Inside Shaper Studios

Rentable shaping bays are enabling long-time surfers to become first-time shapers

Surf culture has always prided itself on its DIY ethos. Fixing a board yourself is better than sending it to the ding repair shop. Checking the waves in person is better than looking at the cams. Exploring the coastline is better than sticking to well-trodden surf spots. This self-reliance is heavily engrained in our culture, and the ability to make your own boards from start to finish is the logical zenith of that ethos. But there have historically been many barriers to entry for would-be shapers, such as renting a workspace, buying tools, and, most importantly, finding a decent shaper willing to hold their hand through the first few shitty boards.

In the last few years, however, these barriers have been dissolving as the concept of all-inclusive shaping bays began emerging in coastal cities throughout California. Shaper Studios in San Diego is one such workspace. Started less than two years ago by Bay Area transplant Chris Clark, the idea was that Shaper Studios would provide the shaping bays, the templates, and the tools in exchange for a membership fee—like a gym for foam and fiberglass buffs.

Shaper Studios represents an opportunity for young surfers to do something tangible: to deepen their connection to surfing by building a board with their own two hands.

Clark expected most patrons to be experienced backyard shapers looking for a convenient place to practice their hobby and hang out with like-minded individuals, but the bulk of his business came from an unexpected source: average surfers with little or no shaping experience whatsoever. Clark was surprised that this group made up the majority of his clientele, but maybe he shouldn’t have been. Most young middle-class surfers today aren’t nearly as familiar with the teeth of a handsaw as they are with the apps of a smartphone. They’ve been raised on the young American diet of high tech products and social media, where the things that they create exist only in the cloud. Shaper Studios represents an opportunity for them to do something tangible: to deepen their connection to surfing by building a board with their own two hands.

I’m part of the same club. I walked into Shaper Studios a few weeks ago ready to put some callouses on my keyboard-softened hands. For roughly $100 per foot, you can use one of the shaping bays to shape whatever you can dream up. The tools, materials, and instruction are all provided. Being my first board, I wanted to keep the design simple: a relatively straight plan line, low rocker, high width and thickness, and no concave. I figured if I made the board short enough, it should be easy to turn regardless of concave, so I cut it down to 5’4’’. For the tail, I simply chopped the tail to avoid any complications that may arise from attempting a swallow or diamond. “Keep it simple,” I told myself. “You’ll probably fuck this up.”

I grabbed a full-nosed template, got the outline on the blank, and got down to business. My cuts strayed from the lines, my passes with the planer wavered, and my sanding was uneven—it looked like drunken carpentry. Anyone who has seen a master shaper at work knows that everything is smooth, uninterrupted motion like a dusty waltz. I was perpetually stumbling. But Shaper Studios expects this from first timers, which is why they paired me up with Kory Nutter, an in-house shaper and production manager for the facility. He pointed out asymmetries, showed me his planing technique, and kept me from sanding off the down rail in the tail, which I nearly did several times. By the time I was done, sweat had caused the white dust to cling to my every pore. I was a walking powdered sugar donut. But the board was done, it looked beautiful, and I was proud to say that I had made something with my own two hands that would one day be under my feet, high lining through speedy sections and carving the open face.

Two weeks later, I met Kory at the top of the road at Black’s, where he handed me my glassed board: 5 feet and 4 inches of wave destroying potential. As soon as I had it in my hands, I realized just how ugly my creation actually was. I didn’t compensate for the cloth and resin, so the board was substantially bulkier than I had intended, and the rails weren’t uniform, changing shape every few inches from nose to tail. It was a hideous creation, something that most parents would have smothered on sight. But I was determined to love it in spite of its horrible appearance.

I wish I could tell you that I stood up on the first wave and my concerns melted away—that I dropped into a set and linked polished maneuvers through to the inside, coming full circle in my journey from surfer to craftsman to surfer again. But I can’t. I got hung up at the lip, lost my balance on the bottom turn, and bogged on the cutback.

After a few more waves, I started to feel out the board’s limitations and adapted accordingly, and I had an awesome time riding it. In fact, I’ve ridden it everyday since. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s too short with too much nose rocker to be very good at catching waves, and the lack of concave makes it very resistant to turns. Not to mention the problems that I’m just not design savvy enough to pinpoint.

I still love the board, because as its creator I feel warmly obliged to do so, but the odds are I would want nothing to do with it had it been made by someone else. After the session, I was left with one question: If you are paying a similar price to a custom board, and odds are it will ride somewhat worse than a custom board, is it really worth it?

I still love the board, because as its creator I feel warmly obliged to do so, but the odds are I would want nothing to do with it had it been made by someone else.

There’s a reason we turn to master craftsmen to build our surfboards. Taking an unshaped blank and turning it into something that can effectively ride waves is an art form that you can dedicate your life to and still never come close to perfecting. Did I really believe that I could shape myself a magic board on the first try? Was it hubris of Homeric proportions? If I kept shaping my own boards, would my surfing suffer because of it?

The truth is that it if you decide to shape your first board at a place like Shaper Studios, it really doesn’t matter how it turns out. Standing on the other side of the planer has numerous benefits, and there is no scenario in which a surfer shapes his or her own board that doesn’t lead to the betterment of that surfer. The worst-case scenario is that you make a shitty board, learn something about the nuances of concave, rocker, and plan line, and go back to your usual shaper with a much deeper appreciation for what they do. The best-case scenario is that you make a functional board that you enjoy riding, sparking a fire that will lead to you making even better boards in the future. Who knows, you might even become your own favorite shaper—but don’t get your hopes up.

  • joão salvador

    it really doesn’t matter how the board turns out, for sure it does always lead to the betterment of that surfer – fully agree. But it is great when the board is just perfect for you as you learn about yourself and about shaping). There is one great place to shape your own boards with the support of a very experienced surfer and shaper – Billy. The place is called Madeira Surfing Life and has two shape rooms (one in the island and another in the continent part of Portugal) where local and international have been going for shaping their own boards and hangout for a couple of weeks to surf. it is quite a pioneer project in the region, but the amazing thing is how much people learn about themselves and from working on a board up to perfection – performance gets a boost..!!

  • Rob

    Rad. So cool to see everyday surfers shaping their own boards. Definitely need to check this place out. How epic is it that the writer/shaper of this article has “ridden it everyday since” Just goes to show that if you’re a surfer, you can appreciate a board you built. Sure it sounds like it wasn’t perfect but neither is the blown out beach break I surf everyday. Big ups to this writer for keeping the roots of true surfing alive. #planersnotcomputers

  • McElgun

    I’m so stoked I found this. I wish I could shape and design my own boards for a living. Some day, perhaps…

  • ed

    what? no pics of the finished board? lame. Come on dude, be proud, show it off, share the stoke!!

  • Payam Larijani

    Awesome idea! I love the fact that you decided to build and create something with your own hands! You should put a big phat “Made in the USA” sticker on it! I’m so sick of society shipping our jobs overseas and turning us into consumers instead of creators! Thank you for the leading the way for a change back to supporting locally made goods. Be it local brews, surfboards, clothing, food. Let’s support each other stop send our jobs and money overseas in order to save a few pennies! Bravo to your new board and I would have loved to see a pic of the finished product.. ( I would never hate on it! or make fun.. it’s your first try)
    I thought I could change the headstock tuners on my guitar.. but later realized that craftsmen are talented people and you can’t just jump into anything and think it’s gonna be easy… live and learn.. but go for it.. fail and fast forward…

  • Mia Bolton

    The guys at Shaper Studios made my board shaping experience more incredible than I could post in a comment – but I’ll try.

    I knew very little about surfboards or the art of making them until one of my friends convinced me to shape a board. I was thinking of buying a new longboard anyway, but I decided for the same price, why not just make my own custom one, exactly the way I want it?

    But I got so much more than just a surfing board.

    I got invaluable board shaping knowledge, first-hand shaping experience, one-on-one direction and guidance, a one-of-a-kind board, and some amazing friends.

    I love surfing on my board not only because it shreds, but because every time I look down at I get an immense feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. My beautiful board came from a block of foam and my own two hands. And I have Shaper Studios to thank completely for this gift they have given me. It has multiplied my love for surfing I will truly have this board for the rest of my life.

    P.S. – I’m already planning my next one. 😉

    • Shaper Studios

      Thanks Mia! Did you mention that you shred on that board, haha. See you soon.

  • Chris

    Just thought I’d share that Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo also offers a surfboarding shaping course:

    • Shaper Studios

      Cal Poly has an incredible program for their student body and we have been working with them to share ideas on how to improve both of our programs. We highly recommend that all you Mustangs take advantage of this incredible resource on campus!

  • Haille

    I am shaping a board right now haha. I’m only 14, but my tech teacher wanted to help so I started it in school. t is a 7’6 board and I am working on it in my garage!

  • Greg Bridges

    Or you could build yourself a wooden hollow core board with simple handtools in your garage.

  • dang3rtown

    $100 per foot, what does that mean? Per foot of board?

  • Mike Monte

    I used to have a little board repair shop at one time and would make my own kneeboards from a long lost template from an old Ron Haydu design, a nice tri-fin with a single wing up by the forward fins, swallow tail and a crisp single channel and some vee out the back. A shaper friend in O. C. turned me on to single/double concaves and that old template got a revival like no other.
    If you really have the desire to ride your own creation, DO IT! It is such a rewarding experience. Even if it doesn’t work as well as you hoped you still can sit back and say, yep, shaped it myself! Then take it out and ride it again and feel the joy of riding a one of a kind custom board, yours. A good place to get more info and check costs is FOAMEZ. They have everything!

  • Josh

    Cool article. I think its a great idea to make shaping and design accessible to everyone. I’m not sure what $100 per foot means, although it sounds a little pricey. I’ve been surfing for over 10 years and have always wanted to learn how to shape boards. Just recently I found and rented a little workshop for a great price and I’m currently getting my tools and materials together. It’s a great feeling to create something and gain a sense of accomplishment when it’s complete. You just have to get out there and do it!

    • Shaper Studios

      Hi Josh – We agree with you… the experience of making your own board is priceless, however, we have to charge a little something to offer this incredible experience. $100/ft. means that you get a blank, private shaping lesson, glassing, fin boxes, custom logo, for $100/ft. [In other words, a six-foot shortboard would be $600].

  • Jay Peterson

    Does anyone know if they have or are located near an Aku Shaper machine or will help with the support in using the software?

    • Chris

      Yes. Shaper Studios teaches AKU Shaper Software as well as Shape 3D. You can order all your cuts through Shaper Studios and the cut blank will be delivered right to the shaping bay so you can polish it out and leave it for glassing.

  • Gary Ahern

    I had the urge to build my own board a few months ago. It was ugly, and somewhat heavy but surfed fairly well. Needless to say I’m onto number three now and get excited as each board comes together… Well worth the experience!