I thought that by sharing the same first name would buy me a bit of extra time with the self-confessed ‘human CNC machine’ of a shaping legend, Jim Phillips. Turns out that Jim had time to talk to me regardless. A lot of time.
You know how there is sometimes a hype about someone that you look up to and you are let down with the actual experience? It happens a bit to me in this line of work. Not naming names or anything but a certain dreadyhaired, soul-inspired goofy foot who once battled Kelly Slater was kind of the biggest disappointment for me and maybe that was my fault for putting him on such a pedestal.
This particular meeting, I am pleased to inform to you, is the complete flip-side of the coin.
You know when you think you know something? A chosen subject, one you are into and trying to learn more about whenever you can? Your kind of passion, I guess. Well, mine is boards that surf, where they came from, how they work and obviously surfing them. It has turned into a rather unhealthy obsession and has been alive for some time. I bore the socks off my poor wife and family. I am told that I shouldn’t talk about it at the dinner table and especially after a few beers. I know now that I have to keep this chat, this natter for a chosen audience. I know, lucky you!
When I want to know something or get clarification I have some people I can ask and books I can read. Some things are harder to understand until you experience them which (shucks) means I have to surf.
So, back to thinking I knew something which, when I started listening to Jim Phillips talking about shaping, boards, stringers fins and rockers, all dissolved into oblivion. I tried in vain to keep up with the conversation, getting about 50-60% of what he said. I mean, it blew my mind away. Really. The man (I guess obviously) is a genius.
So this article is about how a layman (me), who tries to understand the surfing world I live in, and at the other end of the scale a solid veteran of the shaping world having a chat.
My eyes have been opened and I have been humbled, Jim is one of the most knowledgeable, skilled and friendly people I have ever met, he talks about his and others' creations with an authority I never encountered before. And why not, the list of people who Jim has worked with, for or beside reads like a star-studded cast list. I could list them but that would be a waste of key taps that, I am sure, have been tapped before.
I have been lucky enough to speak to a lot of shapers in my life, from all over the world both via this medium in which I speak to you and in person and I can hands down say that I have never encountered a wealth of knowledge as deep and as certain as Jim's. It was Peter Pan who gave him the nickname because his boards were always 6 months ahead in terms of design and performance. Do you know what, I think Peter may have been on to something.
We thought it would be awesome to get Jim's take on everything surf and help spread his abundant wealth of knowledge out into the ether for all to see. Luckily for us, Jim was stoked with the idea.
SB: Hey Jim, how did you get into surfing and building surfboards.
Jim: The way surfing and surfboard building came into my life was, my father a near30-year combat pilot came home in 1960 and said we were going to be assigned a new duty station. I had turned 14 that year, summer loves, friends I'd made for most of my youth. We'd spent a long tour at Otis Air Force on Cape Cod, it was the Cold War, so my father was not off at a war.
His announcement was, we are going to be moving to Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii, I asked if I would be attending school while we were stationed there. Any bit of information I may have had about Hawaii was nearly nonexistent.
Flew military transport, C-45, commercial version a DC-3 twin engine prop for 9 hours 45 minutes.
Woke up the first morning in the Prince Kuhio hotel in Waikiki, my brother, sister and I jumped into our clothes. We raced each other the 3 blocks to the Pink Hotel and there was the morning Pacific Ocean with brown skinned Hawaiian surfers riding on their boards. That was it, I had never seen or heard of surfing, but I wanted to do it! But Goddamnit it was going to happen, Hawaii was still an overseas duty and we'd all gotten a half dozen or more shots at Travis Air base before boarding the plane. We'd have to wait a week before going in the water!
My mother gets us enrolled in school and within 3-4 days have my first altercation with a local boy over my book covers, I get cuffed for disputing what he has to say. I'm really off to a good start, scabs fall off and after begging 1.25 $ off my mother I rent a surfboard.
This first seconds of it gliding across the water as I paddled it was so exhilarating, the small, 2-3' Waikiki waves were pretty easy to get out through. I don't remember if I caught my first wave on an unbroken wave or white water, but it didn't take many more before I stood up.
The saying, only a surfer knows the feeling, from that day forward I was a surfer!
We moved soon into Pearl City and now we're mid way between Waikiki and the Ewa Beach area. I met my next door neighbor, a Chinese-Japanese-Hawaiian, Kazu Lui-Kwan a boy my age whose grandparents lived in Ewa Beach and he surfed also.
Every weekend it was out to Barbers Point Beach for the day or Hau Bush in Ewa Beach surfing. If the day was at Ewa, his mom would bring the unreal Japanese Hawaiian lunch with her. You're 15 years old and this is your life, how could it be any better, but going to Ewa Beach I would meet a young Hawaiian, Guy Kamaka that was building his own surfboards.
Guy was the tap root on the tree of board building I'm cut from. I had begun letting my parents know I'd like to get a surfboard of my own, when they priced them it was no. Surfboards were pricey in Hawaii and I had no idea of what my father's pay was, but he wasn't spending that kind of money on a surfboard, boards in Hawaii were 125-150 bucks.
So I was still renting boards at Barbers Point on weekends and my father comes home one afternoon from the Pearl Harbor Navy exchange with a 10 foot cardboard box sticking out the back of the Plymouth station wagon. Inside was a surfboard kit, preshape blank, cloth, resin, acetone, catalyst, fin, everything to build your own surf board. My father had experience maintaining the radar domes on aircraft that were built from fiberglass and resins.
With his assistance (he did most of the work) my first board came out very well.
SB: You talked about placement of the fin on a longboard being very important, could explain it to us?
Jim: It's not just the placement, but fin shape. The rake or angle a fin tilts over and size all come together in determining fin placement. The closer to the tail a fin is increases the length of turn, the same for rake.
The first finned boards had wide tails, the fin needed to be close to the end, as shapes became more refined and the tails pulled in it wasn't necessary to have them so far back. As the fin moved forward it let more rail in the water and didn't ride so flat, it lacked drive. There is the Goldy Locks zone of too much either way.
SB: How many boards do you think you have hand shaped in your life?
Jim: I've never kept a complete record of how many boards I've shaped, but in the early years, I was production shaping for other labels and have shaped over 2,000 of my own boards. You spread that out over 57 years and it's a hell of a lot of boards, somewhere around 50,000.
SB: What, do you think is the single aspect others get ‘wrong’ in shaping?
Jim: The two things that make or break a surfboard design are rocker and fin set up. A team rider had me alter his rocker dramatically, everything else stayed the same. The board sucked, it gagged into the wave face the second any pressure was applied to it. I kept rerouting the fin boxes, increasing the toe in each time. Finally, after the fins were looking cross eyed at each other did the board turn, but a very flat turn like on a skateboard, it wouldn't turn on a rail. Entry rocker is the other make or break, I see boards on the roof of cars coming towards me and the water pushers stick out like a sore thumb .
SB: Who do you think has contributed most to surfboard innovation and what was it?
Jim: There is no single breakthrough or designer or shaper at the apex of this pyramid, but there are major breakthrough/contributions. Words across time, Simmons made 'em fast, Velzy made 'em turn. Redwood to Balsa, balsa to foam, better rockers, better fins, v-bottom era, more shortboards, down rails, twin fins, tri fins, styro/epoxy, foiling. It is a craft that has been in a continuous flux from its very beginnings and will continue.
SB: How important do you think it is for a shaper to surf his own boards and surf regularly?
Jim: When I was the gremmie in Hawaii I'd scour the early surf magazines looking at the pictures and articles of the surfer champion shapers. To me the shaper riding his board in competition said it all, he just put his money where his mouth is.
I started building surfboards so I could always be close to the ocean and surf, It becomes the ugly monster when building the boards you love take away the ocean part of the equation.
I also ride other shapers boards to get a feel how their designs feel, I rode a broken Bear board for over a year, it was put back together really badly, rocker all screwed up, I loved it.
SB: What is your view on CNC machines and how they are affecting the industry?
Jim: CNC is the only way for any major builder to accurately recreate their line consistently. It's a tool, but now there has been a proliferation of builders who cannot hand shape with any real skill.
SB: You are an amazing advocate of ‘the stoke’, what is the single most important part of surfing or shaping to you?
Jim: Gotta have the stoke, here is a block of foam or wood and inside there is your mental image of what will be. When signing it you look at how it has transformed from something that looked so different to now.
SB: Thanks a bunch for Jim for taking the time to enlighten us with some more knowledge. It would not be right of me also to not mention Nico from Wavegliders which is where I met Jim. I flew over to chat to Nico about an unrelated project and he rocked up in his van with Jim in the passenger seat. Forget about my jaw dropping as almost fell off. As is the way when meeting a legend and being surfers, I tried to act like it wasn't a big deal. "Remain cool" I said to myself but I'm not convinced I did a good job.
Nico hosts world class shapers from all over the world at the Wavegliders factory as they tour certain shaping establishments in Europe in a more than generous exersice of making custom surfcraft for Europeans. The Mountain coming to Mohammed springs to mind. Be sure to either watch this space or check out the Wavegliders social media to see the who's and what's that are upcoming.
The biggest shout out, however, is to the man who has taught me that I know nothing and the delight it gives me to know that I have to learn so much more about my favourite thing in the world. Surfing surfboards.