Words: Mark Sankey Images: Alexa Poppe

The progression of modern technology is running at staggering pace and this progression permeates almost all aspects of our life. Even ordering a surfboard is not immune to these advances, as many shapers have adopted computer aided programs and CNC machining. ‘Computer Shaping’ has to some extent been demonized as the harbinger of death to craftsmanship and many shapers proudly announce their surfboards as 100% hand shaped in response to this. In my opinion the important point is how shaping machines are being used, what choices surfers are making about the boards they buy, and where these choices are taking the surfboard industry.

Over the last few years, Steve Croft has shaped all my boards under his Empire Surfboards label. Steve is a consummate artisan, with an emphasis on low output and high quality, which goes against the grain of the machine-shaping stereotype. Steve adopted the surfboard design software and CNC machining as just another tool available to him in the ongoing development of his designs. The software and machine allows for reproduction of shapes with minute changes, it cuts down on the labour intensive parts of the production and my personal experience has been very positive. I feel more involved with the design and build of my boards. I really like the way you can compare the details of the curves, volume and dimensions from the new board with boards you are already riding. Let’s face it – computers don’t shape boards, people do.

If you are talking about high volume production banging out the same design over and over, then the machine operator/shaper doesn’t need to be that good of a shaper, but in small-scale production of custom boards then the shaper has to be highly skilled. Having the ability to hand shape a board from scratch is key to producing the wide range of boards demanded by surfers today. Shapers aren’t going back to cutting down trees and hand hewing a surfboard from its trunk. Nor are they going to start blowing there own wobbly blanks again. Like the power planner and the close tolerance blank, computer aided shaping is here to stay. When it is used by small-scale board builders tailoring boards to local conditions for individual surfers is when the tool is at its best. When it is used for mass production – then it is detrimental to local industry and small scale craftsmanship. It’s not what you use but the way that you use it.

Yet, not everyone wants to be constantly plugged in. Webpages, web cams, webcasts, web-based surf-forecasts, instagraming, tweeting, blogging and facebooking – it can all get a bit brain aching. After all the media input it can be refreshing to appreciate something earthy and grounded like a totally hand made product. So, some people will prefer the esoteric vibe of a 100% hand-shaped board, and others will opt for the more involved technological process. The important point is how shaping machines are being used and what choices surfers are making about the boards they buy. Consumerism and globalisation often work hand in hand to destroy small-scale craftsmanship, reduce individuality and increase the frivolous collection of point-less products. Surfing is full of these influences today, which is ironic for a sub-culture founded on individuality and self-sustainability.

You see many surfers today opting for brand marketed surfboards, when it is often less expensive to have a custom board tailored to your needs. Surfboard manufacturing must be one of the only industries in the world where mass-produced items are often more expensive than a quality bespoke one. Don’t get me wrong I’m not an Al Merrick or JS Industries hater, and there is no reason not to buy an ‘off-the-rack board’ from abroad. It might be just the board that peeks your imagination and fits your need. What really gets my goat is when I hear surfers say they cannot get a really good board from a UK shaper.

You just have to look what is under the feet of Britain’s finest surfers to see what a load of old rubbish that is. Tom Butler has been making a name for himself globally by riding some of the biggest and heaviest waves in Europe on British made boards. Alan Stokes, Russ Winter, Adam Griffiths and Ben Skinner are all riding locally shaped boards. Most of Britain’s best loggers have UK made boards under their feet and until his recent enviable move to the Bing Surfboards team, James Parry was riding homegrown shapes. Which he rode in both Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational events and Noosa noseriding events.

If local surfers don’t support the local surfboard industry then we won’t have one. The local board industry enriches our surf culture through its individuality and creativity, it also provides jobs and offers important support to upcoming talented surfers – Rusty Preisendorfer or Bob Mctavish aren’t going to patch your dings or sponsor a young local surfer. Building a relationship with a local shaper is a commitment, but a commitment worth making and one that can enrich your surfing experience.