Making Your Own Outdoor Toys Is the Best Kind of Addiction

Until the past five or so years ago, when it came to my own DIY ethos, I’d drawn a line well in front of making surfboards, even though I’d been buying and riding them for two decades. Sure, I’ve brewed my own beer, fermented my own sauerkraut, and wrenched on my own trucks like the flannel- wearing, beard-growing, walking Northern California stereotype I am, but when it comes to surfboards, I’d just take one off the surf shop rack, thank you very much. Why spend a bunch of time and money hacking away at a piece of foam to make a board that’s probably going to be misshapen and barely rideable when there are perfectly good boards for sale at the shop down the street? Or even a custom order form away?

My interest in picking up a planer started only because I had a vague idea for a board I’d always wanted to ride but had never seen for sale anywhere: wide point up front, drawn-in tail, three-fin setup, 6’5″ or so. I tried the custom route to bring this board to life, and ordered a few over the years that I’d hoped would look like the board in my mind’s eye, but there was always something off. Too thick, nose template not exactly right, or the board just simply sucked. Custom surfboards can be a crapshoot, even from world-class shapers.

If I can make a surfboard, it seems to me, I can make most of the other material things that help bring meaning to my life. Better yet, I can fix those things, and avoid buying new. Win, win, and win.

Frankly, it can be a bit ridiculous to force our vision of a good surfboard into the head of a busy shaper who is often just trying to make enough boards to survive financially in the dying days of the hand-built-surfboard world.

Finally, I figured, what the hell, I’ll do it myself.

I showed up at a little joint called Sunset Shapers in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, where they offer shaping lessons and access to tools, shaping bays, etc. James Mitchell, the shop’s owner, was my tutor, and together we talked over my hypothetical board. He understood right away the sort of board I was trying to build: a big shortboard that would be racy enough to handle powerful overhead confidently, but floaty enough to cruise on smaller, weak-wave days while having enough handling ability to work turns over wide-open faces.

We selected a 6’6″ blank and got to work.

I was annoyed by the tools right away. Woodworking appliances made to shave down straight pieces of lumber seemed like the most ill-suited tools imaginable to shape a curved surfboard made from foam. Drawing the template and cutting the outline into the big foam core was easy. Sanding down the rails was not that bad at all. Using a sureform to shave down uneven sections like they were big blocks of Parmesan cheese felt natural. But firing up a frighteningly loud, heavily vibrating planer to shape the majority of the board was terrifying.

I imagined every pro shaper probably spent the first dozen blanks totally unsure if they had any clue what they were doing with a power planer. I never felt like I did as I made awkward, stunted passes back and forth across the bottom and the top of the foam blank, trying to turn a rectangle of foam into something resembling a surfboard with a power tool designed to carve mirror-flat pieces of wood.

Yet gradually, unbelievably, an actual surfboard took shape. When I finally put down the last sanding block after making a zillion passes (the most fun part, as you feel like a Renaissance artist smoothing the final rough edges of a marble masterpiece), I was left with an elegant, beak-nosed 6’5″ with a forward wide point, round tail, and subtle concaves to boost water flow on the board’s bottom, a devilishly difficult task for the newbie shaper to pull off.

It wasn’t perfect. I had a hell of a time trying to get the nose symmetrical, and one side has a pronounced ridge running from tip of nose down the rail. There’s a random lump or two on the bottom, as though the board is growing baseball-sized blisters. One of the rails is boxier than the other in parts. It’s much thicker than I’d hoped.

To my own amazement, I absolutely loved it. Warts and all. In fact, I may have loved it more because of the little imperfections. Legendary surfboard shaper Dave Parmenter also celebrated the little flaws in a board. He told me once that’s what makes a magic board magic. Maybe it does, or maybe Parmenter was blowing smoke, trying to make up for screwing up somebody’s rail. Either way, it turns out that when you’ve made a board with your own hands, you’ll ignore unplanned asymmetries a whole lot more easily than you would when paying top dollar for a professionally carved board. Still, I may have been getting ahead of myself; after all, there was a chance my handshape wouldn’t even surf.

The true test came a couple of days after the board was glassed, when a crossed-up southern hemisphere swell and a northwest windswell combined to send fun head-high peaks breaking up and down Ocean Beach. I waxed up and proudly strolled across the sand, hoping somebody would ask me who’d made the board under my arm. I paddled my way out to the lineup, immediately stroked into a shoulder-high wedge, got to my feet, bottom-turned, and unleashed the most powerful carve I’d done in months, throwing a fan of spray over two onlookers on the wave’s shoulder. I don’t know if it’s a commentary on my flagging surfing ability or a profound realization that surfers fuss way too much over minutiae of board design, but the first board I ever made with my own hands worked as well as or better than any board I’ve bought in years.

As it turns out, surfing a board you made yourself is addicting. It connects you, in a small way, with the prior generations of surfers who saw building their own boards as a rite of passage. It deepens your relationship with the other boards in your quiver. It allows you to bring into being something that you’ve seen only in your mind’s eye. It’s difficult, but monumentally rewarding.

In the years since, I’ve occasionally tackled more DIY surf projects. A wood surfboard I made in Maine (you can read about that in AJ issue 16, available here). Some handplanes that help with bodysurfing. A few abandoned hunks of foam I’ve tried to carve in the backyard. Hand-painted fins.

Now, I want more. A former neighbor of mine builds steel frame bikes in his garage in Florida. I’m flying out there to check that out. A friend of mine made her own backpacking pack, and I hope to convince her to let me plop down next to her at the sewing machine this winter to stitch my own.

If I can make a surfboard, it seems to me, I can make most of the other material things that help bring meaning to my life. Better yet, I can fix those things, and avoid buying new. Win, win, and win.


Want to make your own surfboard? Pick up a copy of The Surfboard Book: How Design Affects Performance for a good place to start.

Grain Surfboards, in York, Maine, runs workshops teaching you the art of wooden surfboard building.

Photos: Justin Housman



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