Between his art career and passion for surfing, Nathan Gibbs has hit many points on the globe and the four corners of the U.S. Born in Washington State, raised in northeast Florida, and now residing in San Clemente, CA, he heads to the unlikely locale of York, Maine to immerse himself in the time and energy-intensive process of wood board building with Grain Surfboards. Transferring their boatbuilding knowledge to the surfboard craft, the instructors at Grain have established a successful initiative toward DIY and environment-friendly business practices. In his enlightening narrative, Nathan reflects on his experience with Grain’s holistic approach to the creative process.
See some of Nathan’s art and craftsmanship at http://nathangibbsart.com/.
A Modern Wood Revival by Nathan Gibbs
Grain. One of those words that have a set of people thinking food, and another set thinking wood. Officially, grain as I will be discussing the word refers to the direction in which the fibers of a piece of dressed wood, as a board, rise to the surface. This instance we will be exploring a little-known company, outside of surfboard circles, that refers to the latter.
Maine is not always a place that pops into your mind when you think of surfing, let alone surfboard design and innovation. Say Hawaii, California, or even Florida. But Maine? That, though, is a part of what makes this special. Not often in the surfing world do we encounter a new way of doing things that bridges a gap between two art forms. While it is nothing new in board building to use wood, making it a performance lightweight shape is somewhat new. That, coupled with a green attitude of reuse, repurpose and conserve, leads you to York. We can trace surfing’s roots back a long time. Decades before foam, resins, powered hand planers, fiberglass and such, the first boards were made from wood. Glorious wood. And there must be something to that, right?
Wood is one of those resources that humans have used for millennia for various purposes. One of which had been, and is still now, used in surfing construction. From the old Alia boards of ancient Polynesia, to Tom Blake, wood has been a fixture for many decades. Rarely in industry does progress work backwards; or rather, reach an apex with innovation and then, in a way, digress back to its roots. A couple of former boatbuilders in that cold northern Atlantic state have done just that. Meld innovation, CAD models on computers, centuries-old drawknives, spokeshaves, hand planes, and modern shapes with an age-old medium: wood.
Rewind. I was asked by a client of mine to find a company that could shape for her a performance board made from wood, and then she would have me put my art on it. After researching wood surfboards on the Internet, I found a few companies, but one that really stood out was Grain. A statement on their website page sums up what my client and I were looking for: sustainable home grown designs.
To quote the site, “Grain Surfboards began in the basement of a home minutes from the waves in York Beach, Maine. Mike LaVecchia combined his love of board sports with a passion for traditional wooden boat-building techniques to create works of art for riding waves. Brad Anderson joined as co-owner shortly after and, with the help of some friends, Grain has grown into a full-fledged surfboard manufacturer known for innovative techniques, classic designs and ground-breaking products.”
Basic marketing jargon, you might say. More like classic story. But what they don’t tell you is that it really is groundbreaking. I first discovered this when the board I was to paint first arrived at my house. When I pulled it out of the bag, it was surprisingly light. The bookmatched white cedar panels had wonderful patterns and Rorschach test-inspired thoughts. Look long enough at any grain from wood, and your mind wanders to swirls of currents, unbroken swells, and limitless faces of animals and people. You might even say it is a psychotherapist’s natural gauge of the thoughts of the surfer and craftsman. Like humans, every tree may look similar on the outside; but from subtle details to deep moods, wood grain is definitely individual on the inside.
After seeing the amazing work, I looked deeper into the business. I discovered that unlike many of the closed-door shapers, sanders and glassers, Grain actually wants you to come learn from them. They offer classes that provide full instruction in their technique, where you walk away with a fully built board of your creation. Then, if that isn’t surprising enough, they will sell you a kit with all materials included to continue to make them on your own. Surfboard builders to business class professors at USC are vomiting at the thought. Give away your trade secret? Teach others how to do your job? Seems to be a form of reverse capitalism. Business suicide. I had to investigate.
It is not all about being commercial.
Mike says, “Our ‘business’ is better described as a lifestyle that we have created for the people that work here than it is to think of it in purely commercial terms. Grain naturally needs to think about the dollars and cents of keeping the doors open to ensure that the people who work with us continue to have a great place to come to, but it’s definitely not all about the bottom line with us.”
I decided to reinvest my payment from art services in painting my client’s board, and hoping to come home with a skill to enjoy for years to come, to go find out exactly how much of this design concept they really do give away. I wasn’t headed there totally blind, though.
I had grown up around wood. My grandfather, Duane, got me interested early in wood as a medium. Apprenticing under him, I gained a fascination for turning wood bowls on a lathe, and later building handmade cedar chests. Only occasionally did I consider melding my love of surfing and my love of wood. Having close to 20 years of experience working with wood in some form, whether it be making bowls and chests, or using wood to paint upon, I decided this was a perfect fit.
For those who have never been to Maine, or York specifically, it is a beautiful coastline. It is one of the places where you can feel at any moment it is 1776 or 2011 by moving your eye from a historic barn to a multi-million dollar mansion just feet away. Old graveyards dot farms with headstones dating back hundreds of years. It just bleeds history. Located where it is, waves can be good, or terrible. The coastline is set up with reefs and points, but that can be quickly overshadowed by frigid waters, snow on the beach, and poor swell windows. It is a perfect setting for a board building company that attempts, and succeeds, in melding materials of old and techniques from boatbuilding, with modern surfing.
After arriving at Logan International in Boston and driving north for the hour or so after dark, I found their warehouse and board building facility tucked quaintly on a hay and dairy farm. An idyllic setting for a roots-based business. How much more authentic can you be? The classes are formed with no more than six people at a time with two instructors available whenever needed. Not just any instructors, but the owners Brad and Mike themselves, or one of their board builders. Not some newbie or apprentice. It would be as if Rusty and Al Merrick were taking time out of their lives to share their wisdom and technique directly with you – a nobody.
Luckily for me, I was able to stay directly on the farm in a no-running-water cabin outfitted with a wood stove and, amazingly, cable TV; another authentic addition to the feel and ambiance of hand carving a wood board. Pulling myself from the mire of a three-hour time difference west to east, I reported for duty. The office, kitchen, surf shop, and gallery – yes, it is a gallery of beautiful cedar boards – sits in the front of the shaping facility. The class included a full breakfast and lunch, as there is minimal time to leave and go grab a bite. Every minute is crucial. Normally you think of “free” as continental: muffins, or maybe eggs if you are lucky. But no, this was a gourmet feast of different recipes from Molly, the resident chef and Mike’s sister-in-law. What a better way to begin a grueling day of mental calculations and emotional strains than on a full stomach of hot, delectable food. Molly had it going on with food, like the instructors did with wood.
Who would take such a class, you ask? Well, the other four guys that attended with me included Rick, an E.R. doctor from Edmonton; Bob, an airline pilot from North Carolina; Tino, a retired consultant who drove up from Vermont; and Brent, a green roof designer from the East Bay in Oakland. By the way, this was Bob’s sixth board he had made at Grain. Throw in myself, an artisan and school teacher from San Clemente, and you get quite an eclectic mix of personalities, ideas and backgrounds.
After discussing who we were and why we were there, we let our stomachs come to rest while hearing the background of Grain and their concept. Each of us was equally edgy and amped to get our hands on our materials and create something special. Before each stage of the process, they would give us “chalk talks” and diagrams explaining what to do. While this was a fully led week of instruction, we as builders were allowed to work on our own, taking our chances until we were uncomfortable and needed help. Or, in my case, the instructors would watch and step in to prevent certain disaster before it happened. I started the first day so enamored by my bottom planks’ beauty that when I set them down to glue the keel and frame, they were upside down. A purely cosmetic mistake. Thankfully no one will ever know the difference.
The course is not meant for the student to walk away a fully certified hollow wood surfboard builder to start selling for profit. It takes many boards and years to perfect one that you can actually sell respectfully, though now I am confident that any future board kits I make would be of a respectable quality. The course is immersion at its finest. There was plenty of “Do this” or “Don’t do that,” but it was balanced well with the spiritual and emotional side of creating your board.
“When we made the decision to share what we do through kits and classes, it came principally from our desire to give people this great feeling of building their own – the same feeling that inspired Grain in the first place. So I guess you could say that someone that builds their own in a class or as a kit represents trade-in finished boards that we’ve ‘lost,’ but it’s more important to us that they’ve had the chance to get that feeling,” says Brad.
“We also make sure to let students know that we haven’t invited them into our shop to train them to go into business for themselves; and our kits authorize kit builders to make a single board from the materials we provide, so we are happy to rely on these tacit agreements to reduce any chance that people will do anything unethical. Besides, most of our customers are people we stay connected with, develop friendships with, and they’re generally really cool people, so we don’t worry about it too much. Plus, there’s just not enough time in a short one-week class to teach a group of people all that we have learned about building these boards, so time alone limits how much we can ‘give away.”
Steps are laid out carefully. There was a definite sequence to this process, and with the importance of structural integrity with board building, there were many issues that could arise. But Brad and Mike have that down to a science. In fact, when you order a kit, it contains a manual over 100 pages long with very detailed instructions. Their claim and goal is that even with minimal or no woodworking experience, if you can follow instructions, you can create a board that is of quality and rideable. Unlike other customer service departments, they help out. When I was there, a kit builder called for help on a step he was stuck on. One of their employees, Nolan, spoke with the customer directly on the phone to help them through the difficult spot. Unheard of. I jokingly wondered if they would ever be able to outsource that to India.
They say the average work time on a board is about 50 hours. This meant we were working basically from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, often later when trying to dial in rail angles or symmetrically balancing the tail of the fish model I was building. I ended each day mentally exhausted. It is striking how much concentration you need while building a wooden board, especially as a beginner creating one for yourself. As taxing as it was, there was never a moment that impatience didn’t threaten to derail my crafting. I just wanted it to be done, to ride it. Excitement is a two-dollar whore. Temptation to go fast is at every turn, and self-control is a necessity. The smell of the cedar is a drug to the wood lover. I found myself touching the board and caressing it as though I would a lover. Does every builder do this with a board? What an emotional roller coaster the builder must endure with every carve, stroke and chisel.
As the week progressed, the knowledge passed on from Mike, Brad, John and Nolan was detailed and unbridled. I felt like recording the conversations just so I could listen again when I try my longboard kit this summer. It was an open hug to the student. I was a sponge. I became known as the guy who kept asking questions. They kept answering. Hospitality is a theme of “Vacationland,” as some license plates read in Maine, and it was evident that the guys and gals at Grain, all seven of them, lived that mantra. While they were teaching us, business went on as usual. They were boxing up and sending out kits. John, one of the builders was working on boards for clients from Colorado, Japan and Italy. Just like the trees they use, they spread across the globe. Brad was fabricating almost from scratch a new machine to do the job of three. A truly creative group.
A couple of times I would prod and poke Brad or Mike about how much business or money they could make expanding this idea to the west coast. Sometimes they responded with a “Hmmm….” But other times I got real answers.
“We don’t really have significant plans involving growth for growth’s sake. We just want to keep this going, enjoy it, and make it interesting to ourselves and everyone else. Since we consider ourselves a values-based enterprise, a large part of what we think about is constantly deepening our commitment to environmental conservation, and that’s what our partnership with Cape Boatworks in Australia was about. Since they produce our kit components there out of locally grown paulownia, we don’t have to be responsible for all the carbon produced in transporting Maine cedar all the way around the planet. We met them through some friends at Chesapeake Lightcraft, who sell our kits. Introductions were made and the details worked out. It was pretty painless, and the benefits to the planet are significant as far as we’re concerned.”
As always, business owners are straddled across a razor blade of decisions. Why did I get in this business? When does it become too much of a job and not enough fun? Profits can equal less time in the water surfing. This the guys at Grain apparently struggle with every day, just as most surfing business owners do.
“It’s hard to say when too much is enough. It’s exciting to have so many things happening, with classes bringing super-stoked people to the shop where we can see them building their own boards, to road trips, and of course, getting to build and design new boards. It’s all good, but there’s always too much to do to keep it all moving. There isn’t much money to be made in a business like ours, so it really has to be about the passion for it,” Mike says.
Grain boards have been ridden and enjoyed by some known riders. I asked Mike and Brad to give a little info on connections they have made with people in the industry interested in wood board building.
Mike says, “Generally, people can feel the difference in surfing a wood board immediately. It’s funny that everyone reports that they feel more buoyant, when actually they’re not. Part of that is because the boards move so much faster when they are in the wave that the weight just bleeds away and turns to speed. That makes the ride feel more lively and gives the surfer a whole different feeling than surfing foam. For instance, foam is often too light to let you use as much of the wave as we can with our boards. We’ve designed boards with the help of the Campbell Brothers, Layne Beachley and Dave Rastovich. Dave’s board was surfed by Donovan Frankenreiter at Sunset, and when we got together with him last year, we were stoked that he raved about it. Billabong used a picture of his session on a giant store-front poster, but we never got a copy! We had Scotty Stopnik, Kassia Meador and Mikey de Temple here in the shop for a week building their own boards, and we helped Mikey modify a fish into a small tombstone shape reminiscent of the old Simmons boards. Keith Malloy was here for a few days last summer and fell for our Sea Sled body board, which we lent him for a trip to Iceland.”
Brad adds, “One thing everyone realizes pretty quickly is that surfing a wood board requires a shift in your mindset. It enhances some things about the way you can surf and limits others, like any variation in board design would. We promote a firm belief that wood is super-fun to surf, and deciding on a wood board lets you make a choice that is more responsible to the planet.”
In addition to providing classes with Grain themselves, they offer courses on how to build hand planes with Cyrus Sutton and alaia classes with John Wegener.
Mike tells it like this: “We’ve known the Wegners for a few years and loved them immediately. With their work on researching and creating alaias, Tom and Jon really embodied the principles of going back to the roots and finding new ways to make something old great for surfers today. Jon and his wife, Rosa, are coming out to teach people to build alaias in our shop in a September class that we’re holding. Cyrus is another guy who reflects our values fantastically by urging surfers to do for themselves, whether it’s making their own surf wax, racks, boards or hand planes. The film series “Surf Sufficient” on his site, KorduroyTV, is a great expression of those values. Cyrus is also coming out to teach people to make their own hand planes a few days after Jon’s class.”
Working on the board around other novices is a novel approach. When one of us encountered a problem with steaming the rail strips, or carving our tail blocks, Nolan, Mike or Brad would seize the opportunity for an intervention to show everyone how to avoid the problem or correct it. I felt this was another major benefit to their teaching style. In learning by yourself, there would be only the mistakes you encounter to learn from. When I enquired about seeing a board epoxied or have a hot coat put on, they would set time out in the early evening and use one of the boards they were building for a customer outside of normal class guidelines, and comply. I kept trying to get them to the point of saying, “Sorry, Nathan, that isn’t included in your class package,” but I never succeeded.
I have three tape measures. Not that I need to measure more than one thing at a time, but I have three for another simple reason. I don’t put things back in one location. So, I figure if I have three, they are bound to be seen when I leave them scattered about. Regardless, I will still spend countless seconds every day looking for a hammer, certain paintbrush, paint pen, drill bit or tape measure. Over time, that adds up to lost creativity and lost productivity. I learned a blunt but valuable lesson when I attended the class. Organization isn’t preferred; it is expected. Designating exact locations for the draw knives and spoke shaves, even down to labeling them with numbers, allowed for no lost seconds in a hide-and-seek game with your tools. Also, unlike me, they don’t have to keep buying tape measures. This was part of what made this an amazing operation. In a sense, attention to details is a must for crafting a board as they do. This was present in the systems they created within the shop on many levels. There were even specific bins for scraps and shavings. Again similar to how many of us have 25 flathead screwdrivers and somehow only 3 Phillip’s heads, and those never seem to be around.
The water in Maine in April hovers near 40 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day. That translates to a 5/4, gloves, hood, and booties. When I left Florida in ‘99 to move to South Orange County, I was a wave gobbler of sorts. You have to be on it surfing Florida in order to get any surf in. Windy? No problem. Small? No problem. I surfed it all. As years wore on in California, like many surfers, I became more picky, if not snobby, about my waves, conditions and size choices. Too cold? Work in the shop. Choppy? Hang with the family. Tide wrong? Go paint. No problem. California is a wave factory, and it becomes rather easy to pass and complete other items on your to-do list, knowing a great swell is around the corner. In Maine, however, I got the impression that you went when there was swell, no matter what. I don’t even own a 5/4 or gloves. Not that I had time to surf while I was there, since I was painting boards for clients anyway, but those guys show real stoke. Small waves, freezing water, and frigid air, yet these guys were excited to get a surf in. One day the other guys in the class wanted to hit the waves. They completely changed the class schedule, moved everything to the evening, and took them for a surf. Perspective can be a big slap in the face sometimes.
The process was not always as easy and refined in making these hollow wood boards as it is today, and Grain is not embarrassed to say so.
“One summer, a friend and I were messing around in my basement with this idea of building wood boards. We were focused on trying to apply some boatbuilding techniques that had never been used before in surfboards, but we started with the basic idea that Tom Blake had come up with in 1929. By the time my friend moved on at the end of the summer, we had the basics of the method worked out and a few crude designs that Grain has refined considerably since then,” Mike recalls.
“Shortly after that, Brad and I became partners, and together we quickly advanced our methods, continually testing and analyzing the results ourselves and with other surfers. As we added builders, we gained the benefits of their insights as well. It’s been our goal to maintain a collaborative shop so that we benefit from everyone’s increasing expertise.
“Once Brad got a handle on the 3D design systems we now use, we were able to figure out how to build complex shapes that seem impossible to do in a hollow wood board. Each of these seems to require a redesign of the basic railing system we employ – we have several flavors of it in regular use – and new techniques for building the nose and tail profiles, and for managing bottom contours. We continue to push outward into new designs, some based on retro shapes and others that are visions that customers have for boards we’ve not yet considered. But at this point we believe that we can build almost any type of board, each one as hollow as a guitar.”
Around the shop are boards that were early trials in the process. You can see somewhere the top planks are attached with screws and others that don’t have the same venting systems. While many board builders wouldn’t dare display the learning curve or process, at Grain it is celebrated.
Brad says, “I think everyone understands the nature of Grain’s presence in surf culture. We’ve never pretended to be Lance Carson or Al Merrick. Any success we’ve had has been built in large measure on our enthusiasm for surfing, our intense interest in surfboard design, our willingness to experiment, and the skills we’ve developed in past lives as woodworkers, designers, and boat builders. Happily for us and for the thousand-plus people that are now surfing on Grain boards, creating a really well-performing surfboard of wood is something we’ve consistently been able to do. And that’s been a result of what we’ve learned from foam shapers, from the host of info out there on elements of surfboard design, and from all those skills we’ve been accumulating during our other lives.”
Mike continues, “Keeping and displaying some of those early boards, as crude as they are, is a way to celebrate the process of just ‘taking it on,’ which we encourage surfers of all kinds to do. Plus, it’s kind of amusing to us to see board number one hanging on the wall above a technical accomplishment like the five-fin, deep double concave Spray that the Campbell Brothers helped us design. Board One has a pretty crude shape and black deck seams like you’d find on a ship, literally screwed together with bronze fastenings. The Spray has concaves a half-inch deep that run out of a finely shaped diamond tail, with Bonzer Runners and graceful curves that all melt together in seemingly impossible ways. It makes us feel pretty great about how far we’ve come and tells a story that our visitors and students find interesting.”
Unlike many other board builders or shaping companies, Grain starts and finishes every board with one builder. They pick the bookmatched materials, know every template and design, assemble the board, shave it down, sand it, and epoxy it. During the process, I witnessed communication between all the guys. While they own every board from start to finish, there are still questions posed between them to ensure all beautiful boards leave at the high standards set by Brad and Mike. Their background is a perfect resume for this concept.
“We both came to surfing later in life after years building skills in other pursuits that helped to make Grain into the community it is today. After a lifetime of being in love with boats, I became the manager of a large multi-year historic schooner construction project on Lake Champlain. I’ve owned a parade of boats, some of which I operated for charter, but all of which I maintained and repaired. One of my first jobs after moving to Maine was for a local boatbuilder. Brad’s worked for boatbuilders on and off since childhood, interspersed with fine woodworking and custom furniture-building at different times throughout his adult life. Acting as mate on a string of deep-water and coastal schooners and square-riggers kept his boatbuilding skills honed during the years he was at sea as a professional sailor. We each see our surfing differently. For me, it’s a chance to hang at the beach and surf with friends. For Brad, surfing is a time to be alone with his thoughts, where he can quietly commune with the experience and think about boards,” says Mike.
Don’t be fooled. These guys don’t just shape longboards and fun shapes with the occasional fish. We are talking CAD models for design, short boards and bonzers. Brad explains, “Part of what we have strived to do is to take the old – facets from the legacy of surfing – and combine them with the new – design technology and modern materials. So a component of that is taking a method of building surfboards that was born near the birth of modern surfing, and applying CAD design to it in order to be able to form the most modern of shapes out of hollow wood. Ultimately, this allows us to take all the knowledge about surfboard design that was accumulated by gifted shapers and thinkers during the rapid-prototyping, foam/glass period over the last sixty years, and apply the principles they discovered to a method of construction that has greater sustainability and appeals to our goal to surf great, long-lasting boards.”
They recently got involved with Channel Islands in a partnership to recreate their models in the hollow wood style.
“Seeing that Channel Islands and Grain Surfboards use similar design tools, and knowing that we could make high-performing renditions of Al’s boards, we approached CI and were honored that they saw us as worthy partners. When we were visiting their factory in California, we were being shown around the shop and had a chance to chat with Al for a bit,” explains Mike.
Brad continues, “At some point, Al took us over to a gorgeous agave/redwood gun that he was shaping for himself. As the six of us stood around admiring it, I was struck with the image of us standing there, surrounded by white foam hanging from the two-story high ceiling and racked from wall to wall – six surf industry professionals standing in front of the one wood board in the place. I just think that says something about the appeal of a crafted wood board.”
There is a lesson to be learned from building wood boards. It can relate directly to life, work and family. You should work with or across the grain, but never against. Seems fitting. As in any art form, innovation and staying fresh is a necessary part of the routine. Don’t think of Grain boards as just fish and longboards. I asked Brad about staying ahead of the norm.
“We have a constant goal of creating new designs. Some of those pay homage to retro boards, where we often consult with shapers known for their expertise in that particular style. Our Spray is a single to deep double concave based on the work the Campbell Brothers started in 1972. Their refinements and innovations on the type continue today. We got their blessing to try our own, and they generously provided some fantastic help in getting ours right. We are careful never to pattern a board by another shaper unless (as with the Spray and the Biscuit) we have permission from the original shaper. Other designs have been developed with the assistance of great surfers like Dave Rastovich and Layne Beachley. We treat all our custom board customers just as we did those two: sending screen-shots of the design by email and getting feedback and comments. It’s a way to ensure that, to a lesser degree than with kits, we get people involved in the creation of their own board.”
Like in most anything, the future can be clouded like a kiddie pool. It doesn’t seem so with Grain.
Mike gave a final thought about their plans: “We’re going to keep building up this community of people that feel the way we do about wood boards and the values that we hold. We’re really not trying to convince anyone of anything, just giving them a chance to make a different choice in their surf equipment. We’re of course greatly encouraged at the response from people that surf our boards and feel the difference that they can make in the enjoyment of their surfing. And that gives us the confidence to keep building boards, and to keep helping others to build their own.”
“We also want to continue to find ways to build challenging, modern, high-performing boards from wood, and to constantly find ways to reduce our impact on the environment,” adds Brad. “Of course, we’ll keep having regular parties at the shop, too.”
Maybe that is what it is all about. Doing what you love, and having a good time while doing it. There was an old story that my grandfather told me. Perhaps you have heard it in some other form. Some corporate guy was in Mexico on his big once-a-year fishing trip. He was being guided by a 30-something local. At some point they had a conversation about life. To make a short story even shorter, the local explained that he does what he wants everyday, not once a year; nor does he work his entire life to retire and then do what he wants to do.
Grain. Work with it, not against it.
I have painted and created hundreds of pieces of art from sculpture, paintings, turned wood bowls, and more. There is a bit of my soul in each, not to mention some blood, sweat, and yes, the cliché tear. However, I will tell you this with conviction: There has been little in my life other than (in no particular order) selling art, graduating college, and the birth of my first child that has given me such deep satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, and excitement as building my own wood board. Making my own decisions on fin placement, rail design, and, believe it or not, enjoying the mistakes and blemishes that come along with a novice creation, cannot be expressed in words.
There aren’t many times in life when you can be given a skill. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish… To me this rings true at Grain. Sure, they are more than happy to sell you a completed board, and that board is perfect in all manner of speaking. A work of art by trained, experienced craftsman. But that is not their only focus. Sharing the stoke of doing it yourself is important to them.
Brad seems to enjoy the concept: “The idea of teaching people to build boards this way is pretty core in our thinking. It is a way to return to some of the genuine roots of modern surfing, talking pre-1950s, where pretty much everyone built their own equipment. (The exceptions were Pacific Home Systems boards made in a pre-fab home factory, and the Tom Blake kook-boxes from which Grain is a direct descendent.) It’s that simple really. We got such a great feeling out of building our own, that when other people thought they couldn’t do it themselves like we did, we just found a way to help them. Now everyone can get that incredible feeling of building their own and taking it down to the beach to christen it on the first, amazing day that it sees water.”
That is what I was expecting. That incredible feeling. I left my board with them to be epoxied in that special building. It made a safe journey to San Clemente, where I unwrapped it and was giddy. The 6’0″ Wherry Fish, made from white cedar, carved by me, it’s father, and born on the farm in York, Maine, had its first surf in California on a moderate south swell at Four Doors. I reminisced how different it must be for this fish to come from a small hay farm surrounded by real craftsman and a friendly dog named Chester, and to now get to play with me in the Pacific. It was a moment that will never be forgotten. Putting on the base coat, then the wax; letting her touch salt water the for the first time; learning her; and understanding the nuances of my successful build was a very special event.
Little did the fish and I know that we would get even closer the very next day during a head-high combo swell session at Church. We had so much to say to each other. I explained how I like to ride, and she responded by telling me to watch out for turning on the rail too hard transitioning in roundhouses, and reminding me about how I had made the rails soft here and hard there, and how that may affect us. We were both teacher and student. I also realized that there is an entire other feeling you get from riding a wood board. Narcissistically, being the only surfer out of 200 at San Onofre, from Old Man’s to Church, with a hand-built cedar board was oddly fulfilling. It gave me a sense that I either was way ahead of the curve, or not even driving on the same road. Not sure which, or even if one was better. As I walked to Church past the myriad of people, some stopped me and inquired about who made it, and as proud as a new parent, I answered, “Me, of course.” About one out of four people had heard of Grain one way or another. Another surfer would say, “What a work of art! You’re not going to ride that, are you? I would hang it on the wall!” I would respond, with a bit of smugness, “Why wouldn’t I?”
While in the lineup, staring into the grain, it reflecting the sun, I was discovering a history of years within each line. The knots staring right back. A trio of dolphins swam only a couple of meters away while I was waiting for a set. One popped its head out, and I could have sworn he smiled when he saw the board reflect in the sun.
Wave after wave we played. Only my own fatigue ended the day. I walked out of the water satiated and spent, and I thought to myself, “what are the physics behind the water displacement and drive difference of foam and hollow wood?” I really felt a difference. Perhaps a placebo, perhaps not. I may never understand. But do I even need to?
Since beginning the writing of this article I have built a 9’0″ Root model longboard from the kits Grain offers. Challenging? Yes. Perhaps a little scary without an expert board builder on hand to answer questions and check your work. I akin the experience of building on my own, without help, to preparing my own boat for a long journey into the endless sea. You can check everything a thousand times, tweak it, work it, and do it all again, but eventually it just needs to get in the damn water. This beauty has been in the water, and you know what? The board rides damn good. Design? Materials? Or just the fact that I made it?