Sea Foam Sculptors
Two Big Sur surfers immerse themselves in the craft of board shaping.
Thursday, July 26, 2001
And if their chosen work fuels rampant summer fun, then so much the better. At least two Big Sur residents have found themselves in one such self-perpetuating cycle: they work through the rainy months in preparation for the sunny ones. Greg Wallace and his partner, Allen Thornton, shape their own surfboards.
Unlike snow- or skateboards, which are made by factories on an assembly line, every surfboard is unique, a sculpture that''s all arching lines and smooth aerodynamics. Both Wallace and Thornton have now shaped several boards, each designed with different types of waves in mind. Though they''re still relative beginners, they''re excited about the possibilities of shaping and thrilled by the feeling of riding a wave on foam shaped by their own hands.
The two met during the first few weeks of school at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, a school they both selected based on the fact that UNC-W was located near Wrightsville Beach, a "killer little surf town," says Wallace. After college, Thornton moved to Big Sur to work for the state parks department and check out West Coast surf. Wallace took a longer route, traveling in Australia and Germany before making his way to Big Sur last summer.
The decision to get into shaping developed over time, but once it was made, the two rapidly moved on the idea. At first, they were only looking to make something rideable that they''d made with their own hands.
"I was thinking that if all I got out of this was to be able to make a board that I could have a good time on," says Thornton, "that would be a really cool feeling. But I didn''t even think of that as a realistic goal."
The first efforts were indeed a little choppy. Lacking proper tools, the two used steak knives to cut shapes out of foam blanks. Surprisingly, the boards turned out to be rideable, even good for certain conditions. Thornton says his first board still rides well for smaller, mushier waves like those at Sand Dollar Beach in southern Big Sur.
Wallace and Thornton put the lessons learned from that first experience to good use. They invested in better tools, including a power planer and not one but two hand saws that they bought, unknowingly, for each other during a "secret Santa" gift exchange at Christmas.
They also spruced up the garage in which they worked, painting it purple and covering the walls in aluminum foil and surfing posters. They christened it the Supersonic Surf Shack. "Time in the Supersonic is time well spent," reads a handwritten note scrawled on the wall. An old vinyl record player, complete with albums such as Jimmy Cliff''s The Harder They Come and Lou Reed''s Rock and Roll Animal finished off the garage.
The Supersonic''s main function is as a workshop for new boards. Each board starts as a large foam blank purchased from a supplier in Santa Cruz. Using a pre-traced stencil, Wallace and Thornton draw the shapes on and then cut them from the foam.
After that, they use a planer to fine-tune the shape. It''s during this time that concave or convex channels can be cut into the bottom of the board. This step, along with the initial cutting, is where the shapers can get creative. Different shapes will ride differently on different waves. Wider and flatter boards tend to be faster. Thick boards have more float and are easier to catch waves with. These types of boards can then be made shorter, which tends to give the rider extra maneuverability.
After the planing portion of the shaping process--which requires that Thornton and Wallace wear masks to keep from inhaling the toxic dust--all that remains is to smooth out the edges and have the board fiberglassed. Glassing is an expensive and time-consuming process. Since they are still beginners, the two have their boards glassed for them. They are still experimenting with different glassers, trying folks from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz.
After completing their first attempts, dubbed "the garage experiment," Thornton and Wallace quickly began applying lessons learned to new boards. Wallace''s second effort in particular was a personal success. With small waves in mind, he designed it thicker, wider and a few inches shorter than most boards he''d ridden. The result was a six foot epiphany.
"That board is one of the best boards I''ve ever ridden," says Wallace. "Not just because I made it, but because it somehow suits my style of surfing. And now I know why that is. At first I wouldn''t have known, it was a stab in the dark."
Eventually the two came up with a name and a logo for their surfboard company. The garage inspired the name Supersonic Surfboards and a traditional Indian Henna design inspired the logo, a hand filled with chaotic patterns flowing throughout and a wave in its center.
Wallace and Thornton had always done ding and fin repair on boards for friends, but this spring Supersonic Surfboards also started to sell entirely new boards. So far, they''ve sold boards only to friends for just a few dollars above cost (the blanks are fairly inexpensive at $50 each; most of the cost is in the fiberglassing, which can cost up to a couple hundred dollars). Eventually, they''d like to expand their sales, but they remain realistic about their entrepreneurial exploits.
"I''d never want this to become my life," says Wallace. "I don''t want to become the owner of a surf company, like that would even be possible. That''s not where we want it to go. I just want to figure out a way to support this hobby, to further garage experiments."
While that may be off a ways in the future, the pair has enjoyed short-term benefits to their shaping fixation. Thornton says that his surfing style has changed, that shaping has changed the way he both looks at and rides boards. And Wallace cites watching a friend surf on a Supersonic board as a highlight.
"Watching Bob stand up and pull off moves on a board that I made was one of the most rewarding experiences I''ve ever had in my life," he says. "He caught a lot of waves today. That board does what it was intended to do."