Kenny Tilton's Story
By Thomas Takao
Kenny Tilton grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and first started surfing Waikiki in the early 1950’s. Like his friends Kenny had to learn the basics in catching the wave then standing up and ride the wave. Learning how to control the surfboard by being able to turn and cutback took time and practice. His first surfboard was made of redwood which he learned to paddle. But since it is heavy and needing weight and know how to control made it difficult to learn on.
His next surfboard was made of balsa a lighter wood to carry and easier to control on the wave which meant being more maneuverable. After getting the basics down, surfing was becoming more fun to do and enticing. The local Beach Boys would watch over Kenny and his friends and others whenever they went out in the water. Show them the things a role model should do out in the water like their elders taught them when they were growing up .
During the summer Kenny and his best friends Bobby and Leroy Achoy would work for Barry Napolean and Bobby Crewson on the beach at Waikiki. Doing the things that he was told to do like go get this or help this person or clean up this area. Being around the beach and surfboards made Kenny more interested in making his own surfboard. With the money he made from working he bought a surfboard from Allen Gomes. For reasons known to Kenny he reshaped that board with what tools he had available to him and began learning working with wood.
Beside shaping his board that he got he also re-glassed it. To this day he still remembers the itch that he got from that surfboard. The reason being was an exposed fiberglass layer on the rail area that his leg rubbed against. Fiberglass as the name makes known is many strands of glass fiber and if those fibers aren’t cover means builder beware. The days of youth made way for surfboard building and a new industry. Kenny would seek to learn the skills to improve his craftsmanship.
He was mentored by notable shapers in the business of that time period, Abel Gomes, Wally Froiseth and George Downing. He developed an eye for shaping and knew that was his calling. His friend Donald Takayama started shaping about the same time and would make it his career as well. Donald, Boogie Kalama, and Raymond Patterson lived close by to Kenny, so they would surf and do things together.
There were Aloha Week in the Islands and the first "Aloha Week" took place in 1946 after the war and included a parade, pageants, hula shows and services at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. The Aloha Festivals kicked off in Oahu in mid-September and each island would follow suit and choose a king, a queen, a prince, a princess and attendants, all of whom were of Hawaiian descent. It was a colorful event with conch shell blowers and costumes of ancient times.
During this time there were night surfing , where Kenny and a group of his friends would take shorten Kukui torches out into the lineup and light up the area where they would be taking off at. After catching the wave only the white water and silhouette of their friends could be seen in the twilight of the shore line of hotels and restaurants as they surfed towards the shore. They would do the same at Makaha and on the beach there would be a big bonfire where the flames would trail out 10 to 15 feet into the night sky.
Good friends like Mokealii and Zulu jamming away on their slack key guitars as Don Stroud would be pounding on his bongo’s , Chubby Mitchell playing a sweet jazz tune on his ukulele while Himo Hollinger would be singing a Ray Charles song. At Waikiki or Makaha’ you would also have Joey Cabell, Rabbit, Dingo, Steamboat, Jesse Crawford and the names go on and on, classic times and good memories Kenny recalls of those days.
His skills as a shaper were becoming known in Waikiki and Dale Velzy heard about it. Velzy had opened another shop in Hawaii and was in need of a shaper. Kenny started working for him at his shop at 253 Cooke St. in Honolulu. There he would meet Richard Deese who was sent over by Velzy to show the new glassers at the shop how to glass surfboards the way the guys on the mainland were doing it. One of those new glassers at the shop was Raymond Patterson. The orders for surfboards started to happen and this was the beginning of Kenny Tilton’s shaping career.
Like many of those making surfboards in the islands, Kenny was drawn by emerging surfboard industry in California. He knew a few guys from the mainland who were heading home to California. Kenny had the ambition and adventure to travel to the mainland to seek his fame and fortune in the new industry. He bought a plane ticket for $75.00 from his friend Freddy Noa and got a ride to the Honolulu Airport where he walk up the passenger loading stairs of the Pink Cloud Airline to be greeted by a lovely stewardess. They were off on a flight that lasted over 15 hours. After the first few hours of conversation with his newly developed friends Kenny would spend most of his time reading and sleeping. After awakening they began their decent into the LA basin where they landed in Burbank. His new friends had telephone their friend who would be waiting for them at the arrival terminal and take them to the pickup truck in the parking lot.
It was winter in Southern California and the truck ride from Burbank to Santa Monica was a cold one for Kenny. He was in the back of the truck with just the clothing he brought over, basically a T shirt, pants and flip flops. His stay in Santa Monica was just 2 weeks before moving in with friends that he knew from Hawaii at Hermosa Beach.There Kenny got acclimated to the surf scene and the waves. Making the drive down to San Clemente took some time. There were no freeways and the only way there was by the Pacific Coast Highway. But once there Kenny made friends with the crew at Velzy Jacobs Surfboard shop and became one of the guys. There he got to know Al Nelson, Carl Ekstrom, Rennie Yater, Sandy Banks, Harold Igge, Del Cannon, Bill Cooper, Bob Cooper, Danny Brawner.
Already knowing George Kapo’o, Bobby Patternson and Donald Takayama made it like he was in the old neighborhood. Besides those mentioned, there was Bruce Brown, John Severson, Bud Browne, Grant Roloff and the boss Dale Velzy. After the breakup of Velzy Jacobs Surfboards Kenny moved back up north to Hermosa Beach and started working for Hap Jacobs at Jacobs Surfboards. Following his stay at Jacobs, Kenny shaped at Bing Surfboards and then move on to Rick Surfboards where he was doing the Barry Kaianapuni and Dru Harrison Models.
In 1965 he moved up to Santa Barbara and worked for Yater Surfboards for a couple of years before moving up to Santa Cruz and started working for Doug Haut. It wasn’t long before Kenny started Tilton Switzer Surfboards then Soul Fish as the 1960’s came to an end. Into the early 70’s Kenny worked for Country Surfboards in Haleiwa and Brewer Surfboards at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu up till the mid 70’s. During this time period he would get an opportunity to crew aboard the Polynesian Cruising Society’s Hokale’a. After that Kenny would move to the Big Island on the Kona side and make surfboards there while surfing places like Banyan’s and Lyman’s.
In the 1980’s Kenny moved to Maui and started making windsurfers and surfboards for Jimmy Lewis. There was a big demand for windsurfers and Jimmy Lewis was getting a lot of orders. After Maui his shaping skills took him to Japan, Germany and to Spain before Kenny would return home to Hawaii and start doing the first SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) with Jeff Timpone on Maui in the 1990’s. As the new century started Kenny began making his own boards along with Koa and Mango wooden surfboards. His surfboards are a work of art and cherished by those who own one. Currently he splits his time in the Philippines and Hawaii enjoying both locations.