The blooming of an agave stalk signals the end for the plant. It can take decades for the stalk to bud, a once-in-its-lifetime event. They grow, they flower, they die. It’s a natural grand finale. But then Thomas Scott comes in. Scott, a shaper from Rio de Janeiro, clears stalks from the Brazilian countryside and recycles them into custom surfboards. For him, it’s all an effort to redefine the life cycle of the surfboard; to use his boards to bring dead agave back to life. “There’s a contradiction in the relationship of a surfer and his environment,” says Scott. “We expect clean beaches, we want white sand, that whole idealized image. But what is done in practice in the surfboard industry is highly polluting and detrimental to the environment. A series of waste products that can’t be recycled.”
VIDEO: Agave Surfboards by Capim Films
Why shape with agave?
I loved the idea of shaping a board from something other than polyurethane or EPS. The first photos of Agave boards I saw were Jim Philip’s and Gary Linden’s. I was willing to give it a go. I was very interested in the fact that it was a natural material; the process of making one was a bit of a mystery to me.
Describe how this material is available where you live.
I live in Copacabana, a very urban, busy, and touristy part of Rio. But like many parts of our city, you’re always very close to a beach or a hill covered with forest. Here, the city and nature are very intertwined. To get to places abundant with agave, I have to drive about 100km outside the city into the rural part of the state. Out to the countryside. Farmers here consider agave a plague; it takes up space in the fields where cattle graze. They’re glad to have you remove it for them.
How do your boards ride different from standard foam-blank boards?
Agave is denser and a little heavier than polyurethane foam. It is wood-like and naturally structured with fibers, which makes it more rigid. The boards I make are 15 to 20 percent heavier than regular surfboards. Even though it’s only a bit more weight, you can always feel the board maintaining its speed because of its greater momentum. They’re also less flexible than normal boards, which make them respond with a bit more sharpness to your command.
How is the environmental impact reduced with one of your boards?
The basic difference is the blank. The agave blank is made from natural material, so the shavings and dust can be composted or be put back to biodegrade. The stalks are also harvested within a 100km radius of my workshop. Polyurethane foams are made using chemicals such as TDI. This particular ingredient is banned in most of Europe and was one of the key factors of Clark Foam shutting their doors. Glassing is still done with polyester resin and fiberglass, but I am looking into alternative resins and reinforcements.
How long does it take to make a board, start to finish?
From collecting the stalks to the finished board there are quite a few stages. Letting the stalk dry takes the longest (around 60 days). So when someone orders a board, I need about three months to deliver if I don’t have dried agave stalks already. One of the best parts of the process is actually going out to collect the stalks. It’s great being out in the country. It’s a big contrast to being inside the shaping bay in the city. Though it is very nice to be in the shaping bay, transforming the stalks into a board is good, really.
What’s the most rewarding part of shaping for you?
Shaping boards amplifies the experience of surfing. Understanding how your board works makes you more conscious of the importance of the surfboard as a tool that allows you to have a great time on the waves. Being able to experiment with new designs is a treat, and seeing other people stoked when surfing the boards you make is priceless. Being a surfer/shaper puts me as close to nature as I can get. My aim as a product designer is to make cleaner products–truly useful and durable products. I think a lot of that is a reflex of being grateful and trying to give something back. It gives you a sense of gratitude toward nature that too many people have lost.