Daniel Thomson and the Speed of Phi

Going Deeper with the vanguard shaper

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At the beach and in the water, people have questions for Daniel Thomson about his surfboards. The morning we met at a packed lineup in North County San Diego, a few different surfers approached him to ask about his eye-catching boards. “How do you like that Fractal?” one of them wanted to know, identifying the model of the submerged 5’3” by its correct name.

Most inquirers didn’t seem to realize that they were conversing with Thomson about boards he’d shaped. “My friend wishes he’d ordered his a little shorter,” one of them said of the well-hidden volume in Thomson’s rectangular outlines.

Sometime later in our session, another surfer paddled by on a Tomo. In complete anonymity, observing the product of his work in the water, I imagine, is one of the great thrills a shaper like Thomson can experience. “I love getting such honest feedback,” he told me.“I’m always asking, ‘So, what do you think of that board?’” Thomson’s work doesn’t hinge on this running commentary, though. An excellent surfer in his own right, at one time competing to qualify for the World Tour, his shaping process has always been driven by the feeling of each board underfoot.

Now he’s structuring his time to focus on surfboard design. It’s why he’s based in Southern California, wrapped in a 5-mil wetsuit and booties, hating the cold, when the waves are more crowded and much lower quality than those near his home in Lennox Head. It’s also why he recently inked a deal to ramp up the production of his shapes with the board manufacturer Firewire. While the decision was understandably accompanied by some equivocation, Thomson feels it will allow him more time to tinker with his designs rather than fretting over how to produce a high enough volume of boards to make a living. “There’s always a way to make a board better,” he said of his curiosity. “Even if it’s a magic board—the best one you ever had.”

The inclination to continue refining his boards has lead him to some designs that are decidedly futuristic in appearance—as the slew of curiosity in the water and the board names suggest (Deathstar, Fractal, Jet)—composed from a wide variety of reference points, many of them outside the tiny bubble of contemporary surfboard-making.

Most of Thomson’s boards look much different from standard shortboards and varieties of fish. The distinct appearance might give the impression to those who haven’t ridden them that they offer some drastically new and improved experience of riding waves. In truth, they perform as really good surfboards do—stable, responsive, their volume well distributed across a very short length.  This is obvious to Thomson. As he explained in our interview, along with evolving his shapes, he hopes to continue seeing his work understood as a matter of achieving pure function—regardless of appearances. —Kyle DeNuccio

What’s been your experience of surfers’ reactions to the uniqueness of your designs—both in appearance and how they ride?

For the most part people trip out. “Oh, what’s that, a kite board?” “Is the nose snapped off?” I get that every day. And it kind of gets old. Once people ride the boards, they get it. Most of the time people have a positive curiosity. But it’s not about the way a board looks. It’s about how it feels and how it rides. That’s been my driving force. I’ve just focused on that.

Core surfers who understand design on a certain level get it and say, “Okay, I see how the straighter rail line will allow you to draw powerful turns and make a board shorter.” And, obviously, if you make a board shorter, you can have more control over it. There’s a formula here. When I explain to people what it’s about and get them on the boards, just about any level surfer can ride them and appreciate that they’re fast and stable in the water. Not only are they functional to ride, they’re actually quite comfortable.

“By making a more rectangular shape you can get a better distribution of foam in a shorter length,” Thomson explains. Photo: Ian Oroarty

You don’t seem to linger over working with one outline or particular design for too long. What’s the value in continually trying something new rather than trying to replicate or perfect one board as many shapers do?

There’s always a way to make a board better. Every board I do is tweaked from the previous one. Even if you make a magic board—the best one you ever had—you can always figure out a way to make that better. If I just keep that mentality, I can always continue to improve my work—whether it’s a little or a lot—I’m always moving forward, because there is no ultimate surfboard. It’s just an ongoing evolution that will continue as long as people are surfing.

What’s your approach to fitting the essential amount of volume in such short boards without increasing thickness?

By making a more rectangular shape you can get a better distribution of foam in a shorter length. In a larger sense people have lost sight of that—going shorter and smaller can still be functional—because many shapers haven’t experimented with different templates, like Simmons or even alaias, which allow a board to be ridden much shorter and still maintain volume. But that style of board will definitely play a role in the future of surfing.

Where do your designs depart most significantly from most contemporary surfboard design?

Well, there are different theories of hull design. When they refer to the hull on contemporary shortboards, it’s usually short for displacement hull, sort of comparable to a boat hull, which has a domed surface under the water that’s designed to displace water, to make water flow around a submerged object with little resistance. And that’s traditional hull theory as applied to surfboard design. But I’ve been more interested in planing hull designs, which are flat objects meant to skim on top of the boundary layer of water.

Planing hulls are more traditionally known as towable crafts, water-skis—that kind of thing. When you design shapes that are ideally meant to reduce surface resistance in the water and almost take on an aerodynamic sense, they start to fly.

That is super interesting to me because that’s the feeling I’m looking for: the least amount of resistance to the water so you’re free of the wave and can just slide across it with more speed and freedom while still maintaining control. That’s the kind of feeling I look for, basically mind-surfing—pure freedom and no drag. I’ve found that the planing hulls, multiple concave bottoms, and that technical aspect of planing hull design has really allowed me to achieve that.

Thomson’s father, Mark, outside Daniel’s childhood home, finish-sanding a board with Tom Curren that he went on to ride in the film 5’5” x 19 ¼”. More recently, Curren has been riding the next generation of Thomson designs. Photo: Tomo Surfboards

How did your upbringing, coming from a family where surfboard-making is so prominent, influence your work?

My childhood got me set on the notion of wanting to be a part of surfing somehow from a really early age. I always had a desire but didn’t really know what it was. My dad has always been great for bouncing ideas off to get feedback. He’s still really into innovation. He’s working on crazy magnetic field levitation systems for surfboards—stuff that’s so out there I can’t even wrap my mind around it. I told him, if he can pull shit off like that he’s going to make what I do look stupid. He’s that crazy mad scientist designer guy. But he’s wonderful in how he encourages me to keep thinking and not accept any limitations to anything. Even if physics tells you it can’t happen, it’s fun to dream because you never know.

In this short, Thomson traces a few of the influences on his past and current design work: