Touching the Monolith

Shapers talk their tools.

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You know the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A shrewd-ness of apes surrounds the black monolith that had mysteriously arrived with dawn outside their troglodytic dwelling. They howl and bounce before timidly putting their hands to its surface, unknowingly causing some sort of enlightenment transfer—the realization of tools. Cue the iconic Strauss timpani roll as one of the apes obliterates a skull with a bone.

Now jump a few evolutionary stages up the chain to the niche group of Homo sapiens known as surfboard shapers. Their monolith is a slab of foam. Out of it, they carve refined wave-riding sculptures with mindfully selected tools—some high tech, others primitive—all used with skill. Their path is easily traceable, from Polynesians who used shark skin and lava rock to build boards out of koa wood to the cutting-edge practitioners of today who rely on modern machinery to replicate laser-scanned copies of proven designs. 

A common origin story among present-day shapers is stripping the fiberglass off an old, discarded board and reshaping it with a cheese grater stolen from the kitchen. It’s an example straight out of French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s theory of strategy and tactics. The strategy is the intended use of an object—the cheese grater, in this instance—and the tactic is how a user strays from its intended purpose to achieve a personal result. For evidence, just take a look at the tools shapers have adapted and created over the decades.

Standard in most shapers’ toolboxes are the power planer, Surform, block planer, and block sander—all common woodworking implements. Much like a specialized mechanic will bend an end wrench to reach a single hard-to-get nut, these standard-issue tools have been modified by each shaper to work better on foam and to fit their own technique. Oftentimes, if a tool can’t be bought or modified to carry out a specific task, a shaper will build their own version of it.

To learn more about these shaping tools—mainly the hot-rodded, appropriated, weird, and homemade—I talked to a small sample of surfboard shapers about what they keep at the front of their belts. So take a glimpse through Kubrick’s lens, imagine that bone spinning through the air in beautiful Panavision, then cut to a Skil 100 floating in space.

Skip Frye
San Diego, California

The Accurate Planer is my main tool. I’ve  got three of them really dialed in. About ten years ago, Jed Noll, Greg Noll’s son, engineered it with the Accurate Waterman company, which is more noted for making fishing tackle and reels. At that point, the Skil 100 had been discontinued for 30-something years, and replacement parts were hard to find. So Jed asked Accurate if they could make him a new planer, and they designed it together based off the Skil 100.  

Accurate really juiced it up. The Skil 100 has around 12,000 rpm max and is kind of hard for doing wood, but the Accurate turns over 20,000 rpm and cuts right through it. It made sense to me that Jed would want more power, because he was doing a lot of wood boards with his dad. I can’t even imagine a Skil 100 going through redwood or koa wood. That would take you forever.

Photo by Grant Ellis.

Another tool I have that’s unique is a little 1/8-inch chisel. I found it in my dad’s tool chest back in the late 1960s when the fish [design] started happening. When you cut out a fishtail, you’ve got the stringer wood right in the crotch, and trying to get that even is one of the hardest things to do. But this little 1/8-inch chisel gets right down in there. It just hit me right when I saw it that it would make that job easier, so I confiscated it and have used it ever since. People always talk to me about that chisel when they see it; they call it my “dad tool.” To this day, I’ve never seen another chisel that skinny.

Akila Aipa
Haleiwa, Hawaii

Because I do production, time is valuable to me. After 30 years of shaping, I’m trying to spend the least amount of time on chicken-scratch boards. And with a shitty back, I can’t afford to throw on a planer every day. Since I now design on Shape3d and machine-cut pre-shapes are my starting point, I don’t have to do heavy tooling anymore. What I’m doing is like a hyphenated version of shaping. It’s refinement shaping. It’s high repetition, where I’m chasing increments and greater finishes. In a sense, I’m trying to refine a board in one motion, so my tools represent that. Every tool I have on my rack is out of necessity.

My concave sanding block is my most unique tool and the most important to my operation. Ivan Sarda, who’s an excellent shaper and craftsman, made it for me out of surfboard foam. He cut slats in the top to give it flex and put [convex] curve in the bottom. This allowed me to make strokes from both rail to rail and nose to tail to really blend bottom concaves. Unfortunately, one side of it flexed a little too much and broke off, so I remade my own version based on Ivan’s design.

Photo by Ryan Foley.

When I first started learning how to blend bottom concaves, I was using a flat redwood sanding block that I originally made for my dad [Ben Aipa] in high school wood-shop class. Because it’s flat and square, it didn’t work the greatest for blending concaves. As concave became more prevalent in boards, I realized I needed a more specialized tool for that job. Ivan’s design allowed me to use my technique to get the result I want instead of having to adapt my technique to a tool.

Maurice Cole
Torquay, Victoria

One day in 1994, I was working in Hawaii with Jack Reeves in his factory behind Pupukea. This crazy-looking guy named Tom [Mayo] walked in and asked if we needed blades for our small hand planers. I looked at Jack and said, “I don’t know. Do I need blades?” and he goes, “Yes, you do.”

Then this guy Tom took four quarters out of his pocket, stacked them on top of each other, pulled out a big Bowie knife, and sliced the stack in half with one strike.

After seeing that, I said, “Yeah, I want some blades.”

“Well, they’re ten bucks each,” Tom said.

“Well, that’s all right. All good.”

Tom then pulled out these little blades he made out of stainless steel from a jet engine turbine. He gave them one last sharpening and handed them to me. Well, I’ve still got his blades in my planes and they’re still the best I’ve used. Later, I found out Tom’s world famous for making Bowie knives.

One of my other favorite tools is the shaping machine. People say the machine has no soul, but it’s just another fucking tool. In the early 1990s, Tom Curren brought me back some early pre-shaped copies of my boards done on a pantograph machine made by the Smith brothers of Abroboard.

Photo by Mick Sowry.

I looked at those pre-shapes for the first time and went, “Wow, how good would it be to be able to shape off something like that? You’re not going to end up having to just plane your whole life away and fill up your whole room with dust.” Anyhow, it was just a much nicer working environment. 

So then when the computerized KKL machine came out, I was one of the first to use it. I had this big run with Tom, which meant I had tons of boards to do, and I physically couldn’t shape more than two a day off the blank, and that would be a good day. 

Later on, I was working with Rusty Preisendorfer when shaping machines really started taking off. This was when Rusty was at its peak in the 90s, probably doing over 10,000 boards a year. Rusty came to me and said, “We’re getting a lot of grief about using pre-shapes.” 

I said, “Hey, Rusty, why don’t we do an ad? Why don’t you and I go down to the Amazon rainforest with a couple of beavers and get a photo done. It will be you and me at the bottom of a balsa tree, looking up at the camera, each holding a beaver, obviously stuffed, like a planer, and the caption will be, ‘No tools.’”

Terry Chung
Kilauea, Hawaii

About ten years ago, I bought the only APS3000 shaping machine on Kauai. I was familiar with the machine before buying it because I had been getting my blanks cut by it for a few years. The original owners realized the machine wasn’t making them any money, so they went around to all the local shapers to see if someone wanted to buy it. I guess my offer was the highest. The machine was a lot of money upfront. I had to upgrade the motors and cutters, but now it’s up to par.

I pretty much design all my boards in Shape3d and use the machine to cut them out. I’m 67 years old, so it took me a while to learn how to do a computer shape, but now I’ve got it down. It’s nice to go over your final product and make little refinements in the computer. By doing that, the cut on your next board comes out even closer to what you wanted. Now my computer shapes are so fine-tuned that I only work for, like, 20 minutes or so in the shaping room to finish a board.

Photo by Mike Coots.

When it comes to finishing, I use the traditional hand-shaping tools: Skil 100 planer, Surforms, block sanders, and block planers—nothing weird. I still use the same Skil from when I started shaping in 1978. A guy named Wolfman rigged it up for me back when I got it. We bent the adjuster in the front so that it doesn’t click while changing the depth of the cut; it’s just all free-moving. So I can do a shallow cut in the nose, open up the cut at the wide point, and slide it back to a zero cut towards the tail all in one pass. He made it real slide-y like that.

My Skil stopped working a while ago. I was talking to Ken Cullen from Fiberglass Hawaii and told him, “Yeah, my Skil died.” He goes, “Oh, we can rewind it and get it all fixed up.” I sent it to him and they brought it back to life. I’m still abusing it and it’s still cutting. 

Ellis Ericson
Byron Bay, New South Wales

George Greenough introduced me to the hot wire; it’s since become my favorite tool. I use it to cut my own blanks from huge cubes of industrial EPS foam that are about 5 meters long, 1.2 meters wide, and 0.6 meters high. The tool itself is pretty primitive—just an electrocuted 18-inch-long piece of fishing line. Fifty-pound leader wire, to be exact. The wire is set up in a wooden bow. I use an inverter to bring the voltage down from my regular power point to between 12 and 20 volts, which gives the wire an orange glow. The voltage is low, but it can still sort of zap you. 

Once the wire is hot enough to melt EPS, you just set it on the block of foam with your template runners and watch gravity do its trick as it pulls the hot wire down and around the curves. It goes back ages; if there’s a force, there’s a tool. For me, the hot wire is one of the best tools to use because it cuts really clean and it’s very accurate. It’s very analog, but if you use a level and have a system, you can make really cubed-out, perfect blanks consistently. Since you’re cutting multiple blanks from the same EPS block, you’re not dealing with varying-foam-density issues.

Courtesy of Ellis Ericson.

This method really clears away most of the foam, as I’m using it to cut the outline, rocker, and deck lines. That’s the majority of creating the board. It’s a good baseline before you start attacking with your hands. I don’t like using heaps of tools. I can pretty much finish a board with the hot wire, planer, sanding block, and a few different grits of sandpaper.

Jim Phillips
Encinitas, California

My absolute favorite tools are a couple of hand planes from the nineteenth century. One of them is a Stanley No. 53 adjustable spokeshave from the late 1800s. It was originally used for truing up the wooden spokes for wagon wheels. It has two handles on it and an adjustment where you can actually tilt the bottom bed. As the bed tilts, it either increases or decreases the amount of blade that’s exposed. I use it to shape stringers and nose rocker because the bed on it is only 1 1/8-inch wide, so it’ll fit in really tight curves. 

I got lucky and found another one just like it in an antique mall in Solana Beach about ten to 15 years ago. I’m always on the lookout for old woodworking tools because the carbon and the steel in them is high quality. Back in the day, master craftsmen wanted tools that were really accurate, [could] hold edges, and [could] be dead flat. 

Photo by Grant Ellis.

About 45 years ago, I found a block plane at the Barnstable, Massachusetts, farmers swap meet. The plane and its original blade are from the 1800s. It was missing the frog, so I made a wedge out of a scrap piece of cherry wood to hold the blade in place. Thousands of boards later, that little cherry wedge is still in there and the plane still takes an edge like a damn surgeon’s scalpel.

Both of my spokeshaves and my block plane have the original blades in them. I have a real fine white-stone grinding wheel in my shaping room that I use for tuning up the edges. Every six weeks to two months, I’ll notice the planes dragging just a little bit. They only take a dusting across the wheel to freshen them up.

Ricky Carroll
Rockledge, Florida

On most planers, adjustability isn’t done in small increments; you have to keep turning and turning and turning the front knob to adjust the depth of the cut. But Clark [Foam] took that front adjustability knob [on the Hitachi planer] and made it so you can go from a zero cut to a full cut in only half a turn. It allowed you to shape how you would with a Skil 100 planer. I grew up shaping on the Skil, but it was discontinued and parts were getting harder to find. So I figured I would learn to use the newer planers that were available.

The one I landed on is the Hitachi F-30A planer. I use one of the first models that came out when Clark Foam started offering modifications to the Hitachi in 1988. It’s green, big, bulky, and heavy. Some people call it the lawnmower. It has a wider and deeper cut that moves a lot of foam quickly.

Photo by Patrick Ruddy.

Most shapers didn’t like the F-30A because of how big it was, so Clark started modifying the smaller Hitachi P20SB. It was very light and maneuverable, but it didn’t cut as much; you had to take it down little by little. So I gravitated back to the F-30A for all my rough cutting, and I use the smaller P20SB for finishing. I took out its blades and replaced them with a carbide-grit drum. With the drum, it almost acts like an electric sanding block. The Hitachi planers were just a limited production run, so I don’t know what I’m going to do once they die. Anytime I see one in my travels, I offer to buy it just so I can have parts. 

Another one of my favorite tools is this stainless steel blade I found at Sears. It was made by Craftsman and it caught my eye because it looked just like a Stanley Surform blade—which has been the standard for years, but has a tendency to tear foam. The blade was designed to go on a hacksaw, so I made a handle for it out of a piece of wood. I basically turned that blade into my own rust-proof Surform, but with finer, sharper teeth. It does a really good job up in the nose area and on the stringer when you’re trying to take down foam and don’t want to use a block plane. It doesn’t tear, and leaves a blinder cut. All my shapers that work for me use them; it’s one of the tools that you just have to have. Of course Craftsman quit making it, but I actually found blades just like it in cooking catalogs. They’re called “zesters.”

Britt Merrick
Santa Barbara, California

My dad [Al Merrick] always taught me that the weight of your sanding block is important. He would choose different woods and make different sizes to weigh his sanding blocks correctly. That’s kind of obvious, right? If you’re doing fine sanding, you want a much lighter block than if you’re doing rough sanding. So I make my own sanding blocks and I’m really particular about the weight and the size and the bevel on the edge. I have fun choosing the wood for those.

One of them that’s pretty much my go-to on every board is a 10-by-12-inch piece of egg-carton foam with three layers of 60-grit sandpaper attached to the bottom. This combination of eggshell foam and loose sandpaper allows me to manipulate its shape with my hands and apply different pressure on different points of the blank. The three layers of sandpaper give me just the right amount of rigidity and flex. I can really tune exactly where and how I’m sanding by gripping those little foam things that stick up. 

Photo by Grant Ellis.

That tool allows me to do rough sanding while sort of intentionally shaping, too. I use it on the deck, right where it transitions into the rails. It’s perfect for wrapping around that curve. I also use it on the bottom, especially on the concaves between the fins. I can tweak it just right with my hand to fit into every little spot because I can change its shape so easily. 

I’ll put a fresh piece of sandpaper on the bottom layer every few days. I switch out the other two layers every couple of weeks because they eventually get too flimsy, throwing off that magic balance of rigidity and flex. I’ve had the same piece of eggshell foam for several years now. It has holes in it, but still gets the job done.

[Feature Photo by Grant Ellis]