Either in its precious natural state or manipulated masterfully by gifted human hands, I find myself captivated and instinctively wanting to touch a nice bit of wood. Once sculpted, an artist can speak through their handcrafted creation from this natural resource. It is almost like they transfer a piece of their soul into their work, which in turn makes that piece unique.
The use of wood has played a huge role in the history of civilisation. We humans have used it for varies different things such as fuel, paper, stabby pointy things and the first recorded surfboards were made of this beautiful and sustainable material.
On the islands of Hawaii in the late seventeen hundreds, surfing was a very spiritual act. This included the art of riding waves, praying for good surf and rituals surrounding the creation of their beloved wooden surfboards.
It was also the greatest of status symbols, a bit like current notable moguls sporting a Porsche Boxer or displaying how many horses they own. The ‘Olo’ was ridden by the chiefs or ‘Alii’ noblemen and the ‘Alaia’ was used by the commoners.
When it comes to wood, size does matter. The tribal chiefs and nobles rode boards as long as twenty five foot and the common folk would have something in the range of seven foot. These prized possessions were typically made of Koa, ulu and wili-wili (Hawaiian balsa).
Over time new materials were introduced and board design evolved. The art of building wooden surfboards was almost forgotten, being replaced by materials such as foam cores, fibre-glass and resin skins. Wood did not give up, it still clings onto its place in the world of surf design by the form of a stringer. That said, now we have stringless boards, sorry Sir Englemann Spruce.
Fear not wood lovers and traditionalists, there are a select few reviving the art of sublime custom-built wooden surfboards and one such craftsman can be found in Swansea.
Introducing - The Williams Longboarding Company (TWLC)
We were fortunate to catch up with shaper and owner of TWLC, Adam Williams (AW). He kindly carved out precious time from his day to answer a few questions. My lasting impression after our chat was how much genuine passion and enjoyment AW has for his art. Here are two of my favourite quotes during our exchange:
'It’s amazing how from just a lump of wood you can turn it into something of joy.'
'Sometimes it’s a shit job, but it’s not about the money. It’s about delivering something people will have fun on. It's about giving enjoyment to people and the rewards come when I see a customer’s face light up when they see their board for the first time.'
A little bit of history - Adam is the son of Alan Williams and they started shaping together back in the early eighties. There weren’t many boards on offer at that time and they put their hands to work to produce their own water weapons. AW’s shaped his first board when he was twenty years old. He remembers it fondly and laughs when he recalls the 7’6" Mini Mal he shaped from a Clark Foam blank.
The Cardiff based company was originally established in 1984 and traded for a while out of 'Ocean 80' on the Canton premises. During the nineties things went quiet and AW turned to carpentry, which he did for twenty years.
Then something very cool happened. In 2012 AW’s friend Todd was clearing out an old building and found a couple of Balsa blanks. He loaded them into his vehicle and went to see if AW might be keen to dust off the tools and shape some boards, to which he replied ‘no, not really’. Thankfully his friend didn’t give up. He eventually persuaded AW to make one in exchange for one of the blanks. This rekindled his passion to pick up tools and get shaping again. With his years of carpentry experience, AW knew he could do things better this time round.
In 2015, after three years of perfecting his shaping skills, he re-launched TWLC. The boards have had an excellent reception from the local community and travelling surfers alike.
Surf Bunker - Thank you, Adam, for taking the time to talk with us. Can you describe what you do in three sentences or less?
AW - I convert raw balsa into a close-tolerance shape-able blank. I then shape this into a board to the required dimensions. Then I encapsulate it in bio-resin to create a strong, agile wave-riding machine.
Surf Bunker - What are some of the biggest difficulties you’ve faced with being a board shaper and working with wood as your main source of construction?
AW - People’s mindset. I don’t try to preach about the eco benefits with this type of board-shaping construction as 70% of people will turn the other way. It’s more about the workmanship and making a surfboard that is strong and that will last for a long period of time. It’s an investment financially & in the planet so those that make the choice to go for wood know there are very few downsides environmentally speaking.
Surf Bunker - What is your happiest mistake whilst doing this job?
AW – This interview – haha!
Surf Bunker - What is your favourite wooden construction method for building your boards and why does it stand out from others we see on the market today?
AW - The Wing Blank construction I use is a stronger and more versatile build method as it allows the Blank to be shaped and not just finished. Its torsional and lateral integrity is superior to other methods which are basically a sandwich. My Blanks all have a stringer which locks the components in place and are not just an internal spine.
Surf Bunker - Which board construction method takes longer, a wooden board or a PU construction?
AW – Wood as it takes at least three times longer than shaping a foam board as I also have to build the blank from scratch before I even start shaping it.
Surf Bunker - What types of wood do you use and why?
AW - I work mainly with balsa & use some cedar/sequoia to give some differentiation & interesting colour contrasts to the boards. I also use tulipwood & basswood for stringers.
Surf Bunker - Where do you source your wood?
AW – All of my timber is from sustainable sources, whether international or local, e.g I recently used some cedar that had come from a fallen tree 20 miles from my workshop & sequoia from fallen branches in woods right behind my house! I get my balsa from Papua New Guinea where it is grown a pioneer species for reforestation.
Surf Bunker - Do you only make wooden boards?
AW – No. I also make EPS, my favoured second construction method, as it’s also a more sustainable product and is recyclable. I will make a foam/PU board if a customer requests one specifically.*
Surf Bunker - Can you explain your Wing Blanks?
AW – The bottom & the deck are glued in compression & tension with thickness distribution spines through the length of the board. That is then cut down the length to insert the stringer & glued back together. I then cut this out inside the finished template & the rails are glued on to this in layers so they are effectively solid wood. To finish, nose & tail blocks are added, to complete the blank that is then ready to shape into a board.
Surf Bunker - Can you explain the Bio Resin and its benefits?
AW - I use ‘Super Sap’ which is made from waste steam from the paper making process. It’s strong and flexible. Seeing as the boards have a lot of structural strength already, I use a 3rd less than normal (probably less than that on a wooden board so they are a lot lighter than people think, weighing in similar to a PU board).
Surf Bunker - When will the Pro’s been seen riding these type of boards?
AW - The pros will have to be open-minded and have more input into what they ride. Until they start making decisions about surfing more sustainably, & being more conscious about the impact their sport has environmentally, the surfing machine will continue to spew out toxic waste & disposable items. They should be setting the standards for others to follow, not feeding into this consumer culture in which luxury items like surfboards are seen as disposable.
Surf Bunker - How much does it cost to purchase one of your works of art and how long does it take to make a wooden board?
AW - It would depend on the size and shape of the board. Our most common model is the Circa 64 9’6” which costs anything from £1500 upwards. I can have one made up in 4 to 5 weeks and ready to use.
Surf Bunker - Worst thing to happen to surfing?
AW – China & the internet!
Surf Bunker - Best thing to happen to surfing?
AW – Wetsuits – improvements in materials & technology has made a huge difference.
Surf Bunker - Is there anything you’d like to add or any stories you’d like to add?
AW – It's always great to get feedback from my customers who have taken a step towards a more sustainable way or surfing & riding waves. I still get messages from people years after they’ve picked up their board to let me know how they’re still enjoying & getting a kick out of surfing – this makes me smile!
Thank you, Adam, for taking the time to answer our questions. If you ever you find yourself in Swansea around the Crofty Industrial Estate, be sure to check in and see the work in progress. Also, keep an eye out for The Williams Longboarding Co demo days, it’s a great opportunity to meet the man behind the work and to test one of his beautiful creations.