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As a shaper, Frederick Wardy set a standard in elegant design and top-tier craftsmanship. As a globally shown fine artist, he left no medium, form, or approach unexplored.
Words by Lance Conragan | All images and artwork courtesy of Frederick Wardy (unless otherwise credited)
Light / Dark
My personal connection with surfboards built by Frederick Wardy began in the summer of 1962, after my family relocated from farther inland to a suburb south of San Francisco alongside Highway 1. Being 12 years old and never having dipped a toe into the Pacific before, I rolled a pair of cutoffs into a towel at the first opportunity and headed off with the intent of hitching a ride to the beach. At the highway, I found a tall, bronzed kid with his thumb out and a gleaming surfboard at his feet. It was the first board I’d ever seen in person, and something clicked inside of me. As we stood there chatting, my new friend Greg Figueroa explained the surfboard was a Wardy and it was the best he’d ever ridden.
After a short wait, we scored a ride and were soon hiking down the trail and onto Thornton Beach. Greg changed into Birdwell trunks and a first-generation O’Neill vest, then knee-paddled out to the glassy lineup. I sat and watched him surf wave after wave with ease and grace, making it look like so much damn fun. After his final ride to the sand, I was offered the Wardy along with a few words of advice, and I began to battle to the outside.
Years of swim-team training kept my young arms windmilling, and, after enduring a series of thrashings, I finally found myself out in the lineup, where passing swell lines lifted the board on their way in. After a handful of failed attempts moved me farther inside, I began paddling furiously for another wave. The board glided with the swell, the nose tipped over the edge, and I was suddenly gravity-free and flying, a moment that seemed to stretch forever until I pearled up to my ass and went through a wash cycle that included the board bonking me in the head. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had scalped me, though. Swimming in through the teeth-chattering cold, I knew with absolute conviction that I was going to be a surfer, I needed a surfboard, and it had to be a Wardy.
After a two-year stretch of riding beaters and cutting neighborhood lawns at a quarter per, I found myself walking through the front doors of Bamboo Reef in San Francisco, the Wardy retailer in the area, owned and operated by Al Giddings, who would go on to fame as the underwater cinematographer for movies like The Deep and as the underwater director of photography for The Abyss. Al sat me down at the counter and handed me a pencil and a Wardy Surfboards order form, and I cautiously filled in the blanks: 9’8″; T-band stringer with outside quarter-inch stringers; five-piece tailblock; two thin black diagonal racing stripes 2 feet apart mid-board, with the Wardy emblem centered in between.
When the Wardy finally arrived after the longest four months of my life, it was flawless: pure white foam, flowing lines, and a glass job without a single mark on its finish. During my first session riding it, I couldn’t stop grinning. Perfectly balanced, the Wardy turned on a dime, was fast down the line, and was stable on the nose. It immediately upped my game, and it launched a custom-board jones that continues, a hundred-plus boards later, to this day.
Life moves on, and I didn’t think much about Wardy Surfboards until about 15 years ago when, at a board meet in Lincoln City, Oregon, a vintage VW bug pulled into the parking lot with an intriguing design strapped to the racks. After a brief chat with the driver, an affable surfer in his 60s, we teamed up and lifted down what was a 50-pound 11’0″ Wardy rhino chaser, likely from the late ’50s or early ’60s. The driver had recently discovered it at a garage sale in southern Oregon, the sellers having no information to offer with the sale. As I studied the outline of a board obviously made for Waimea—a massive stringer and narrow squaretail finished with a seven-piece tailblock—I could only wonder who’d ridden it and how it had ended up in Oregon. I offered the owner $1,000 cash for it, but he declined, saying he’d rather hang it in his house.
My interest in Wardy was further rekindled a decade later, during a sit-down with the late Greg Noll and his wife at a beachside diner in Crescent City where my wife and I had stopped for a bite to eat during a cruise down the coast. A chance meeting at the front door turned into a two-hour talk-story lunch, Noll leafing through the restaurant’s copy of Greg Noll: The Art of the Surfboard, a hardbound book written by Drew Kampion that dives deep into the history of surfing and board building and features a chronological display of Greg Noll Surfboards from 1950 to 2005. As he discussed the boards within the book, I asked him what he thought of Wardy’s work as a shaper. “Wardy was more than just a surfboard shaper. He was a friggin’ artist,” Noll replied. “His boards were perfect. None of us were surprised to hear he moved to New York to pursue art.”
Such praise was echoed by Gerry Lopez in a 2014 article titled “Our Surfboards Then and Yet Becoming,” in which he wrote, “Wardy was a classic old style surfboard builder, instilling his own high quality work ethic in all who worked for him. Every board was a masterpiece of perfection in every stage. The building process began with the shape, and then progressed to the finely detailed wood tail block and fins, beautiful and clean laminations, and the buffed high gloss finish. Although he didn’t know me, Fred Wardy had the same effect on me as he did on his employees. His finely crafted boards gave me a standard of surfboard quality to aspire toward when I began to build my own boards.”
So why did such a talented and respected shaper, having established critical and commercial success across the mainland and in Hawaii, walk away from surfing to pursue a career in fine art? The answer is found in a 1964 interview that Wardy gave to Surfing Illustrated, in which he presciently stated, “Surfing can get out of perspective. Some kids think it’s a complete way of life. They should take it like any other sport. Surf, then go do the other things.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1937 and raised by his maternal grandparents, Wardy became an accomplished bodysurfer as a youth. By high school, he was regularly stand-up surfing with friends at various breaks along the south coast on an acquired Hap Jacobs. After graduating in 1953, Wardy began taking liberal-arts and education classes at UCLA while teaching himself to build surfboards in his grandparents’ garage.
“People were trying to make their own [boards],” Wardy says from his home in Long Beach, California, when I speak with him. “And if you wanted to surf and didn’t know where to buy a board or couldn’t afford one, you just figured it out. You weren’t even sure what a surfboard was supposed to be shaped like. You had to figure out how to shape a big block of balsa without any tools—no block plane, no electric tools. You just winged it.”
With the post–Korean War draft still on in 1955, Wardy enlisted in the Army, partially to gain the education benefits of the GI Bill. After fulfilling his two years of service, he returned home to Highland Park and began building surfboards full time. His business grew quickly, driven by a demand that the burgeoning industry struggled to supply.
“Once I could make the boards,” he says, “I started to sell them for about $100 each. The business came because I had a knack for it. People would ask, ‘Where did you get the board?’ There seemed to be no place where you could buy them. Some people even bought a board before I’d put resin on them. So I got the idea to have a real business.”
Wardy went on the hunt for a shop to operate his surfboard business out of, his search eventually leading him along the coast to Laguna Beach.
“I spotted this barn-like building,” he says, “walked in, found out who owned it, and rented the place. I was fully committed. At first I did everything myself. I had no stock and didn’t know how many boards I should build to start with. I kept a ledger on the counter and buyers would just write in their names and the size boards they wanted. I built two surfboards and sold them almost immediately. In time, I had a whole crew working with me. The whole thing was such a learning process, but everything flowed. I was a block from the ocean, people were friendly, and surfers were coming in to exchange ideas. Everything fell into place.”
Wardy’s shop, with its distinctive red paint, became known throughout the surfing community as “The Red Barn.” Shortly after leasing the building, Wardy moved into a small cottage that Bruce Brown recommended, just north of Killer Dana, and continued to surf when he could find the time off.
Wardy had learned to work hard at an early age, first as an altar boy before school and on weekends, then driving trucks by himself at the age of 12, hauling loads of soap tallow between Los Angeles and San Diego. This work ethic, combined with an innate drive for perfection, was reflected in the design and construction of his surfboards, an approach known as the Wardy Way: Use only the best materials, take no shortcuts, and build the best surfboards possible—quality above all else.
“The first medium was balsa,” Wardy says, “4-by-4 planks you had to glue together. You didn’t have equipment, so you just took inner tubes and cut them into big bands. You’d apply the glue, match the wood up, and then band them together. We had to balance the wood so that it made sense weight-wise. A 2-by-4 could be 4, 5, or 6 feet long and could weigh 5 or 10 pounds. We had to glue the blocks together to balance them, and they required different amounts of pitch. I insisted on the balancing because I was conscientious and a little nutty. Once they were glued together, you’d figure out how the thing was going to be shaped, how long, how thick, et cetera.”
Wardy was soon bringing this approach to foam. “Harold Walker, one of the first dealers in foam blanks for surfboards, asked me to try them, and he delivered directly,” he says. “Foam presented a whole other process. It was faster than fusing pieces of balsa, it was a completely different surface to lay the fiberglass on, it was much lighter, and you didn’t have to be as concerned with balance as with wood. You could see immediately it was the way to go—pretty, light surfboards, and cheaper than the wood. I still made wood boards, but charged a little more.”
His boards were soon being carried by independent shops around the country. Beginning in the early ’60s, he opened up Wardy Surfboards shops in San Francisco and Pasadena and on Long Island in New York. To meet the surging demand, Wardy employed the likes of John Thurston, Ron Sizemore, Bob Spencer, Larry Bailey, Don Donfrey, Bob Machado, Stuart Burgess, and Del Cannon. (During this era, it was common for the craftsmen to rotate through from one shop to another, gaining experience in surfboard design and board-building techniques, a cross-pollination that served as the genesis of the family tree that is California board-building to this day.)
In 1963, Thurston, a fine competition surfer and a shaper well versed in the Wardy Way, was sent over to Oahu to open and manage a Wardy shop in Honolulu on Kalakaua Avenue, which quickly became a hangout for many of the local Waikiki kids, Gerry Lopez among them. Lopez recalls his time spent perusing the racks, admiring the elegance and craftsmanship in Wardy’s work: “I was only 14 years old. Every day we would show up, touch all the boards, ask a million questions, and wish we could own one of the beauties. The boards on the rack were each unique masterpieces of perfection in every stage, from blank, shape, glass job, finish work, everything. I owned a beautiful light-green tint, 3-inch redwood stringer beauty in my sophomore and junior years. All the boards in that shop were finely crafted works of art.”
“At Surf Line Hawaii,” says Randy Rarick, “I had the opportunity to repair thousands of surfboards. Invariably a number of Wardys came into the shop for repairs. I was always impressed as to what clean glass-jobs they had, and the cool stringers. Whereas a lot of the other brands relied on colors, radical fins, and other gimmicks, the Wardys were always very understated and conservative. They let the shapes and quality of the glass work do the talking.”
A hallmark of Wardy Surfboards during this period was the popularity of the cerebral and honest advertising that Wardy created himself for Surfer magazine. The ads were designed to inform the reader rather than simply hype the product. Some were even reflective thought essays on the act of surfing itself, transcending the sale of surfboards. When it came to the boards themselves, Wardy kept it straight: “The requisites of a good surfboard can be stated in simple terms. It must perform effectively, dependably, accurately. It must be durable as well as beautiful, and must have the symmetry and design essential to ease of handling, maneuverability, and speed.”
“What makes a quality surfboard?” went another. “Creative skill and meticulous attention to every detail. Hours of research and experimentation spent finding the precise fusion of each component. A quality board cannot be mass produced, but must be created, step-by-step, by professionals whose ultimate aim is to achieve perfection.”
Wardy also addressed the era’s escalating rollouts of models with an ad that simply showed a bull with the words “Don’t let the bull throw you!” He eschewed the signature-model hype, instead making boards for the conditions the customer would be riding, the single exception being the Joey Hamasaki model that went into production when she rode for Wardy Surfboards, one of the very first surfboards specifically designed for women.
It was the apex of the longboard era, and his business was booming. Yet Wardy, having mastered the art of building surfboards, decided the time had come to try his hand at art itself.
Wardy’s initial interest in fine art took hold in high school, when he attended a showing of the works of Vincent van Gogh. It generated a lingering appreciation that compelled him to take a work break during the summer of 1958 and travel throughout Western Europe. Visiting museums and exhibitions in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Spain, Wardy found personal resonance with the art of sculptor Auguste Rodin and American abstract artists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
A few months later, he returned home to building boards and growing his business, but the call to art never left. By 1966, Wardy had drawn his business down to a full stop and begun attending classes at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, leasing a downtown studio where he could work. Having an interest in the metal sculptures he’d viewed in Europe, he took a job at a Los Angeles steel foundry to gain metalworking skills and began creating a series of metal pieces, as well as a collection of sculptures composed of colored polyester resin on wood and cardboard, working with a medium he already knew and was skilled in.
“It didn’t take long,” Wardy says. “I knew how to paint because I’d done stuff with surfboards, so I started using resins and pigments to try to paint pictures.”
Bringing the same work ethic and commitment to quality that had served him in surfboard building, Wardy immersed himself in creating art, and by 1969 he had developed a growing recognition for his work, which was being displayed at the Pasadena Art Museum and in local galleries. This audience gave Wardy the confidence and momentum to go all in and move to New York City, where he rented a small studio and continued to create pieces from colored polyester resins. To help with his expenses, Wardy took a job with a Brooklyn urban-planning firm designing artistic “play on it” concrete pieces for installation in the emerging vest-pocket playgrounds being built throughout the city’s neighborhoods.
“There were many opportunities to meet numerous great artists,” Wardy says, “including Willem de Kooning, Jim Dine, and Peter Agostini, to see and discuss their works with them in their studios. The generosity of artists willing to show me their art, and their encouragement, helped to open the New York art world to me. You could go to bars where artists congregated, but you didn’t have to drink—just talk. There was such openness. As time went on, the New York art scene grew even larger, and you could continue to see art of every range—everything from conceptual to abstraction and more. The more you look at art, it not only gives you pleasure, but makes you become a better artist.”
In 1971, Wardy joined a small group of artists and moved into a five-floor Tribeca industrial building that had been developed into a work-live hybrid. The large, high-ceilinged first-floor space provided the ideal environment in which to live, create, and display the art he was producing. (In later years, Wardy would become a co-owner.) Still needing to offset expenses, Wardy took work for a time as an art handler and framer at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he was exposed to a large variety of artwork as well as to working conditions that activated him to join his fellow workers’ efforts to successfully petition and join the Teamsters Union.
As Wardy continued to create in the studio, his expanding body of work attracted a growing recognition and acclaim within the NYC art world that, in 1972, led to his being chosen by the United States Information Agency for a curatorial-teaching position accompanying an exhibition of contemporary American artists to Japan. Wardy lectured at universities and art schools, as well as presented his work in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya, while studying the work of Japanese artists. A personal highlight from this trip was meeting the elite group of potters officially recognized as Japanese National Treasures, whose extraordinary work Wardy found as inspiring as their humble demeanors.
Upon his return to New York, Wardy was commissioned to build a large outdoor sculpture for the well-known Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, where he also became the artist-in-residence for a time. In 1974, he presented his first one-man show, at New York City’s prestigious Willard Gallery. Positive critical attention began to further establish Wardy within the art community as well as expose him to collectors, and his work was reviewed by art-world luminaries such as Thomas Hess in New York magazine, John Canaday and Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, Judith Tannenbaum in Arts Magazine, and Phyllis Derfner in Art International.
An early Kramer review, published in the March 25, 1977, edition of the New York Times, captured the vitality that Wardy brought to his art: “Vertical abstract paintings that are constructed of irregular, rough-edged bands of intense color are what Frederick Wardy has now turned his talents to—an abrupt change from the black and white pictures he so recently produced. Yet perhaps the change is not really so abrupt after all. Even in this energetic assault on the color field style, it is still a graphic use of ‘line’—which dominated the black and white pictures—that gives the new paintings their power. Only now do we see the sometimes harsh, sometimes lyrical effects of light dissolving and transforming this ‘line’ into a more melodious continuum of color. We feel ourselves in the presence of an artist moving fast, and appropriating whatever territory interests him at the moment.”
Other solo and group shows quickly followed, and by 1976 his work was being represented by Galerie Veith Turske in Cologne, Germany, and shown in museums and galleries across Europe. It was selling so well that Veith Turske invited him to stay in Cologne for several months to create new pieces for collectors.
Starting in the late 1980s, Wardy began spending winters in New York and summers in the town of Dungeness, Washington, located on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula alongside the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he worked within the registered historic Dungeness School. Constructed in 1892 by the original area settlers, it was donated in the twentieth century to local museums, which rented out artist spaces to help with its upkeep. Wardy developed an interest in woodworking while in Dungeness. After learning techniques from a local master carpenter, he began producing in that medium—a full-circle return to his time building surfboards out of balsa.
The bicoastal life kept Wardy fresh and prolific. He continued to create a steady stream of art for private collectors, while the public could find his works on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the Minnesota Museum of American Art in Saint Paul, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Kunstmuseum and Sprengel Museum in Germany, and the Neue Galerie der Stadt, Austria.
In his mid-80s, Wardy is still active, producing abstract paintings, works on paper, and small sculptures. He and his wife split their year between New York and a home in Long Beach, where they spend time with their daughter’s family, who live close by.
Wardy’s legacy as a master surfboard builder was formally recognized in 2014, when he was elected to the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame. The honor highlighted the design quality and superb craftsmanship that Wardy brought to building boards.
That craftsmanship has made Wardy surfboards highly sought-after collectibles, with many finding their way into the hands of master restorer Randy Rarick: “Fast-forward 55 years later, and when it comes to full restorations of Wardys, they are one of my favorite boards to work on. The quality of the glass work means they held up real well. They have a unique swept-back fin template or the even more unique ‘reverse’ fin template. Black logo and, as mentioned, lack of color work makes them an easy board to work on. To date, I have probably restored a few dozen Wardys and all have been exquisite.”
A complete dedication to craft, a tireless work ethic, and an absolute commitment to quality is the connective tissue between Frederick Wardy, master surfboard builder, and Frederick Wardy, acclaimed artist. For in all mediums, whether fiberglass or wood, metal or acrylics, oils or pencils, Wardy has always demanded the best from himself, determined to find how far he could take his craft, at the highest level.
A couple of years ago, I went on a nostalgia-driven search for another Wardy, seeking a touchstone from that day when my passion for surfing was ignited. I was after a rider, not a wall hanger, and was advised of one collecting dust in a New Hampshire barn, owned by the former manager of a Florida surf shop who had taken it on trade from a youngster during the early shortboard years.
Thanks to the generous help of an East Coast surfer, the board made its way west aboard an Amtrak train, and a child from days past was channeled as I unpacked the early ’60s 9’8″ Wardy with its swept-back fin, UV mellow-yellow foam, T-band stringer, and five-piece tailblock, a few repaired wounds needing a redo. Every ride on it ends with a grin.
The author would like to thank Trudie Grace, art historian and spouse to Frederick Wardy, who has been an invaluable source on Wardy’s history and provided the media for this article. For more of Wardy’s surfboard building and fine art, visit frederickwardy.com.