By David Pu'u
The year was 1996. I had been working in and around the surfboad industry for about 20 years at that point. I had taken a good look around at prospective changes in the industry, and that inspection told me it was time to go. I had look down the barrel of turorials from countless expert board builders and shapers and an incredible compilation of firsthand knowledge about surfboard design and history and say "Oh well", time for me to leave.
The primary reason was not what one would at first suspect. Sales were through the roof. There was no real way to keep up with demand, and an influx of surfing into mainstream media was beginning to indicate a groundswell of growth for the sport that would likely continue for many years. What I saw, that made me leave was the impeding death of the craftsman in American surfboard culture.
A basic fact of business, is that an industry must be able to supply income of an adequate amount not only to support the worker, but if that worker were to remain in the industry, a living of sufficient means to support a family.
In looking at the history of surfboard building, craftsmen typically started out learning their trade as either ding repairmen, or fin makers. They then worked their way up and through the various facets of the surfboard manufacturing process; polishing, finish coating, laminating, sanding, shaping and ultimately, designing.
Its is a long process gleaned from practice and mastery of the various steps in the production process and generally takes quite a few years, many boards, and detailed training by master craftsmen to accomplish. At the end of the long process, the new craftsmen understands all of the details of designing and fabricating a surfboard. Details such as the performance characteristic of various resins, fabrics and foam, are all filed in the skill set of each worker who makes it through the arduous training period.
What made me leave the industry was the fact that a board craftsman working at maximum capacity would generally max out somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 in earnings a year. He would be working a 40-50 hour week assuming that not much went wrong in the skill intensive procedure, requiring extra work to bring a flawed job up to snuff. Then after factoring in things like cost of living, risk to health from daily contact with hazardous materials of varies types, healthcare etc, there just was not enough cash left to keep even a frugal family afloat fiscally. I realized that the people I was training would never support a family, no matter how hard they worked.
At the time, Santa Cruz designer-builder Randy French, was making serious inroads into molded surfboard fabrication, and rumors about China coming up to speed as a manufacturer, utilizing low daily wave workers ($3.00 per day at that time max) indicated that still more change was on tap. The risk outweighed the reward of being able to hand make equipment and have a somewhat flexible schedule that allowed for water time when the surf was good. I left.
Several years later, in a conversation with Rennie Yater he told me that the income for designers had actually gone up in the ensuing years since my departure. Molded board production was supplying royalty fees to designers for use of their marquee and designs. He said things were the best they had been for him, since the early days of the industry.
The popularity of the sport grew, and serious inroads were made by surf brands into fashion apparel markets.
The Entertainment industry further capitalized and fanned the flame, producing films and television shows which featured surfing in rather prominent fashion. The surf industry appeared to be snowballing with spinoffs seekers like Target, Abercrombie and others completely apeing the popular conception of surf culture being portrayed.
Demand for equipment continued to grow as a result. China having gotten it’s act together, seemed to be capable of answering the call for quality durable equipment both in molded and hand laminated foam and fiberglass construction. At this time Clark Foam closed, creating a rush by small manufacturers to fill what many perceived to be an insurmountable void due to the combination of the recent history increased demand and the loss of generations of product development via the death of Clark. What occurred after, had taken many by surprise: demand slowed. Why?
I had taken a trip to Western Java at the time, with a large crew of talented Hawaiians. We brought approximately 22 custom foam and fiberglass boards, and about 28 Surf Tech molded boards. At the end of ten days surfing in 4-8 foot Javanese barrels, only two custom boards remained intact. All but one Surftech, which I saw take a direct hit as it tombstoned in front of a ten footer at Ombak Tuju and explode, survived basically unscathed. By trips end, everyone was riding Surftech.
What this experience served to illustrate, is that should the bulk of the market convert to more durable boards and the current state of stasis in design continue (surfboards have not changed appreciably in many years) the basic impetus that had kept people streaming in the shaping room door for twenty years would be eliminated, or at best squeezed to a trickle. And this is exactly what appears to have occurred. The market for custom equipment decelerated. This had directly affected professional shapers and custom builders.
There are several basic reasons that a surfer gets new equipment:
1. Because you can. You feel like something different, and can afford it. So you do.
2. Your current board is worn out.
3. A new design emerges that offers something entirely different.
Line item 2 and 3 are what keep board volume demand up for the most part. These are the key reasons for some of the recent disturbing events.
“Oh but wait a minute” you may be saying. “My friend so and so is shaping and so is his friend etc… Current tax law loosely stated defines a profession as being any activity by which the bulk of ones income is derived. Hobbyists are just that. They have other occupations by which they derive their livelihood. No sport or industry that I know of exists based on the efforts of hobbyists though often as a new sport comes to life, the hobbyists/enthusiast is an integral building block.
A few names: Hobie Alter, Reynolds Yater, Al Merrick, Robert August, Bob Pearson, Doug Haut, Bob McTavish, Dick Brewer, Ben Aipa, Dick Van Straalen. The line item each has in common is the title of Master Craftsman. Each was trained in more or less the same fashion: by tutorials or apprenticeships under tenured predecessors. Oh and the fact that they are all breathing living examples of a rich history in surfboard development and knowledge.
The various aspects of the craft are handed down from generation to generation. What keeps the chain unbroken is the basic structure of a working healthy business based on demand. A profession needs to have steady demand and enough profit for the company to exists. For the first time in generations, the surf industry does not offer those things on any level. What is occurring as a result of recent changes, is a disconnect of sorts. It is fairly obvious that the traditions and age of the craft are at an end. We are now in a period of time similar to the Dark Ages for craftsmen, but I do not think that the market realizes it yet.
Recently, a spate of remaining custom builders have begun to close their operations, relying on smaller sub contractors who glass the shaped blanks for a dwindling number of custom orders. Their start to finish, design-build factories are simply going away due to lack of demand and profitability. Shaping as a craft is basically being moved back into the garage from whence it emerged. Board building, as a comprehensive design and manufacturing process is simply stopping in the US.
But here is the reality: the sport and retail market as a whole does not need a high end surfboard with every aspect of the design produced in great detail and control. The average surfer cannot even recognize the nuances. In fact, were most people to ride the ultimate in performance equipment, all but the delusional would have to admit that for them, the board sucked. I once had an extremely experienced volume builder (1200 a month) tell me that the average surfer really needed an average board that allowed for ease of paddle, slow and steady predictability of ride, durability, affordability, and decent resale value.
He was right apparently. Most of us are average. That is the market. The same person who wears Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister, and whatever is sold at Target or Walmart, they are surfing now, and they simply do not understand or care. So there will be no new Rennie Yaters, or Hobie Alters.
Traditions steeped in the relatively years. Short time frame of our sports existence will be kept alive by websites and a few museums as the last craftsman simply stops breathing. End of story. End of an era. But as in all things, it is just part of the cycle. I have to admit though, that in reading through what I have written here, it makes makes me want to pick up my Skil planer again, for the first time in many years.