Interview: Gary Murphy of Brownfish Handplanes

Gary Murphy found an old makeshift wooden handplane in the parking lot after surfing one day and got inspired…to say the least. From that initial crude inspiration, Gary has gone all out, creating some of the most well known and beautifully handcrafted handplanes on the market. In the following interview, Gary shares his introduction into handplaning as well as his process and thoughts on the future of the craftsman.

How did you get introduced into handplaning?

About three years ago, on a summer day, I found a makeshift handplane on the beach, probably made out of leftover fencepost. It was pretty shrewd. Basically a flat piece of wood, rounded nose, and a touch of bevel. No strap, or hole, to hold onto. It was sitting next to the kids boogies. It sat all day with nobody to claim. At the end of the day, I threw it in the back of the van and their it sat for some time.

Fast forward a month or so. Another beautiful day on the beach. After surfing all morning, I took the kids out to the low tide sand bar to boogie. Perfect reforms taking them quite a ways to the beach. I noticed a nice waist to chest high wave breaking pretty fast over the sandbar. Once the kids were tired, I grabbed my fins and did some bodysurfing.

Next day, same thing. This time, I decided to try the little hand plane that I had found. I had so much fun. Never realized how much a hand plane made a difference. I was actually trimming and getting some really nice views. It was a completely different feeling than surfing. I was hooked.

My experience with bodysurfing up to then was womping at Marine Street, or catching a wave in to get my lost board. I would always try and stay on the face, but, usually the wave would pass me by within ten feet. With that makeshift handplane, that first day, I was catching waves and staying on the face for a good 50 to 75 feet. The feeling of my body actually sliding on the face of a wave was simply incredible. Not that it was any better or worse than surfing, just different. After surfing for 28 years, I think most of us are trying to find something new, something different. Something to keep the stoke alive.

Kolohe Andino. Photo: Jason Kenworthy

What made you decide to start making your own?

At that time, I was a surfboard addict. My 3 kids were going to pre-school across the lot from Moonlight Glassing. I was constantly going in to Moonlight and drooling over all the boards and talking shop with the crew. I don’t want to leave them out, so I will say up front, Peter and JP St. Pierre were a huge influence. Along with the rest of the crew at Moonlight. And, you can never leave Sally out. She deserves a line of her own. Without her, there wouldn’t be a Moonlight Glassing.

I was tinkering with making my own surfboards. I had made about 20 surfboards for myself, and also friends that had enough faith to spend the 60 bucks for a blank, and let me experiment on it. So with that experience, and that first day of handplaning, I went home and made my first handplane. It was a cut-off from a fence/gate that we had just put up in our driveway. Basically, a bit of belly into a single concave. After I made the first one, those same people that had supported me with my surfboard shaping hobby, all wanted one. It kind of blew up from there. Word of mouth was a big part, but, the internet has been the biggest way to spread the goodness.

Tell us about the handplanes that you make? What materials? What is your process?

Everyone has their own idea about what works best, and that is good. This handplane thing is in such the infant stage, that the more ideas, the better.

I start with a Paulownia wood blank. I use Paulownia because it is super light, super strong, and has a great neutral buoyancy. I think neutral buoyancy is a key component. People have to remember that a handplane isn’t a floating device. It’s not designed to float you like a surfboard. It is a planing device. It has to plane, but, you also have to be able to easily submerge it when needed. I design mine so that you can swim with them and use them kind of like a paddle when swimming. You can’t submerge a super buoyant handplane when swimming. At least not very easily.

So, getting back to Paulownia, I start with a 1″ thick blank. I draw my outline, cut it out with a bandsaw, then off to the shaping room. Every handplane that I make is handshaped. I use a 4.5″ angle grinder to get most of my contours. I also use a ¾” round microplane for doing spines and such. I try to make them thin. That is also a big difference you will see with mine versus most others. Thin planes still plane well, but, they also submerge easily, especially on the bigger models. The smaller models it isn’t quite as important, because they are small, and easily submersible.

After the rough shape is done, I sand it all out with a random orbital sander. It’s then off to the finishing area, where my wife, Rebecca takes over. She does all the burning, artwork, coloring, and finishing. We use an outdoor, UV resistant, water-based Polyurethane finish. 4-5 coats. We also make all our own stains and colors. This is a good place to bring this up, there is a difference, at least in my mind, between finishing and sealing. You finish a board with a resin or varnish. You seal a board with an oil. If a handplane is properly finished, then you should have to go back and refinish it for five to ten years, and that is if you leave it out in the sun 24/7, which is something that we never do. We use it for a few hours, then throw it in our trunk. If you seal a board with an oil, you are supposed to go back and re-seal it every year or so. So, if I were someone looking to buy a handplane, I’d look for a brand that finishes their handplanes.

After Rebecca finishes the handplane, then we strap and pad them. I won’t get into that, as everyone has their own technique, and my strapping technique is something that I like to hold close. Overall, I try and use the best materials for the job. I don’t cut corners when it comes to that. Paulownia is about 3x as expensive as most other woods, and is also very hard to get. I order mine from Brad at Appelcore Stringers, he gets it from the East Coast. Acquiring enough Paulownia to make 10-15 handplanes a week is not an easy process.

How do your handplanes differ from the others on the market?

I think it is mainly in the shapes and strapping system. I am to the point where I am really thinking about what is going to work best for the varying types of waves that we use them in. Everyone knows that a food tray works. Honestly, food trays work probably better than some of the recent entries I’ve seen in the handplane market. It is not just taking a piece of wood or foam and rounding the edges. It is actually carving into that wood and making something that will actually get you down the line or out of that barrel. Everyone can get barreled with a handplane. But, just like surfing, I am looking to come out. I am trying to design handplanes that will hold high and tight, and let you draw that line that will let you come out. I’m not interested in bodywhomping. I want to get barreled, and I want to come out! Hence the reason for making the Short and Fat, and more recently the Hobbit Models. They are small, but have some very aggressive bottom contours that let you hold that high line.

That is another big difference, I am not seeing any other production handplane maker, making small handplanes/handboards. They seem to be generally sticking to the bigger ones. That will soon change, as they start developing their craft. Look at all the bodysurfers in Hawaii. They are the best in the world. If they use a handboard, which most don’t, it is very small, and most of em crafted it in their own garage. I used to think of handplanes as mini-surfboards when shaping them. Now, not so much. I’ve come to realize that it is a whole different animal. It fits the face of the wave differently, and I think I’ll just leave it at that.

As for anything else that differs, I would say my strapping system. When I first started making handplanes, I looked up to Danny Hess. He is an incredible woodworker, way better than I. He was the only guy making production handplanes. Cyrus was making em, but, for personal use. Both were huge influences on me when I started. I loved the look of Danny’s planes. So natural. Just a piece of wood. A hole for a handle. I wanted to somehow implement that basic look in my designs. But, I didn’t want to copy Danny, and I didn’t like the idea of a hole for a handle. It just didn’t make sense to me. Many who like the idea of a hole for a handle and will argue my last statement, but, it just always turns into agreeing to disagree. I also didn’t want any visible hardware, mainly because I thought it looked real tacky. Screw heads sticking out and whatnot. So, I spent some time researching, and come up with my strapping system. A strap that flows with the board. No visible hardware.

Is there a story behind the name, Brownfish?

People have a lot of ideas where that came from. In the short, it is pretty basic. As I said above, I am a surfboard addict. I surfed the standard 6’2 x 18.25″ x 2″ thruster for 20 years. Pretty much just like everyone else. When the whole keel fish movement came along, it changed my thoughts on surfboards. It is the reason I got into making ’em. I wanted to try different things. My first keel fish, the one that forever changed my surfboard design outlook, was brown. Rebecca got it for me for my birthday. When I started making surfboards, I called em Brownfish. That just got carried into the handplane thing. Sad to say, my original Brownfish, got stolen out of the back of my camper. Such a sad story.

What role do you feel a craftsman plays in the future of surfboard and handplane design?

Well, that is a hard question. I struggle with it. Lets just say that I think there is a need to keep the craftsmen working. But, I also see the great uses of a keyboard. I think they can work synergistically together. I don’t like the idea of things coming out of a mold, or being made by people that have never stepped foot in the ocean. We are one of the last sports that are scratching to hold onto craftsmanship. Making things for ourselves and our family of waveriders. I believe we need to keep on scratching.

 Photo: Shawn Parkin

What would your suggestions be to someone who wants to try a handplane for the first time?

Make one. Bottom line. Make one for yourself. Go on-line, do your research, buy some wood, and wittle away. Go to www.handplanegoodness.com for some ideas. For those that don’t have the time or facilities to do that, then buying one isn’t looked down upon. My recommendations for good brands (not in any order) to look at would be: Hess, Enjoy, Lincoln Logs, SurfCraft Co-Op, and of course, I think mine are OK too.

Where can someone pick up a Brownfish Handplane these days?

Surfy Surfy Surfshop in Leucadia, CA, Patagonia Surf Shop in Cardiff, CA , Infinity Surf Shop in Dana Point, CA, WetSand Surf Shop in Ventura, CA, Atlantic Bodyboard Shop in New York, Mollusk NYC (name soon to change) , Lightly Salted Surf Mercado in New Jersey, Mountain Equipment CO-OP(MEC) in Canada. You can also look at www.brownfishhandplanes.com. I have an on-line shop that I am trying to keep stocked. You can also e-mail me and order a custom.

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