The waves this March day in San Francisco were piddly and fairly small, chest-high at the biggest and torn by a relentless onshore wind. The water was freezing with spring upwelling drawing up cold water from way down deep, and there were no other surfers for miles, as far as I could see. It was crap, basically, a day far better spent hiking, biking, or, gasp, working.
But I nevertheless had a giant smile plastered on my face as I jogged down to the water, wearing a hooded wetsuit and booties despite the 70-degree air, excited to surf waves I would normally not bother to even look at while driving past the beach. But this time I had a new surfboard under my arm. One that I designed and built myself. The first board I’ve ever made with my own two hands.
I’d struggled with unfamiliar tools, cut my thumb on an electric planer, and embedded about two pounds of foam dust in my eye sockets to bring this thing to life, and somehow it looked like an honest-to-god surfboard.
Sure, the rails were a bit uneven, the nose had a strange lump I couldn’t quite sand out, and the whole thing was much thicker than I’d planned, but, hell, I’d carved the board out of a big ugly foam block myself. I’d struggled with unfamiliar tools, cut my thumb on an electric planer, and embedded about two pounds of foam dust in my eye sockets to bring this thing to life, and somehow it looked like an honest-to-god surfboard.
As I sat bobbing in the messy windswell, I wondered whether the board would surf at all. I feared the curves were all wrong and it would dig mercilessly into the wave’s trough on take off, pitching me straight over the handlebars and into the sand below. When I paddled into my first wave, however, the board caught it with ease, I slid to my feet with no skittish drama, pumped the board for speed, and wrapped a nice, tight turn back into the wave’s pocket, before kicking out effortlessly to paddle back to the peak.
It was an honest-to-god surfboard.
Maybe the best part was that I made the board to replace one I’d had built for me by a well-known legendary shaper who, it must be said, flubbed it. I couldn’t surf that board, nor could friends of mine who surf better than I do. But the board I made? Worked just fine. It’s my favorite board now.
It’s also created a new passion for trying to make my own gear. Recently, spurred by my successful surfboard, I made a handplane, a little piece of wood or foam bodysurfers strap their lead hands into to add a little planing surface when riding waves. Cut and sanded a small piece of white pine I had lying around, sealed it, and boom, another little piece of surf gear, handmade, by me.
Now, my sights are set on camping gear. I once tried (and failed) to make my own sleeping quilt by cutting open a down sleeping bag I no longer needed (the down went EVERYWHERE). I’m seriously considering one of ultralight guru Ray Jardine’s kits for making my own ultralight backpack. Looks relatively simple. I’ve even puttered around the Seattle Fabrics website, a company that will sell you everything you need to make your own tent or tarp shelter, should you start walking down that probably leaky and not particularly wind-resistant road.
There are plenty of Youtube videos with step-by-step instructions for making your own snowboard. Or skis. Kits are out there for building your own fly rods. It’s astounding how much of your outdoor gear you could, in theory, make yourself.
Often for a whole lot less money than it would take to buy them new, yourself. In fact, it can be cheaper to buy all the materials you need to make a surfboard, and the tools you need to shape it than it is to purchase a new one off a rack at a surf shop. I made mine at a shop that offers the use of a shaping room and guidance from a qualified boardmaker watching over your shoulder, and it was still considerably less than the $800 I would have paid to buy the board from that same shaper.
It might have been foolhardy, but I caught the biggest wave I’ve surfed in more than a decade this winter on the board I made. I’ve never felt such a rush of accomplishment. Especially when I got out of the water and got back to my truck. “That board looks cool—who made it?” asked a surfer parked next to me when I set my baby down. “I did,” I said. Pretty much the high water mark of my surfing existence.