In a world where corporate homogenization has become the norm, everyone has a story to tell: "How Wal-Mart Came to the Neighborhood and Put My Favorite Corner Store Out of Business, or There Used To Be A Great Little Bookstore Here, but then Barnes & Noble Moved In." … Now, the long arm of mass production has extended its reach into the close-knit community of surfboard manufacturing. The influx of inexpensive, pop-out boards from China has independent surfboard makers, who devote hours to hand-shaping, painting and glassing their boards, scrambling to compete.
"It’s a problem overall for everyone," says celebrated local surfer and board-maker Will Allison, who was recently inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. "I think it’s unethical. If you pay someone $1 an hour who doesn’t surf or have anything to do with surfing, and then bring that board over here and expect me to compete, it’s not an equal playing field. … Big business shouldn’t have a place in our little cottage industry. It kind of kills the soul."
His solution? To keep doing what he does best. "I’m trying to make a better product, a quality product that will last," Allison says. "For someone to have their own surfboard, in their favorite color and shape, made especially for them … this gives me incentive to be better and make a personalized product. Hopefully, that will keep me in business."
With 31 years of board-making experience under his belt, Allison is free to experiment with a range of styles and materials. He sells stock boards locally through Aussie Island Surf Shop and designs customs on request. "I like to make all kinds of boards — it’s more stimulating," he says. "With every board I make, I incorporate what I’ve learned before."
Allison incorporates unusual materials into his boards, including Hawaiian print fabric. "I go to Hawaii every winter and while I’m there, I scour the fabric selection," he says. "Recently, I found abalone — there are different species and kinds, and it comes in a 5.5 x 9.5-inch sheet. It’s fragile, so I have to be careful how I use it. Recently, we made an abalone rising sun. … We cut it out and airbrushed the rays. I’ve used it to do pin-lines and inlays. There are all different kinds — if I’m doing a red board, I’ll use red abalone; for a green board, Mexican green abalone." He also uses curly maple, a wood he describes as, "White, hard, gorgeous and reflects light in different ways."
Currently, Allison is working on a board made of solid redwood. "It’s an art object, but it’s really heavy," he says, laughing. "It’s killing me just to turn it over."
Veteran surfboard-maker Greg Eavey shares Allison’s passion for original, creative craftsmanship. His cozy, cluttered workshop looks more like an artist’s studio than a surfboard factory and with good reason: Eavey is well-known for creating boards that are equally at home on the wall or in the waves.
Boards decorate his workshop. On the rack lies an orange longboard with green trim, done in deep, true earth tones. He brings one of his finished works out from storage — it showcases a gorgeous abstract design with swirling colors. A blank lies against the wall, ready for transformation.
"They’re functional sculpture," he says. "I focus on traditional longboard shapes and construction, the way it’s been done for the past 50 years." His passion for retro boards began during childhood: "As a kid, I remember seeing the old ’60s- and ’70s-style boards. You’d walk into a surf shop, and they just glowed. Holy mackerel."
Now 53, Eavey began working in the surfboard industry when he was just 25, at Glass Tech, Inc in Leland. "I started this as a project five years ago," he says, gesturing at the unfinished boards, sawdust and pots of pigment that fill his workshop. "About two and a half years ago, I officially struck out on my own." Today, his boards are available locally at Wrightsville Beach’s Sweetwater Surf Shop, bearing the Eavey Rider logo.
Eavey shapes his boards using both power and hand planers. For each board, the shaping process takes about two to three hours to complete. Rather than airbrushing his boards, he uses pigmented resin to produce unique variants of color. "I really try to do nontraditional colors," he says. "I mix colors to achieve what I’m looking for."
After he’s achieved the perfect hue, Eavey covers the board with fiberglass cloth and catalyzes the resin with hardener. The cloth is wet out and dressed, and the tails flipped under, as the resin gels. "I cover the bottom with masking paper and then tape the laps," Eavey says, referring to the pieces of cloth that overhang the board. "That’s the old school way of doing it." When one side of the board is finished, Eavey flips it over and repeats the process, ensuring a clean-cut edge.
Every bit of Eavey’s work — from shaping the blanks to taping the laps — is done by hand. "It’s not glamorous," he says. "It’s hard work and you have to love what you do."
And he does … that much is apparent. Eavey, a percussionist, as well as a surfboard craftsman and artist, lights up when he talks about his work. "I’m absolutely as lucky as I can be to get to do these things," he says. "I wish I would’ve known that I wanted to do this when I was in my 20s, so I could have started sooner."
Fellow surfboard craftsman and friend Shawn O’Donnell has a great deal of respect for Eavey’s work. "Greg does everything the way it was done in the ’60s," he says. "For him, it’s not about the numbers … everyone in the industry knows his work … he takes the time to give you a piece of functional art … they’re classic, beautiful pieces."
O’Donnell should know. He has 15 years of experience shaping, glassing and designing boards, and once worked at Glass Tech alongside Eavey. Today, he owns Wrightsville Glassing with his mother and stepfather, and focuses his business on performance.
"We shape for a few pros and a lot of semipros," says O’Donnell. "Basically, we’re just trying to put the best product out there that we can. The last couple of years we’ve done about 500 boards, but this year we hope to do about 1,500. The whole industry is a numbers game. You’re not making money unless you’re doing quantity."
His secret? The APS3000, a shaping machine that cuts his time in half. "There’s no difference in the board, whether it’s done by hand or machine," he says. "The shaping machine actually helps my hand shaping. I get to see how everything looks when it’s perfect."
With the APS3000, O’Donnell can design boards on the computer and then utilize the machine’s laser to ensure that his design is followed precisely. "Anyone can go on the Web site, aps3000.com, and get the software for free," he says. "You can design your board and bring the design to Wrightsville Glassing." The company does custom orders and markets stock boards through Surf City Surf Shop, under the label SOD Surfboards.
Each board takes about 15 hours to complete. "We order the materials, shape the board by hand or on the machine, airbrush it, glass it, put the fins on, sand it and deliver it to the surf shop," O’Donnell says.
For O’Donnell, a longtime surfer, the experience is catalyzing. "I can’t describe the feeling of how it is to surf," he says. "It’s an even greater feeling to surf on a board you’ve made."
Surfer and craftsman Jimmy Keith, who sells his boards through Green Room Boardsports, has an environmentally friendly approach to surfboard manufacturing. He exclusively makes boards using EPS foam blanks and locally manufactured epoxy resin, which has lower VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions. Many surfboard manufacturers use polyester resin, which gives off a powerful smell when applied. "A lot of people like epoxy boards because they find them lighter and more durable, more responsive," he says.
Keith, who worked with Eavey and O’Donnell at Glass Tech, is passionate about his craft. "I really enjoy it," he says. "I’ve been on my own for the past six years, but I’ve been building boards for 20 years. I absolutely love getting up, coming here and working on boards. It’s a lifestyle for me."
Glass Tech, Inc. was founded by Dave Endress in 1976. The company currently manufactures approximately 800-1,000 boards per year, and employs five people, including Endress himself. "It’s my way of participating in the surfing world," he says. "I have a love of the craftsmanship of making boards, creating designs that are successful for the waves we ride, tailoring a board to specific guys."
Customers can buy one of Endress’ boards off the rack at 17th Street Surf Shop, under the Pride label, or place an order for a custom board at 17th Street. For Endress, customs are where it’s at. "Everyone wants something a little different than the next guy," he says. "Buying stock isn’t conducive to the complete surfing experience."
Like most surfboard makers — including Endress — local craftsman Chris Adams first came to surfing as an avocation rather than a vocation. For him, the tide turned the hard way. "I’d ruptured a disc in my back and couldn’t surf," he says. "I had surgery and during my recuperation, I came across a foam blank. I started working on it on sawhorses set up under a tree." Soon, Sweetwater’s Tony Butler began calling him with ding repairs, and other shops started calling with custom orders. Today, Adams handcrafts surfboards — from blanks to finished products — in two workshops behind his house. "I focus on longboards and retro boards, but I also do funboards and shortboards," he says.
Marketed under the Odyssey label, his boards are carried locally at Sweetwater Surf Shop. Sweetwater’s Rob Byrd works alongside Adams, lending his organizational skills and design expertise. The enterprise is growing: "One day I’ll have to move out of the back yard," Adams says, gazing wistfully around the workshop that he built with his own hands. "Like, in the next five years."
Adams’ motivation to make surfboards comes as much from a love of the craft as the desire to create something that endures. "My dad made furniture, beautiful stuff," Adams says. "I wanted to do something like that one day. I think of him all the time. He’s my biggest inspiration."
Greg Eavey shares Adams’ commitment to longevity. "Kids are changing their minds every two seconds about what’s hot. I don’t care about all that," he says, surrounded by his beautiful, unique longboards. "I just want to do something that has integrity and that will be around 100 years from now."
Where to Find Them
Stock boards sold through Sweetwater Surf Shop
Custom orders taken directly at (910) 799-6817
Allison Surfboards | Will Allison
Label: Allison Surfboards
Stock boards sold through Aussie Island Surf Shop
Custom orders taken directly at (910) 686-0043
Label: Eavey Rider
Stock boards sold through Sweetwater Surf Shop
Custom orders taken directly at (910) 547-2881 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Glass Tech | Dave Endress
Stock boards sold and custom orders taken through 17th Street Surf Shop
Green Room Board Company
Label: Jimmy Keith Hand Shapes
Stock boards sold and custom orders taken through Green Room Boardsports
Wrightsville Glassing | Sean O’Donnell
Label: SOD Surfboards
Stock boards sold through Surf City Surf Shop
Custom orders taken directly at (910) 251-6664