DON KOPLIEN IN AN ERA THAT WAS LEGENDARY
BY Thomas Takao
The intermittent rain was falling on the parking lot at Haleiwa Harbor on Oahu. It was a wet Monday morning with the winds and traffic being light and the waves on the North Shore being choppy and diminishing. Not the best time to go surfing, but an interesting time to talk to Don Koplien, one of the best shaper / glasser of the 1970’s era.
Initially the interview was to take place aboard Don’s boat the Lana Kini, but was relocated to a café in Haleiwa due to the rain. The table we were sitting at was next to a window. As the raindrops made their way down the windowpane, the steam trailing from the coffee cups vanished into our conversation. Don was recollecting the North Shore during the winter of 1967/68, his first winter on the island of Oahu. Don and his wife, Lana, rented a house on Rocky Point and adjusting to the slower pace of life out in the country. Driving around in a typical north shore cruiser, a 53’ Chevy, added to the experience of being part of the emerging surf scene that stretched from Haleiwa to Velzyland. A small area of coastline that was about to embark on changing the face of surfing as never before.
There was this one time when Don’s friend David Nuuhiiwa whom Don knew from his days at Huntington Beach and Bing Surfboards. One day David came by from town with a friend, that friend was Gerry Lopez. David left Gerry there at Don’s house for a couple days while David went back to town. Don took it in stride, but his wife was a little concerned about Gerry being abandoned. Don got to know Gerry in the short time that he was there. Meanwhile the surf came up, so Don and Gerry decided to go surf. David had a few boards at Don’s house, and being a good host, Don offered the use of one of David’s boards. David had a couple of Mike Hynson shaped boards that he made for him. Hynson along with some other notables of the time like Miki Dora, were staying in a house next door.
After selecting a board to use and grabbing a bar of paraffin wax, Don and Gerry walked down the beach to Pipeline. Don sat and watched as Gerry paddled out into the lineup. After a couple of waves Don paddled out and joined Gerry. They were the only ones out in the water and Gerry was catching all the waves he wanted. Gerry’s ability to ride the Pipe in 1967 was impressive to say the least, Don recalled. Not knowing it back then during the takeoffs, tube rides, and paddle outs that Gerry was starting his legend at the Pipe and Don was starting his legend in shaping and glassing.
As the two walked up the beach refreshed from their surf session, Don would have never thought their paths were going to meet again and that a lifelong friendship would develop. As it turned out David showed up after a couple of days and Gerry went back home to town and his studies in Architecture . Gerry and Don would not meet again until a year later. Don and Lana would move to a house further down Ke Nui Road, the new location was across the street from Kammie’s Market. A photo was taken in front of this house for Surfing Magazine in 1970. It was titled the “North Shore Brotherhood”.
That winter Don was over on Maui, and had Dick Brewer shape a board for him. Don knew Dick from the mainland when Dick was shaping for Bing Surfboards. (Don was on the Bing Surf Team) The glasser who was supposed to glass his board didn’t show up. Don was leaving for Oahu the next day and was forced to make a decision. Having watched glassers before, Don decided to glass his own board. This would be his first glass job. By the next morning he had it finned, hot coated and it was suitable for travel. After returning to Oahu Don started glassing boards in his backyard for friends.
In May of 1968 Don returned to Huntington Beach and rented a house and turned the garage into a shaping room/glassing room. Word spread that Don had just returned from Hawaii and was making boards. Those who knew Don stopped by the house and saw his shapes. They liked what they saw and wanted a board made by him. This gave Don an immediate customer base to hone his shaping and glassing skills.
Don knew some of the guys at Plastic Fantastic Surfboards (PFS) in Huntington Beach and by the end of the summer Don and PFS decided to do a joint venture in Hawaii. So Don was back on the North Shore in September of 68. Don rented an old dilapidated house and Dave Garner, Danny Callaghan, John Boozer, and Greg Tucker worked with him to turn it into a surfboard shop. Dave and Danny moved into a house next door to the shop, which was in better shape than the shop.
He remembers Larry McElheny as a super craftsman who rented one of the shaping rooms at the shop. The shop was located up Hakuola Road at the base of the cliff opposite Ke Iki Road. The house turned shop had a couple shaping rooms upstairs. Glassing was done in the living room and another large room next to it was for glossing. Other rooms were used for sanding and polishing. The house was built on stilts and there was plenty of room under the house for another shaping room and storage.
With a engineering background which showed in his approach to making surfboards. He neatly printed “Koplien” on each of his boards 18 inches from the tail by the stringer. This became somewhat of a trademark. He also kept a log of each shape with the dimensions and the client’s names. Starting with batten sticks and afterwards making templates of the boards he made. Don developed a wide range of templates that ran the gamut of outlines that were being used on the North Shore.
Don shared the shaping room with other North Shore shapers at the time. There were Larry McElheny, Billy Hamilton and Ryan Dotson to name a few. Ole Olson showed up for a short while and shaped, and there was Nat Young, Bob McTavish and other Australians who would stop by during the contest season and shape some as well.
The shops in Town (Honolulu) were clamping down on the backyard board builders on the North Shore. The reason was the backyard builders were taking business away from the Town shops. Don felt the heat the building inspectors were putting on him so he rented a shop in Haleiwa. The shop was zoned for light manufacturing and the landowner received the variance for the previous renter who was into pottery and had to have a kiln. Don now had a shop in Haleiwa which was zoned for manufacturing which satisfied the inspectors and the Town shops decided to drop the issue.
Plastic Fantastic opened a retail shop in Kailua but it didn’t do well, and closed its doors only after a few months. Don got his boards out of Plastic Fantastic’s shop and placed them on consignment in Rick Surfboards in Honolulu where Barry Kaniapuni was selling his boards. Rick’s closed their doors a month later and Don took his boards down the street to Hobie Surfboards. Within less than a year Hobie closed their doors on Kapiolani Blvd. So Don decide to take his boards to Surfline. Gerry Lopez had just started shaping at Surfline just before Don started consigning his boards. After two weeks Don and the owner of Surfline are having problems agreeing on the selling price of his boards.
He was at a stand-still and told the owner he would give it some thought. Jack Shipley, who was the shop manager at Surfline, was aware of the problem Don was having. Jack pulls Don to the side and tells him that he and Gerry were starting a new surfboard company called Lightning Bolt and would like Don to come with them. When the owner of Surfline inadvertently found out about Jack and Gerry’s plan, he fired Jack immediately and tried to pressure Gerry to stay. Gerry being at Surfline was a definite draw for them. When Gerry said he’d made up his mind and he was leaving with Jack, some subtle threats from Surfline were made. A couple months after the Lightning Bolt show room was open someone tried to set fire to the back of the building. No real damage had occurred.
So Don is now with Lightning Bolt and the rest is history. He produced six boards a week, shaped and glassed them all. Don’s glass jobs were probably best known for there rich even colors and the fine pin line work. At that time the colors were tints mixed in the laminating resin and the trick was to squeegee it out evenly to avoid streaks. Pin lines were done by taping off both sides of an area and applying pigmented resin with a brush. There were no airbrushed colors at the time. Don was making Bolts along with about three or four other shapers that would eventually join Lightning Bolt.
Lightning Bolt quickly became the predominate logo seen in the water during this era. Shapers on the North Shore at the time that influenced Don were Mike Diffenderfer and Larry McElheny. A glasser at the time that he also appreciated, and few knew of, was Bosco Burns.There was a significant changes in surfboard designs starting in 1967. In his opinion the change began with John Mobley who had a shop in Haleiwa. He was making and riding the first “short” boards on the North Shore. That same winter Gary Chapman, older brother of Craig “Owl” Chapman, showed up with a “mini” gun shaped by Dick Brewer. This began a mini gun explosion that set standards that still apply today. Bob McTavish showed up from Australia with the “V” bottom that many were skeptical about.
Around 1970 Herbie Fletcher was riding a board shaped by Mike Hynson. It had a flat bottom nose to tail and the rails turned down hard. Don remembers old pictures of Herbie. You saw him always side-slipping down the face of the wave but he could pull it off. Don made one of these for himself but didn’t care for the results. In asking Herbie about the side-slipping he just said “yea, you just got a go with it”.
Thinking in terms of a foil, he softened the rails at the wide point of the board while still leaving them relatively hard at the nose and quite hard at the tail. The board could now stay in the face of the wave without releasing off. No more side-slipping and we still use that concept today. There were some various attempts at multiple fins, but it didn’t really make much headway until the end of the 70’s. Looking back now, it was obviously the way to go. Today materials have gone high tech and it is constantly evolving, Don mentions. Having done a side slip here we will return back to the story and the North Shore.
Next to Don’s shop in Haleiwa was Country Surfboards. Eventually Don gave up part of the glass shop to Country Surfboards and Jack Reeves who started glassing there. Country Surfboard shapers were Mike Turnbull, Mike Turkington, and Roger Hinds. After the transition, Don moved his board building operation to his house at Pupukea Hill. His shop was located on the first floor. If he weren’t shaping, you would find him glassing. Another one of the shapers that he was glassing for was Tom Parrish. Tom was also shaping for Lightning Bolt and his designs were popular among the top surfers of that era.
Shortly after starting with Lightning Bolt, Don took on a partnership with Greg Matney, who was a T-shirt silk screener. They developed a company named Superscreen Hawaii. Don’s knowledge and contacts in the surfing industry and Greg’s talents in silk screening were a perfect match. They went on to develop some of the first more realistic looking designs and artwork to go on T-shirts. Prior to that, most had more of a “cartoonish” look. This new look was due to a new process in photo quality tint overlays.
The 80’s were a couple years away but things began to change before then. The demise of Lightning Bolt was seen by Don as a great loss to some of the roots of the surfer/shaper era that moved surfboard designs “outside the box”. At its peak they began to broaden out the Lightning Bolt name into other areas. This was a good move until they sold some control of the name to a mainland company. Gerry got out at that time and Jack continued on to do his best to make it all work. The problem quickly became apparent. The new partners in their three piece suites started changing things mainland style. The relaxed style that made Lightning Bolt what it was, seemed to collide with the direction the new partner had in mind. One by one the orginal group started going their own way.
Don and his family left Hawaii in 1977. On one of their trips back in 1982, they happened to arrive the day after Hurricane Iwa had hit Oahu. On his second day there he went into town to go see Jack Shipley at Lightning Bolt. He walked into the show room on Kapiolani Blvd. The power was still out from the hurricane and Jack was there by himself. The shop was dark and only partially stocked with a few boards and other products. Don asked what was going on and Jack said “I guess we’re closing the doors”.
Over the years since Don and his family left the North Shore as their home and moved back to Huntington Beach, he returns frequently for waves, fishing and golf. He continues to shape a few boards for himself and friends and has them glassed at Spanners in HB. Don and his wife Lana, his two sons, Erik and Keenan, who were born on the North Shore, and their three grandsons all live in Huntington Beach.
He has crossed paths a number of times with Jack Shipley since then, and who now is a head judge for the Hawaii surf contest circuit. Healso has seen Gerry Lopez when he makes an appearance from time to time on the North Shore. Gerry now lives in Bend, Oregon, and has a successful snowboard and clothing business while still making a few surfboards. He moved up there after touring the area on Harleys with Grubby Clark (Clark Foam) and their wives about 12 years ago. Grubby now owns a ranch about an hour north of Gerry.
Don’s last contact with Gerry was following an article in “The Surfers Journal” in July of 2002. The article was by Gerry and featured his reproducing the classic pintail “Coral Cruisers” he made famous at Pipeline. Gerry had some nice things to say about Don in the article when reminiscing about Lightning Bolt, Gerry had his email address shown under one of the photos. Don emailed him and thanked him for the comments and recalled some of their memories of the 70’s. Don speaks highly of Gerry as a person who, after rising to the top in the surfing world, always treated you kindly and made you feel like you were his long lost friend.
The interview began in the parking lot of Haleiwa Harbor and concluded at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier