The Last One

Surfing is losing its greatest generation of handshapers. What will happen to the culture and the practice of building surfboards when they’re gone?

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In many ways, this morning feels incredibly ordinary. My dad, Robin Prodanovich, steps into the blue-walled shaping bay at Bird’s Surf Shed in San Diego, turns on the long, board-level tube lights, and lays a 9’3″ polyurethane blank on a pair of Y-shaped stands. At 73 years old, he looks at ease in shorts and a gray Surf Shed tee that nearly matches the color of his silver hair. 

He flips through a stack of Masonite templates like a DJ hunting down his next record, each one releasing a small cloud of white particles when it collides with its neighbor. Foam dust. 

“That shit gets everywhere,” he laments. 

Once he finds a winner, he sets it aside and runs a measuring tape down the stringer of the blank, making pencil marks for the nose, tail, and midpoint. Then he uses the template to connect the dots. Voilà: Somewhere within this crude chunk of foam, a surfboard has started to emerge. 

Everything he does in this space is fast, smooth, seemingly effortless, and strangely comforting, probably because watching him make a surfboard today reminds me of all the other times I’ve witnessed my dad make a surfboard. As a kid—in between getting into foam-dust fights with my brother and then inevitably having to sweep up the shop—I watched him mow hundreds of blanks. Once, and only once, I walked up to a pristine shortboard blank my dad had just finished and stuck my thumb about an inch into the deck. 

When I got older, my dad and I shaped a couple boards together, and it was a bizarre feeling—being surprised by the ferocity of the planer, struggling to maintain the proper angles with the hand tools, realizing how quickly you can fuck up a shape. I’d taken for granted that shaping was easy because my dad had always made it look that way. His expertise and casual demeanor concealed the fact that shaping is extremely hard to do well. 

That’s what happens when you put the time into learning something, and my dad has put in a lot of time. When I ask him what number board this is, he pauses. 

“Hmm…it’s probably my 40,000th? Somewhere around there.” 

It’s also his last, and that part makes this morning anything but ordinary. 

My dad has been accepting fewer custom orders over the last handful of years. Instead, he’s been spending more time watching his grandkids, going camping in Anza-Borrego with my mom, training for absurdly intense obstacle-course races (you know, like a 73-year-old does), and, yes, going surfing. 

“I started shaping surfboards in 1968, when I was about 19 years old,” he tells me. “That’s a really long time, and I felt it was time for me to step aside and let some of the younger handshapers show what they can do. Let nature run its course, so to speak.” 

As weird as it is on a personal level to see my dad put on a particle mask and fire up his Skil 100 for the very last time, there’s also something larger and stranger at play here. My dad is part of a generation of handshapers unlike any who had existed before or will exist again. In the 1970s and ’80s, as surfboard demand soared, human beings were the shaping engine that powered the biggest board labels, pumping out thousands of handshapes before the CNC machine was even a twinkle in the factory owner’s eye. There’s no substitute for experience, and shapers who hit their stride in this era simply produced a quantity of boards that will never be matched by handshapers who arrived after the machines. 

That same generation of handshapers also steered the craft through its most radically experimental era, starting with the Shortboard Revolution in the late ’60s and ending sometime after Simon Anderson debuted his Thruster in 1981. In those years, shapers tried every conceivable combination of board length, outline, fin configuration, lysergic-acid-fueled air spray, and more, each new and strange craft becoming a valuable data point as they charted the future of surfboard design and performance.

Today, master handshapers like Skip Frye, Renny Yater, Marc Andreini, and countless more are well past retirement age. Other handshaping juggernauts like Phil Becker, Terry Martin, and Mike Eaton have passed away. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will be living in a world in which the greatest generation of handshapers that ever lived is no longer able to contribute to the craft. 

To be clear: As a discipline, handshaping itself isn’t going anywhere. While mass-production handshapers have been replaced by machines, a new breed of boutique board builders continues to connect surfers to our lineage of craftsmanship, even in the Costco era. 

But handshaping is a different game now, with different incentives, and it produces both different boards and different board builders. Never again will a shaper need, or want, to produce 40,000 surfboards by hand in their career. So how will our craft culture change when this motherlode of experience is no longer there to be mined?

Robin Prodanovich


It’s the summer of 1975 and oppressively hot inside the Gordon & Smith factory on Gaines Street on the edge of San Diego’s Mission Valley. Foam dust is annoying to begin with, but when you’re also drenched in sweat and badly losing a battle with a blank, it can start to do things to your mind. “I’m shaping this board that just isn’t coming out right,” my dad remembers. “We’re under the gun to get this big order done, and the board I’m working on looks twisted, asymmetrical. Everything is wrong with it, and every time I fix one problem I notice another.” My dad’s cursing catches the attention of fellow shapers Hank Warner and Hoy Runnels, who giggle as they take their places near the back door of the factory, knowing exactly what’s about to happen. My dad grabs the irredeemable blank off the shaping stands, walks over to the back door, opens it, and heaves the board skyward with all his might. “I remember watching it get caught by the wind and twist in the breeze before landing on some other destroyed blanks and empty resin drums, and just thinking, I’m really gonna get it from Paul.” 

That would be Paul Bordieri, the shop foreman who’d hired my dad as a seasonal shaper two years earlier, in 1973. My dad had brought in a self-shaped blank one day, and Bordieri said he had potential and could come shape a few boards. He’d stay at G&S for nine years. 

At the time, the label was the world’s biggest surfboard manufacturer, with seven full-time shapers pumping out some 200 boards per week. Bordieri ran a tight ship, and before my dad had shaped enough surf craft for the foam dust to thoroughly penetrate his DNA, he would often finish his boards for the day, only to come back the next morning and find notes pinned to the shaped blanks explaining the many reasons why they sucked. 

“Paul was a great shaper and glasser, so no one could argue with him because we all knew he was the real deal,” my dad says. “But he never picked on you. All he wanted was for us to get better, and, in hindsight, I feel very blessed to have had those years at G&S, which taught me the correct way to make a surfboard.” 

“We were each shaping five or six boards a day at that time,” says Warner, who shaped for G&S from 1975 to 1984 and continues to use the knowledge he gained there today, more than 30,000 handshapes later. “When you’re shaping at that capacity, every day you’re thinking about what you can do to make it easier, better, cleaner as you go along—what step can you eliminate or add to get to the final product faster. Because when you’re shaping a surfboard, you’re really not shaping the blank. You’re shaping shadows and getting rid of the material that’s in the way of what you want the board to be. You’re getting rid of the negative space, and you’re always looking for ways to knock that negative space out quicker.” 

My dad was born in San Diego in 1949, the ideal coordinates in space and time for participating in surfboard design’s most storied era. The son of a surfer and pioneering freediver, he grew up in the ocean and started surfing on varnished balsa at age 12 before upgrading to a Velzy sled from a local dive shop. He decided to rent a power planer to try his hand at making a board in 1968—the same year that Paul Witzig released his prophetic film The Hot Generation, ushering in an era of shorter boards and more-radical surfing. 

My dad’s first crude 8-footer probably wasn’t the most beautiful craft, but the process of creating his own instrument was instantly and completely intoxicating. After a couple years of hobbyist tinkering, he had his fateful meeting at the G&S factory when he was 24 years old. 

Surrounded by cutting-edge shapers like Frye, Eaton, and Warner, he was a quick study. Soon he was pumping out models like the Modern Machine, Regular Egg, and Waterskate with precision—sometimes as many as seven in a day. Apparently, that rate was nothing compared to John Holly’s, arguably the fastest shaper alive, who mowed nearly twice as many boards in the same amount of time. Either way, by today’s handshaping standards (few modern craftsmen produce more than two boards a day), both were producing an unspeakable number of surf craft. 

“I did whatever I could to find the most efficient process, and I got it down to about 20 minutes per board,” Holly says. “I’d get up at four o’clock in the morning, go to work and get a bunch of boards done, and be home by 7:30 a.m., eat breakfast, and then surf all day. It was like I’d never even gone to work.” 

I ask Holly what’s the most surfboards he’s ever made in a single day. 

“Seventeen,” he says. “A friend of mine who was glassing boards for Plastic Fantastic asked if I wanted to come up and shape a few boards for them. They said, ‘Here’s a pile of blanks. Make as many as you want.’ So I just put it into gear and finished 17. They were kind of incredulous, but there were a lot of times where I’d do a dozen or more in a day.” 

“We took pride in what we did, and we fine-tuned as much as we could, but in the end we had to get the numbers out,” my dad tells me about the G&S days. “Surfboards were also evolving, so there were always new designs to work out. From single-fins to twin-fins to quads and thrusters, there were a lot of ideas and energy around design. It was the Wild West. Anything would go, and it was a lot of fun.” 

There were plenty of “shop shenanigans.” The polisher, Miguel, cut holes in his particle mask so that he could smoke cigarettes while he worked. Plenty of “mellowness” occurred in the yard behind the shop, my dad says, which I can only assume is his way of avoiding telling his 35-yearold son that he was smoking weed. And when times got really tough, they always had the highly effective team-building activity of watching their fellow shapers fling hapless blanks into the air. 

Hank Warner

Production shapers were paid per board. If they were efficient, it was a great living for a single dude whose only expenses were rent, food, and gas to chase waves. Of course, eventually my dad met my mom, and then came a mortgage, my brother, and me. He started Robin Prodanovich Surfboards in 1981 and picked up work on the side for Rusty Surfboards, Local Motion, South Coast Surf Shops, and others. Still, the economics of handshaping were never great, and in the early 1990s they took a turn for the worse. 

That period was slow for surfboard sales for a combination of reasons: The economy was bogging, and Slater-style elf shoes weren’t doing the industry any favors, either. It was also the same time that the first computer numerical control (CNC) shaping machines became a regular fixture in surfboard factories.

“Historically, the surfboard industry was always plagued with not getting enough shaped blanks,” my dad says. “It had plenty of materials and plenty of glassers, but every year we were coming up short on shaped blanks. The shaping machine turned that completely around. They could run the machine 24/7, and suddenly there was a glut of shaped blanks.” 

When asked how much the CNC machine changed the shaping landscape, Eric “Bird” Huffman starts with one word: “Completely.” Huffman has been in the San Diego surf retail business for more than 40 years, starting his first gig at Select Surf Shop in 1970 at just 12 years old and eventually founding the iconic Bird’s Surf Shed in a quonset hut on Morena Boulevard. In addition to containing a Smithsonian-grade collection of historic surf craft, the Shed’s retail space is packed with handshapes by master craftsmen from the area. 

“There were shaping machines in the early days of G&S that essentially pre-skinned the blank and still left you with a big hunk of foam, but it was a labor-saving device and nothing like what’s used now,” Huffman continues. “The shaping machines may have increased production, but it did so at the cost of losing so much handshaping talent. All that wealth of knowledge, all that ability that had grown through years of hard work—the big labels didn’t need it anymore. The need for skilled handshapers was cut down by probably 75 percent. Basically, any monkey can work off a computerized blank and get something rideable.” 

This was great news for major manufacturers, who slashed labor costs overnight. Not so much for blue-collar handshapers, who were suddenly needed only for finish work—the final sanding and fine-tuning that even today requires a human touch, but pays far less than shaping an entire board. 

When I ask my dad if he ever considered getting a shaping machine for his own boards, he shakes his head. “I was a handshaper at heart,” he says. “I wanted to continue handshaping surfboards because I felt that was my craft. It was something I enjoyed doing, and it was something I knew I had to do on a regular basis to stay sharp. When I look at my power planer, I look at it lovingly. To me it’s an extension of my hands and my brain.” 

My dad’s approach to the industry downturn was pragmatic. He took a second job servicing pay phones around the city, waking up at 5 a.m. to tend to his route, finishing up around noon, then stepping into the shaping bay. 

I have faint memories from this time, when I would have been 5 or 6 years old, specifically of being too sick to go to school one day and having to ride along with my dad on his phone route all morning. Of course, I had no appreciation for him taking on a second job to keep my brother and me fed. I was just upset because I wanted to be home watching cartoons, and visiting pay phones was boring.  

In hindsight, however, this era has come to shape my perception of my dad as a guy who does what needs doing, finds pride in hard work, and counts himself lucky as long as his family has a roof overhead and food on their plates. 

Eventually, shaping work picked back up with the economy and he left his pay-phone job. But being an independent handshaper would never be an easy path or a comfortable living. Had it not been for my mom, whose steady job as a biologist provided health insurance for the family, it would have been even more difficult. 

“Being a self-employed handshaper really tests your mettle to a degree,” he tells me. “You have to have a strong work ethic, because you’re doing piecework, so you have to get in there every day and turn out the pieces if you want to make money and support a family. So opening that shop door and going in there every day, even if you’re not feeling 100 percent both physically and mentally, you just have to get it done.” 

The fact that my dad has always prided himself on making straightforward, accessible, high-performance boards probably didn’t make things any easier in the back half of his career. He sought perfection in his craft, every line and curve blending together in hydrodynamic harmony, precisely tuned to allow the rider to pop to their feet during the first session and have an intuitively fun experience. 

To him, there wasn’t room in that equation for design flourishes that didn’t add to performance as it’s traditionally defined—which, ironically, are exactly what, then and now, make a board stand out as a handshape amid a sea of machined craft.


Today, anxious stories about the ways that artificial intelligence will reshape our lives abound. You can’t go a full day without a podcast host or tech writer telling you about all the human-held professions that surely will be replaced by AI in the future. Hell, many even think that we’re not far from a world in which visual artists and musicians are usurped by these digital overlords. But surfers might have a different take—after all, we’ve been living in a culture where what was previously human labor has been outsourced to machines for decades. 

In the machine era, high-performance boards became as cheap and easy to find as a Big Mac. Competing in the performance realm meant competing with Big Mac prices, and for handshaping to survive, it had to change. A new generation of handshapers understood this innately, and largely avoided competing with machines by planing a different path entirely, servicing a demand and a market for handmade creations that persist. 

“When people pick up a board from me, they come to my house and shake my hand and sometimes we go for a surf,” shaper Shea Somma tells me. “In some ways it can seem old-fashioned, but that’s what gives life its richness in a lot of ways. I think people are recognizing that idea when they are skeptical of the benefits that technology has to offer.” 

Somma is part of a new wave of handshapers who picked up a planer only after machined boards had long been the norm. His journey to the craft is particularly unique: He found his surf obsession growing up in Orange County, but then worked as an investigator in the public defender’s office in San Luis Obispo for 11 years. Shaping in the evenings after work became a grounding, meditative practice for him. The fact that he also got surfboards out of the deal was a bonus. 

“When I was at the public defender’s [office], shaping was like therapy,” Somma says. “I was hearing about all these situations—the worst moments in people’s lives. As an investigator, I was talking to witnesses and victims and defendants about these heavy experiences. So to come home and get into my little dust cave and scrub something out that was nice, functional, and fun was just such a satisfying antidote to what I was dealing with.” 

In the nascent phases of their career, many upstart shapers will shadow an experienced board builder, maybe sweep their shop in exchange for rail-refining techniques. In Chris Christenson’s case, some of his most valued early board-building advice came from none other than John Holly. 

“I used to share a building with Dick Brewer in Ocean Beach back in the late ’90s, and John Holly was Brewer’s production shaper,” says Christenson, who is now one of the most celebrated modern shapers of everything from ripple-shredding twin-fins to Eddie-winning big-wave guns. “I felt like the freshman in high school getting dumped in the trash can. He’d come into my room when I was shaping and be like, ‘Nah nah nah, kid, not like that! This is how you cut an outline!’ But I learned so much from him, and then when I moved to a new place in Bay Park, I was neighbors with Skip Frye. It was amazing to be able to watch their examples, since these are some of the best shapers of all time, in my opinion.” 

Christine Brailsford Caro shapes eclectic surf craft inspired by the Shortboard Revolution under her label Furrow Surf Craft, and learning her trade in San Diego’s North County allowed her access to many a talented craftsman. “I did some T-shirt designs for Shawn Ambrose and he let me watch him shape,” she says. “I got to watch Skip Frye shape a board for me. Then, of course, there’s my husband, Manny [Manuel Caro of Mandala Surfboards]—we’ve been together for 13 years, so I’ve seen him shape a lot of boards.” 

Shea Somma

Unfortunately for Somma, most of the board-building industry sits in Southern California. So, despite its proximity to the coast, San Luis Obispo offered about as much access to skilled shapers as San Antonio. He persisted, however, scouring Swaylocks (the Reddit of surfboard design) for intel and handshaping as often as he could, at first with mixed results, slowly honing his processes and eventually carving out consistently high-quality craft. In 2019, after hobby shaping for nearly a decade, he left the public defender’s office and made handshaping his full-time job. 

Today, he makes side-cut fish, channel-bottom single-fins, displacement hulls, and more that would fall under the category of “alternative” craft. One of his designs, a bonzer, took home the Best in Show award at the Boardroom in Del Mar in 2023, edging out luminaries like Marc Andreini and others in a competition judged by Malcom and Duncan Campbell. His boards are the kind of beautiful handshapes that would turn heads  in any lineup, or in the boutique surf shops with exposed-brick facades and hand-painted signs that have proliferated in urban surf zones this past decade.

People come to those surf shops, or to Somma’s backyard shaping bay, for a different reason than they came to G&S in 1973 or come to a retailer of major-label boards in 2024. It’s as much about connecting to surfing’s lineage of craftsmanship as it is about finding a stick that turns well in the pocket. It’s about opting out of surf commodity and opting into surf culture. 

“It’s not that machine shapes are bad surfboards. They’re not. It’s that consumers want to connect with the legend of handshaping by getting a custom board, and maybe they want a piece of the magic that they feel a shaper has,” says Carpinteria-based shaper Ryan Lovelace, who is known for approachable fish and midlengths as well as quirkier finless and asymmetrical craft. “The word ‘custom’ is so bastardized now. Most people don’t really understand what that means. I’ll ask customers all these questions about themselves and the waves they surf and some are like, ‘Why do you need to know that?’ And I’ll say, ‘Because I’m going to shape your rail differently depending on your answer,’ and they’re like, ‘Wait, you can do that?’ When people really get what custom means, they want that, and they’re willing to wait for it and pay more for it.” 

Ryan Lovelace

According to Huffman, it’s the Shed’s stock of boards handshaped by master craftsmen that gets most of their customers in the door. And even though they do carry inexpensive, mass-produced boards for beginner surfers, Huffman says that those same beginners eventually come back for something that taps into surfing’s craft culture. 

“If you stick with surfing and progress and learn more about the culture, eventually you’re going to get interested in handshaped boards,” says Huffman. “I’ve been stoked to see it growing, to see more people paying attention to handshapes. People know that traditionally made boards are our lifeblood, and we’re sought out for that.” 

“The people who are coming to me aren’t looking for perfection,” says Somma. “So little idiosyncrasies are almost a selling point in a way—that wabi-sabi aesthetic of ‘Oh, the thumbprint of the person who made it is in the object.’ And I totally understand why that’s attractive for people. Surfing is such a personal expression, and the way you move on a board is so unique to you. It makes perfect sense that you’d want the craft that you’re riding to have a unique sensibility.” 

My dad cut his teeth in an era when handshapers had to quickly deliver high volumes of the most high-performance designs available at the time. In other words, they were the shaping machines of their day. Perfection and exactitude were the goal, and they got as close as human beings could over the course of tens of thousands of surfboards. After the actual machines came, however, trying to craft the perfect high-performance board by hand became an increasingly difficult career path. The major labels offered consistent, dependable performance at prices that handshapers simply couldn’t compete with if they wanted to live above the poverty line. 

The post-machine generation of handshapers carves a niche for itself by leaning into the kind of eye-catching alternative designs that stand out from the cookie-cutter major labels. But in an effort to build more-sustainable businesses, some have taken that alternative handshape aesthetic and plugged it into the CNC machine. 

Christenson is one of the youngest elite shapers who came up in the production handshaping tradition, mowing over 1,000 boards by hand per year for more than 14 years for various labels, including his own, Christenson Surfboards. When the economy tanked in 2008, he saw his business nose-dive to the point where he considered hanging up the planer for good. But when Greg Long won the 2009 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational in monstrous Waimea Bay on one of his handshapes, his business bounced back—and then some. 

A new generation of handshapers has largely avoided competing with machines by planning a different path entirely, servicing a demand and a market for handmade creations that persist.

“I started getting busier and busier, but with handshaping I just couldn’t keep up,” Christenson says. “At some point I realized that if you want to have a life, have a family, and pay the bills living in Southern California, it’s really tough to do those things as a handshaper exclusively. I still do a lot of handshapes, because there are those purists out there who do want a handshaped board. But, the way things are these days, I also need to use a machine.”

Christenson designs all of his models by handshaping them, then has them scanned and turned into files that can be replicated by a machine. He estimates that roughly 10 percent of his shapes today are done by hand. 

“People always want to talk about what’s better or worse between handshaped boards and machine boards,” he says. “But to me there isn’t a better or worse. It’s more like music: Handshaping is like a live band and machine shaping is like a studio recording. Some bands sound better live, some sound better on the album, and if the band is really good, they’re going to sound good in both contexts.” 

Over the past few years, Lovelace also has become interested in harnessing the production power of the CNC machine while preserving his handshaping practice. The resulting side label, Love Machine, offers a handful of Lovelace models in select sizes. The cheeky name is meant to encourage transparency in an industry where many labels intentionally blur the lines between what’s handshaped versus machine made. 

“I figured that if I’m going to whine online for years about other labels passing machine boards off as handmade, maybe instead I should step up and give an example of how to clearly communicate the difference,” says Lovelace, who has licensed Love Machine to manufacturers on the East Coast as well as in Europe and Australia. “It’s been over a year since I launched it, and I can afford my own health insurance for the first time in my adult life. It’s wild, given how many boards I make and how ‘successful’ I’ve been, [that] I haven’t been able to afford that because of how much it costs to live in this state and run a surfboard business. Love Machine will hopefully give my handshapes some room to breathe.” 

Christine Brailsford Caro

Lovelace says he’d like to be able to handshape 200 to 250 custom boards per year under his Lovelace Surf Craft label at a more premium price, while producing some 1,000 more under Love Machine. He hopes that highlighting the difference between handshapes and machined boards will encourage all handshapers to raise their prices and standardize a more comfortable living for surf craftsmen. 

“Skip Frye and some of these other guys shouldn’t be an outlier because they charge $3,000 for a board. That should be normal for people making world-class handshaped boards,” says Lovelace. “At least things seem to be moving in the right direction now. It literally took a global pandemic for surfboards to get closer to what they should be valued at, but look at pricing now. It’s a completely different landscape than what it was before.”

According to Christenson, an established shaper can still survive on handshaping alone by keeping low overhead, staying healthy and fit enough to hack away at blanks all day, and charging a premium price for their boards. But “established” is the key word, and it creates a kind of catch-22 for the next generation of would-be handshapers: You can’t fully commit to handshaping until customers will pay a premium for your boards, which they typically won’t do until you’ve been committed to handshaping for long enough to build a reputation. 

The few handshapers who can thread the needle will have a completely different set of incentives than the production shapers of the ’70s and ’80s. The market for handcrafted boards now places a premium on uniqueness over exactitude, scarcity over abundance, personal touches over the lowest possible price point. It will never be the easiest way to make a living, but it also doesn’t require you to produce 40,000 surfboards by hand to have a successful career. 

There are pros and cons to that last part. On one hand, it’s probably a good thing that the new generation of handshapers will spend less time doing the hard labor of churning out volume at breakneck speed and more time designing, tinkering, and exploring the possibilities of a blank for hours or even days at a time. On the other hand, handshaping is like any other craft: Repetition is what builds mastery, and there’s no shortcut to the knowledge gained through repeating a process tens of thousands of times. 

“I had the opportunity to watch Marc Andreini shape one time,” says Somma. “There he was, this older man just absolutely going to town on a 10’1″. He was sweating, breathing heavy, literally running laps around the blank. There’s foam everywhere, and it looks like he’s just murdering this blank. Then, sure enough, he dusts it off and the thing is just pristine—an absolute masterpiece. And I know that comes from the fact that Marc’s been at it since the ’60s. That’s how you get there. You keep doing it.”


My dad is two months into retirement, and very much acting the part, when I call him on a gloomy afternoon in May. I’ve caught him in the middle of seeding his garden, and while he may not be bringing any more surfboards into this world, he assures me his Sweet 100, Black Krim, and cherry tomatoes are destined for greatness. 

His 40,000th surfboard turned out to be a beautiful 9’0″ noserider with a dark-wood stringer, blue-striped air spray, and gloss polish that you can see your reflection in. It wasn’t his typical custom order: It was made to be auctioned off to raise money for his granddaughter’s preschool. At $2,200, the winning bid brought in some serious Crayola money. 

Funnily enough, my dad admits to me that he was nervous to shape the board. He hadn’t shaped in six months, and despite his 50 years of experience, he was worried he’d be rusty. The thought of making a board that was even slightly beneath his typical standards was unconscionable, which speaks to just how seriously he takes his craft, even after all this time, and the immense respect he has for the process of creating a surfboard by hand. But he didn’t need to worry. 

“After I fired up my planer and started going at it, it was like riding a bike. I hadn’t forgotten anything.” 

I ask him about handshaping to come, after all of his contemporaries retire and the art form sits squarely on the shoulders of the new breed of boutique board builders. What will be lost? What could be gained? 

“It’s interesting, because I think a lot of the younger shapers today look at boards very differently from my generation,” he says. “As they’re shaping a blank, they’re not necessarily trying to shape a board ‘correctly’ in the same way that I think of it. They’re not trying to follow the same rules. I think they’re chasing a specific feeling in the board, which might exist outside of what I traditionally think of as performance. It’s less about right or wrong and more about ‘different,’ and I do think there’s something to be said for that.” 

Dane Perlee

He tells me about a younger San Diego shaper, Dane Perlee, who shapes very unusual longboards under the label Osprey Surfboards. His surf craft feature intricate wedge stringers that start on the rails near the tail and come to a point in the nose of the board, where they meet a second pair of center stringers. The complex, thinly foiled tails often contain channels and a cluster of three fins in a tight arrangement. 

“Something I learned from Bob Pearson [the famed Santa Cruz shaper, for whom Perlee worked] was that it always helps to think about board design in extremes,” Perlee later tells me. “That’s where you can learn the most about what something may or may not do in the water. So there are features in some of my boards, like the Speed Demon, that are very extreme—the foil from nose to tail, the outline, the bottom contour, the rail configuration. But they really maximize the energy of the ocean with those straighter lines in the outline, and the low-volume rails release water really well. They’re stable, sensitive, and haul ass.” 

Perlee’s boards probably break a lot of the rules that my dad has spent his career shaping by, but they also offer a feeling in the water that you won’t find with any other surf craft. 

“He has a very unique approach to design, but he executes his vision beautifully,” my dad says. “His craftsmanship is impeccable.” 

Perhaps handshaping is getting weirder over time, but that will probably only make it more interesting. Either way, it will continue to be a crucial counterpoint to surfing’s mass-produced models, which might get the job done when it comes to performing at a high level on a wave, but will never be the beating heart of surfing’s craft culture. Talking to a shaper, ordering a handmade board, going for a surf together, and charting a course for future boards to come—that will always be an essential experience for committed surfers. 

As we wrap up our phone call, I’m struck by the fact that while I will be keeping my dad, I’m losing my shaper—and what surely has been the defining relationship of my surfing life. My mind drifts to all the unordered boards that will never be: a straight-railed micro fish; a channel-bottom twin-fin step-up; a remake of my perfect, yet increasingly yellowed, 5’5″ winged swallow. 

I ask him if maybe, just maybe, he’d shape me one more. Why not end on number 40,001? There’s a pause at the other end of the line. He says he’ll have to think about it.

[Feature image by Grant Ellis]

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