Emerging from the shade of the barn that houses his hilltop workshop on a ranch in Watsonville, Martijn Stiphout, flanked by his yipping Chihuahua mix, Coho, greets me with a laid-back smile. He’s tall and projects an aura of calm self-confidence.
He directs me past a beat-up Toyota pickup with plastic fish and babydoll-head antenna ornaments, into a workspace filled with wood scraps, saws and workbenches.
“This is it,” he says. “This is where the magic happens.”
The magic he’s referring to is the creation of Ventana surfboards, custom works of functional art that he hand-crafts using salvaged, local materials.
His process is painstaking, taking between two and three weeks to finish a single board. He begins by building a frame, as opposed to the typical method of sanding down a foam block. After building the frame, he presses fine sheets of reclaimed wood onto it for the hull, then layers thin strips of cork around the edges and inlays various materials, including mother of pearl, ebony and ivory from piano keys, and jade he collects in Big Sur.
“I used redwood floorboards from a house dated between 1880-1890 that was being torn down for this half,” he says, polishing a two-toned board. “The other half is leftover cedar from a cabinet shop. And the fin is redwood burl from the beach.”
His demeanor is so serene, it evokes adjectives usually reserved for spiritual types, not a young business owner. But Stiphout is not your average craftsman. He never formally studied woodworking, instead picking up skills from his hobbyist father. “I learned everything I know from working with my dad and by reading about it on the Internet,” he says with a laugh.
Stiphout is actually a marine biologist by training. Born in South Africa, he moved with his family to Germany when he was 5, then to the Netherlands at 8, and on to the U.S. at 13. He says that nomadic upbringing gave him a unique perspective on conservation.
“When I was a kid, I saw a lot of poor people in South Africa who couldn’t afford to let anything go to waste,” he says. “If they had a broken stereo or something, they’d rebuild it. There wasn’t the same disposable culture there that there is in the U.S.”
In college at Cal State Monterey Bay, Stiphout spent his free time surfing at Asilomar State Beach and Moss Landing. He also volunteered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where he landed a full-time job after graduation—first as a mate, and eventually as captain on the research sailboat Derek M. Baylis, which trains aspiring marine scientists through the Science Under Sail program.
During that time, his focus on woodworking intensified, and he started building surfboards for personal use. In March, 2010, Stiphout and his father put their creations to a serious test: They loaded up two home-built kayaks with food and supplies and set off for a three-month trip down the Sea of Cortez.
The Sea of Cortez, chronicled in John Steinbeck’s classic book, is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most ecologically diverse seas on the planet. Marine life abounded off the coast, giant sea turtles and whales broke the water in view of the boats, and white-sand beaches stretched out along the shores. But to Stiphout’s dismay, those shores were littered with trash.
Witnessing the devastation of such a unique habitat got him thinking harder about how he could make even a small difference. At the same time, he learned that he’d been laid off from his job at the Aquarium.
“When I got home I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’” he recalls. “I could go work for a cable company, or I could try to do something with what I love.”
He founded Ventana Surfboards in December, 2010.
“His work is phenomenal,” says MacKenzie Bubel, a former coworker of Stiphout’s. “He used to make wooden plane and boat replicas that were perfectly to scale. He’s really a perfectionist, and it shows in his work.”
Local galleries like Lumen, and Sawyer Land and Sea have begun selling his work. Collectors and athletes have taken notice, too. Professional surfer and actor Gerry Lopez is a fan, and owns one of Stiphout’s hand planes.
“It’s so beautiful I can’t bring myself to use it, but I look at it all the time,” Lopez says. “Working with wood in this way isn’t easy. He really knows what he’s doing.”
With his board prices ranging from $2,400-$4,000, Stiphout admits most of his customers are “probably middle-aged dads with money to spare.” But all his boards are completely surfable, he adds—and they’re the best he’s ever surfed.
He’s thinking of reaching a broader market by making some more basic, and less expensive, versions. He and his business partner, David Dennis, also plan to expand the company with a sustainable clothing line.
Stiphout hopes his success shows aspiring entrepreneurs it’s possible to do what you love and stay committed to your principles. “Craftsmanship, responsibility and adventure are what we’re all about,” he says.