This summer I made the decision to build a surfboard with my brother in our workshop in rural Sweden. I’m pretty new to surfing and haven’t ever built a board. Despite these two obvious red flags, there were no arguments strong enough to discourage us from the possibility of riding an (hopefully) elegantly refined surfboard built from anonymous pieces of timber. It’s an exhilarating thought, shaping your own gear for something you’re passionate about.
The once again trendy wooden surfboard is no recent invention, it’s literally ancient. Our construction of choice, the hollow skin on frame method, was patented by surf pioneer Tom Blake in 1931. It was the first design that gave surfers the luxury of not having to haul 30kg blocks of solid wood to the beach.
Apart from being beautiful, wooden boards can last a lifetime if treated with some dignity. Modern glass fibre and polyester covered polyurethane boards have a short lifespan – only a couple of years before they start to go yellow and eventually snap, leaving the owner with a useless stick of petrochemically derived plastics they have little hope of recycling.
The wooden board’s recent renaissance can partly be credited to awareness of their sustainable properties and partly because of the way they behave in the water. Some recreational riders shun away from (or give up on) the tight turning, aggressive, high-performance foam shortboards and look towards the gliding, cruisy and relaxed characteristics of a wooden one.
Easy access to plans, kits and video tutorials allow people like myself to take the plunge and choose to build over buying. Suddenly your new, shiny gear is not available at the click of a button. You have to put the work in, but it feels better. Back in the ’30s when the first hollow board constructions came around there was no commercial production, and most surfers had no other choice but to build their own. This DIY sentiment seems to have carried through to modern wooden board building. It attracts people obsessed with being involved in every aspect of their surfing obsession.
The board construction consists of complicated elements and leaves little room for mistakes. Despite this, it’s an exciting process. Making something for yourself once in a while, in your free time, without a deadline and outside influence is necessary if you are in a creative profession. It makes it possible to explore new toolsets, materials, and creative processes without the need to be efficient and confident from the start.
In my case it allowed me to make the process more hands-on. I found myself wanting to minimize everything that needed involvement from CNC mills, power planers, and even band saws. When sculpting, the more than capable disc sander was consistently left in its box in favour of hand planes. Silently shaving off long spirals of wood beats wearing clumsy ear protectors and particle masks, violently grinding through hardwood, and standing in a sawdust fog.
All in all, spending the holidays with a block plane can, in fact, leave you rested, inspired and maybe even feeling like a very small part of a long history of board building.