Niche Craftsmen

How specialized hand shapers stay relevant in the era of digital design

| posted on May 15, 2013

The hands of wood worker and board builder Martijn Stiphout, busy at the bandsaw rather than the keyboard.

New technologies are eroding old barriers at alarming rate. Over the past two decades the proliferation of CAD machines, sophisticated software, and newfangled composites has transformed a big chunk of the board-building process from a hands-on artisan craft, to a clean and easy digital experience.

At the onset of this new era there was a strong reactionary resistance, as many pondered whether the surfboard craftsman would cease to exist.

“The surfboard won’t be any more unique than a Frisbee,” one well-known shaper declared in a 2002 Surfer article.

“Today’s shapers will be tomorrow’s furniture makers,” said another.

While a huge segment of the market has indeed become even more commodified, a remarkable backlash has also occurred. Today, more than 15 years after the first digitally downloaded design was spawned, there are more artisan surfboard craftsmen than ever before. In fact, there are even tradeshows dedicated to the craft.

What gives? Well, credit the growing economics of our cultural heritage. While big surfboard labels continue play the commodification game with the vast majority of everyday equipment, smaller board builders who can’t (or won’t) compete on price have revisited, refined, and renewed the more discerning consumer’s appreciation for the custom hand-made craft. But it’s important to note that they’ve achieved this only by elevating the craft to new highs, raising all aspects of production quality, while exploiting overlooked methods of wave riding, all of which keep the design renaissance rolling.

While the big labels still depend on a wide array of specialists at every level of production, today’s most renowned custom board builders have become masters of it all: concept, design, shaping, coloring, laminating, hot-coating, fin design, even sanding and polishing. And these craftsmen refuse to be bound by convention, which is why a wider variety of alternative designs (i.e. finless, asymmetric, cutoffs) than ever before are available today.

Collectively, we’re still talking about a very cottage industry, one void of marketing gurus and social-networking savants. While a few names have gone global, most are hardly known outside their hometowns. But the good thing—the important thing—is that they’re there, not just keeping the craft alive, but helping it thrive.

Martijn Stiphout is one such craftsman. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now living in Santa Cruz, Stiphout designs and builds gorgeous boards out of any type of wood he can find. Why? His reasons are simple, but they will still surprise and inspire you.

Why wood?
There are a few reasons, but the biggest is that it’s what I know best. One of my earliest memories was getting a whittling knife when I was about four years old back in Johannesburg. Our family didn’t have much. We had to be resourceful. Anything we did have my dad built: our house, our furniture, our toys. So my brother and I grew up tinkering. Making things is what we did, and wood was our primary medium.

Were you surfing much while living in landlocked Johannesburg?
No, I didn’t even learn to surf until I was 12 years old, when I moved to the Netherlands. By the time I finally moved to Santa Cruz I was 18, so I was an outlier compared to people who’d grown up around it. But because of that, I wasn’t exactly bound by surfing tradition. I rode through my share of foam boards early on. I repaired them, but never shaped with foam. By the time I started investigating what it would take to make my own board I was surfing and sailing everyday, teaching conservation education out on the bay. Being out on the water everyday, getting a close up look at the damage we were doing just gave me one more reason to stick with wood. It’s harmless. But you can also be a lot more resourceful with it, scavenging things together from anywhere, and making beautiful pieces of art with what you find.

So this isn’t about trying to prove something, or being different?
Nah, it’s just doing what I was comfortable with. I knew I could make something that suited my needs with the skills I had. So I just winged it, but it’s come pretty far since.

Were you aware of the influence your dad had on you?
Well, back in 2010, my dad and I decided to kayak the entire Sea of Cortez. But we decided to build our own kayaks, and make our own food, and create our own survival gear. It was pretty ambitious. We built the boats in Baja out of local wood. The whole thing was a three-month ordeal. One of the toughest trips I’ve ever done, and honestly I’m not sure I’d repeat it. It was quite a humbling experience, but that whole thing gave me a lot more respect for my father. He’s the reason why I prefer building things myself. If there’s any way I can build something before buying it, I’ll do it. Not just to save on cost, but to just do it. It’s rewarding. And yeah, there’s a bit of pride involved.

You say scavenging is part of the fun. Explain.
Yeah, really fun, and cheap! You wouldn’t believe what you can get for free, especially when people are doing house teardowns or remodeling. I get a lot redwood and cedar that are perfect for deck patterns. Sometimes it’s old pine shipping crates. The rails can come from agave cactus, or old cork floor tiles, or if you drink enough wine even old wine corks even. Even trash on the side of the highway can be turned into a beautiful tail block.

What’s the toughest part of the building process?
Aside from the two to four weeks it takes to make one board, the most challenging aspect is gluing up the deck. That’s where you’re showcasing the material, and if it’s a really fancy wood, you want to maximize its beauty. And we’re talking about really thin skins to keep these things light, so the joinery has to be spot on for it to look good. The margin for error during that process is close to zero.

How much fun are they to ride?
That’s the thing that really surprises people. They’re a blast to ride. The speed is crazy, even just the speed you get paddling. And there’s something to be said for riding something beautiful. Surfing is already this beautiful thing, being out there in nature, but riding a beautiful board heightens the experience.

Are the majority of your customers ordering boards to be ridden or displayed?
All of mine are built to ride, and meant to ride, and they’re also built to last. Of course, if somebody wants to hang it on the wall and enjoy it as art that makes me happy too. I will say this; people certainly take greater care of these than they would a disposable board. I’m under the impression that they’ll be passed on through generations, and even when they’re not being surfed anymore, they’ll still be hanging on the wall, bringing entertainment and joy to somebody.

One of Martijn Stiphout's handcrafted creations.

Tyler Fox testing out one of Martijn Stiphout's shapes in Northern California.

Martijn Stiphout.

  • Jimmy the Saint

    I love it, its great to see guys in the surf world that are bucking the trend one way or another. I would love to own such a board, and I’d be intereted more in the trip he did with his father in the sea of cortez, that sounds like an interesting feature right there.

  • http://venturainteriordesign.com Ventura Interior Design

    I know quite a few guys that still make boards by hand out of wood.