Here in San Diego, the sight of wetsuit-clad surfers flowing over the sensuous waves while balancing on their boards with bent knees, like one with the ocean, is all too familiar. Meanwhile, the evolution and experimental history of surfboard artisanship responsible for the sport’s allure remains often overlooked.
The founder of the family-business Cardiff Surf Co, Jeff Grygera, has dedicated a lifetime to pursuing and perfecting his skills as a surfboard shaper. At age 12, Grygera, during a visit to Hansen Surfboards store in Encinitas, noticed the owner Don Hansen cleaning out a shed, stacked with old, used surfboards, to be converted into a shaping room. If he helped clean the room, Hansen told Grygera, he would be gifted a surfboard, except with a broken nose. Intrigued by the offer, he made short work of the task before bringing the surfboard home, and with his father, they patched it up.
From his 50 years of experience working apprenticeships and with top shapers worldwide, Grygera has witnessed a dynamism in the progression of surfboard designs and manufacturing. What has always remained constant is the high-level skillset required.
“The skill level is you must be a hundred percent. You cannot just come in and say to somebody, ‘are you hiring? I want to be a surfboard builder.’ They will not hire you. You must have years under your belt, to even apprentice for one of the big companies,” Grygera said.
With the technological advancements in the industry, many local shapers, including Grygera, who relied on a woodworking tool called a planer to handshape their boards, now also operate with CNC computer shaping machines to help accommodate the growing demand for surfboards.
“Everything was hand done before. You had to plane it, sand it and shape it. Today, the CNC machine does about 70% of the work. It keeps the boards consistent, the models accurate,” Grygera said
The materials of boards are continuously experimented with and put into repeated trials depending on wave currents and environmental regulations, among other factors. Since the 1900s, most surfboards made from wooden planks from Koa, Ula and redwood trees, have incorporated polyurethane and polystyrene foams, enabling a lighter, more durable design.
“I have noticed [shapers] all return to polyester foams the most. The polyester foam resin board is the go-to. That is the one everyone feels comfortable with,” said Billy Watson, an employee at Mitch’s Surf Shop in Solana Beach that sells raw materials for shapers.
Like the open experimentation of new maneuvers and actions surfers try out in waters, constant trial and error of even previous trends play an integral part in producing advancements in surfboard designs. Joe Blair, a shaper with over 40 years of experience in the industry, points out the preference for three-fin thruster boards, with twin fins also growing fashion with its ability to make shorter turns.
Countless shapers and surfers have dedicated their lives to this craftmanship, with Jeff Grygera knowingly acknowledging his career to spread the love of surfing as his life’s sole purpose. And to see the evolution of his boards now being used by others, he rejoices at the thought of his craft answering the ocean’s calling.