Son of a Gunmaker

For respected big-wave shaper and surfer, Kirk Bierke, the stakes are high as is own son, Russ, serves as a test pilot for his boards in waves of consequence.

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As surfers continue to push the limits of what’s considered rideable—from super-sized Cloudbreak to a number of Australian slabs that were previously thought un-surfable—their shapers are right there with them. The stakes have never been higher. A board that malfunctions could easily mean death or serious injury. For respected big-wave shaper and surfer, Kirk Bierke, the stakes are higher again. His own son, Russ, serves as a test pilot for his boards in waves of consequence. Russ, a high-school kid and one of the brightest big-wave prospects in the world right now, is the subject of a feature-length profile in issue 23.6 of TSJ. Here Kirk talks about the process of shaping boards for a son who’s morphed into a slab-riding prodigy.

Kirk: Russ used to try and pull our boards out of the rack and stand on them when he was first learning how to walk, so I got a blank that was snapped in half and shaped him a 3’6″. I made the bottom and the nose round and put a little stubby single-fin in the back so he could rock it back and forth. He basically learned how to walk standing on that thing, eating a bowl of cereal, watching television.

These days, when I’m making boards for the kind of waves he surfs, one of the main things is keeping them in one piece. You have to basically build a board that’s fast—that can handle the steepness—and come out the other end. Other spots where it is really, really hollow, you gotta take into consideration the air drops you’ll be doing just to catch a wave.

Originally, I made all his boards bright orange, which was primarily for safety reasons. When he was tombstoning, I could say, “There he is.”

One of the main challenges of late has been keeping boards that work well for him with his growth. If you’ve got somebody that goes from 90 pounds and now he’s 150—which is ten pounds heavier than I’ve ever weighed in my life— it’s hard.

I started out shaping in California at a place where it was really rocky. If you wore a leg rope you might come home with a black eye. So you came home with dinged boards instead. And buying new ones, it was just a lot cheaper to make one than buy one. It was the mid 70s so things were changing really fast. I was just trying to make a board that went well back then. There wasn’t as much of a set process, like, “This is how a board should be.”

Russ puts family craftsmanship through the paces at one of the local bombies. Photo: Ben Kiggins


I went to Hawaii because I felt like I was stagnating a bit in California. I’d make a board for bigger waves but spent a really long time waiting to ride it. The North Shore is the opposite, obviously—in terms of waiting for swell—so the learning curve was much steeper. That was the mid 80s, when many big-wave boards were still single-fins. There was a lot of change going on at that time. Thrusters were moving into the big-wave arena but a lot of the Sunset boards were still single-fins.

On the South Coast of Australia, I was super comfortable because the waves had more push. It wasn’t quite Hawaii but some of the spots had the hollowness and snap that the East Coast of Australia has, which is different from many places you’re gonna surf. I started combining the two elements of Hawaiian boards and some of the stuff I’d learned on the Tweed Coast.

Russ went to Cloudbreak for a big swell recently and rode an 8’6″. I’m working on a 9’8″ for him now—for Hawaii this year.  When you need a board that big and it’s barrelling, you really have to pay attention to fine detail. I’m tending toward open-ocean quad boards: you take some of that stuff Kelly Slater popularized in the 90s and foil it out and make it so it turns. But you also have to use rocker from way back so you’ve got the speed to get across the wave. Then you just roll it all into one envelope and put it under the right feet. Anyone who is talented enough to A) paddle out in waves like that and B) ride waves like that, will have their own demands of their equipment. You have to take those into consideration too. As for where Russ is heading, he’s calling the shots at this point. As a parent, I’m just trying to see him get through high school. He’s had his sights on the Big Wave World Tour for quite a while so we’ll see if he continues on that path.


More on the slab-hunting adventures of Russ Bierke is featured in issue 23.6 of TSJ