Man Vs. Machine

With all of the debates going back and forth over the various practices and manufacturing techniques, (i.e: pu/pe vs. epoxy/ps, china vs. small business, hand finish vs. cnc pruduction) it seems almost impossible to reach a conclusion as to which materials and processes might work best. However, as a newer shaper, I am finding that my biggest challenges are not with the materials. The challenges for me are more about how I can get my project from design to finished product as accurately as well crafted as possible. Isn’t that what it’s really all about?

I’ve designed quite a few boards now. But, I still consider myself a novice to the craft. I’ve been researching the use of various machines for more accurate manufacturing. And, I am very curious as to why more shapers aren’t buying the raw material and manufacturing the board from raw material to finished product? I understand that a close tolerance blank makes for faster production if you are working mostly with hand tools. But, if garage-shapers and small business shapers could afford the machinery, wouldn’t it be possible to create better quality, higher precision boards than we can with the common hand tools used in a typical construction of a surfboard?

I know I can get pretty precise with my calipers and sanding block. But, I know that a computer is going to be able to mirror a concave, or a rail or a box tail more precisely than I could ever do.

If a cnc machine was the same price as an electric planer, I’m pretty sure we’d all be the garage shaping “geek-squad”.

How do you account for the shaper’s “mana” projected in a hand shaped board? Just something to think about.


That is a great point. Is it possible to still capture that spirit of the shaper and his or her art without physically completing the passes? I feel like musicians and artists have successfully been able to translate their art-form. If you are applying your vision and carefully monitoring the process, isn’t that still applying your “mana”?

We aren’t doing it from the raw materials (that is, making our own blanks) for at least two good reasons:

One, it’s hideously toxic as Grubby made clear to everyone.

Two, it’s nigh-impossible for a garage operation to produce a decent blank, without inconsistencies such as weak spots, non-uniform density, and so on.

As for machine shaping, they all have to be finished by someone - I suggest the mana, however you conceive it, is still there. But it’s not truly home-built when there’s a machine in the process.

The creative process is what rewards me, and the matter that I’m too cheap to farm out anything I can do myself.


The creative process is what rewards me, and the matter that I’m too cheap to farm out anything I can do myself.

Always Learning or Eternal Student --I believe that is the sentiment that keeps us going/coming back for more…

the too cheap part is why I ended up replacing the water pump in my old L.Cruiser last month, ouch.

By the way- thanks for your tips on resin pinstriping in the archives. Made the process much easier and rewarding.


G’day Spero

The first tools I use are still a pencil, template and saw.

As for accuracy, the last batch of pre shapes I bought were all between 1/8 and 1/4 inch out on one side. I dont know about anyone else but thats too far outside my tolerance. I know this could have been a bad batch and all but it did put a bit of a stain on computer shaping for me.

I fix alot of dings on big name computer shapes as well and have thrown the square over them just to check and you would be surprised at how many are that far out of whack.

I also haven’t done a stock or rack board for about three or four years now, and I don’t do enough for a big haul of computer shapes, so hand shaping is just more practical for me.

Maybe that little imperfection or difference in the depth of the concave is what makes the magic board.

Even when a customer asks you to copy a board from another shaper you still put your own little influences in it, which is what they usually want , otherwise why not go back to the original shaper?

But unless something drastic happens in the near future I’ll stick to hand shaping. I’m certainly not against the machines but just too expensive to buy , and the closest machine to me is 2.5 hours away.



Aloha Sperosurf

Your question though valid is based on the false assumption that “Shaping Machines” cut foam accurately. While they may be fairly consistent they are not necessarily accurate in symmetry. Most good master shapers are probably more accurate then most machines. And faster too. They just can’t do as many boards repetitively and not burn out. And so the choices are…

Do less but fully custom boards and raise your price enough to survive well doing so, if the market will bare it.

Hire a ghost shaper and do more boards but get questionable accuracy while you quickly train up your eventual competitor to stomp you.

Use a machine and do more boards but struggle with accuracy as you finish out your own shapes.

Use a machine and ghost shaper to finish them and do a lot more boards, but kiss accuracy goodbye while you train your competition and rapidly lose credibility in the market place. Unless you spend gobs on marketing to keep people from noticing your sham.

Get your designs molded, get reasonable accuracy and make zillions of fine boards (if your molder will produce as many as you need) but still make custom boards for those who need them and be able to deliver them for a more reasonable price because the zillions of molded boards offset much of the operational costs to make true custom boards. An added benefit is it helps keep the molded designs current and on track.

Machining might work for you if you use the machine as your way of producing a very close tolerance blank that is close to your design. On the other hand, if you weren’t likely to produce a very accurate board by hand yourself anyway… you are probably just as well off with a machined one which is a little off here and there.

But if you want to be a master shaper someday… this will be the slowest process to get there, as boards in numbers is what it takes.

It is all good though. Just have fun and don’t take it to seriously. It isn’t rocket science, just toys for having fun!

I’ll add to Bills options:

Make your own machines that DONT require CNC.

HDF Template(s) with routers are classic examples.

There are Profilers and deck crowners…on and on.

Many ways to skin that cat.

I have friends who use a local APS3000. These guys are not shapers. Or are they? They design on the APS3000. Email it to the APS3000 shop. Pick up the shaped blank and take it to a glasser. Pay the glasser to smooth out the machine lines. Less than three weeks start to finish, less than half the price of a custom surfboard, and it comes out surprisingly well. After a half dozen attempts, the boards become totally dialed, they have 6 boards for the price of 3, and any further custom work will be half the price of the shaper down the street. I don’t see why any backyard shaper wouldn’t use this approach. It costs $50 more per board than shaping your own, and you get to do your own design and take responsibility for your own shape and it comes out very true to design every time. And the turnaround time is faster than any shaper. For someone who is an avid surfer and buys 2-3 boards per year, it is incredibly cost-effective in the long run.

If you had an APS3000 within 20 minutes of your residence, and wanted to shape out of your garage, you would never pick up a planer once you tried the APS3000.

You could do the whole thing for the same price out of China and have desktop designed surfboards, if the right people went to China to set up the glassing operation. One month from desktop design to surfing. I’m actually really surprised glassing shops are not already setting this up to boost business, unless they are already saturated for business.

As to the centering accuracy of a CNC machine, it will depend on the machine, jig, and operator. I’m quite sure if someone like Bill Barnfield oversaw the machine for even a short period, the centering problems would go away. Generally CNC machines do work at 10 times the accuracy of manual machining - by default. And anyone who can manually center-in a surfboard (for symmetry), could do it just as easily, if not more easily, on a machine. I’m curious if the problem is that the people running the machines are not appropriately skilled or trained to center the boards before running the program.

I guess I am sorta saying that the machine approach works REALLY well for the backyard shaper if there is reasonable proximity to a reasonable machine. There’s a whole nuther long post on the impacts of the machine on the surfboard production business, but I ain’t touching that one with this post.

All good points and options, but for me (and, I would imagine, for many other non-production shapers), it’s just as much about joy of process as ‘accuracy’ of product. It may be a luxury for a guy who hasn’t shaped 3,000 boards, but I love shaping. I love the smell/feel of my shop. I love sawing out planshapes by hand, watching a board slowly come together, and sweeping up stringer curlies off the floor. I even dig sharpening my tools, thanks to a few posts by Doc. I loved this even when I sucked and my boards were uglier than a hat full of asses. I’m no Luddite, but I’d rather horde these pleasures for myself than let a machine have all the fun!

If it’s 1/8" off, you’ll most likely be the only one who knows.

If it’s a 1/2" off, call it an ‘asym.’

If it’s more than 1/2" off, you get to draw out a new template and start again.

This is not to knock the computer guys–there’s something to be said about precision and fine-tuning. There’s also something to be said about one last, clean hand-plane pass with some Steely Dan in the background and a few cold ones waiting in the fridge…



I get the same joy from sitting down at my Pro/E CAD box to model a 3D surfboard; visualizing, analyzing, tweaking, drinking coffee, asking family & friends to look at it on the screen. I like defining the CNC sequences and verifying the tool paths, warming up the spindle, indexing the material, watching the machine cut foam and finally handling my new shape for the first time.

Different skills

Same gratification!

It’s not Man vs Machine;

It’s Man using Machine.

Creating is fun how ever you do it!


…is like B Barnfield said…

a shaper is a shaper

a board builder is a shaper + glasser +finisher, etc

a guy who use a machine for everything and send to the glasser is not a shaper or/and b builder anymore

is a guy who wants a board cheaper and faster

or a merchant…


have all the musical idea (you suppose to have it…) in your brain; and dont have a clue about how do you play an instrument

to express yourself…so you go with a tech man and a machine, and do the stuff

and you blahbling that you re a musician…

the machines are for money (time is money in capitalism)

and for the long time shapers that dont want to mowing more foam and want to go to surf more

Hi Bill,

Again, I have to bend on my knees and do a dozen of “salamalecs” because you are “the reason” in person. I guess I share the same concepts with you. I’m very concerned with the process and accuracy in itself to spend my time with machines. I see a board as an entity more than an object. It gives meaning to my life…


Where’s the sense of pride and craftmanship in a computer made shape? Swaylocks is all about saving the art of surfboard construction. Some day it will all be gone, the art will be lost, taken over by computer generated shapes glassed in China. A very sad day at that.

The biggest reason I’m here is to pass along the skills it takes to make a handmade custom surfboard. I personally never want to see a CNC machine or a APS3000. But then again I don’t make a living doing this.

Thanks for the feedback Bill. All points well taken. Especially “just have fun and don’t take it too seriously”. I guess my interest for starting this discussion was sparked when I was researching the computer numeric controlled “shaping machines” and saw the price tag. I can’t beleive that some aluminum, a computer and a servo/stepper controlled router head could actually cost $65K. I can’t see anyone besides millionaires and mass production board builders being able to afford that. I am still fascinated by it though. And, I would love to see if the two different shaping methods have been put to a side by side precision test.



Some day it will all be gone, the art will be lost, taken over by computer generated shapes glassed in China. A very sad day at that.

It’ll never happen, completely.


The biggest reason I’m here is to pass along the skills it takes to make a handmade custom surfboard.

To ensure this I’ll buy the beer… There are some bitchin’ guns, I need to learn about.

Bill i have to agree with you i have been shaping board by hand since the 80’s and right now i use my own foam build my own blanks and make boards from start to finish i bought a kkl machine about a year ago and have found that the accuraties of the machine depends on how you set it up it took a lot of trial but i can now get with in 1/32 on almost every board, plus the hand finishing makes more of a difference than what the machine can do…

just a thought is being a master shaper in how many boards you do ,or how many you do right???

god bless richard…

except for all the warm holiday greetings and the statement that surfbaords are just things to have fun on I have to diasagee with most that has been said.

Hand shaped versus machined and the symetry of the shape, hands down the machine wins. Ask any guy who marks the fin lines or puts in the fin boxes. Though the Master shaper might have it close or perfect, 99% of the shapers aren’t masters even if they are on the shapers tree directory. Lets go into any machined shaped windsurfer factory. I will give you 100 bucks for any board that is off that makes it out of quality control. Shaping machines today are very accurate and consistant. Anything that you take the chance of human errror out of it is a good thing.

25 years ago to perform any part of your board manufacturing was kind of hard for the average person. It could be done but it would be expensive for all the tools/equipment needed and hard to befriend a master shaper and break into the secretive world of surfboard making. Even 15 years ago when cnc board cutting first came out it was very controlled who had access and what people or companies benefited from such technology.

I suggest that the secretive world of surfboard making has been eliminated and those who wanted to make some money. By offering “how to” videos and walk in service cnc/aps 3000 blank cutting you now have many who call themself “shapers” than ever before. The popularity of building your own surfboards has grown, EPS and epoxy has made it possible for guys from NZ to glass in the comfort of thier own living rooms. Even high tech board design websites(like HAAAAAAAA) has made most of the secrets go away.

I conclude that machines have grown the interest in surfboard manufacturing and the actual amount of upcoming shapers. Machined blanks can greatly minimize waste foam to the environment and allow the novice shaper to fine tune and eventually make baords from start to finish for friends and family. Machined balnks to start off with will only encourage the beginner to get deeper into the “art” of shaping and possibly become a member of the shaping tree society or the lofty goal of the 1% master shapers society.

It is hard for many to understand that even Bill B did not become what he is overnight. He used the technology he had available to him when he was learning and was an innovator in much also. He has master all those technologies. There are future Bill’s out there today. How they use the technology available and how they make thier mark on surfing history is yet to be seen.

Finally I respect the total package builders the most. Those who can do it all, shape, glass, sand, make fins and surf. They are the 0.01% club!!!

Anything that you take the chance of human errror out of it is a good thing.

Historically, “human error” in surfcraft hasn’t always translated to poor performance. A long list could be made of the so-called screw-ups that nevertheless turned out to be “magic”.

100% symmetrical, glossy, homogenized and pasturized?

Sometimes human error and serendipity are the best innovators.

…ultra machine perfection has nuthin to do with surfin

cause for ex. most of dee waves aren t so perfect

yes, craftmanship is one thing

but obsession is another history…