How physical templates map a surfboard’s very genome.
By Ben Waldron
Light / Dark
It was the mid 1990s, cold and nearly dark as I waited in the parking lot for my friend with the car keys to catch a wave in. As I shivered with my delaminated brown relic from the previous decade under arm, its open dings dripping, a van idled up to me.
“Hey, kid, that thing is beat,” the driver said, pointing at my board. “I’ll shape you a new one for cheap. I can make you Rob Machado’s exact model. I’ve got Al Merrick’s template.”
The proposition was politely declined, and the van sputtered a few parking spots down to where the next potential board order stood. What exactly was being hawked to me? This backyard shaper allegedly possessed decades of surfboard design, research, development, and history boiled down into a two-dimensional piece of Masonite—a template, a memory stick of curves.
It’s a universal law of hydrodynamics that surfboards need curves to work. Shapers have thus hunted the right curves relentlessly. Pre-twentieth century,
Hawaiians rounded off the noses of paipos, alaias, and olo boards. In 1940s Waikiki, Wally Froiseth and George Downing wanted more-maneuverable crafts that allowed them to stay on a wave’s face longer, so they narrowed the tails of their heavy wooden planks and added vee to their bottoms, and the Hot Curl was born. That design may now be obsolete, but it put Downing on a trajectory of innovation that surfers are still reaping the benefits from. Through the shortboard revolution, Dick Brewer mastered these curves in boards geared for heavy waves by refining rails and pintails. In the late 60s, San Diego kneeboarder Steve Lis hit a plan-shape bull’s-eye when he wanted the hold of a pintail without the drag of his swim fins off the rails. Using his kitchen-floor tile as a grid, he knelt on a piece of butcher paper with his fins on and traced the outline for the first fish.
Those are just a few examples of the DNA found in the curves on modern templates. Shapers preserve curves like these by tracing them onto a flat surface (usually Masonite), cutting them out, and then tracing around them to cut out a new board. It allows shapers consistency in design and efficiency in production. Like natural selection, bad curves have been discarded and good ones have evolved. Over time, these working curves have been blended together, with multiple templates being combined to create a single surfboard outline. In turn, those outlines have led to the creation of entirely new templates.
Templates have not only changed shape over time, but they’ve also changed format. For many shapers, that omnipresent pile of stained and slightly frayed Masonite in their bay’s corner has been collecting dust since computer programs were introduced to the scene. Slashed by the aimless blade of science, shaping’s hunt for working curves has been widely reduced to plugging in dimensions on a screen—points for binary code to connect and a mechanized saw to cut. It appears the tradition, mores, and very use of templates is slated to become a victim of technological momentum. However, many shapers have found a balance between the use of physical templates and the convenience of modern tech in today’s surfboard production.
To learn more about the evolution of surfboard curves, I talked to a small sample of master craftsmen about the culture surrounding templates and their place in contemporary board building—shapers who are about the furthest you can get from a parking-lot bootlegger.
Tyler Surfboards Los Angeles, California
What does your process for making a template look like?
Well, in the beginning it starts off of influences. You start with tracing, basically dragging a pencil around a perimeter on Masonite or Lauan, and then truing up. I’ve done everything from shaping one side of a board and then transferring that onto a piece of wood, to using taped curves on a template and then truing that up. I’ll use rocker templates, too, that run the center of the stringer, just to keep some consistency. Over the years, depending on where I was, I’d use anything from cardboard to 12-pack beer boxes—whatever I had that I could trace on. For tail templates, I’ve even used sandpaper-sleeve covers.
What has your experience been like with sharing templates with other shapers?
Well, people can be very touchy about their templates. It’s like somebody’s Rolodex. It’s pretty secretive, I guess. But over the years you start to realize that there’s a lot of generic curves that all boards have. So, for me, I don’t really get too bugged about outline templates, because that’s probably the easiest thing that somebody can copy. It’s just a one-dimensional shadow of an outline. It’s all those other things that you can’t trace, like the foil, rocker, and flow, that make the board unique.
Years ago, my friend came up and used my shaping room a couple of times. I don’t think he had a lot of templates with him. I was gone one day while he was working, and when I came back the next day, I was going through my templates and found a huge notch cut out of one of them that had been repaired with resin. It was one of those things where he didn’t ask permission, but there was no way he was getting around me finding out that he’d used the template. It was probably a little embarrassing for him, because we were both pretty young shapers at the time. I don’t think I got too upset, but it was like, “Come on, dude.” He could’ve put a pencil around it and put it back, and I’d never have known he used it. But he used this template with a router, so the router actually notched the template.
How has technology impacted the use of templates?
I have production boards that are machine shaped, but I still hand shape, too. With the computer, there are algorithms. When you do a computer shape, it’s almost like sharing a template. If the computer is going to fill in the gaps between slice A and slice B, most people are going to get that same type of computer input from board to board. So it can get universal. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m not a purist by any means. Some people are perfectly happy with that. Other guys are like, “No, I need some uniqueness.” To truly get something unique, you need to hand shape. With all that massaging, there are no slices. Everywhere you touch on the board, from side to side, varies and has its own final foil.
When you’re hand shaping a unique order, do you need to pull templates off the wall? Or can you just draw an outline from memory?
I’m very mechanical, so I like templates. Somebody might call me an artist, but I don’t really see myself as an artist, necessarily, because I’m not so free-form. The way my brain works, I need to see some sort of template to keep me in that ballpark of baselines that I know work for me.
Pat Rawson Surfboards North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii
What was your initial experience with templates?
Well, back in the 1960s, I would actually make templates from photos of boards I saw in Surfer magazine ads. In grade school, I was into drafting and engineering, so I knew how to do proportions. I’d map out the curves and scale them up. They were pretty damn good. In the 70s, I got most of my stuff from Dick Brewer. That was a very formative time for my shaping. I was lucky to work under him as a glasser on the North Shore. I was always looking at outlines and measuring them. Brewer caught me measuring one of his one day. I just said, “I love how this looks. This is the best 7’2″ template I’ve ever seen.” I got really into shaping after that, and he started teaching me more. When Brewer moved to California, he just left everything. I rescued a lot of his stuff and that’s how I got the templates I’m still using now for guns. They’re all pretty much Brewer templates morphed into something else. Today you can just take a picture of a board and turn it into a Shape3d template. It’s very much cheating, but that’s how I got a lot of my good templates that I use now. Of course, they’re all built in. I do hand shape a little bit still, but most of it’s all off the machine.
In the 70s, when boards were changing so fast, did new curves happen in template form first? Or were they drawn on a blank and templated later?
Well, you could free curve it. We’ve done that before. I had a friend who could freehand a template on one side of the board, then cut it out, true it up, make a wood template, and flip it over. I don’t know how he did it. I can’t do that. Usually I’d use a combination of curves and templates to get a new outline. Then I’d put the blank up on the shaping-room wall and get back about 10 or 15 feet, so I could really see how the nose was blending into the wide point. Then I would take a template off of that new outline. That’s why we had hundreds of templates. You kept the old ones unless you converted them into a new one.
Tell me about your process of templating a board.
All of us Brewer groupies, or whatever you want to call it, we always templated from the deck because that’s how he did it. You could really see the curve if you stuck the blank up against the wall or even just on your racks. Because it was an inward curve, it showcased the template better. I used to cut it out with a Skil saw, which is really accurate. The first step is getting something on the foam blank, then you measure the nose, the wide point, and the tail. I like to measure the thirds, too, because that kind of sets up where the wide point is. And as I get closer to the ends of the board, 3 inches and 6 inches are really good. There’s a lot of information in that last 12 inches of the tail. If you’re making a rounded pin or swallowtail, those measurements are real important. When you’re programming a board on the computer, it asks you for those measurements. You can get a board pretty much perfect now with Shape3d. I was lucky to have Eric Arakawa as my teacher when computer shaping came out around 2000. I still think like I’m shaping with a planer, though, even when looking at the screen.
Are those older templates that were used in creating new templates still useful today? Are they worth hanging on to?
I think they’re more like souvenirs. I’d say most every template that I have is on the computer now. But Timmy Patterson has still got all his old templates, which I use sometimes. I’ve used Chris Christenson’s shaping room, and he’s got a million good templates too. My room’s still got a whole slew of them. I gave a bunch of the really old ones from the 60s and 70s away. But I still have a lot of templates for Tom Carroll’s boards from the early 80s. I get all passionate when I see them because I remember how many boards I used a specific template on. It’s emotional.
Matt Kechele Surfboards Cocoa Beach, Florida
Tell me about the first template you made. What motivated you to make it?
I suppose it’s the first elementary thing you learn as a shaper. You want to possess your own templates. When I first started shaping, I either used Masonite or some tin paneling someone was throwing out to take a template from a Lightning Bolt single-fin, a Gerry Lopez pintail. I was 13.
How has your templating process changed since then?
I’ve done everything from taking old templates and remixing them with new ones to using a fiberglass pole and bending it to come up with original outlines. When I used to travel to do a lot of shaping in Japan, I’d make templates out of this Formica laminate that was really flexible. I used an X-Acto blade to cut them out. I could roll them up and throw them in a suitcase. I probably have a compilation of more templates than, I don’t know, I would think most shapers in the whole world.
Is there a specific type of template that you prefer to use?
I always like to have full-length templates and even double-sided templates, just because they’re a lot faster for production and more precise. Clark Foam went through a period where their stringers had some bend in them. When you’d drop a square to measure out the board, one side would be wider than the other. So I started doing double-sided templates and cutting them out with a router, ignoring the stringer and center point of the board because it was off. I felt like that was much more precise. I still cut hand-shape boards out with a router today. It’s much more efficient in getting a perfect outline.
How have other shapers’ outlines influenced your own templates?
It got to a point where there were so many good shapers that if one shaper saw something they liked, or if they had a customer say, “Hey, I really like this board and I’d like to replicate it,” it was pretty commonplace to just take the outline from somebody else’s design. And sometimes in drawing out that outline, you might bump the curve to your own personal preference to try to one-up the other shaper or make it even a little bit better. The Tommy Curren era of the bump-winger squashtail, for example, was a huge inspiration to me. It was something that really helped us here on the East Coast to get the tri-fin to work a little bit better in smaller surf. I think that was a really progressive design. It was a great way to bump the hips of the board out to create a good planing area going into the fins. I think that those influences are still in some of the modern boards that we see today.
How do you consistently replicate things that outline templates don’t show?
I really worked towards trying to find a holy grail of rocker, because that’s the base you work off of for every board. You can really start learning the templates and outlines and different fin configurations by putting the exact same rocker on each and every board. I developed a rocker machine that was basically a planer on sidebars with wheels. I spent a good 10 years doing that. It became a really good time-saver in production. I think a lot of my customers appreciated the precision in rocker and the trueness that the rocker machine added to their boards.
Josh Hall Surfboards San Diego, California
Tell me about the role templates play in your production models. How often are you taking new templates off of boards you shape?
Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve become pretty set in my templates that I use. Basically, I have a set of what I consider master center curves. For most of my longboards, nothing really changes except the tips and maybe the width. With my style of templates, I can make a board that’s 7’6″, and then I can take that same template and make it a 10’6″ just by extending the center curve. But if I get something new going that I like, or if customers keep inquiring about a certain shape, I take those master templates and connect all the dots. I’ll use two center curves, as well as a nose and a tail template. If it’s a model that’s within, say, a 6’6″ to 7’0″ that I’m building a lot of, then I’ll draw one solid half-template to speed up the process down the line. There’s people—like Wayne Rich, for example—who’ve got hundreds of templates. He will take a template off of a board he builds just once and catalog it.
Are templates shared and traded amongst shapers?
Skip [Frye] started building all my boards when I was 18. I was real respectful when I first started shaping, and was open with Skip about everything. Like, “Hey, is it cool if I trace this outline?” He’d say, “Yeah, go for it.” Throughout my career, he’s been a mentor and has actually passed down physical templates to me. So if you’re a surfer and want to build boards, and you’re working with a shaper and you maintain that relationship, then, organically over time, things can get handed down to you. I’ve personally never really traded templates with anybody. I’ve drawn out templates for a couple of friends of mine. Hank Warner, in one case in particular, had a client that was on a boat trip who saw Taylor Knox riding one of my fishes. The guy wanted Hank to build that same board, so Hank asked me for the dimensions. I said, “Hey, can you bring the thing over and I’ll just draw you the outline? Then you can finish it however you finish it.”
Is it taboo to lift a template from someone else’s shape?
Again, circling back to now having been doing this for a while and seeing how things evolve, I don’t care if anybody takes any templates off of my boards. I did it from Skip’s. If it helps somebody build a board that’s got a proper line on it, then that’s fine. I’m not worried about losing business from it or anything like that. It’s all part of the progression.
Do you think templates have a place in board building going forward? Or do you think that technology will eventually render them obsolete?
I think they’re never going to go away. I’m getting some stuff cut out now by KKL [a shaping machine], but I have never designed or even looked at one of my files on the computer. Everything is off of my hand shapes. I know how the computer program works, but the idea of just plugging in numbers based off what looks good on a screen, I don’t think that necessarily all comes out right. There are guys, I’m sure, that are super good at it, but you’ve got to have the basis of proper curves, because proper curves don’t ever go away.
Do you have a specific experience with a template that helped you understand their importance?
Skip gave me his original Steve Lis fish templates. They’re sacred. What happened was that Skip’s original Lis templates from 1968 or 69 were falling apart. I’d started taking my masters and was putting them on a different, lighter material so I could travel with them. I said to Skip, “Hey, man, I’m using this other material. Let me at least put this on a better material and preserve it for you.” So I did it and he said, “Hey, make sure you build yourself one.” That right there is the holy grail of templates. That was really, for me, a significant point in my career.
Yater Surfboards Santa Barbara, California
Do you still use the same templates you used back when you first started shaping?
When I have to do a one-off board, yes. If somebody wants a particular board that I have to copy, sure, I use a template. I currently have maybe 20 templates all together. Some of them are really just antiques that I wouldn’t use again. They’re too straight or they’re way too narrow in the nose—stuff that isn’t done anymore. I am a minimalist, so it doesn’t take me a lot of different templates to do a board. You can move a template up and down, and in and out. You can do a whole lot of things to get a different curve and a different outline with one template. You can use a single template to create a new shape completely.
What were your first impressions when computers came on the scene? Do you think they have benefited surfboard shaping?
Yes. You sure can get cleaner templates and bottom rocker. The thing that a computer does is it gets rid of the errors that you did shaping by hand. When you go get a board scanned, they only do one side, and the other side comes out exactly the same. That’s something you can’t do when making a hand-shaped surfboard. I don’t care how good you are, you still can’t do it as well as the computer can. It just can’t be done. I mean, you can work and work and work at it, but still, there’s human error involved.
Do you think that diminishes the craftsmanship of board building?
It does. But, God, it’s so difficult to hand shape these new blanks. The foam is much harder now. It has advanced so much since Clark Foam closed. And keep in mind—here’s a number for you—the companies that make foam will openly tell you that 85 percent of it all goes to machine-cutting companies. That means only about 15 percent is going to be hand shaped. So they design the foam to be used in machines. When the foam companies make a master blank, it’s called a master. Let’s say they’re going to ask somebody like me to make a master for a longboard. We have to take into consideration all the people that are going to use it. So you make it wide enough for everybody to be satisfied. You make it thick enough. And then you go back and look at all the rocker templates that each company uses, and you come up with a middle-ground rocker. Then they mold it. They design the blank so it can be cut into and have the same density throughout the core of the foam. That was not the way it was done with Clark Foam. They designed their foam for so many years to be hand shaped, so they molded the blanks real close to the shape so that you didn’t cut much off of them. It wasn’t a big job to cut into them real deep. It’s extremely different now.
Let’s hope the power never goes out.
There are some drawbacks to it. But it’s a different era now. Templates had their use in the era that they were made in, and we relied upon them. Before shortboards, we didn’t do the amount of different shapes that are done today. The boards were so simple, kind of one-off longboard stuff. When boards went short, things changed. And then, of course, templates became a major deal for quite a bit of time until the computer came in. It’s kind of gone that way, three different stages, hasn’t it? Back then, templates were a way to preserve curves. Now it’s not so important to keep these templates, because you can screw around with a computer and design them. So I think guys do that a lot more today than ever.
Let’s say someone orders a gun from you. Are you turning on your computer or reaching for your templates to make it?
I’d use my old templates, for sure. I did quite a bit of guns back in the days when they were popular. They’re pretty-looking things. If I’m only going to do one board for somebody, it would be much easier if I just bought the blank, did the plan shape with my old templates, and hand shaped the board. That’s the best way to do a one-off.