Surfboard shaping and the custom surfboard industry

As someone who identifies as a fanatical surfer, I have long been a member of Wollongong's surfing community. This is a large community; with the region undoubtedly one of the worlds' best surfing regions, having a variety of quality breaks, with somewhere 'working' in almost all conditions (tide levels, swell and wind directions). More broadly, surfing is a culture, which has been commodified into a multibillion dollar per year industry with more than 2 million surfers in Australia alone. Like hip hop, scholarly and popular work on surfing has grown enormously, since surfing became part of popular culture (instigated with the release of the film Gidget in 1959). Less publicised in these literatures has been the surfboard making industry. This surprised me. Wollongong as a surfing region is also home to a number of iconic hand shapers - a declining number of artists who hand make, mostly custom designed surfboards -so I thought this would be a great case study to investigate.

Sanding a boardBay for setting glassed boards
Left: At Skipp Surfboards which opened in 1963. Yasu sanding a custom shortboard.
Right: John Skipp showing the cabinets where glassed surfboards are left to cure. (photos: Andrew Warren)

Beginning with guided tours through four local businesses - directly employing some 28 workers- my research has uncovered an industry at a production crossroads. With increasing fabrication occurring via the use of computer guided shaping machines, hand shaping is a dwindling art. Each of the four businesses explains tensions surrounding surfboard manufacturing, where there remains a strong local demand for customised surfboards. The stories from participant's shows how wider industry domination (oligopoly) by firms like Billabong and Quiksilver has ironically acted to help maintain locally focused markets, as much as encroach upon them. Yet, there is ongoing concern surrounding the importation of cheaper, lower quality, machined surfboards flooding into the region, and anxiety around what this will mean for hand shaping in Wollongong? Further, the 'older' profile of hand shapers in the region also raises questions for my thesis surrounding the future creative succession of this ancient form of surfboard making, skills first pioneered by Hawaiian royal Ali'I nearly three thousand years ago.

Custom Surf_3Andrew Warren Surfing
Left: Mick Carabine finishing off the glassing on a longboard. (Photo: Andrew Warren) Right: Andrew Warren Surfing