49 Years Of Shaping As Applie To SUP Design
By: Steve Boehne
As I start this project, I feel a bit like an old musician who has mastered his instrument but can’t quite explain exactly what he does. However, when you listen, you can hear the past, you can hear the depth, you hear the notes bend and the baseline twist. I can only tell you that after running a Skil-planer over foam for forty-nine years that the same things are going on. I’ve got thick calluses on my hands that fit around the contour of the depth adjuster on my old skil, just like a guitar player has on his fingertips. As he stretches his strings and bends his notes, adds vibrato, and “grows” a song each time he plays it, I constantly apply combinations of pressures and twists to that old skil-planer to make the blades reach down into the foam behind the nose rocker and up under the tail, or around the rails. I’ve learned how to cut at precise angles, to take microscopic “bands” off the rails to produce a dozen different rail contours for a dozen different styles of surfboards. A good shaper consistently improves his planning and shaping techniques the same as a good musician does.
I love shaping surfboards, creating a functional sculpture from a blank (shapeless block of foam) is very rewarding. During the process, we shapers are combining multiple slivers of knowledge about our tools, with slivers of knowledge about the particular blank on our shaping rack, with slivers of knowledge from riding generations of surfboard shapes on decades of a variety of waves. We combine rocker, V-bottom, concaves, rail contour, countless outline variations and thickness distribution; we give birth to a surfboard in reference to the guy who has trusted us with his order . As I work, I hear noise, but I feel the sweet sounds of a song caressed, and taken beyond itself by me, a musician who can kick butt on his instrument. I guess I’m bragging, but I’m only trying to express how shaping surfboards by hand feels the same as playing a familiar song on a warm, mellow, old Martin guitar; There is pleasure knowing the guitar couldn’t have done it without me. You can see that I like to define making surfboards in much the same way as making music. As you listen to a recording, you can be amazed by the raw talent that produced the sounds, but when you look at a surfboard, how do you appreciate all the subtle, unseeable aspects of a shape that supports your weight, and uses the waves energy to project you even faster than the wave itself?
I look back to how I shaped ten years ago, after only thirty nine years of experience, and I think; “You fool, you thought you were so hot”. Now I know I can learn even more. The EPS (expanded poly-styrene) Stand Up Board (SUP) blanks that we are all shaping now are so resistant to sand paper that they practically force us to get even better with our planers. This is tough, gnarly stuff that requires a special grinding drum on a planer. After shaping about 1600 SUP’s, I can wrap that planer around a nice, full tucked edge, SUP rail and practically send it straight to the laminator.
You can’t hear it, maybe you can’t see it, but when you surf, there is a definite personality of performance that each shaper breaths into the birth of a board. You may have learned that you prefer a particular shaper’s boards over others, just as you prefer a certain style of music. This is because each shaper has a certain feel that he likes his board to have as it travels through the water. Over the years, he will grow in his understanding of what to do in his shaping to deliver that feel time after time. His boards will change subtly, but they will become more consistent. There really isn’t a best shaper or best model, it’s more a process of discovering which style of shaping matches the feeling that you like your board to have while you are surfing.
Each generation of surfboard shapers since the beginning of the art has contributed step by step to the point where we are today. Progress was amazingly slow. As we look back, the path seems so obvious. When I started back in 1960, the objective was to make a board symmetrical; the bottom was exactly the same as the deck. Nobody thought about the fact that the bottom of the board planes on the water and the top of the board goes through the air. Rocker was restricted to what you could carve out of a 3 ½” thick balsa wood plank. The early polyurethane blanks had very little rocker as well because it took years to realize how rocker effects performance. A few years back, I asked Phil Edwards, perhaps the most respected shaper of the 1960’s, how much rocker he put in his boards back then. His reply was: “I have no idea, we never thought of measuring it”. Today, most shapers precisely measure and proportion rocker very carefully into their boards. Progress was made only as the next generation of shapers rode a board, felt where it held them back, then imagined what needed to be changed: a little more tail rocker, a little more kick in the nose, a curvier template, v-bottom in the tail, a contoured rail with a hard release edge. The changes took so long, it appears that shapers could only observe one aspect at a time. And just like clothing trends, shapers copy each others progress. It is amazing, but the evolution in surfboard shapes seems to happen nearly simultaneously around the world. It’s hard to tell the leaders from the followers. Hum, maybe it’s spontaneous, universal creativity.
Naturally, SUP surfboards have gone through a similar evolution, because the early SUP shapers didn’t have the experience riding them to know just what was needed. However, the learning curve has been much faster, in just four years, we have progressed from “narrow” 25” wide and 12’ longboards that were stiff and tippy to high-performance boards that even though they have a great deal of volume, can maneuver as well as a modern long board. This quick progress has been achieved only because many very talented surfer-shapers ride their creations, feel where improvements are needed and returned to the shaping room to make the changes. I would say that nearly monthly, through surfing, we become aware of “adjustments” that need to be made to a rocker, outline, rail contour …. that make next month boards just a little better than last month's. Now, may I point out that you don’t get this from a molded board or from a board shaped and glassed by a guy in China who doesn’t surf. True, Americans, have not gotten into making molded boards, so if you want a molded board you will have to go Chinese. At a point in time, a molded board was the best that the shaper had to offer, unless it was created by a computer and even then it takes over a year from shaping room to a molded product. From some of the fat noses, contour-less rails and basically poor SUP designs that are invading our borders, who knows how they were created. To me, surfboard making; shaping, laminating, sanding, glossing, and polishing, is a noble profession just like any labor trade. Every surfboard tradesman that I know is an accomplished surfer. At the end of a long hard day, you can look at the rack of boards that you have helped create and you feel pride. You see the customers name on the order sheet and you know he’s “gonna” love his new board. If you want a hand made EPS, epoxy stand up board, think about supporting the American surfboard worker. Just like every other job and product that used to be made in America, surfboard jobs are being exported overseas. Personally, my truck is a Ford!
I don’t know exactly the path that other SUP shapers have taken, but I assume that it is similar to mine. Obviously, each shaper has his own techniques to create the performance characteristics that he prefers. We all made our mistakes. From years of shaping large tandem boards, it was an easy transition for me to SUP shapes, but I was used to making tandems for two people and for a year, I tended to shape SUP’s thicker than necessary. I still don’t like to stand on a sinky, tippy board, so my boards tend to be quick, easy paddlers. One way that I do this is unlike a typical surfboard, I proportion more of the thickness of the board behind center. I thin out the nose to reduce swing weight and add extra volume in the back quarter. This also helps match the place where you stand while paddling to the place you stand after you catch the wave so that you don’t have to jump back as you drop in. In addition, the tail doesn’t sink out from under you when you do your “wheelie” turn to spin and catch a wave.
At first, I was using normal surfboard rockers on my SUP shapes. They were loose and “turny”, but as I got better at SUP surfing and started riding larger, faster waves I found that the additional width and volume of the big boards felt slow compared to a surfboard. You may have noticed how much faster a shortboard is compared to a longboard, the same thing applies to a wider, thicker SUP as compared to a longboard. Over time, I, as well as many other SUP shapers, have decreased the overall rocker on our SUP shapes in order to increase the speed. The idea is to “fool the water” into reacting to your board as though it is shorter, thinner and narrower. I do this by shaping the center part of the board with a much flatter speed area. When you stand forward on this “speed” spot to trim across a steep wave section, the board accelerates as if it were a regular board. When you step back onto the tail, the turning zone, the water feels the rocker of a shorter, “turny” board. This combination produces a SUP shape with quite a bit less overall rocker than the same length longboard. For example, a typical 9’6” longboard feels great with 3 5/8” of tail rocker (tail rocker is measured from the bottom-center to the tail tip), but I shape a 9’6” SUP as though it will have as little as 2 5/8” of rocker and then add ½” into the last 36” of the tail to give it an overall tail rocker of 3 1/8”. This trick rocker goes much faster than a conventional smooth curve rocker and lets the board zigzag all over the wave face.
Shapers have slowly incorporated curvier outlines to give the high-performance SUP shapes an almost shortboard look. This is because we have discovered that the average SUP surfer needs from 28” to 30” width in the center to avoid struggling constantly to maintain his balance. The problem is that if you use a typical longboard template, you would end up with a 21” wide tail that is just too wide. I like a 14 ½” wide tail on my longboards for a nice powerful bottom turn, so there is a problem in designing a SUP that will turn with power. Personally, I don’t like a tail more than 17” wide on my SUP. I find that a board with a tail wider than that requires me to move my foot from center over onto the rail in order to do a powerful turn. Then I have to move it back across to the other rail for the cut back. This pretty much screws up the pace of your surfing. True, a wider tail does catch waves easier, but I love a nice powerful 16 ½” tail on my SUP board.
For years, I have rebelled against shaping machines. Even today, there are few new young guys learning the art of shaping. In a generation, hand shaping skills may be lost forever. This is because now, you don’t even have to copy a hand shape onto a computer, the software lets you create the shape on a screen, press a button and presto: ten minutes later, your blank is shaped. Where is the joy and artistry? Does the designer even surf? I can assure you, many don’t! However, how hard can anyone work? What do you do when more guys want your shapes than you can possibly shape by hand? The SUP explosion has finally convinced me that I need help from our new AKU 3000 shaping machine. Over the last four years, I have 100% hand-shaped around 1600 SUP boards. This has been a monumental physical task. This year, I have meticulously copied every detail of many of my shapes onto the computer. I look at it much as a musician, who can’t play live at every venue, but he can make a recording of his best work so that more people can enjoy his creation. The computer also allows me the time to return to some conventional surfboard shaping and to do those many special custom SUP boards that keep the creative juices flowing.
I can still incorporate the same water to shaping rack evolutionary process because our AKU 3000 is just down the hall from my shaping rack. When I want a small change in the design, I just call up the shape on the screen and redraw the lines. The machine does offer one advantage in that the shape remains constant until I make a slight change. I don’t have to remember a myriad of contours while simultaneously changing a few of them. I can always start at baseline and then bend a curve here and there on the screen before “cutting” the new version. When developing a new outline, I still prefer to draw pencil lines on foam to see the flow full size over creating a shape on a computer screen. After I have it just right, I measure by centimeters the exact same curve into the computer. After a shape is proven in the water, I can duplicate it exactly time after time or modify the size at the time of cutting for an individual surfer.
Most experienced shapers find that fine sanding machine cut boards is extremely boring as compared to creating the shape with their planers. Many of the old-timers like Terry Martin refuse to do it. I find that when I sand a blank that I have designed but was cut on the computer, I don’t mind because I know the roots of it’s beginning and I feel a part of this board’s origins. At the end of a day, I can finish eight boards cut by the machine instead of four boards shaped completely by hand. This sure helps when the order sheets are piling up and customers are calling, wanting their new boards.
Most surfers are passionate about their sport, for many, surfing defines who they are. Memories of surf trips to exotic locals and even particular rides sit in our minds just behind our current moment in time. They get us through our forty-hour work-weeks. The connection that you have to your sport is your surfboard. The connection that your surfboard has to the waves is your shaper. Every shaper I have ever met believes he is the best; I don’t mean the best technician, I mean the best at producing the kind of board he likes to ride. I truly believe he is right as long as he is as passionate about shaping as you are about riding his shapes.
Originally written in early 2000’s Steve Boehne has since been inducted into the International Shapers Hall of Fame in 2014.