Mike Diffenderfer photo Larry Pope
SHAPING AN ART FORM
By STEVE PEZMAN
The article appeared in Surfer Magazine back in the 1974.
We would like to thank Steve Pezman of Surfer’s Journal and Surfer Magazine
Today in 1974, there are many more surfboards shapers within our sport than there used to be. Probably in the hundreds. But relatively few are really fine shapers who have put in the years of learning to read foam and to control their tools, so necessary to create out of a given volume of foam a predetermined shape. (Rather than being satisfied with what they seem to have ended up with when they put their fine-sanding block down.)
The shaping of surfboards is a remarkable art form spinoff from the sport of surfing, easily as involved as the act of riding a wave. In fact, there are striking similarities in the terminologies of both surfing and shaping. Even back in the early days of draw knives and varnished wooden planks, those who had the knack of creating those long, heavy, spiritual spears were considered to be a notch above those who could only ride them.
In present times, even with the use of easily shaped foam, becoming a master shaper involves developing and intimate and complex knowledge of the medium and the tools used to form it.
It becomes a full-time, absorbing task to keep abreast of the constantly evolving blanks and surfboards theories.
There are a staggering amount of variables. Different batches of foam have different densities and textures. Every mold or plug has a different displacement of volume and curve. Every glue-up has a chance to vary. The starting point for a shaper is practically never the same twice in a row. Thus, shaping becomes a zen; brain game of sorts, challenging your ability to see what’s there, and act accordinly, requiring a combination of efficiency, concentration, creativity and manual skills.
At first you begin to develop the barest abilities to look at a blank or shaped board and read its contents. You learn to gaze across a plane of foam, form one angle then another, and see it as flat and true, tilted, bumped, dipped or what.
You learn to distinguish between a low dip in a line as opposed to high spots on either side of a point on that line that creates the illusion of making that spot on either side of a point on that line that creates the illusion making that spot look low.
You become capable of comparing the widths, tapers, and slopes of bands you’re cutting on either rail. You get to the point where you can step back and see enough in a shape to like it or not, for specific reasons rather than for gut feelings. To be able to look at and read foam, you use shadow-casting lights and silhouette. The space you shape in must be large enough to allow you to step back from the shape and view it in its entirety.
And the walls should be dark to form a contrasting backdrop for the white light reflecting foam. Lighting is used to create form-defining shadows. Shapers preferences for lighting setups vary between top lights, side lighting and combination of both. Side lights have a tendency to create more readable shadows when a blank is flat on a shaping rack, while top lights have a tendency to fill in light and obscure shadow.
Both side and top lights are generally made of eight-foot fluorescent light boxes, and their distance from the shaping rack, as well as elevation in relation to the blank on the rack, greatly affects the intensity and coverage of the light. Many shapers who prefer top lighting are in preferring not to see what they’re doing (what marks their tools are leaving) unless they shape the entire board in a vertical, on-edge position in the racks.
It takes shapers quite a few blanks from a particular mold to learn it qualities. By learning, I mean knowing at the start, without having to look, where the volume of foam is and where the flaws are (there have been good blanks, but never an absolutely perfect one).
On a blank from a badly warped mold, you can spend fifteen minutes just straightening it out, and end up with such a reduced amount of foam that you have little choice as far as thickness, rocker and contour are concerned.
Merely being able to look at a blank and read it correctly can take up to a year or two of full-time effort. Basically, looking involves scanning the blank from many angles while comparing one longitudinal half to the other and seeing what’s there to work with. Initially everything looks the same, but after a few minutes you begin to see things.
The lines and planes a shaper is looking at are the top line or deck from nose to tail, along the stringer and the outer portions of the deck both longitudinally and crosswise from nose to tail, and the same for the bottom. A shaper will also step back and look at the entire length of the blank edge on the thickness flow (flow of the volume between the top and bottom lines).
As a shaper learns to read lines and planes, he begins to see them as a series of straights comprising what seems to the untrained eye to be a curve. The task becomes one of converting these straights and the points where they meet into a flowing, true, evenly breaking curve.
To remove a high point from a line means touching just that high point with your tool and not the low on either side (the same holds true for removing a low point). Since your tools are all planning on the existing surface, unless you’re merely duplicating or compounding your earlier mistakes.
Eight years ago, shapers were faced with making 10-foot boards out of 11-foot blanks. They had to remove tremendous amounts of foam and maintain large, true planes of bottom and deck while doing it.
They also had to keep ten feet or more of rail line and contour the same on both sides.
The shapers who are still into it from this era are generally superior tool users and foam readers to those who started more recently in the short-board era, with blanks being very close. Plus, those old boards had 50-50 rails rather than the low-cornered ones of today that are much easier to read while shaping (Hynson is no fool).
To accomplish this massive foam removal, shapers developed individualized systems or sequences of things they did to a blank every time the same way in the same order. A truly flexible system could be adapted to any shape.
With slight alterations due to different tool preferences and blanks, etc., a system might go something like this:
(1) Look at blank if major bumps, dips or glue-up are way off, correct with planner.
(2) Draw outline and cut out and saw.
(3) Adjust rocker and bottom and deck surfaces to proper thickness and flow. (note: this procedure can be done with step # 1 also.)
(4) Band rails with planer (to begin with a series of bevels which break the rail curve into the deck).
(5) Fine-contour rails and blend into bottom and deck with sureform.
(6) Clean up center stringer and fine tune nose and tail with block plane.
(7) Rough sand with block.
(8) Screen rails.
(9) Fine sand flats.
Through every step, you’re reading the blank and making adjustments and corrections. Shaping systems are constantly being evolved by the shaper. Basically, they are confined to the tool-use abilities the shaper has mastered.
The advent of production shaping in the early to mid-60’s created master tool users who developed new techniques such as the use of power saws for outlining (which sounds scary, but was a break through in the sense that the more efficient the tool, the more perfect the cut), and power disk sanders for sanding flats and blending curves.
The logic being, aside from speed, that the larger the surface you could effect in one pass, the fewer bumps you shape in.
It’s funny, but the common belief that the longer a shaper takes to do a board, the better it will be is more often than a fallacy. The whole idea in shaping is to touch the foam as little as possible in the most direct fashion with the most efficient tool. And that takes knowing at the beginning where you want to be at the end.
Templates are constantly evolving along with board theory. Basically, a shaper keeps revising a line he’s been working with for a long time, rather than designing an entirely new one each time. Using a template is another art in itself.
From one template, many different outlines can be created by combining portions of one or more templates. Sometimes an outline on one side of a board represents the sum of three or four different sections of template all blended smoothly together. It can b tricky to duplicate such line on the other side of the blank.
The power planer is used to remove areas of foam from the decks and to carve tapered bands, the first step in turning the rails. You use a planer just as the name implies, planning the tool on its rear planning surfaces, holding the tool so that you’re cutting a controlled line with a controlled angles to the blank (which may want to change during the cut).
Learning how to control the planer as you extend your arms without altering the angle of the planer, while adjusting the depth of bite the blade is taking, takes time. Learning how to swing the tail of the planer out when coming to a sharp upward curve so that the length of the planer doesn’t bridge the curve, inadvertently changing your angle of attack is another tricky and time consuming lesson to be learned.
Many shapers cut their planers down to reduce this problem. Saw are basically used for outlining. The whole art of using this tool is to remember you’re creating a curved, vertical plane (the thickness), not just cutting along a line. Here, ability is centered around holding the tool in a constant up and down attitude while following the line.
Sureform a grating tool about ten inches long and an inch or so wide. This is the crutch tool, the hardest to control accurately, as far as cutting surfaces goes, and the hardest to tell afterwards what you’ve actually done to the board.
The sureform is properly used in a plane conscious way, rather than for scrubbing on spots. It’s used as a blending tool, and can cause a hell of a lot of bumps if you’re not delicate or try to attack a large surface of foam with it. Many shapers overuse the tool because it feels so direct and craftsy, but it’s a mistake.
Block plane, if you had to choose one hand tool with which to shape a board, this would be it. It’s easily controlled and leaves a nice, even surface, compared to a sureform. However, the block plane is basically used for flushing the center stringer and fine tuning the nose and tail. It’s also good for altering the top and bottom line of a rail band.
Sanding Block, you use a block (as big as you can control) whenever sanding so that you cover a large area with fewer strokes and with a constant angle and pressure. Sanding is used for blending, fine contouring rails and flats, and making minor corrections to nearly finished shape. Different grades of paper vary the cutting power and resultant smoothness.
Abrasive Screen, Potentially another crutch tool, the screen is primarily used for final smoothing and contouring of the edgeof the rails and into the decks four or five inches. A lot of shapers will try to do too much shaping with the screen because it tends to hide bumps by eliminating the ridge that casts the shadow. It won't take out bumps, for merely duplicates the surface it's pulled over.
Every shaper has his personal tool use habits, and frequently customizes his tools to fit his system. Learning to use all these tools to the degree that they don't hang you up is more involved than it may seem. For instance, learning to go both front side and backside with your planer is a necessity if you wish to shape your rails from tail to nose on both sides. If you don't, or can't, chances are they'll be different.
The entire shaping process calls for total concentration. Foam is very malleable and easy to contour, but also easy to ruin for the same reasons. The system that a shaper develops becomes a reflection of his efficiency and perceptiveness, a contest with himself to materially create that which he mentally envisions.
Surfboards are incredibly beautiful and functional sculptures. Part of their beauty lies in what they're designed to do: to slide down the face of an upward- flowing mass of water in a controlled fashion.But their forms exist aesthetically on their own artistic merit as well as on their usefulness.
The surfer shaper who has earned, over a period of years, his ability to read foam and who has evolved a truly direct system and a flowing set of templates, is just that much further into the intrinsic values hidden within the sport of surfing. And we are the lucky ones who may plug into all that energy by merely riding his shape.
In one art is zen used time and again-shaping for all the seasons. Archipuni