Making wooden surfboards: Wood, waves, and craft

In 2007, I launched myself into an over-ambitious and improbable DIY project. This was to make a wooden surfboard, which seemed easy enough to say out loud. Little did I know. In retrospect it was over-ambitious because, without any experience of working with my hands, I completely underestimated the skills required to meet the image of the perfect wooden surfboard that I could see in my mind. The definition of improbable is that while something is not impossible, the likelihood of it happening is relatively slim or unexpected. My wooden surfboard project was improbable exactly because it was over-ambitious. It was highly likely that I would come up against the hard fact that my actual surfboard was so far away from what I could see in my mind that I would become demoralised and realise that I had taken on something that I was ill-equipped to complete successfully.

The opposite happened. I felt a deep sense of exhilaration throughout that first surfboard, even though I could see from very early on that the surfboard I was making wasn’t going to be something that even looked anything close to a good surfboard shape. The reason for my exhilaration, I understand now, wasn’t in the end result, but in the process. For many years, I had felt an inkling that I needed to do something creative with my hands, and, just by setting out, I had met that need. In that sense, the outcome became less important. The reasons for not doing it, like my own lack of skills, or the fact that making a surfboard is the domain of shapers that have laboured for years and not first timers like myself, didn’t matter anymore.

The exhilaration was such that I have been making wooden surfboards continuously ever since that first surfboard. I’ve been earning a living from making them for well over a decade, and, in some ways, every surfboard is like the first one. My skills and understanding of my craft might have progressed enormously, yet I hold an image of each surfboard in my mind as I am making it, and strive to reach that ideal. The gap between the image and the practical outcome has narrowed, but there’s always something to learn and improve. Making a wooden surfboard is a long and complicated process requiring mastery not only of woodwork but also an understanding of surfboard design and how any given surfboard will interact with the curved and dynamic surface of a breaking wave.

I’ve been fascinated by the process of craft, the learning of it, and what it is about us humans that are drawn to the process, especially in the context of a world where technology and automation reign supreme. Why, when we don’t have to get our hands dirty, does the desire to do so bubble out from within us? Or is it precisely because of the rise of automation and artificial intelligence that we seek to find expression of something more primal and sub-conscious?

Craftsmanship, at its core, is a marriage of skill, patience, and passion – a symphony of three distinct areas, each of which requires dedication and commitment to achieve a measure of mastery. Each step, each cut, and each carve has its own lesson and it all contributes to a whole. Engaging with this process had taught me to respect the materials, to honour the process, and to value the amalgamation of human touch and natural elements. The wood, seemingly ordinary planks at first glance, hold all of this within them.  

Making a wooden surfboard is a laborious process. It is the longest and hardest way of making a surfboard, requiring about 80 hours of labour from start to finish, which can be slightly less or more depending on the size of the surfboard. One of the downsides of the length of time it takes to make a single surfboard is that it slows down the learning process, something that for many years has frustrated me. Why was I struggling with something that I had already struggled with, why was I seemingly unable to get something right? Over time, I have come to see this process as a blessing in disguise. It has forced me to be patient, to understand that it is not a race, but a voyage. The wood demands respect and diligence, pushing me to synchronize my pace with its own. It cannot be rushed; it is a labor of love that requires time and devotion. Crafting a wooden surfboard is akin to coaxing the wood into its truest potential, understanding its personality, and guiding it to its final form.  

Craftsmanship extends beyond the physical act of creation; it delves into the realms of philosophy. It advocates for mindfulness and being present in the moment. When making a surfboard, the mind becomes attuned to the rhythm of the work and the subtle nuances that have to be seen. It’s a meditation, a form of art that demands not just skill, but a deep connection with the craft.

The impulse for humans to work with their hands stems from our evolutionary history and the inherent connection between manual work, creativity, and problem-solving. Throughout human evolution, our survival was closely tied to our ability to manipulate tools and materials in our environment. Our hands evolved to be versatile and dexterous, allowing us to create and use tools for various purposes such as hunting, cooking, and shelter-building. It’s no surprise that we should seek to fulfil this evolutionary imperative.

There are other reasons that I relate to and find meaning in, chief of which is a connection with the physical world. Working with our hands fosters a deeper connection to the physical world around us. It enables us to understand and appreciate the properties of different materials, their potential uses, and the effort involved in creating something from scratch. When I started making wooden surfboards, wood was a means to an end: part of the idea in making a wooden surfboard was to use more environmentally friendly materials. But I’d never really thought about wood as a reflection of the miracle of nature. Over time, the material has seduced me, and I am fascinated by the grain patterns of a tree and the story it holds within it. It is such a miracle! It’s drawn me closer to nature, any my life has followed that call in the sense that I have chosen to live in nature and seek out open space where I feel I can hear, see and feel the wonder contained within nature.  

There’s also something meaningful in the sensory engagement and resulting fulfilment of working with your hands. Hands-on work engages multiple senses -touch, sight, and often even smell and hearing. This provides a deeper and more fulfilling experience compared to virtual or abstract activities. Touching and manipulating materials can be satisfying and grounding. Additionally, the focus and concentration required during hands-on tasks can promote mental well-being by reducing stress and anxiety. Finally, completing a project through manual labor provides a sense of accomplishment and ownership. Witnessing the finished product, knowing it was crafted with one’s own hands, is a great joy, to say nothing of paddling out on what you have made and catching waves.

I’ve learnt too that problem-solving and learning is not only the preserve of books and academics, and that you don’t have to have a fancy education to be and intellectual. Hands-on work often involves overcoming challenges and solving problems in real-time, and that requires sophisticated thought processes. It encourages learning through trial and error, improving critical thinking, adaptability, and problem-solving skills. Each project presents unique obstacles, fostering continuous growth and development. Through this journey, I have gained profound respect for artisans who work with their hands.

Wooden surfboard workshop: Big wave gun shape

Making wooden surfboards has taught me that true mastery is an ongoing process that I may never achieve, a journey that never truly ends, but is worth taking, wherever it leads. Going back to the beginning of this story, did I actually ever surf that first wooden surfboard? Yes, I did. Surfing it was definitely one of the reasons why I continued making wooden surfboards, but that an be a story for another post.

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