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Soundings: Sanders

Surfboard sanders, the power forwards of surfboard production, use grit to find the grain.

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“The best shapers in the world are sanders.”

I can’t recall who said that. Tom Eberly, maybe. It definitely wasn’t Donald Takayama, for whom I worked as a factory rat boxing orders to Japan, installing leash loops, and keeping the joint spick-and-span. Although I existed on the bottom rung, I learned a lot about the complete surfboard production loop, soaking in how each step impacted workflow and overall quality.

There was never any question who was the lead at Hawaiian Pro Designs on South Cleveland Street in Oceanside. If you muttered otherwise, Donald would not only show you the door, he might have led you through it by the ear. I’m not one for nostalgia, but I do miss those no-bullshit days when your “platform” or “hashtags” didn’t mean anything. Hard work, integrity, and attention to detail was what mattered if you wanted to avoid any sort of rep as a hack.

After arriving at 3 a.m. each morning, and following many shaped blanks over the course of the day, Donald would hand the keys over to the evening shift around 4 p.m. He consistently led his full-service surfboard factory by example, and never farmed out work for fear of quality-control issues. I appreciated and respected his unwavering pride in perfection, and his self-confidence earned from the ability to do every step as well as anyone in the world. Those credentials combined with a nose for talent explains why he had such a highly acclaimed, best-in-class assembly line during the 1980s, 90s and 00s.

So while Donald would never have been the one to say his sander was the best shaper in that building, he did say on many occasions he’d be screwed without a good one. 

“You can’t tolerate bad sand jobs on a longboard,” he once explained. “There’s just nowhere to hide the mistakes. Your sander needs to not only be good, he needs to be the best.”

The sander’s role was the lynchpin to the entire process of building surfboards from start to finish in Donald’s shop. As I witnessed, that person could be both a blessing and a curse, as the great ones could sometimes be a bottleneck one day, but then a backlog savior the next. This reality often hinged on how good the surf was that morning, or how big the party was the night before.

If this is starting to sound a bit hyperbolic, I get it. How critical could a guy be who’s seemingly just tracing the outline of a shaped blank with a sanding machine, taking a few passes over a thin layer of fiberglass and resin? 

The answer: It’s not quite that simple. A sander holds the responsibility of restoring the integrity of a shaped blank’s design features. Where the edge sits and where it blends in, as well as the start and finish of the board’s bottom concaves, can easily be lost beneath those layers of cloth. And with the great power of a high-rpm disc-sanding machine used to restore it all to the shaper’s original vision, as Donald said, “also comes the great responsibility of not fucking it all up.”

Perfection matters, and its judgement is laid bare once you’ve glossed and polished the sander’s work. A botched job is magnified by a shiny, transparent coating. And if that’s the case that far into production, there’s no turning back. The only way to avoid those gaffes is through preparation and being in sync with your entire crew.

During my brief time there in that Oceanside factory, Donald looked to a man named Beecher as that reliable power forward who could not only serve as a last line of defense from mistakes, but also could dunk consistently on the competition in the form of flawless sand jobs. Other notable shapers have leaned on their versions of Beecher, and so I asked a small sample of those humble craftsmen to share insights on their careers in sanding, as well as how they are helping keep traditional board-building alive and well.

Should you ever find yourself coming around the corner at a maxing reef pass with only your inside rail connected, you’ll be thankful the sander not only respected your shaper’s tucked edge, but actually enhanced it. Jay Davies in Indonesia, grateful for and confident in the craftsmanship of his equipment. Photograph by Harry Mark.

Wade Largent

Age 59
Shoreline Glassing
San Diego, California

What’s a typical workload look like for most sanders?

In the 1980s and 90s, we were doing a lot of mass production, probably 100 boards a week, at Diamond Glassing. And there were guys that wanted your job, so you were quiet about the work and the pay—any details whatsoever—because they were going to be competing for your numbers. It’s still a piece rate today, but I could care less if anyone wants to know anything now. After all these years, I’m doing about a max of eight boards a day, and there’s no shortage of work. So, I’d welcome more people to do this, because we are seriously becoming a dying breed.

Sanders are very particular about the tools they use. What’s your kit look like?

For machines, I’ve always been stuck on the Makitas. When I started, Milwaukees were real big. They’re a little bulkier and a bit heavier-duty in all aspects. I had arthritis in my hands through the 90s, so I eventually went to the 3,500 rpm Makitas because they are lighter, and I’ve just stuck with them since. The polish guys tend to use Milwaukees, which run up to, like, 5,000 rpm. But man, that is hard, back-breaking work to hover over a board all day triggering a heavy machine with zero room for mistakes. As for hand tools, I try to use as little as possible and let the machines do the work. But there are a few blocks and then the cupping of these hands here for the rest of it.

Wade Largent. Photograph by Kevin Roche.

Are there any tricks to the trade that have made you more efficient?

The real game changer was incorporating a little collection of different sanding pads for the machine over the years. Most guys are minimalists, and they’ll only use one or two different pads. I use up to five, and the flex pads are what changed my whole approach. In fact, after first using one, I threw everything else away and went to all flex pads—hard, medium, soft. Once you’ve got everything flat with a flex pad, you come back with a foam one and blend it all. That really saves a lot of time and makes the boards more true for gloss and polish, which is what 90 percent of my work gets finished with. Oh, and I also have a small pad that I’ve cut down in diameter to get into those real deep, long concaves on boards shaped by Skip [Frye] and Josh [Hall].

Some of the spaces where boards are built feel a bit claustrophobic: no windows, tight quarters, fluorescent lighting. What’s it like to work in that environment? 

Sanding-room layouts are important. Keeping things neat and orderly reduces stress and the potential for quality issues. I was really fortunate to work at Diamond for most of my career. The factory space was originally built by Bill Caster, and then Bob Boeche bought it from him. Being a sander himself, Bob dialed in the sanding room, and it had the best blower system in the industry, as well as really good lighting. Lighting is key. So, yes, you get dirty. But it’s not bad. You’ve got separate clothes ready for when you’re done, then go home and take a shower. Or, better yet, go surf after. You don’t get itchy, especially if we’re all doing our job correctly and have a blower. If you’re hitting fiberglass then something’s wrong, because we don’t want to be sanding into the weave. That’s the hot coater’s job to set us up good so that’s not happening. But man, if I don’t get covered in dust every workday, something feels like it’s missing. I like that feeling of working and getting cleaned up after, and then doing it all over again the next day.

After decades of sanding, has it taken a toll on you physically?

Thanks in part to the lighter Makita, the chronic arthritis in my hands has now subsided. I think the long-term battle for the older veterans like me is the accumulative wear on the shoulders and neck from holding, hovering, and pushing that machine. I spend every day leaning in with my left shoulder, and I get all tweaked and knotted up. Sometimes I’ll get massages to help relieve it, or just roll up and down on a tennis ball against the wall. But it’s the same thing for shapers and polishers. A lot of guys get bad hips later in life from walking around big boards and lugging those machines along the way. So you just kind of learn to pace yourself, and you become more efficient over time. That is the secret to longevity in this trade.

How does working with master shapers compare to ones that have a small number of boards under their belt?

When you take a Pat Rawson shape and throw it on the rack, you can already tell before you begin that this person is not only a great designer, but they’re very technically skilled in shaping. As a sander, that’s huge and very much appreciated. Seeing that kind of quality is so inspiring for me to do my best to match what they’ve created. Everything is dialed. Edges blend evenly, meaning they start and stop in the same place on both sides. The entire outline is symmetrical, and the concaves are all even. It takes a lot more than a few hundred boards to get to that level.

Do you feel serious pressure to deliver the goods when working for some of the greats?

The way each shaper blends their edges is always a unique signature, and it’s something a good sander needs to really study and understand before diving in. It’s on me to not lose that distinct characteristic and edge line in order to keep the shaper happy, and for me to keep getting their work. For example, Skip’s rails are probably the most unique in the industry. And he’s super particular about how a sander keeps the integrity of the design. The other big one is glass-ons. You have to know how to properly sand those tri-fins and quads, and keep the templates intact and taper the fillets to their liking. Being able to precisely maintain the signature features of master shapers is what earns you a great reputation in this business. 

Dane Carroll

Age 32
R&D Surf
Rockledge, Florida

What’s your process like?

I’m a Milwaukee guy, all the way. My dad [Ricky Carroll] swears by them, so you know how that goes. I’ve got a 5,000 rpm with a grinding disc on it for taking down laps and boxes. I’ve got two different variable-speed machines, too: a 2,800 rpm and a 1,750 rpm. And I like to use the faster one with a hard pad, then I’ll use the slightly slower machine for soft-pad work. I always start with the grinder and take down any high spots, like the lap line and patches around the boxes. After that, I use the hard pad to start flattening and evening stuff out in small sections. I start from the stringer and work out toward the rail in foot-and-a-half sections. After I work my way back to ensure I get it good and flat, I move over and start the next section. I then continue to work my way down the board in the same-sized sections. I go back with soft pads to finalize and blend everything in.

How did you learn the process?

A lot of what I’ve been taught comes from my dad, but we’ve also had some amazing guys here that have taught me some of their tricks over the years. Everybody has their own opinion of how it’s supposed to be done, so I can’t say there is one right way, but there are for sure some wrong ways. The main goal in this job is quality, and setting up the glosser and polisher. Because every board is so different, you also need to know how to approach each one the right way so you don’t take away too much or lose the integrity of the shape. Even after a decade of doing this, I’m still continuously refining my approach.

Dane Carroll. Photograph by Jeffrey Margaritondo.

Have you done other production jobs in the factory that were helpful for sanding?

I used to work in resin lamination, so that’s a really nice advantage for fixing sanding mistakes. I can go back a step or two and correct it. That said, if you really go hard and burn through a resin tint, depending on the color, it’s going to be near impossible to fix without someone noticing a darker or a lighter spot. At that stage, which is honestly quite a rare thing, you are looking at totally remaking the board or offering the customer a significant discount. But it needs to be pretty bad to get to that point. Most people don’t see the mistakes because I know how to make them go away without affecting the board’s structural integrity.

Can you make a decent living as a sander?

You can, but most sanders are still making the same amount of money they did 20 years ago. The average is $25 for a shortboard and around $35 for a longboard, plus add-ons for glass-ons, channels, etc. Because of EPA regulations and fluctuating oil prices over the years, material costs keep skyrocketing while wages haven’t kept up with inflation. Otherwise, the retail price of boards would be nuts. So, unless you really love surfboards and the idea of working your tail off every day, it’s going to be very tricky attracting new talent to fill the labor shortages we are currently facing. Aside from pay, this job is a tough sell because there are no windows, and so you’re going to be in a dusty and sterile-feeling room by yourself every day. You really do have to love the craft of this, the actual process.

With those kinds of difficulties, how do you find help?

It is definitely tough because we aren’t in the middle of a big surf-industry hub here in Central Florida. It seems like the guys that are really good are already working for someone or doing their own thing. I feel like the best sanders we get are the guys that start by cleaning up the shop, then graduate to hand sanding, and from there we train them to work their way up to machines. We kind of screw ourselves sometimes with nurturing talent, because we get so busy that it’s hard to stop and teach someone. You just end up doing the work yourself. It’s not a good system, but it just kind of happens that way. On the opposite end, you can spend years training someone and then they leave for another shop or start their own thing. But it’s like that with a lot of other trade industries, too.

What do you wish more people knew about the line of work you do?

That people could tell the difference between a decently made board and a really well-built one. We take pride in the latter. Unfortunately, a lot of customers aren’t educated or experienced enough to see the difference—or even know that one exists.

Charlie Walker

Age 67
Self-employed
Haleiwa, Hawaii

You’ve been sanding for nearly five decades. How did you get started?

I just kind of saw it happening when I was in my late teens. There were a few times where I’d walk into a surfboard factory and peek in the sanding room, and I remember thinking, What are they doing? They were these burly guys wearing masks, and all this dust was flying everywhere. They were using heavy steel Milwaukees. Guys like Skip Engblom, Ted Ketchum, and Wendell Payne. So, after seeing that a few times, I just thought, Wow, I wish I could do that. Before long, I found myself learning the trade just by doing it. Guys back then weren’t going to teach you anything. You were on your own, you know? But I’ve been around so many amazing craftsmen over the years that I just picked up stuff, and I’m continuing to learn more bits and pieces even today.

What’s different about today’s sanding work as compared to when you started?

Back then, we used to run edge all the way through the boards. Some people liked them super hard, some softened up a bit, but it was still edge all the way. That’s how we could ride lower-rocker boards with vee bottoms. That edge helped a lot. Then concave bottoms changed everything in the 1980s and early 90s. Those kinds of boards didn’t really like too much edge running past the fins. About a hand’s width past the fins is where it was fully blended into the board, which leaves no edge. At least that’s how it was here in Hawaii. For California waves, you see some guys run the edge a little further up from where we do here. Also, their edges seem like they aren’t as hard as ours. Here in Hawaii, from right around the fin and all behind there, the shapers like it very hard and sharp through the tails—so much so that you can just about cut your leash on it. Basically, what shapers or factories are looking for today is a consistent finish, which means satin all the way or shiny all the way, and no uneven scratches with any kind of finish.

Charlie Walker. Photograph by Jeff Johnson.

With every shaper having a different style of rail, how do you know where to place the edge?

It’s super subjective. I can see where it is, but a lot of shapers will tell me personally, “This is where I like my edge.” Then they will show me a sample of how it should look. Some leave a little pencil line in the stringer to mark where to start blending it and where to end it entirely. I love seeing that mark, but it’s also fine if you err on the safe side and leave too much edge. I can always detune the thing. It’s a lot more work to add it back in. I have to tape it off, cast more resin, then hit it again.

Do you get feedback from surfers in the way that shapers do?

It’s hard to remember after all these years, but I’ve had times where the team riders have helped me a lot in getting better at this. Michael Ho was so into the edges on his boards. He knew exactly where he liked them and could describe the way he wanted them blended in. He really did help me become a better sander because of that collaboration. He was so good at reading boards that he could grab a fresh one, put it under his arm and feel the rail, and then know if it was magic or not without even riding it.

Does the average surfer benefit from that level of perfection with their edges?

Someone can give you a Ferrari and a VW, but most people are going to drive them the same. Yes, the board should be as good as possible, but it’s also up to you, the driver, to make it work better. So don’t always blame your surfing on the equipment. Of course I care what the customer thinks, but I want to satisfy the shaper. If the shaper is happy, I know the client will be, too.

What are some key things in surfboard production that best set you up for success?

Any sander will tell you the same thing: Hot coaters are key. And the laminator is key. It’s all connected. When you’re working for yourself like I often am, you are your own best hot coater. But when you’re on a production team, you have to rely on someone else, and the good ones set you up by doubling up. They generously cover the lamination, fill in the fin area and the lap, and then cast an edge where they taped off. As soon as that gels, they pull the tape and shoot another hot coat over it specifically to build up that edge area. With more resin to work with, we can get the edge super sharp. Without a good edge set, I’ve been known to chase it and get in trouble by hitting the lap—which is fixable, but definitely time wasted.

How critical is the role of the sander to the whole board-building process?

It’s essential. The sander is the one that has to stop production and fix something that’s not right. He has to make the call on quality control. If he lets a mistake go, it’s really hard to fix once you gloss and polish. So sanders fix any cosmetic flaws or edge issues themself, or, depending on the situation, they may just ask the laminator or hot coater to fix it. It all depends on the size of the operation you’re in and how many hands you have to help. Sometimes, though, you just have to do it yourself.

What are your thoughts on the importance of traditional domestic board-building versus overseas production by non-surfer labor?

This isn’t a popular opinion, but I don’t think it matters. Hypothetically speaking, if it costs us $100 to make something over here and they can do it overseas for $25, then we’re at an unfair advantage. It’s hard to compete against price. But if there’s that much demand, and we can’t keep up or be competitive, so be it. Pump them out, wherever it may be, but I guarantee you that more than half those boards that are built and bought cheaply overseas are now sitting in a garage. Good surfers don’t want to ride those things. But it’s a free market, it’s capitalism, it’s their choice. So it doesn’t bother me. But I do prefer to buy things I want from my community, so if we can keep doing that with surfboards, then it’s a win for everyone.

Alex Banyay

Age 44
Channel Islands Surfboards
Carpinteria, California

How does one earn their stripes in your profession?

You need to focus on getting the board to feel and look how the shaper envisioned it when they shaped it. Unless you are getting a polished gloss coat, we’re the last person touching the board. So it’s our responsibility to facilitate what the shaper has in mind for the finished board. To do that, it’s important to build relationships with them to really know and understand what they’re after with their rails, edges, and bottom contours. And then, within the sanding job itself, you have your production-type sanders who do mass volume, then you have your specialty sanders that do real high-end stuff or only focus on team boards for high-level professional surfers. For either sanding style, the most important thing is consistency. Day in and day out, you have to deliver a great product.

What are some of the mistakes that can ruin a board?

Hammering it too much and exposing weave, which obviously weakens the structural integrity. It also leaves a visual eyesore on color laminations. If you sand too far into a board, you can literally take your fingernail and push it through the rail and hit foam. There’s so many different factors to deal with that could potentially ruin the board, but your success can also be how you were teed up. A mis-sanded edge can wreck the performance of a board. It’s seriously a make-or-break responsibility. Another big one to screw up is not sanding the concaves out correctly, leaving resin pools that diminishes concave or creates what we call “emergency brakes” near the tail.

Alex Banyay. Photograph by Kevin Roche.

Every sander has a favorite machine. What’s yours?

The differences between all the brands is weight and how the trigger reacts. I find that once someone gets used to a certain trigger, that’s probably what they’re using for the rest of their life. That machine, you get to know it pretty well and it essentially becomes an extension of yourself. I prefer DeWalt 3,500 rpm, and I run it at, like, 2,700 rpm or so. Milwaukees have always been really popular with the older crew. Makitas, too. Thirty-five-hundred variable machines are pretty good because you can adjust the rpms. Polishers are usually running 5,000 [rpm] Milwaukees. It’s fairly common to see people use machines that are 20 to 40 years old, because some of the new ones are janky and built with lots of plastic parts.

There is a robotic shaping machine now that requires no more than five minutes of fine-tuning by hand. Rumor has it a finish-sanding robot isn’t far behind. Thoughts?

Technology has advanced our lives in a lot of meaningful ways, but there are some traditional things we ought to preserve, such as humans using their hands—and tools guided by them—to make surfboards. The moment the art of building boards goes away, the things we ride will become just another commodity. It’s maybe already become that for some people.

For me and my friends, the romanticism and passion for it all remains strong. Besides, the robot isn’t sanding boards all that well yet, although I know it won’t be long before it is. Maybe my days in this gig are numbered. Then again, maybe I’ll consider myself lucky if I’m kept around to run the robot. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, I think we should all fight off the total-automation thing in board building as long as possible. We can pull it if the customer demand is there.

What’s your advice for success in this line of work?

You’d think it would be skill with the tools or a keen eye, stuff like that. Those are all a given, but I’ve found it really comes down to old-fashioned communication. Having an open and frequent dialogue with the shaper and your laminating or hot-coating team is important in getting the results the shaper is after. This is especially needed when dealing with super-picky master craftsmen, like Wayne Rich, Malcolm Campbell, Pat Rawson, etc. Those guys have crazy-high expectations for the finish work. Communication is especially critical here at Channel Islands, because Britt Merrick is making race-car boardsfor some of the world’s best surfers, who are pushing their limits beyond what we think is possible. So their equipment needs to not only keep up and meet their expectations—it has to exceed it. As far as delivering a fully dialed-in, perfectly sanded board that represents what the shaper is trying to do, communication and adherence to the notion of teamwork can’t be overlooked.

Feature image by Grant Ellis.