When Clark Foam, the Mission Viejo, Calif., manufacturer of 90 percent of the world’s surfboard blanks—the core of every surfboard—closed its doors overnight five years ago, U.S. surfboard makers thought they might never recover.
But that unexpected event created an opening for young surfboard shapers around the country who wanted to continue to create beautiful hand-built boards from start to finish. That’s because many surfers across the world refused cheaper, mass-produced equipment, creating a small niche market for boards made by the hands of true craftsmen.
Sarasota, hardly a surfing mecca, has become the center of the Gulf Coast’s board-making industry. This is largely because of master shaper Juan Rodriguez of One World Surf Designs (oneworldsurf.com), who has made more than 20,000 surfboards since 1967 in his Sarasota shop. As recently as 2008, Rodriguez won the Florida Shape-Off at Surf Expo in Orlando, beating out renowned shapers from both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Aspiring board builders have come to Rodriguez over the years, hoping to learn the trade from the master. Young Sarasota shapers such as Aaron Howard of Howard Shapes, Willy Booth of WB Surfboards, Eric Nalpas of Nalpas Designs (who also shapes The Compound Boardshop’s house label boards), John Slodyczka of Triton Surfboards and Brett Telinger of Gum Surfboards have all paid their dues in Rodriguez’s shop.
Telinger began working for Rodriguez as a 14-year-old beginning surfer, cleaning up around his teacher with a broom. “At the end of the day he told me I’d done a good job and asked me to come back the next day,” Telinger says. Eventually, Telinger, now 21, picked up a planer and started on his first board. In 2007 he started his own board label, Gum Surfboards (thegumcollection.com), and moved to his own warehouse, where he’s finished about 107 custom boards.
Telinger’s aesthetic is a traditional one, with heavily glassed, single-fin longboards; rich, beautiful resin tints and glassed-on fins; and shapes drawing their outlines from the experimental designs of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
I really like classic longboards and fishes, boards anyone can look at and find beautiful, that ride just as good as they look,” says Telinger. “Having Juan as a teacher was amazing. What makes it worthwhile is seeing people out in the water surfing them and hearing how well they ride.
Local surf shops are supporting the efforts of shapers like Telinger. “We stock about 100 boards in our shop,” says Jacob Shields, owner of The Compound Boardshop in Sarasota. “We try to keep at least 30 boards in stock from local shapers, and another 40 or 50 that are handmade in the U.S.”
A custom board can run from $450 to upwards of $1,300 or more. With material costs rising, a $600 board will require $400 of materials, not considering overhead and maintenance. “A shaper’s profits rarely exceed 15-25 percent,” says Shields, which keeps board shaping largely a labor of love.
For Rodriguez, who probably makes only a few hundred boards a year, priced anywhere from $600 to $10,000 for collectors who want the boards as art, surfboard shaping has been a way to make a living from something he loves—and that’s been the best ride.