During our stay in Tamarindo, we had the opportunity to attend a board shaping demo with Robert August. You may have heard of him from the movie Endless Summer, which he and his friends filmed while surfing across the world. Robert August spends most of his days now in Tamarindo, in addition to traveling here and there. If you ever get the chance to meet him, he’s very friendly and a vivid storyteller.
Robert grew up in California, and was lucky enough to have a dad who would make surfboards for him. So he was raised watching boards morph from heavy boat-like pieces of hardwood to the lightweight, finned and glassed foam that surfers fly on today. His board-shaping shop has a pretty efficient setup. There’s a set of shelves that he keeps his tools on, a bar with some barstools, and an old cd player jamming the Fugees. Under the shelves and the bar a set of overhead lights wrap right around the middle of the room. This lights up the top and bottom of the board, so you can easily see the shape and imperfections that need to be trimmed. On the very top shelf he keeps some classic board shapes and templates.
The board shaping demo was one of the most information-packed seminars at Witch’s Rock. Apparently Robert August has shaped 40,000 surfboards in his day. One of the travelers, Michelle, won a raffle for a Robert August board, and since she’s a friend and frequent visitor to the camp they decided to make her a one. Lucky girl! So, this is how he made surfboard number 40,001:
How to Shape a Surfboard
Most surfboards are cut down from stock foam shipped out of California – a polyurethane layer molded over a thin piece of balsa wood. The foam is supposedly non-toxic. Board shaping makes quite a snowy mess of the foam, so I’d hope it’s ok to breathe that in! Or wear a mask. When you start shaping a custom board, first measure and mark the main dimensions. Cleanly cut off the excess length and width.
Next, measure and cut down the thickness of the board. Robert used a carpenter’s tool from the seventies or eighties to evenly shave down the top and bottom of the board. The surfboard foam is a little softer in the middle. If it’s shaved too far to the center on one side, that increases the chance of getting dents in the board.
After that, shape the nose and the tail. Robert has a bunch of templates cut for popular board shapes. He lines the wood template up against the balsa centerline of the board and draws the arc of the nose, making sure to symmetrically mark the left and right sides. Then he saws out the shape just outside of the pencil line, and uses his carpenter’s tool to shave and shape the excess down to the line.
Then he sets the rocker on the nose and shapes the tail angle with the same carpenter’s tool. Measure it with calipers to make sure it’s the right shape.
Then shape the rails.
Once the board is the right shape, it’s time to sand it. Robert uses a couple of different sandpaper grits, slowly working the board down until it’s very smooth. You can check the smoothness of the board by looking down the nose or the tail. That’s pretty much it! After the board is shaped you can glass it yourself or send it to a glasser. Fiberglass is pretty nasty stuff, so I don’t think I would want to spend much time around those fumes.
Sounds easy, right? A lot more goes into shaping a board than just trimming it down. What should the shape of the board be? Long or short? What should the tail be like? What is going on with the nose and the rocker? What kind of fins and glass should you get? And most importantly, what color should it be (just kidding, but I’m an artist so this is maybe my favorite part)?
How to answer these questions? The shape of the board should match the type of surfer you are and the type of waves you will ride it on. That’s another article, and I probably haven’t ridden enough waves to write it. Maybe there will be another seminar 🙂 This guy does a pretty good job of explaining a few different types of longboards:
Anyway, Robert August shared a lot more about board shaping with us, and it was cool to see it in action. You should check it out for yourself! He teaches board shaping seminars pretty often at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, and you could even get him to make you a custom board. If you can’t make it to Costa Rica, you can always buy a surfboard on his website.