Steve Colettas used to be common in surf towns. Shapers who stocked local shops with a few boards, but spent most of their time making custom board orders for locals. If you wanted one of their boards you’d usually walk into a surf shop and fill out a Xeroxed form with a drawing of a surfboard on it. You’d write the dimensions you wanted, scribble some notes about what you thought the rails should be shaped like, indicate where you wanted certain colors, and hand it to the shop employee. Couple months later you’d swing in to the shaper’s studio with a six pack of beer in hand to pick up the board. If you were lucky, that local shaper was as good and friendly as Steve Coletta, who, until recently, lived and shaped in Santa Cruz, California. He shaped boards for some of Santa Cruz’s best surfers—some of the world’s best—but also, for little old you, hat in your hand in his workshop, just wanting a board to get a few waves at the sloppy pointbreak near your apartment
Steve is one of a dying breed in a surfboard-building world increasingly dominated by online orders of boards cut by machine, finished by low-wage workers you’ve never met, many of which might be working overseas, to have the board shipped to your front door. Sure, most everything else we buy in life is done that way, but custom surfboards were different. For lots of us, they’re one of the last connections to the old, pre-digital world we have left.
I have a Steve Coletta board that I cherish more than even the boards I’ve made myself. Years and years ago I called his Santa Cruz phone number and his soft, kind voice answered. Steve and I talked for almost an hour about surfboards, waves, where I surfed, where I wanted to surf, what I wanted out of surfing and life in general. That last bit by the way, is crucial for a good shaper to really understand what sort of board you need. Steve didn’t have to spend that kind of time with me on the phone, he didn’t know me from Adam; but he clearly enjoyed his work, was proud of his craft, and wanted the best for his customer.
A few months later, my local San Francisco surf shop called to tell me my board was ready for pickup. I went in to buy it, but then spied basically the same board I’d ordered, but longer, up on the rafters. Crap, I thought, I like the longer stock board better. Another quick call to Steve. Sure, he said, the longer one would be great. It’s not rocket science, after all, he explained. If the longer one called to me, that was the one. I walked out that day with a 7’2″ round nosed, semi-pin tail, what used to be called an egg or, with the unique kind of derision good surfers have for easy to ride surfboards, a “funboard.” Someone else bought the 6’10” version of the board I’d ordered with “FOR JUSTIN” scribbled onto the wood stringer lining the middle of the board. I hope they liked it.
That kind of thing only happens with someone who really knows their craft. Steve knew the bigger board would work just as well; he made it too, after all. Each board he makes is a piece of art he breathes life into, with the alchemy borne from decades of experience. Though each board is also slightly different—it’s not possible for human hands to recreate the exact same sanding strokes from board to board, with those slight differences producing unique riding characteristics—when the maker is an expert, those differences are little joys to be discovered.
Surfing is, or has been for years now, moving away from shapers like Steve Coletta. Larger manufacturers dominate the market in ways they never did in the past. Boards are as good, better actually, than they’ve ever been, with fantastic technologies adding strength, durability, unique flex patterns, and, god-willing, less toxicity. There’s far less mystery to the ordering process, and the boards often arrive much faster than in years past.
Small-town, small-market shapers are now typically forced to serve the boutique surfer, someone who can spend $1,200 on a board that may work fine, will certainly be pretty, but are more status signifiers than surf craft.
I paid $600 for my Coletta, dirt cheap by modern surfboard pricing standards.
That’s what’s increasingly difficult to find these days. Shapers making a living selling good, inexpensive boards to working class surfers. What a life that once was. A shaper could leave high school, apprentice for a couple years sanding finished boards for a guy like Steve, then eventually have their own business, pumping out boards that dominate local surf spots. Little regional fiefdoms of surf.
Steve has since packed his bags for sunny Mexico, and I can’t blame him. Santa Cruz is not what it used to be, with the Silicon Valley hordes long ago having clamored over the redwood-forested mountains and filled every nook and cranny of what used to be the kind of crusty, low-maintenance town that you could really settle into and lose a few decades. Good for Steve.