how has building your own boards changed your point of view?

Didn’t really know how to word the thread title, but how has designing and shaping / building your own surfboards changed: the way you surf?  the way you look at surfboards?  your relationship with the sport?

A lot of surfers, even very good ones, have limited knowledge of surfboard design and construction, and really don’t seem interested in learning. Seems to me they are missing out, but interested to hear your view.

There’s a lot of myth to board design. And when you shape, you realize that even between shapers there are disagreements on what’s right… So in a sense the myth never goes away, it just peels away like an onion to reveal another layer.

I started shaping believing that I might make a career out of it, but it ended up being a hobby that sometimes almost pays for itself. But it never fails to be interesting.

It’s easy to shape a light board that performs well, just by using factory rocker and trace someone else’s board on a close tolerance blank and glass it with 4oz. 

Shaping boards that withstand some abuse for multiple seasons and perform well is the real challenge though.

There are a lot of things about board design that aren’t easily quantifyable, and that creates a mystique and some people would prefer to commit their time to other things besides trying to crack the codes of board design. So it will always be a mystery to some people. But people who surf well could always benefit from trying to understand why their board works the way it does.

It sort of disappointed me, at first, that a lot of surfers didn’t seem motivated to try to understand. But it takes a different level of commitment…

It was at one point, a source of frustration for me that because of the public’s lack of understanding combined with the complexity of board designs and wave behavior, shaping ended up being a ‘popularity contest’ … But the guys who were popular ended up being that way for a reason, and they always worked hard and under bid the big name shapers… Just like I did.

I guess that I was popular enough that I was able to form personal connections within the community that enabled me to find other work when I needed to, and change my direction when things weren’t working out with my shaping career.


Well, you said an awful lot in a few paragraphs!  Yes, the “science” of surfboard design is, in the end, pretty un-scientific.  In the book The Wave by Susan Casey, she describes a seminar of 120 top world scientitsts, the Tenth International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting and Coastal Hazard Symposium.  “A wave might seem to be a simple thing”, she says, “but in fact its the most complicated form in nature.” The scientists can’t even agree on what a wave is!  Waves, it turns out, are so complex they defy definition.  One scientist admitted to the author that despite studying waves for years, they still struggle to understand how they work.  Little wonder that the slightly less scientific blokes who ride them, and who make water sleds (surfboards) to ride them, find a whole lot to disagree on also.

I never thought much about the difference in shaping a lightweight short-lived shortboard vs a heavier duty multi season performer with longevity, but it makes sense.  I know some people just copy a surfboard when they shape, but seems inevitably the shaper ends up tweaking the details, at which point he is designing, not just copying.  To some extent then we’re all working in the dark, because the absolute truths of shaping are not known or probably even knowable.

The most “engineered” surfboard I have ever seen pics or heard of, is the “fat penguin”, developed by fluid flow dynamics engineer Paul Cole after studying everthing from supersonic jets to Spanish mackerel, and crunching data for years in search of a commonality of flow forms.  The board is essentially a twinzer, a twin fin with small canard like pre-fins further up, albeit different from the Will Jobson twinzer.  And most reports from people who have actually ridden one, are positive.  But like the Gemini “picklefork” surfboard, the design is aesthetically too far outside the box, and this has left it open to attacks, ridicule, even charges of “fraud”, by people who have never ridden one or even watched it being ridden.  Turns out the surfing world is very peer pressure and fashion conscious oriented.  Anyway, its a complex shape and would be difficult and not cost effective to build, so there’s that.  Even concepts far less extreme, like asymmetricals and quads, or the duo and the twingle-fin, have met with firm resistance in certain quarters, and apathy and/or skepticism from the general surfing population.

It seems to me the best surfboard builders and designers are gifted at simplifying things, breaking them down into manageable concepts, and paying more attention to old fashioned trial-and-error / feedback than theoretical dogma and rhetorical posturing.  There is a sort of General Consensus on what works, and it isn’t wrong, of course.  But there is an awful lot of stuff that also works, or works differently, that isn’t included in that General Consensus of generic surfboard design.

Designing and building your own surfboards is very challenging, and very rewarding, for me, although after 10 years and two dozen boards, like you I don’t feel any closer to the ultimate truth of surfboard design.

Making my own boards rather than buying them new off the rack totally changed my view on running over kooks and assholes.  Always having inexpensive backups handy and the ability to make repairs made surfing in a crowd much less stressful.  Drop in on me at your own peril.  ;^}

I learned that you cannot trust the surfshop guy with his technical “expertise”.

I learned that foam is your friend, as well as fin surface area is your friend.

I learned to avoid big design change ideas and hypes, but to evolve from your exisiting equipment or boards you tested and liked.

It was interesing to see the sailboards move to “real world wave” shapes, and shapes for not ideal conditions or rider levels. Haven’t noticed this as much in surfing but it seems to also start moving in that direction.

Built 3 . Fun tedious learned a lot- leave it to the masters that build them daily…

For me, the shaping is fun, the glassing etc. is work. 


You definitely piqued my interest with the Fat Penguin description…a quick look around the web (including some old Sways threads) and some mad googling revealed this: no video at all. At this point, that’s what I want to see most of all, when it comes to any board. I don’t care if the rider is the wrong size (though too small a rider for a big board is preferable to too big a rider on a small board) or the waves suck or the rider can’t surf – if you can’t see the board in person a short clip of the board being ridden by any one, on anything, in anything, says more than any written review unless you know the rider and how s/he surfs and where pretty well.

After you start shaping, you have a relationship with every single board you see, whether on land or being ridden.

I never get tired of watching other people surf boards I’ve made, or of learning something more about how boards and fins and waves and riders cooperate or don’t. That’s the biggest life change from shaping, the focus shifting from just surfing to always having questions in your mind that need answers, and that are a joy to have answered. There’s of course the vicarious (and also selfish) pleasure of both witnessing someone else’s joy and having a role in it, but just to see how your own ideas and effort play out on waves – it just never gets old. To learn something about the meaning of surfing from discovering how different boards work for different people, and what that says not only about them but about yourself – you can get some of that from sharing boards, but not like when you’re making them.

Yesterday I rode a variation I made on a Stretch Pug – the first shortboard I had that I really loved after starting surfing again after 20 years away. The original is too much paddle work for me now, 10 years later. I rode it the day I finished it with a tri set of chewed up, plastic fins that I bought one out of the loose fin basket at Blown Out Wetsuit, here in town. The fins are chewed up as hell and nothing about them looks good – they look truly terrible, irredeemably damaged, and doomed to make any good board suck. The board rocked. Yesterday I rode it with fancy Machado fins that have a very cool, interesting foil. The board felt like the fins were running through tiny, water ball-bearings, with a 20 lb dumbbell strung from the tail. Horrifying drag. It just did not want to go. I got only one semi-decent wave thanks to crowds and stormy conditions, etc., and the board failed me in multiple ways thanks to all that drag. Even riding in on my belly, after conceding defeat as a clean-up set came through right when I found an empty inside peak without LBs sitting right on top of me, the board didn’t want to stay in the wave and I had to paddle it in. Weirdly, paddle was excellent as previously, but in a wave it was a f***king horror show with those fins. Still, if not for the crowd bummer aspect I would have gone home very effing happy, not despite those fins sucking on that board, but because they did.

I learned

 - a board doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun.     

 - my mistakes have occasionally yielded an unexpected benefit

 - most people buying a shop board are buying the wrong board for what they’re trying to do.   

 - adding width does more for volume than adding length

 - you can pack a lot of volume into relatively short lengths - the problem will be controlling it.  

 - concave for narrow asses, convex for fat asses

 - a little concave/convex goes a long way, 1/8th is often plenty.  Too little is always better than too much.

 - flats for speed/drive, curves for control

 - Retail fins are primarily geared for people who weigh 190# or less.   Bigger surfers need bigger fins than they can buy off the shelf

  - long strokes are always better than short strokes

 - wide sanding blocks + 36grit paper + good shoes for walking the length of the board is a good combination

 - epoxy is worth the effort, and that cleaning up with vinegar is way better for me than cleaning up with acetone. 

 - a $20 digital kitchen scale saves me a ton of money by enabling me to more effectively manage my resin usage and accurately mix epoxy, even in quantities of less than 10 grams.  \

 - I can glass and finish an entire board without wasting more than about 8oz of resin

 - I will never be able to laminate a bottom in 8 minutes or sand a board in 15 minutes, so I don’t even try.    

 - cheap masking tape is super expensive.  Don’t do it.   

 - if the entire surf industry collapsed tomorrow I would still be able to source all the materials I need to build surfboards and fins

lol it can also have the opposite effect. I’m much more careful to avoid ding-likely situations because I fing hate doing ding repair, and if I ding a board it will be out of commission for, realistically, at least a month, and I have fing questions I need answered…

Want to say this for lurkers who think boards are expensive: glassing is also shtty money. At $300 - $400 for an epoxy HPSB under 7’, even a master – especially a master – is making shtty pay.

Very few masters of any craft at the same level makes worse pay, because the same self-regulating integrity that made her/ him a master of glassing would have made her/him a master of something else that pays better.

Science is both reviled as the enemy or falsely touted as a magical performance element.

[My favorite is drag reduction tech.  In most cases on a practical level, the effect is imperceptible for almost all surfers.]

Most surfboard design follows the latest pro craze.  Originality is to be disowned.

I learned 14 years ago, not to post personal projects/builds on a public forum.

After 12 years on this forum, I have refined my surfcraft quest.  And my pursuits have become proprietary.  New ideas shared here have a way of showing up in commercial production or face dubious claims of prior origin.  From time-to-time, I’m willing to share some simple technical tricks I use, as others here have done (sometimes as PMs.)

Beyond subjective preference, the number of variables and potential combinations is astronomical.  Often, new build tech is required.  With only 3 planshapes, my latest surfcraft design has 54 different possible combinations of shape variables (3 rails, 3 contours, 2 rockers).

Bottom line, it is about ideas, building, testing, observations/results, conclusions and replication.  That sounds a lot like the scientific method…


No Kidding!

When I showed my work to a guy who does auto body repair he couldn’t believe how much work I did for so little money.

Lol…i wish i was kidding but i’m not: last board I made for a friend i sanded for 8 hrs, not including sanding laps etc. before hotcoating. I did tell him, but not without debating w myself a good bit about whether I should. I find that pretty funny, and that is probably very fortunate. 

Edit, because you might appreciate this: 8 hrs because quad channels inside double and i really, really wanted the board to work well. Result was cosmetically worse than production/pro but funtionally better

I’m poorer and every time I try to help somebody on Sways I have to argue with an expert who has been a shaver since '58.

I set out over 10 years ago to make reproducible boards through machine shapes.

For my first I measured and tried to copy a board. I learnt a lot from the measuring process. The copy was not close to the original, but it was a better board!

I then CAD designed my boards from scratch because I did not want to be beholden to someone else’s rocker or outline.

After a few years contracting out my designs and getting cuts that varied somewhat from the design, I said,“Stuff it” and built a shaping machine.

I learned a lot of skills building the machine, and many more operating it. I learnt that the cutting path will accurately reproduce wobbles in the design.

I learnt how hard it it to duplicate a design even on a machine. Setup is so key.

I got into composites, so ended up building blanks, which requires repeated machine setups for a single shape.

So now I back into hand shaping…Luckily the machine can do woodwork :slight_smile:


I learnt that most guys throw out descriptions such as 'Flat rocker, xxx thick, xxx long, double flyer swallow" and have some expectation that sufficiently describes the board they want.

I learnt that design is all about the 1/8-1/4" decisions.

Most significantly I learnt that there is no disadvantage (for me) to really thin rails. The whole rail thickness thing seems based on historic norms and materials. But don’t give small rails to a beginner :wink:

“Most surfboard design follows the latest pro craze. Originality is to be disowned.”

^ Mann “Cornice” (aka “Dick Board,” popularly) is a great example of this. The Firewires were on sale for like $300 somewhere, recently, despite that the design is legit. A local backyarder who surfs very good is on this big kick, making variations of it and surfing it almost solely. IMO the only reason it didn’t break big is skilled surfers don’t want to have to answer to others about it and less skilled don’t want to be seen walking with something weird, when their surfing can’t defend their choice on its own.

Making my own has not saved me any money. Now, instead of having one or two boards I’d ride for 1-3 years, I have a garage full of boards nagging me to be surfed until I give it away or sell it dirt cheap to make room for a couple more boards I want to make. I still love looking at that shaped board when it’s all done. Sanding is a drag. But, still stoked when a board comes all together and it surfs good. I learned not to make boards for friends. Here’s a stoker, too. I saw a kid surfing a fish I made 8 years ago. I asked him how he liked it and he said he loved it and it was his go to board. Watched him surf it, too. He was really good. Mike

  •  Here's a stoker, too. I saw a kid surfing a fish I made 8 years ago. I asked him how he liked it and he said he loved it and it was his go to board. Watched him surf it, too. He was really good.

That’s a gratifying experience all it’s own.   


Mike, me too on all you said. 

And the payoff is someone love a board you made and ride it well. 

all the best