The story that follows is being reprinted with the gracious permission of Surfer Magazine and Sam George. What follows is an account of Sam’s January 2006 purchase of a custom Hobie board in the dawn of a post Clark Foam age. In a way that only someone as gifted as Sam is with words, the story weaves through the crafting process touching on bits like, the anxieties of working with new materials, and creating the beginnings of a new board class… a Stand Up Paddelboard. It is like a time capsule, taking you into how the first “new” blanks were put together by hand and, even better, how Sam’s 11’8” SUP was a high performance surf model at the time.
Process of Soul
By: Sam George
In surfing’s new post Clark Foam landscape there has been much talk about how the process of getting a new surfboard is in danger of losing its soulful quality: that one of the most scared acts has been stripped of its spiritual significance by what is being perceived as the secular endorsement of new materials and manufacturing techniques. Despite almost total acceptance of innovation in elements like wetsuit design, leashes, wax formulas, deck traction and surf forecasting, when it comes to surfboard materials there is a palpable resistance to change. “Give me that old time religion….” Or polyurethane foam, in this case. Incredible as it may seem, in our very own “evolution versus intelligent design” debate, a lot of otherwise open-minded folk are championing the latter, casting Hobie Alter and Gordon Clark as Jehovah and Moses, the poly-prophets having brought the mass-produced surfboard down from the mount almost 50 years ago. It’s about faith in factory doctrine, the iconoclasts will tell you, and that any deviation is blasphemy. Doing it different is wrong.
And maybe they’re right. But let me tell you about my new board.
I drove to Hobie Surfboards factory in Capistrano Beach, located about a thousand yards inland from the rivermouth lineup and Doheny. Parking was tight on the crowded, light industrial cul-de-sac: pickup trucks with battered bed and construction racks wedged bumper-to-bumper in front of the concrete yard, woodworking shops and Coconuts bar. Hobie’s front door was closed and locked. I only knew it was Hobie’s because of a small logo on a mailbox and a few stickers on the window. But there was a string to pull, attached to small brass ship’s bell inside, and after a few plaintive clanks the door opened. I was met by Gary Larson, a 27-year-old surfer/shaper from Dana Point. Short dark hair dusted in foam, a pair of baggy trunks, AC-DC T-shirt (“For those about to rock…”), barefoot and smiling. I followed him into the dim building, adjusting to the darkness and breathing in the surfboard factory: freshly cut, wood, acrid resin, the tang of hot power tools and that musty, old-barn smell, the scent of passing eras clinging to the dusty surf pictures and pin-up posters. Passing the shaping stalls, bright lights bouncing off flat-blue walls, the white blank laying on its stand like a medical patient. Boards, new and old, racked along the walls, ding repairs and hopeless cases. Order forms with hopeful color instructions pinned onto shaped blanks like love letters.
My blank was waiting , in the form of a giant square block of white expanded polystyrene foam, standing there like an obelisk, over 12 feet high. Gary Larson stood smiling , gazing up at the mountain of foam. It struck me then how odd the surfboard building aesthetic has been, with most manufacturers and consumers reviling anything even hinting at the dreaded M-word (molded), when in fact virtually every polyurethane blank in use prior to January 1 was neatly popped out of a mold almost fully formed, with rocker and volume pre-set, requiring only the minimum planer-passes to produce the finished product. And here stood a young shaper staring at a rectangle of foam like Michelangelo might have a block of freshly hewn Carrara marble, capable through sheer artistic imagination of divining from a feature-less hulk the finished sculpture waiting to be freed from within. Or in my case, the 11’8″ high-performance stand-up paddle model.
As it turned out Gary had already cut a rocker approximation and now we needed to split and glue up the resulting blank, bending even more curve and preparing it for templating. To this end the young shaper had fashioned a custom table with sliding partitions designed to laminate both sections of the massive blank together, using giant C-clamps and rubber straps. He coated each freshly cut edge with a carefully mixed epoxy glue and we lowered both halves into the form. Lining them up properly was essential, as it was a proper lamination. To this end he enlisted the help of Terry Martin, who stepped out of his nearby shaping room, dusted himself off and strolled over to examine our procedure. Martin, being no less than the world’s most experienced production shaper -one of Hobie’s original shapers, in fact- and possessing, behind his twinkling eyes and bushy beard, more knowledge about surfboard construction than almost anyone living on the planet.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “This is great.” He had provided some thick rubber bands and strips of biketire inner tubes tied together end-to-end. While Gary cranked down the C-clamps, fitting the table form with PVC shims to tighten the fit, I helped Martin with the distal ends of the blank, stretching the rubber bands and inner tubes about the foam, binding the pieces together. And it brought to mind a picture- plenty of pictures, grainy black-and-whites, of cluttered dusty garages and workshops: Dale Velzy’s, Greg Noll’s, Hap Jacobs’, Wally Froiseth’s… take your pick. Andin those garages could be seen young mencovered in shavings and dusty, laboring over surfboard blanks, made mostly of wood back then, but then the early foam models, too, gluing up, strapping up, clamping down. And then later drawing out the template, thick pencil scraping the contours of the ingenious flip-template, the rasp of the handsaw as it’s extricating the form, the magic moment when the hunk of wood or foam suddenly boacmes a surfboard.
So here I was, January 2006, with a hot young shaper, barefoot in trunks, and an Old Master, rubber strips and template in hand, breathing on foam made from “new” material, building a “new” surfboard from the blank up in timeless manner.
Got the point yet? That’s right. Regardless of what kind of foam it’s constructed from, a surfboard is just a piece of plastic. That’s all. We provide the soul. Always have. Whether you make it, or just ride it.
So long as you love it.
-Written by Sam George
Sam is currently the Editor-At-Large for SUP the Magazine
-Edited and re-typed by Tracey Engelking
-All photos property of Gary Larson