From the January 2014 issue of Surfing Magazine.
TWO SHAPERS WALK INTO A BAR.
The first shaper says to the second shaper, “Do you even know anything about me?”
The second shaper replies, “I know you’re the descendant of a criminal.”
They laugh, and a busty bartender takes their order. The two then start discussing surfboard technology, the demands of team riders, making boards for women and more. They talk for about an hour, drink their drinks and leave.
And if you’re waiting for the punchline — sorry, we don’t have one. All we could come up with was a pitcher of beer, two bloody marys and a few thousand words from two of surfing’s leading shapers. This is the state of surfboards today — no joke.
SURFING: How much have Lower Trestles and Snapper Rocks helped to shape your respective careers?
Matt Biolos: Having Lowers here provides access to the best surfers — everyone passes through. That’s huge, having surfers around who are good enough to give legitimate feedback. And the wave is the perfect canvas; it exposes every flaw and nuance in your surfboard.
Darren Handley: It’s exactly the same with Snapper, where you can do 20 turns on one wave. The Quik Pro at Snapper is coming up again in February and a bunch of guys are ordering boards from me. Just like when this contest is on, a bunch of guys order boards from Matt. The tour allows you to follow your favorite surfers and pay attention to what they’re riding, and that might influence what sort of board you want.
M: I look at you and Jason [Stevenson] as really breaking down the door for the new generation of surfers in the early 2000s. As the Dream Tour came to be, the surfing went from 2-foot slop to perfect, hollow waves. The work you did with all the hollow waves in front of your doorstep — you really tuned in the high- performance board for the transition to the perfect waves on tour. You both had a lot of the tour’s feet glued to your boards from Snapper on through the US Open, where they finally faced garbage surf; then I’d jump in and maybe make a couple of guys boards. [Laughs]
Do you two have any brand rivalry?
M: It’s a competitive, friendly, respectful rivalry. Just like it is amongst the tour surfers. I might joke with Darren after Mick wins a contest, like, “Oh, you got that one…” [Laughs]
D: To me, it’s athlete first. If I’m going to look after Mick Fanning, I want him to ride the best. If I’m not making him the best, he’ll let me know. He’s ridden Matt’s boards before, and because Mick is an amazing surfer, he gives really good feedback. I’ll learn from what Mick liked about Matt’s boards, and vice versa.
M: You have to be willing to accept a lot of failure. It’s like pro baseball: The best guys in the world only average about .333 for their career.
D: Matt, how many boards do you make Kolohe [Andino] in a year?
M: I make him 150-200, but he gives back 80 percent of them and breaks maybe 20 percent of the ones he keeps. D: Really? Wow. I bust my gut trying to make Mick 100 boards in a year.
M: Well, Mick doesn’t have a father who sits in your office 250 days of the year. [Laughs] But Kolohe is also a lot more violent of a surfer than Mick; he does more airs. As surfers get older, they get more refined, and don’t screw up as many boards. Right now Kolohe is trying to keep up with Gabby [Medina] and John John. He sees guys his age doing 8-foot airs and he wants to do 8-foot airs too. Whereas Mick knows he can do six perfect wraps and that will get it done every heat.
Do either of you experiment with alternative materials on the World Tour level?
M: The top surfers don’t like it.
D: You see the Firewires, you see the Hayden things…but I’m finding everyone just wants to ride what they grew up riding. They want a board with a stringer and normal flex, because that’s what’s comfortable. That said, the young kids now are going to try different things, so it might change for the future.
M: We’re addicted to that traditionally built surfboard, especially the surfers at the upper echelon. The fancy materials tend to feel more twitchy. They’re lively, and they’re good for average surfers because they give a little more float and bounce, but the top surfers are looking for a neutral feel. And people say to me, “I can’t believe you’re letting guys break 30 boards per year!” But the reality is we’re operating at an incredibly high level. This guy [Darren] has won a lot of world titles. It’s like in NASCAR — those guys go through six sets of tires in one race. That’s just the way it is at the top level.
In golf, pros use outrageously expensive equipment, but the top surfers are riding basically the same boards you can buy off the rack at a shop. Why is that?
D: When Taj was getting Firewires they were hand-shaped in Australia. He was getting boards that actually cost $1,500 to build and he was still going through them. The public doesn’t want to pay that kind of money. I can make a $1,500 board and I would make them all day if people wanted to pay for them.
M: Materials cost money, and the more radical materials are way more time-consuming. And then what happens is you pay $1,500 for a board and it’s an eighth of an inch too thick and you have to resell it for $800, and you’re bummed. But if you buy a $700 board and it’s not right you can resell for $500. Just like an automobile, a surfboard loses a lot of value the second you paddle out on it.
D: Our big investment the last five years has been on the machines. We’re trying to keep boards consistent.
M: We’re getting our designs so dialed it doesn’t make sense to experiment too much right now. If I make Kolohe five boards and they cost $300 a pop to make and he gives them all back — which he does — I can turn around and sell them to make a profit. That’s what people don’t understand. These boards aren’t going to the landfill. But if I spend $1,000 on each board, shape him six and he doesn’t like them, I’d be hard-pressed to get that investment back. The big discrepancy in surfboard pricing is at the retail level. Right now surfboards are about $700. If they were $1,200 the shaper wouldn’t make the extra margin, the surf shop owner would. Surf shop owners are making a tiny margin right now, offering boards as a service to their customers to keep them coming back rather than going to a Tilly’s or a Nordstrom. If a retailer marked up a board like they did a T-shirt, they’d cost $1,200, but the shapers wouldn’t make an extra penny and that’s why we keep our prices low.
D: It’s a labor of love, not money.
M: And we’re still the only sporting endeavor where we can all ride custom equipment, from the pros on down.
Is it possible to replicate a magic board?
D: I can make you 10 surfboards exactly the same way, but they go through eight different stages when I’m finished with them. And on top of that, the timber comes from 10 different trees. There are too many variables.
M: You can have two identical boards, but if the grain in the stringer is different, they’re going to have a different flex. One might be really tight grain under your front foot, and the other allows more give. And then the sander might have had a fight with his wife that morning…
D: Or the guy that blew the foam had a big night and his foam is shitty, or the athlete has a bad day or the waves aren’t right and they’ll ride a board once and just go, “This one is shit. I don’t like it.” And then you bring it back out for them a month later and they ride it and all of a sudden say, “That board was amazing!”
M: [Laughs] Oh yeah, like it’s the board that changed.
Is there a different process in making boards for Steph Gilmore or Carissa Moore as opposed to Kolohe or Fanning?
M: Darren has a lot more world titles than me. He can take this one…
D: Carissa and Steph are two amazing surfers that surf like men, and that’s why they get big scores. Those girls are at that level, doing exactly what the boys are doing. And Steph basically rides Mick’s boards, minus a bit of volume. M: But there are maybe three or four girls in the world that can surf like that. And with girls you can get thrown off because they surf big and strong. But when you put them on a scale they’re actually lighter, because they don’t have the muscle mass of a man.
D: More like a Japanese guy.
M: [Laughs] They have the hips and they have the female parts, and that makes them look bigger than they are. But Steph and Carissa aren’t brutes; they just have great technique. They’re a lot lighter than you think. You put them on a scale and they weigh like 103 lbs, and it makes you go, “Wait a second, you don’t need to be on this big of a board. You need to be on something under 18 inches wide.” It’s like making a board for Griffin Colapinto. Most girls have the power of a 15-year-old simply because they aren’t as developed physically.
D: That was the mistake I made with Steph this year. We only worked it out after the Huntington contest a couple months ago that I was making her boards too thick. I recently put her on these narrower, thinner designs and it’s made a world of difference.
Is it tough getting consistent feedback from surfers about boards?
M: Well, sometimes these guys only try a board for 30 minutes. But often if you grab a board and ride it for two or three sessions and feel it out and mush the deck, it can become a magic board.
D: If I give Mick one board and it’s the only board he’s got, he’ll ride it, put some dents in it, and bang! It come to life.
M: It’s like putting on a pair of hard leather shoes. They hurt at first. But Taj rode the same board the whole Lowers contest and look how that turned out.
D: Half the boards I throw at these guys, they don’t even ride them. I recently went in Mick’s garage and there were 87 boards in there, all 5’11”. He’s like, “That one is gonna be good for there, that one is gonna be good for there…” and then his head started spinning and he just goes, “Here, just take half of these back.”
M: It’s almost easier to throw a wild board at a guy, because they ride it and think it’s different, fresh and new. If a guy is riding my boards all the time and Darren makes him something with a little more foil and bend and it’s more free in the lip, they go, “Whoa, this is incredible.” It happened with [Chris] Ward, when he went to Snapper for the first time; he jumped on a Chili and got second to Mick. He was raving about how it was incredible; it was so different! And then he ordered six more and we were down at T-Street and he couldn’t make any of them work. It’s just easier to throw that one magic carpet out there because the surfers don’t judge it as critically.
D: How about when Kolohe punched his board a couple years ago in Fiji? How did that make you feel?
M: Oh, that was such an ego bruise. It was like he punched me.
D: I hate when they do that. Just scream a bit more.
M: Exactly, but then in Major League Baseball they do it all the time. They strike out and they break the f–king bat.
D: Until you break it over their f–king head. [Laughs] That’ll teach ‘em.
What are your thoughts on Slater’s influence on surfboard design?
D: In all sports there is one guy, and in surfing Slater is it. People are going to follow him. Al Merrick was lucky enough to shape for him the way we are lucky to have Kolohe and Mick to build a brand on. People love to see what Kelly is going to come up with, and right now he’s trying to recreate the wheel and come up with any advantage to help him beat the younger guys. When people see him at his age, No. 1 in the world…
M: No. 2 right now. [To Fanning]
D: I love it! And people are going to take notice. They look at what he’s riding, what wetsuits he’s wearing, and they go for those as well. I just wish he’d hurry up and get off tour — I could have won way more world titles [laughs].
M: Kelly is in a unique position. He’s won so many titles, and he’s been so successful, the last few years of his career he’s really had nothing to lose. If you look at Joel [Parkinson], or Taj or Julian — they’re way less willing to take a risk, because everything is on them. People ask Julian, “Why haven’t you won more than one World Tour event?” But Kelly is in such a crazy position it’s like he’s almost bored, so he can turn these contests into a laboratory.
What he’s done with the quad fin is incredible. He showed everyone what could be done on a quad by putting his contest results on the line. And now Mick and Joel are benefiting from it because they think, “F–k, if it works for him, it’ll work for us too.” Now they’re winning events at grinding reef pass tubes on four fins. And before, they were really only known for ripping hollow right points. To this day Kelly is completely driving surfboard design. It’s incredible.
D: He has that luxury. He has all the money in the world, he has all the time in the world, he doesn’t sleep, and he just lies awake and thinks, “What am I going to f–k with today?”
M: Three years ago Kelly almost looked done. He was doing those pop wheelie airs, his turns were short and hacky… but he was trying to get those boards right. Now, he’s got it figured out. When he beat Ward in the final at Pipe, he vindicated his decision to experiment with alternate equipment. Chris was on a typical 6’6” thruster pintail and Kelly was riding a 5’10” that looked like the boards Chris had been riding on surf trips for years. Afterward I said to Chris, “F–k, he took your board and beat you on it.”
D: There are five guys on that judging panel. And they watch heat after heat, day after day, contest after contest. You have to fool those judges into giving you the score. Kelly is trying to figure out new ways to impress the judges, and then John John is new on the scene, surfing free, and the judges are loving that shit. And you know what? He’s not really doing that much.
M: I agree. He has the tubes and the big airs, but the turns are rather subpar at this point. Ever since Chris Ward was 15 and surfing better than every 15-year-old ever, I always knew if he went out and was carving and doing turns, then he liked the board, and if he pumped down the line and just tried an air, then he didn’t like the board. I’ve never designed a board for airs in my life, only for carves. If a board works on a rail, everything else comes natural.
D: It’s easy for me; Mick doesn’t do that many airs [laughs]. It’s all about hacks and turns. But I do shape differently for certain people. I’ve got Asher Pacey riding my boards; he’s free and enjoying life, and he said he’d never ride another thruster in his life. So I have someone I can relax and shape for, who’s open-minded and mellow, whereas Mick is like, “Get it right or I’ll f–king get a Mayhem!”
What is the future for surfboards?
D: Fins and flex. Fins are so important. You can put bad fins in a magic board and it will go shithouse.
M: That’s the thing: I wish we had more downtime. The tour ends at Pipeline, then it’s the holiday season, then it’s January 20 and Dino Andino is standing over me, going, “Dude, we need to make boards for Snapper. We’re going to Snapper in a month!” We don’t have an off-season. We can’t take our surfers to El Salvador and surf right-hand pointbreaks with 30 boards for a month. Every other sport allows for a period of R&D and with the World Tour structure we just don’t have that. So it’s tough to progress.
D: Guys like Matt and I don’t have time for it anymore. But that’s the beauty of our sport: There are all these smaller shapers out there that will help drive the future of surfboard technology.
M: I will say, I think it would be really good to have composite stringers, made of Kevlar, carbon or fiberglass. Take the x-factor out of the wood — the warp, the bent stringers, the knots — if we can get the flex right and start controlling the stringer, that would be a big step. But yeah, it’s the smaller, outside-the-box guys who will come up with the big changes. Being established brands, we have the relationships and the know-how to work at the top level. Usually these guys will come to us with the new ideas, and we offer a platform to launch them.