The white foam dust covers everything in Tim Bessell's La Jolla surfboard shaping room: the walls; the floor; the curly, dun-colored hair sticking out from Bessell's black baseball cap. He stands over a foam surfboard blank, leaning in with his electric jig saw, carving the shape of what will soon be a “fish”—a high-performance short board designed for small and medium waves.
Power tools aside, Bessell's techniques for shaping would be recognizable even to the ancestral shapers, men like Carl Ekstrum and Al Nelson, who would receive shipments of lumber at the Windansea Beach parking lot. They'd bicker over who got which planks before stalking off to a couple of sawhorses out on the sand, where they'd craft their next boards.
But Bessell isn't a traditionalist. Last week at the Action Sports Retailer convention at the San Diego Convention Center, he stood with Aviso Surfboards hawking the carbon-fiber boards he'd designed for Aviso. Standing with the latest in surf technology, Bessell spoke of how hand-shaping was no longer his mainstay, that now he can shape faster, and with far greater precision, using a computer-controlled knife.
“I'll always be hand-shaping surfboards. There is that personal touch,” Bessell said. “But I can turn out so many more surfboards thanks to the computer.”
Among the first to go digital, along with Bessell, was shaper Rich Harbour, a legend in his field. He'd always used wooden profile frames that let him trace a cutout along the foam. But in 1998, two former apprentices came to him, offering to write software for modeling his boards. The pair was part of a trend in surf design, one that allowed board makers to scan an entire board and digitize it for future use. They can store thousands of prototypes and make slight adjustments for a customer's weight, surfing style and favorite break. The shaper can put a blank board on the roller and a computer-controlled blade carves the gentle slopes into the board. Some board makers will make additional modifications, but, strictly speaking, all that's left is a final polish and the fiberglass coating.
These days, Harbour loves to sit at a computer and tweak a favorite board and experiment with different shapes before the knife ever begins a cut. He'll take a favorite model and experiment with widening the nose, or changing the tail—even with computers, surfboards won't evolve on their own. The robot knife needs an intelligent designer behind it. Like chess players who rely on thousands of memorized games to prune their strategic options, surfboard designers rely on the experience of hand-shaping thousands of boards to eliminate bad ideas and see new alternatives.
“That's what's great about this—it lit a fire under my old, cold butt,” said Harbour, who has been in semi-retirement for years. “You can call ‘soul' all you want. But I'll give you a better board.”
And there lies the rub. Surfer Internet message boards flare into craft-versus-machine-precision debates on a regular basis. In 2004, shaper Dave Parmenter wrote what became a much-forwarded open letter on the glories of hand-shaping.
“Working with your hands in the quiet of a little workshop is the very definition of soul—the craftsman's/artisan's soul at least—and I care little if that ‘soul' cannot be flaked, formed and molded for vicarious import to the masses,” he wrote.
Even just four years later, the hand of Adam Smith has rendered much of his argument moot. There are still devotees to the full-time use of hand-shaping, but computers, combined with mass production, have totally changed the business of shaping surfboards. Companies like Aviso and Santa Cruz-based Surftech have recruited shapers like Bessel and others to design the boards that they can crank out in large numbers. Or, Harbour said, a Chinese maker will buy a board off the rack in the United States, ship it home, scan it, and then mass-produce knock-offs. Many surfers don't even know they're buying boards made in China.
“They'll sell a board for $180,” said Hank Byzak, a North County shaper with 40 years of experience. “It costs me $120 for the blank and $40 to glass it.”
Harbour points to deceptive practices, as well.
“They'll see a ‘Designed in Southern California' sticker and not realize that there's another, smaller ‘Made in China' sticker,” Harbour said.
Bessell estimates that these days, fewer than 10 percent of all boards on the beach are fully hand-shaped. With so much coming out of big factory assembly lines or off a computer, Bessell believes he is part of a “lost generation” of shapers.
He got his start shaping in his parents' garage at 13, and by 16, he had his own business. He worked his way through college working for shapers like Lightning in Hawaii and eventually worked for Billy Caster before striking out on his own again. In the factories, he worked with hundreds of other shapers, swapping tips and learning their craft.
“When I'd done 500 boards, I thought I was the shit,” he said. “Then I got to 2,000; I knew I wasn't. When I got to 5,000, I knew I didn't know anything. Not until I'd made 10,000 boards did I think I knew what I was doing.”
But these days, with many of the factories using machines to “pop-out” new boards, “where's a young kid going to learn?” Bessell asks. “They can't get the experience I got on someone else's dime.”
The only route remaining is to apprentice in someone else's shop, but shapers are wary of taking on apprentices.“I'm not going to train someone and have them turn around and watch them start their own shop. I already got burned that way,” Byzak said. “If someone wants to learn, they can get grandpa to spend some money and buy them some blanks.”