Building surfboards isn’t for everyone. It’s a tedious, messy process that almost certainly won’t yield a highly-proficient surfboard, let alone a new magic stick.
It will, however, give you something more: an experience much like eating a homegrown fruit, where an odd taste here or a strange color there hardly detracts from the overall satisfaction of your personal achievement. In reality, all the quirks and dysfunctions of your early self-shaped boards are what make them unique and endearing.
Tools & Materials
There are quite a few tools you’re going to need in order to shape your own surfboard. For this reason, plus the fact that you’ll need ample space, we recommended that you use a friend’s work space and equipment for your debut board creation, if possible. That way you can avoid spending a bunch of money on something that may not become a lifelong passion. And it never hurts to have somebody available to answer the many questions that will inevitably arise.
Here are the tools you’ll need:
- Shaping rack
- Electric planer
- Sanding block
- Electric sander
- Sanding screen
- Tape measure
- Rubber squeegee
- Paint brush
- Filtering mask
- Good lighting
As far as materials go, you’ll need the following:
- Foam blank
- Template form
- Airbrush materials (optional)
- Fiberglass sheet
- Resin and catalyst
- Wax-based sanding agent
Before you begin the shaping process, you need to decide what type of surfboard you want to create. Consider all the details of the board, including size, thickness, fin placement, and rocker. Generally, it’s advised that beginner shapers stick to simpler designs to make things as easy as possible — think fishes and hybrids. Since you’re probably not going to be messing with complex bottom contours and concaves, flatter boards will give you more room for error and allow you to produce a functional surfboard.
Once you have envisioned and sketched your design, it’s time to make a template, or borrow one from a more experienced shaper. Address your foam blank and create a template that will work in harmony with the blank. Trace a favorite board onto a strip of Masonite or heavy-duty poster board, perhaps adding your own characteristics to create a new shape design. Keep in mind that you only need to trace half the board, from nose to tail, since you’ll just need to flip it around on the blank to create an entire outline.
Place your blank on the shaping rack, bottom side up, and use a handsaw to cut off the tip of the board, leaving a few extra inches from your desired length. Next, use a tape measure to mark the overall length at the nose and tail, as well as dimension spots like the center of the board, 12 inches up from the tail, and 12 inches down the from the nose.
Setting the template on the blank, line up the dimension points so that they correspond to the template. Take some time to make sure the template lines up with your dimension points, and then create an outline of your surfboard. Don’t rush — make sure you end up with a nice, even trace that resembles the visualization you have created.
Now comes the fun part. Using a handsaw, cut your desired shape. Remember to cut straight up and down to keep your rail sides intact. Leave about one-fourth of an inch of room along the pencil line if need be — you can always come back and true the outline later.
True the outline to match the penciled shape using a sanding block with 36-grit or 40-grit sandpaper. Keep the rails as square as possible, placing the board sideways in the rack if need be.
Measure the thickness of the blank with calipers, and decide how much foam you need to remove to get near your desired thickness. Keep in mind that planers cut off about one-eighth of an inch per pass when the front shoe is set to its deepest cut.
After strapping on all the necessary safety gear (respirator mask, goggles, and ear protection), you’re ready to start your shave. Place a soft weight on the blank to hold it steady and, beginning from either the nose or the tail, start pushing the planer along the outside edge until it slides evenly off the end of the blank. Always hold the planer completely flat on the blank, and work at an even pace so that long, tapered bands of foam are removed. Focus more on the bottom of the board than on the deck; a blank’s strongest foam is always under the deck, so try not to take out more than one layer from that area.
As you near your desired thickness, it’s time to adjust your board’s rocker. Address the nose and tail rocker using the planer, and a T-square for measurement. Set the planer to a shallow setting so that you can carefully shave off your desired amount. You may want to leave a touch of foam so that you can go back with a sanding block during the pre-glassing stage.
Hot Tip: Bottom Contours
Once you're happy with your board's rocker and thickness, it's time to add bottom contours. To create a vee, use a low-cut setting and shave into the board. Study a favorite board to get a sense of the amount of vee you want to add, and then try to replicate it. To fine-tune your board's bottom, put down the planer and pick up the sanding block. Adjust all the intricacies- vee panels, rocker, foil- and remember to keep it simple.
Now you have to decide where to place your surfboard’s fins. Take a look at other boards built by reputable shapers for an idea of where to place the fins. Since fin placement greatly influences the way a board rides, it’s crucial that you pick appropriately. Mark the fin’s location with pencil dots.
Go over the board again with the sanding block, cleaning up any strange lumps or bumps. You want your board to possess a nice, fluid outline. Make sure your stringer is true, and blend the tail and bottom contours into the rest of the board.
The final, and probably most difficult, step of the shaping process is blending the rails, or outside edges, into the rest of the board. Again, you want to be sure your board flows together smoothly and symmetrically.
Before you actually approach the rails, clean up the nose and tail with the sanding block. Next, use the planer to cut intersecting bands from nose to tail. Mark the apex of the rail with a pencil line to give your eye a sense of symmetry. Next, pull out the hand block plane and refine the contours. When you’re satisfied with how your rails look, you’re ready for final refinements.
What was once a block of foam should now resemble a surfboard. Your final stage before glassing is all about refinement. Using the sanding block, retouch each deck panel and blend them into your newly created rails. Next, use the sanding block to fine-tune the rails.
Take a step back and view your creation. Sand any necessary spots with 60-grit or 80-grit sandpaper to give the board its final outline, and smooth out the deck. Blend the rails together with the fine grit sandpaper, flipping the board on its side on the rack. Measure the board’s dimensions and adjust accordingly.
Shaping a surfboard, at its most basic level, is not a terribly complicated process. Of course, to get really good at it — or even halfway competent — is an incredible challenge. Master shapers are the product of years of apprenticeship and even more years of shaping with their own bare hands.
Now that you’ve got a piece of form that basically resembles a surfboard, it’s time for glassing. You’ve got two options: do it yourself or have it done by a glassing company. Whichever you choose, rest assured, your creation will be entirely yours.