KENNY TILTON "FROM FOAM TO KOA"
By Thomas Takao
Kenny Tilton grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and first started surfing Waikiki in the early 1950’s. His first surfboard was a redwood surfboard, then he moved on to a balsa surfboard. Balsa surfboards were lighter which meant it was easier to carry to the beach and out into the water. Beside being lighter it was also more maneuverable on the waves. Waikiki during the 1950’s was changing and so was surfboard designs, it was fun to be a surfer.
Back then the local Beach Boys would watch over those who went out in the water and made sure no one got into trouble. They would coach the young and show them the ropes on how to surf as the summer swells rolled in. 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 they were told to do.
He began shaping in the mid-1950 after buying a surfboard that Allen Gomes had made. Kenny reshaped and re-glassed it and to this day he still remembers the itch that he got from that surfboard, which had an exposed fiberglass layer that his leg rubbed against. The days of youth passed on and making an income was on his mind. Surfboard building was a new industry that was developing and Kenny wanted to be a part of it.
He 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.
His skills as a shaper were becoming known in Waikiki and Dale Velzy heard about it. Velzy had opened a shop in Hawaii and was in need of a shaper. Kenny was offered the position of working for Dale and 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. Surfing was becoming more popular and the orders for surfboards started to increase and this was the beginning of Kenny Tilton’s shaping career.
While growing up Kenny remembers Aloha Week in the Islands. The first "Aloha Week" took place in mid-September 1946 after the war. It included a parade, pageants, hula shows and services at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. The Aloha Festivals kicked off in Oahu, then each island would follow suit. There was a king, a queen, a prince, a princess and attendants in the parade, 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 and surf. After catching the wave only the white water and silhouette of their friends could be seen in the twilight of the shore line hotels and restaurants as they surfed towards the shore. They would do the same at Makaha and on the beach there. After which there would be a big bonfire where the flames would trail out 10 to 15 feet into the night sky as people gather around and talked story.
Good friends like Mokealii and Zulu would be jamming away on their slack key guitars as Don Stroud would be pounding on his bongo’s. Others like Chubby Mitchell would be playing a sweet jazz tune on his ukulele while Himo Hollinger would be singing a Ray Charles song. At Waikiki or Makaha’s there would be gatherings of people they knew like Joey Cabell, Rabbit Kekai, Dingo, Steamboat, Jesse Crawford and alot names from that era, classic times and good memories.
Like many in the islands Kenny was drawn by emerging surfboard industry in California. Knowing a few guys from the mainland that were heading home, Kenny bought a plane ticket for $75.00 from his friend Freddy Noa. The airline he traveled on was called Pink Cloud Airline and the flight over lasted 15 hours. After the first few hours of conversation most of the time was spent reading and sleeping. Kenny met a person on board and became friends.
Flying into the LA basin they would land at the Burbank Airport. Kenny’s new friend had a friend who pick them up and had a truck. 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 would last 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 in the South Bay. Hearing about Velzy’s shop in San Clemente Kenny made the drive down to San Clemente. There were no freeways back then, so the only way to get 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 crew. 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 1964 he moved up to Santa Barbara and worked for Yater Surfboards for a couple of years before moving up to Santa Cruz and worked for Doug Haut for a short time before starting Tilton Switzer Surfboards, then Soul Fish Surfboards to round out the 60’s. Into the early 70’s Kenny was on the North Shore of Oahu and worked for Country Surfboards and Brewer Surfboards. After that Kenny moved to the Kona side of the Big Island and made surfboards there.
In the 1980’s Kenny lived on Maui making windsurfers and surfboards for Jimmy Lewis. His shaping skills took him to Japan, Germany and to Spain. But he would return home to Hawaii and start doing the first SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) with Jeff Timpone on Maui in the 1990’s. Today Kenny Tilton is still making some foam surfboards, but has focused mostly on Koa and Mango wooden surfboards for display in public and private collections. His surfboards are a work of art and cherished by those who own them.