- Surfing Places, Surfboard Makers: Craft, Creativity and Cultural Heritage in Hawai‘i, California and Australia by Andrew Warren and Chris Gibson
Reduced to its most elemental form, surfing is an exciting interaction between surfer, board and wave, one that since the 1950s has steadily grown in popularity around the globe. The narrative of surfing’s long history, beginning in Hawai‘i, is now well known, as are key transition points (from recreation to competitive sport, from amateur to professional, from counter-culture to mainstream, and the appearance of the explosive drama that is big wave tow-in surfing). With the narrative and sub-narratives mostly agreed upon, surfing is now being analyzed in more sophisticated detail, which is where Gibson and Warren’s Surfing Places, Surfboard Makers appears in the genre. For them, in their lively, clearly written study, surfboards are not only “emblems of cultural, social and emotional meanings” (p. 1). They are also artifacts, “products infused with centuries of cultural practice, artisanal skill, and design precedents” (p. 1).
It seems obvious, but is not always understood, that the first surfboards, made more than 1500 years ago by highly-skilled Hawaiian craftsmen1, were built from different woods for different wave types and surfers. The journey [End Page 174] from the solid timber boards of the type that may be seen in the Bishop Museum, to the amazingly light three fin thrusters, and the experimental fin set-ups of today, is fascinating, moving from respected village board makers (at a time when most Hawaiian families owned a board) to the present day artisanal shapers and glassers of southwest California and east coast Australia. In an era of globalization, mass production, and obeisance to the cyber world, surfboard making may be in danger of losing contact with its Hawaiian cultural origins.
However, prior to this, as surfing’s popularity spread outward from Hawai‘i east and west across the Pacific, surfboard makers experimented with shapes and materials, always searching for ever greater exploitation of the waves. The surfboard was the key to this, as Australian surfers realized in 1956 when visiting Hawaiian and Californian lifeguards demonstrated to them the far greater manoeuvrability of their balsa made “malibus”, compared to the fifteen feet plywood “toothpicks” being ridden by their surfers. Soon boards became much shorter, foam replaced balsa, fins multiplied, all emerging from garages, workshops, and factories where handcrafting was the only way to produce boards.
Then, this world of prized craftsmanship whose lineage was in direct descent from Hawai‘i, was turned upside down. The revolution began with a Frenchman, Michel Barland who, in 1979, adapted a computer numerical control (CNC) machine to automatically shape and replicate existing surfboard designs (p. 195). This meant that a process which took hand shapers hours could now be completed in 15 minutes, gradually ushering in the age of mass production. Post-Barland, the Hawaiian cultural heritage, creativity, and personal labor that defined board making slowly gave way to a form of production that could quickly meet the ever growing demands of consumers. Hand-shaping came under even greater pressure two decades after Barland’s innovation when a further advance in technology, computer aided design (CAD), allowed automated shaping machines to go beyond reproducing existing designs to generating new designs.
Here is the central focus of the book, the challenge being faced by shapers and glassers who in many cases still design boards for individual customers. Mass production is their nemesis, but it is more than an economic challenge (cheaper boards produced quickly for a hungry market) that they face. As many confess, they despair at the loss of connection between surfer, shaper, and historic traditions. More than 100 interviews in 33 workshops in Hawai‘i and scattered around the Pacific’s rim exposed their ongoing concern. Yet it has to be said that small workshop-based, personalized board making is remarkably unprepared to fight back. Their...