The high-pitched whine of the electric planer splits the air, and Malcolm Knight walks up and back, again and again, gradually carving a curve into the side of a block of foam.
Although a vacuum sucks up most of the debris, small flecks of white still get everywhere — in his hair, on his shirt, all over the floor. With his face half-hidden behind a respirator mask, Knight shifts from the planer to a polisher to sandpaper, the shape of the final product becoming more evident with every pass.
Surfing is a communal activity, characterized by camaraderie in the lineup or gatherings on the beach. But building a surfboard is tedious, dirty, solitary work, one defined by hours alone in small bays like this one constructed in a shed on James Island.
“It’s just me and whatever I’m doing,” Knight said. “That’s something I really enjoy about it.”
While Charleston has a thriving surf culture centered on Folly Beach, there are only about a dozen serious local shapers like Knight, who sell their wares in local surf shops or to those requesting custom jobs. They work in sheds or garages, surrounded by foam-shaping tools and resins and epoxies, adding their own distinctive touches or designs. None of them are getting rich off surfboard-building, and most have regular jobs.
And yet the allure is evident, despite the foam and resin that gets everywhere, despite the often austere surroundings that sometimes don’t include air conditioning. After two hours of planing and sanding a block of foam, the surfboard shape becomes readily visible, complete with rounded side rails, tapered nose and gentle curve (or “rocker”) from one end to the other. It still has to be waterproofed and painted and polished, but it’s already a surfboard, plain as day.
“You paddle out into the water, all your problems disappear. It’s your escape from everything. Like anyone who really gets into surfing, I wanted to figure out a way to be around it as a much as possible,” said local shaper Tim Jump. “Growing up, my dad and my grandfathers, we were always doing stuff with our hands. I think that kind of rubbed off, and then it just kind of snowballed.”
Even in an area the size of Charleston, local boards comprise only a very small portion of the market, which is dominated by companies based in California or Hawaii. Local shapers gain traction through word of mouth, or even other surfers who spot their custom-made boards on the beach. It’s a small, close-knit fraternity whose members regularly help one another find tools or materials — even if the solitary nature of their work means they’re communicating primarily over Instagram.
“I think we all got into it to make ourselves boards,” said local shaper Josh Hoke. “And then the community has been very supportive, and that’s how a lot of us got into making boards for other people. People wanted locally made stuff, and guys got good enough that people wanted their boards. People would reach out to me saying, ‘I like what you’re doing — can you make one for me?’ And it just kind of went from there.”
The first surfboard Jump ever built, he laminated in his parents’ basement with a polyester resin so strong the whole house stunk for a week.
“It smelled rancid,” remembered Jump, who builds Secula Surfboards.
The process is not for the neat freak — shaping of the foam requires use of a respirator mask and ideally a vacuum system to manage all the particulate, and the fiberglassing (or “glassing”) involves chemicals that can be pungent, to say the least.
“I glassed a board in the garage one time, closed it up, and the next morning my wife and I woke up feeling really funny,” recalled Josh Driscoll, who builds Dead Logs Surfboards. “We were like, ‘Are we hung over? No. Then why do we feel brain dead?’ Then we realized we’d been breathing polyester fumes from the board all night. It’s pretty awful stuff.”
Clearly, it’s not for everyone, but to the small cluster of Charleston shapers it’s an extension of their passion for the water.
Richard Prause of Grasshopper Surfboards, considered one of the area’s preeminent shapers, learned the craft from his father.
Ed Boudolf, who builds B Side Surfboards, spent six years in Hawaii apprenticing in surfboard factories.
Knight, who builds Long Toe Surfboards, picked it up from a neighbor in his Mount Pleasant neighborhood, shaping his first board in his parents’ backyard.
Reid Anson, a Charleston native who builds Freestyle Surfboards, learned by watching shapers on the Outer Banks before working with Boudolf.
“It’s a functional art,” he said of the finished product. “You’re creating a piece of art you can use and enjoy. You can’t go out and ride a painting on your wall.”
Many like Hoke, a Pennsylvania native, are self-taught.
“I’ve never worked on boards with another person,” said the builder of Hoke Handcrafted Surfboards. “It’s just been trial and error, reading a lot online and seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. Growing up in Pennsylvania, there was no one making surfboards. If I wanted to do it, I was going to have to figure it out for myself.”
That’s easier now than it used to be, thanks to the endless supply of forms and how-to videos online. Compare that to when Jump started, and “there was one VHS tape you could get,” the Philadelphia native recalls.
“That, or you had to go down to the local shop and talk to the ding repair guy to try to learn everything. It almost used to be an industry secret — unless you were there building boards, they didn’t want to tell you how it was done. It was kind of like magic, so to speak.”
There are few secrets anymore, at least among Charleston’s shapers. Knight bought his first “blank” — the large block of foam that surfboards are carved out of — from Prause, and local shapers regularly go in together on bulk orders of blanks to try and cut down on shipping costs. They’ll help one another hunt down blanks or tools, trade compliments on design or performance.
“Everybody gets along,” Hoke said.
They’re competitors in a very small market, to be sure, but that competition goes only so far.
“I think most good craftsmen are pretty free with their advice,” Boudolf said. “Historically, anybody who builds surfboards likes to feel like they have some kind of secret sauce. But at the end of the day, I think most craftsmen are pretty cooperative. I know a few guys who started the microbreweries here in Charleston, and they’re all good friends with each other. But they also really want you to think their beer tastes better than the others’.”
From blank to board
Back in the shed, Knight’s process begins with a pair of wood templates he affixes to either side of a new blank. The templates have a gentle curve that will become the surfboard’s rocker, and Knight trims away the excess with a hotwire that melts the foam but won’t burn the wood. Then it’s a few hours of work with the planer, polisher and sandpaper before the blank truly begins to resemble something that will be toted into the water.
“It’s really cool when everything comes together at the end,” he said. “To see all those flowing lines meet together, it’s definitely satisfying.”
There are so many things to consider: the width of the side rails, the taper of the tail, the breadth of the nose, the presence of any concave indentions on the bottom side, the placement and type of fins (permanent or removable). Every little detail here or there can have performance and hydrodynamic effects in how they help the board turn or facilitate the running of water over the back.
Knight is working on one of his specialties, a “Mini Simmons” — a shorter (around 5 feet) version of the wide, relatively flat board that West Coast shaper Bob Simmons made popular in the 1950s. To the untrained eye, it can look like an extra-large body board, but Knight finds it effective in catching Folly’s smaller waves.
Local shapers all have their own similar signatures, evident in either the art, color or design of their boards.
“The more established you get as a shaper, the more you kind of come up with your own philosophy,” Jump said. “Sometimes it’s just the way you blend the foam of the deck into the rail of the nose, and either it forms a break or it doesn’t. Or those fishtails on a board, different guys will put different curves there. With some of the more prominent shapers, you’d be able to put just the outline of a board up there and we could go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s whoever.’ So there are differences, although if you don’t geek out about surfboards, you might not notice.”
Every shaper has his own process, Anson added. “No one does it the same and not everyone uses the same tools,” he said. “I have some specialized tools I’ve built myself.”
Once the shaping is complete, it’s time for the board to be fiberglassed, which often occurs in another room that’s more temperature-controlled and away from all the foam particulate left behind by the shaping process. Fiberglass cloth is draped over the board, hanging about 2 inches over all around. A resin is applied, and spread around until the fiberglass cloth is saturated. The overhang is then saturated and tucked around the side of the board. Let it cure, flip and repeat on the other side.
Another coat of thick resin fills in the remaining rough spots in the cloth, and then the board is sanded down. At this point the board will have a flat finish, though an additional coat of resin will help add shine. It’s during the glassing process that the colors and artwork are typically added, and some shapers have made this step their calling card — like Hoke, whose boards feature pigmented laminations and fabric inlays polished to a high sheen.
They’re built to sell, of course, but they’re about more than that. Every shaper can remember the feeling of taking a board they built out to the beach for the first time.
“Amazing,” Knight called it.
That thrill never goes away, no matter if they’re surfing the 20th or 30th board they’ve shaped that year.
“It’s a form of pride,” Driscoll said. “If you’re surfing your own board and surfing well, people will ask, ‘Oh man, what board is that? That looks really cool.’ And you’re like, ‘I made it.’ So that feels good, when I’m out at Folly and surfing well and people are asking about the board. That feels good to say.”
Local waves, local boards
Boudolf is a real estate agent, Driscoll a school teacher. Knight is a glass blower, Anson a carpenter. Hoke reviews permits for the South Carolina Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. Virtually all local shapers have a day job and a primary source of income. Building surfboards may engage the mind and soothe the soul, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
“There’s not a lot of profit in making surfboards, so you’ve really got to like it,” Boudolf said. “To really do it for a living, you’ve got to get the numbers up, get it to an economy of scale kind of thing.”
Given the state of the surfboard market, that’s a difficult task for local shapers, who often find themselves competing against less expensive, computer-made boards turned out by the truckload. The world’s best-selling board, for instance, is reportedly a $99 soft-top available at Costco. A local shaper might turn out 30 to 50 boards in a good year, but that’s still nowhere near enough to bridge the gap.
“We’re competing against Chinese boards mass-produced in big factories,” Hoke said. “Like any handmade good, there’s always a cheaper, mass-produced version of it. If I were just making boards and spending all my time doing it, I still could not make as many as a factory overseas. And I couldn’t do it that cheap.”
While local shapers have their dedicated customers within the Charleston surf community and beyond — some, like Anson, have made boards for riders as far away as California and Costa Rica — it can be hard for them to attract that first-timer who might blanch at the cost of a handmade board. And then if they struggle trying to ride a board made for a professional, the results become predictable.
“A lot of kids are held back by trying to use boards that are made in California or Hawaii or Australia or wherever,” Anson said. “They’re missing a lot. They see those pros in photos online and they want to ride those boards. But gradually there are more and more people realizing you can get a better board from a local shaper for the waves we have here.”
Folly may be the capital of surfing in South Carolina, but the waves are famously poor and the best surfers learn to nurse all they can from the meager swells. Local shapers make their boards to fit those conditions, often with flatter features and wider noses that maximize every inch of surface area a surfer has at his disposal. One type of local board is called a “groveler” — because surfers have to grovel for every wave they can get.
“It doesn’t make sense to make a board for a wave we don’t have here,” Hoke said. “The local shaper knows the local conditions and what works as compared to a West Coast company that’s never been to Charleston, that’s never surfed around here, that’s just not going to know the kind of board we need.”
Back in his shaping bay, Knight uses a mesh metal cloth to round out the final rough edges, and then marks with a pencil where the fins will go on the backside of the board. The glassing and curing and design work are all still to come. The end result will be a Mini Simmons that will go on sale at a local surf shop — and eventually, Knight hopes, into the hands of a surfer who looks beyond the mass-produced competition.
“I have nothing against people who want to go buy a Rusty or a JS or whatever. That’s totally cool,” said Knight, referring to two major board manufacturers. “Slowly but surely, though, a lot of people are seeking out boards that are handmade and crafted with a little more thought put into them.”