanted them.

How do you approach board shaping?

If my head’s not straight, I’m not shapin’. That’s just how it is. I studied engineering, so I kind of have a little of that on top of the art of it. We do vacuum bagged boards that are at least 10 times as strong because we use five layers of fibreglass as opposed to two.

Who’s your surf icon?

A lot of shapers took me under their wing when I started. And guys like Doug Wright, who builds race boats.

Longboard or shortboard?

We’re building more longboards than we used to. We see guys who have never surfed before and now they’re on a longboard, and eventually they’re on a shortboard or a hybrid of a shortboard. We’re also building a lot of stand-up paddle boards.

Most memorable surf moment?

You remember all the good waves you’ve caught – it’s like a collage in your mind.

Favourite surf spot?

I have a house in Costa Rica, so I spend a lot of time there. There’s a lot of coastline that’s kind of erratic and gives you lots of different waves.

Any interests outside surfing?

Free-diving and spear fishing. Not being able to jump in the water every day kind of hurts me.

What’s your philosophy?

Have respect for the foam – it’s a blank canvas.