The art of surfboard shaping baffles me. Sure, I understand the simple concepts. Certain longboard shapes do better in specific waves, so you can twinkle toe your way to the nose with a big grin on your face. I understand that certain shortboards can perform well for torqued up slashing turns and rail to rail surfing whilst also sporting a big grin on your face.
I get the basics of design, shapes and construction. It's the little details and the true science behind building a functioning board that renders my brain to jelly. It's mind-bending that so many hydrodynamic factors will be affected by blending rocker, rail lines, bottom contours, tail shapes and fin placement. All this has to be calculated whilst taking into consideration what the surfer wants from their new ride, how much they weigh, what waves they will be surfing and what they eat for breakfast.
That’s the science, then there’s the actual physical skill of making a rideable sled. Shaping is not easy and it has been said an individual is not a shaper until they have shaped over 100 boards. Whatever you have chosen to excel at in life, it can be anything from being a magician, a marmite taster, a scuba diving pizza delivery person, no matter what it is, take a moment to reflect the hours spent becoming a master of that task. Any length of time perfecting a chosen skill is valuable experience that someone can learn from. Master shapers are like sculptures of mathematical and scientific equations. They can fashion a beautiful custom work of art that’s also a functional waveriding vehicle to have fun on.
I wanted to understand more about the what, the why and how it all works. I was also hoping it would make me a better surfer. I wasn’t going to go this alone. I needed help from an experienced professional, so I called on David Kingdon, owner and master-shaper at Utopia surfboards. I’d ordered a custom 9'2" longboard from him the year before which had converted me to ride handcrafted boards. We’d already built up a good relationship and I fully trusted his skills as a shaper.
The following year I went with the dreamy notion of shaping a board at his workshop. I wasn’t fully sure what I was getting in to, but Dave was amped and was keen for me to use one of his shaping bays. He told me to get to work, chop chop.
There are a few options on how to shape a board, you can go it alone, get help from a friend, pay for a shaping class or get hooked up by your local shaper. A lot will depend on your circumstances, perceived shaping knowledge, tools, money, space and location.
I didn’t have either shaping knowledge, tools, space or much money at hand. Living in a campervan doesn’t offer the luxury of a garage. There were two options, building a surfboard in a tent or finding a shaping bay. Experience tells us that having the right tools and space at hand would make the process more efficient and enjoyable, I chose a shaper.
Before we begin, let me be honest. I can’t fully claim that I shaped a board. With experienced guidance from Dave, together we measured, cut, sanded and crafted the blank into shape. He had more faith in my shaping knowledge and skill than I did. He would show me how to do a portion of the sculpting, in response I’d nod an enthusiastic nod and pretend I knew what he was talking about. He would trot off back to more pressing jobs. During this time, I would hack and stab at the foam, trying to make it look like a ridable surfboard and completely forgetting what it was Dave had shown me, so naturally after two hours ‘errrr….Dave…help?!’.
Once the blank was shaped, Dave then added the artwork and glassed, sanded and polished the board to its full glory. This is where the sled really comes together. This is the stage you prey it all pays off and that all the measuring, sanding and the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into wasn’t all for nothing.
From this experience I learnt a lot and here are some things to consider if you want to shape a board:
Where to shape your board - The secret to any manual work is down to how well you prepare your workspace and your tools. Talk to your local shaper, try and strike up a deal for using his shaping bay and for his guidance. This will give you the luxury of a clean working space designed specifically for the job and you’ll have all the necessary tools at hand when you need them. Especially the custom made tools for certain jobs that all seasoned shapers will have, that one special tool you can not do without. Plus if you make a mistake, of which I made a few, then there is always expert advice at hand to see you right.
It is possible to set up a shaping bay in your garage and there are plenty of online tutorials that will walk you through it. That said, you need to consider how often you will shape a board, is it worth the initial expense to set up and do you have the spare space?
Who will help you? - At some point, you will have to discard the cocky notions that shaping a board is easy and you won’t need help. Sure you can do it alone, but the results will most likely vary from a wet slipper to a turd of a board in your quiver.
You can go online and check out the minefield of tutorial youtube video’s, you can talk to mentors who have shaped or you can go to your local shaper for seasoned truths.
There are shapers who will offer shaping classes or they might offer you a price to rent a shaping bay whilst they come and go giving you advice in-between their daily routines. This is how Dave and I worked it. He set me up in one of his bays and would come in intervals to offer words of wisdom or guidance, but mostly to fix my mistakes.
The Board Choice - Aim for something slightly oversized that can give you a little breathing room for mistakes, like if the rails aren’t perfect, the tail a touch funky or the rocker less than perfect.
I spoke at length with Dave about the board I wanted to surf. His first advice was to avoid the performance shapes, which was good as I was looking for something that would cover a large range of waves, something that would paddle into waves quickly, a board that would work well on the points of Peru (which was where I was heading for 3 months) and something I could travel with easily. I also wanted a board that would challenge me, be fast and encourage long drawn out turns.
We settled on loosely aiming for a retro 6'8" with 2 + 1 fin setup. We aimed for extra volume up front and the widest point to be closer to the nose so I could paddle into waves quickly. The flat rocker helped with paddle speed and we added turned up edges on the nose so it wouldn’t submarine under water. The tail had to be pinched in with hard rails to give hold in steeper waves, a cool side effect is that it makes it easy to stall the board and bleed speed.
The idea behind the fin configuration is to fill a gap between a thruster and a single fin. The larger centre fin in its placement provides the drive and hold for more serious situations. Unlike a normal thruster set up, the Widomaker's side bites are loads smaller and are positioned on the rail to give more pivot in turns.
Correct lighting - This is crucial to help cast your newly tuned eyes over your handy work and spot the subtle shadows and reflections on the board that need attention. The lights should be horizontally and symmetrically placed on the side walls and mounted at a slightly higher position of the surfboard stands, roughly between 4'' and 6'' above the blank. To better see the contrast of the contours on the white foam, the walls should be painted light blue/dark blue(the most popular choice).
Patience - Some of the best advice from Dave was not to rush things. He advised me to aim for a couple of hours per session, as it’s very easy to get lost in the work you're doing and get over focused on a certain area. Taking a moment to step back and take a breath sometimes offers up the most effective results.
Ask questions - The only way people know the answers to things is either by being taught, being shown or by learning themselves via asking questions, research or by experience. Whichever way it is, we aren’t born with any pre-knowledge of anything on this planet, so no question is a dumb question.
Don’t panic, you can fix most things- I made a few mistakes during my wrestling match with the foam core. Dave told me not to worry, most things can be fixed or corrected before the glassing. That’s why it’s a good idea to shape a slightly bigger board that gives you room for mistakes.
Fluid long passes - A fluid shape needs a fluid shaper. For all the lines and contours to flow, you need to make sure your sanding, cutting and general work is smooth and fluid. If you spend too much time on one specific area, it’s then really hard to blend that concentrated area together with the rest of the board's dimensions.
Glassing adds thickness - Don’t forget that fibreglass will add extra thickness to the overall board, so either allow for it by shaping it slightly thinner or just be prepared for your board to be a little thicker than you had envisioned.
Make notes for the future - This is one thing I’d wish I’d done. It would be nice to have all the dimensions, templates used and which tools for which jobs are needed for the next time I try my hand at shaping.
The Board - I now have a board that I cherish and it’s one of my go-to surfboards. Let me introduce ‘The Heart Breaker’(far right)
Dims: 6'8" x 20 1/2 x 2???
I love this board, for how it performs and for how it looks. This ride will work from shin high to easily overhead conditions. I’ve used it in varies conditions from solid sets at Easkey left in Ireland, to head high peeling waves at the worlds longest left at Chicama in Peru in everything from 2ft to solid 7ft, this board can handle a lot.
We designed the board with plenty of foam and volume to the nose of the board, with a flat rocker. This meant it would paddle quickly and get me into waves before they pitch up steep, especially for the bigger days. I was going to be surfing consistent waves, mostly on point breaks and didn’t need a fat tail as this board was already going to be flying, so we pinched the tail into a diamond shape and gave it some hard edges so it would hold in steeper sections. The results were great, even on my backhand I could drop into big waves, engage my edge and tail and let rip with confidence. The thinner tail means I can stall the board really easily, then when I need some speed there’s volume up front to boost me. I’ve ridden it mostly as a single fin and really enjoy how it flows.
The fin configuration gives me the benefit to ride the board as a single fin for big open and cruzy turns. When conditions get bigger and faster I like to add the side bites for a little extra stability and drive.
For the artwork, we chose a black & white fabric inlay depicting the Mexican Día de Muertos, the festival ‘Day of the Dead’. My longboard had the same print in colour, so I wanted to carry on the theme. Dave then added a light grey/blue pinline that brought it together nicely.
Conclusion - For your next board, I’m now taking orders. No, only kidding, I still can’t shape a board, not on my own, no way. However, I do have a new found respect for the art of shaping surfboards and the dedication, endless hours, patience and passion that has to go into building such beautiful crafts.
It also broadened my knowledge of surfing and how boards perform in certain conditions. I feel weirdly more in tune with my boards, especially the one I have helped shape. Maybe I’m biased because I had a hand in its conception and I’m like a proud father, but I seriously couldn’t be happier with the results. I imagine it is like watching your own baby grow into adulthood, you have seen it and nursed it since it was born, you know where the child’s scars and weaknesses are, as well as knowing where its strengths excel and what they are capable of.
I’m very confident if I had tried to make the board on my own, it wouldn’t have turned out as it did. There are plenty of ways to shape a board. I chose to work with my local shaper for a few reasons.
Relationship - Dave and I had a trusted working relationship from when I ordered a board the year before. This meant that he knew me and my surfing requirements. We were also friends, so it meant we could be open and honest with each other when it came to crucial shaping decisions, which I mostly left to Dave because he’s stronger than me.
Learning from the pro’s - I was thirsty for first-hand knowledge and I wanted to come away knowing more about the science of it all. Going with a renowned shaper means you’ll learn refined details and techniques that have been perfected over years of trial and error by the shaper, I found this to be super useful.
A surfboard that would ride well - I could have chosen to go it alone and I’m not saying it’s not possible to build a good surfboard first time around, but I know my handy work can’t be trusted and the chances would have been slim. I wanted a board that I could actually surf, not a useless thing that will only get ridden once or twice and then collect dust in the garage quiver.
Tools and workspace - I didn’t have the luxury or the means to shape a board or make a shaping bay. I saved myself a lot of money not forking out any dollar for tools and making a workshop.
However you go about shaping your first board, one thing is for sure, you will find it sometimes frustrating, other times enlightening, momentarily joyous and generally a very fun experience. Surfing your own creation is rather smug inducing, especially when it goes a dream. I’m amped to shape a board again, this time from start to finish, including the glassing.
Cheers Dave for your patience, guidance and wealth of knowledge during this process. I really couldn't have done it with you...till next time.