By Russell Jackson. Originally published by The Guardian as part of their Pipe Dreams series.
Andrew Stump spends most of his days making surfboards from his workshop, a cavernous series of rooms beside his home in Rye, a sleepy coastal Victorian town on the Mornington Peninsula. It’s nestled next to his house, at the end of a small cul de sac, from which he says he can practically sniff the local offshore breaks. When visitors arrive chez Stump the front door is pinned back by a bucket, on which a chainsaw rests. A curtain of Hawaiian leis hangs in its place, gently flapping with the sea breeze.
“I have trouble explaining the craft of it to people,” Stump says of his four decades shaping boards. “They just see you go from there to there and hold the tool. You’re actually going in softer, harder, turning it. I see my hands doing things and the brain is just disconnected. How would you tell someone what is going on there?”
As he bounces around the workshop he appraises a board, one of the tens of thousands he estimates to have passed through his hands, that a local teenage surfer has just dragged in. The kid has borrowed it from a friend and is hoping to have something similar crafted by Stump. This customer is a second-generation local surfer, and the board he has brought isn’t quite right. Stump knows this before he’s even touched it.
Stump’s hands go to work. The faults he hasn’t identified by sight are added to a mental list once he starts stroking the outer rails and diagnostically swoops his palm over the board’s surface, from tail to tip, umming and ahhing as he guesses its weight and dimensions. His demeanour suggests he might also be assessing its chakras. The grim initial diagnosis is confirmed when Stump pulls out an array of rulers, jigs and handmade tools scattered about the room. He takes turns shaking and scratching his head.
The board, bearing the sticker of a well-known and respected brand, is not signed in the spot where a shaper would traditionally mark his name, so Stump is diplomatic. Anyone could have made it. Perhaps it was right for its first owner, which was not this kid.
|Andrew Stump. ‘At times he’s taken orders from professionals for “ghost boards” – blanks to which high profile surfers apply the logos of their sponsors.’ Photograph: Paul Jeffers for the Guardian|
The board is laid flat on a work surface, supported beneath each end by padded head and tail rests. It looks like an emergency room patient awaiting treatment on a gurney. A few minutes later, Stump concludes the obvious: he’ll make the kid something far better, something that matches his body type (tall and gangly) and his temperament (patient and considered).
Stump’s business links the old and new traditions of board-making. Like many of the independent operators who pre-dated surfing’s boom times – shaping handmade boards from backyard sheds and ramshackle factories, and teaching Stump’s generation the craft – he works alone, completing each stage of the design, shaping and glassing process himself.
Yet like the major players, Stump now also draws upon computer assisted design (CAD) skills and machines to eliminate the unskilled portion of labour which goes into every board. He makes what are often referred to as “performance” boards – technically advanced equipment for a discerning and often highly skilled breed of surfer. At times he’s taken orders from professionals for “ghost boards” – blanks to which these high profile surfers apply the logos of their sponsors.
From its beginnings in those backyard sheds, surfboard making is now a key pillar of the country’s billion-dollar surf industry, which employs thousands of Australians. A number of the trailblazing major brands are now publicly listed multinational corporations. Throughout that rise, hordes of independent craftsmen like Andrew Stump have thrived in hot spots such as Currumbin, Burleigh Heads, Byron Bay, Brookvale, Torquay, Mona Vale, and Margaret River.
Crest of a wave
Australian shapers have since the 1960s ranked among the world’s best and most innovative, producing designs which have altered the entire course of surfing and redefined the sport’s technical limits. In the late 1960s, Australian Bob McTavish was at the forefront of the shortboard revolution. Its impact was to send surfers vertical. For the first time they could ride through tubes and had access to the full face of the wave, enabling them to carve away at its pockets.
Four-time world champion and board-shaper Mark Richards later introduced the twin-fin design. This changed the perception of the speed and power that a surfer could build up on a wave, and allowed for rapid changes in direction. The longest-lasting innovation was that of Narrabeen pro and revolutionary shaper Simon Anderson, who took Richards’ concept and perfected it in 1981 by adding a third fin and configuring them in what came to be known as the “thruster” design. Most professional surfers on the 2017 tour favour a thruster shortboard, and every men’s and women’s world champion since 1982 has won using Anderson’s remarkably enduring invention.
|Mark Richards, board designer and four-times Association of Surfing Professionals world champion from 1979 to 1982, competing in a masters’ competition in Hawaii in 2000. Photograph: Pierre Tostee/Allsport Australia|
Making a surfboard is relatively straightforward in theory, though there are endless permutations of design, materials and technique to create the finished product. The basis of most boards is a stringer – a thin piece of timber that runs through the middle of the board. The stringer is glued between blocks of foam to form a blank, which is the starting point for most shapers. The shaper shaves away at the blank with a planer, or by hand-sanding, to craft a board meeting the length, width, weight, nose, tail, contour, foil, deck, rocker and rail specifications of the end user, before applying artwork, resin, and strengthening layers of fibreglass cloth. Uninterrupted, a good shaper can complete an entire board in three hours.
It is finicky business, and each new customer approaches shapers such as Stump with a new combination of the variables which will play a role in the board’s design. These include the surfer’s height, weight, temperament, ability, technique, surfing style and expectations. The type of waves they will be surfing on the board are also a key consideration in the design process. To simplify: heavier, longer boards suit small waves, and shorter, narrower and lighter boards suit the more punchy ones. Specialised big-wave “gun” boards, on the other hand, are very long.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making a surfboard, and the best shapers are as much psychologists, mathematicians and engineers as they are craftsmen and artists. Even if they produce the perfect board and match it to the right surfer, their painstaking creation might on its first day of use be irrevocably split in two by a monster wave or human error. Neither creator nor user can get too attached to any one board.
|Simon Anderson, creator of the ‘thruster’ surf board design, surfing at Manly Beach, Sydney, in 2013. Photograph: Steve Christo/Corbis via Getty Images|
The perfect shape
Stump pulls out a clipboard containing a stack of A4 sheets, a kind of patient history form for surfboards. He notes the kid’s height and weight, plus rail and fin configuration preferences. Then he consults a chart with a formula telling him the density of foam he’ll require for the job. The pair settle on the board’s length, shape and colour, and a deposit. He tells the kid his board will be done in two weeks.
It’s always two weeks. At present, Stump thinks his optimal output is three boards a week – $650 for shortboards and a little more the bigger and more complicated they become. This despite the suspicion, confirmed by the smirk when the suggestion is made to the teenager, that locals would probably pay $200 more.
These days Stump devotes 15 hours of work to each of his creations, but in an ideal world says he would prefer to spend his entire week making one perfect board and be paid $2,000 for it. But it is not an ideal world, especially not for a perfectionist. Some years he’s made profits as slim as $8,000. What can you do on a wage like that? “Survive,” he laughs.
The life of the average board shaper is unglamorous and frequently precarious: they spend their days dealing with myriad toxic chemicals; margins are tight and design innovations closely guarded; customers are fickle and fussy; Thai and Chinese imports arrive in the country with retail price tags lower than the average Australian craftsman’s cost price, and the fortunes of the export market are as enslaved to the fluctuations of the local dollar as any other. Very few shapers get rich perfecting what is a fiddly and demanding craft.
Though it runs counter to the industry’s image, there is an argument that the advent of CAD design has in fact pushed shapers to greater creative heights. At any rate, CAD programs take shapers years to properly learn, and most find that tolerances are still needed between what the computer tells them it is doing, and what the machine actually creates. And even machines are subject to human error, because boards need to be fed into them by hand.
Stump says the future of surfboard design will be driven by a new generation who know how to code, and that the greatest surfboard innovators will be sitting at computers pulling the strings of robots. As a highly skilled, hands-on craftsman, he says this does not make him sad. “There will always be craftsmanship,” he says. “The computers are just another tool, like a planer. The craftsman will always be there. We will never lose that psyche.”
One trend he and most small-scale shapers eye suspiciously is the move towards top contemporary surfers “designing” their own boards, which are then sold to the mass market as performance boards. “Over the years I came to realise: Stradivarius made violins, but he couldn’t play one,” Stump says. “I wouldn’t buy a Ferrari built by a racing car driver.”
A by product of this culture is that to move beyond a regional market and find greater financial success, shapers need to enter the money-burning, ego-stroking world of sponsored riders (a top 10 surfer might cost you $300,000 a year) and expansive manufacturing commitments. Much of the surfboard and surfwear industry is, to the lament of old-timers, driven first and foremost by fashion and trends.
Stump prefers to keep things local, and doesn’t place much of his life’s emphasis on money and kudos. Increasingly he finds himself moving towards extending his ties to the local community. To that end he’s helped set up the Sorrento Watertowers, a local community group comprising surfers, craftsmen and local creatives who hope to foster community spirit through a shared love of the ocean and local environment. “I didn’t want to see that essence lost,” he says. “Some of the things going on the world make me think we need to get the community together a bit more.”
He also hopes to pass on the knowledge he’s gained in 40 years making surfboards. Many top shapers guard their knowledge like state secrets, but 60-year-old Stump is hoping he can secure a government grant to open a surfboard shaping school on the New South Wales south coast. He says it would allow any unemployed locals interested in learning a new skill the opportunity to make a board in a supportive environment.
Having run a smaller scale version of the program in Victoria, Stump says the act of making something with their own hands was an incredibly moving experience for many of his students. “With younger people, they become empowered,” he says. “When they’ve achieved something, that feeling of accomplishment brings self-esteem. Their self-esteem just goes through the roof.”
|Andrew Stump. ‘I did 400 boards one year, on my own. Once you get to that level, you’re in the industry.’ Photograph: Paul Jeffers for the Guardian|
After the teenage surfer has left the workshop, Stump and I walk back up the hill and inside his house, through the swaying curtain and out towards the balcony. For Stump, a lifetime surfing the local breaks and the 40 years of creative fulfilment he’s found making surfboards have turned out to be a form of personal salvation, and helped him through the darker times in his life.
He tells me of a moment from his wild youth as a runaway surf bum, when he was bombing around the single-lane roads of the Peninsula as the passenger in a friend’s car, living without consequence, waiting for the next monster swell. The feeling of freedom has always stuck with him.
“I thought, I wouldn’t care if this car crashes now and I die. I am so happy it wouldn’t matter. Years later I thought it would be nice to get back to that feeling of being in control like that, and knowing that all of it doesn’t really matter. So I guess I’ll keep struggling to get there.”
In 1988, Stump was standing on the tin roof of a shop, painting its exterior with an extension roller. His plan was to sub-lease the shop (other ventures had included landscape gardening, labouring and selling antiques) in order to fund his surfing adventures. He lent too far with his brush and inadvertently connected himself to the building’s power supply. Seconds later, 22,000 volts came coursing through him.
“I thought, what the fuck?” he says. “It was like a beehive of horses kicking away at me. I was like a cat in a microwave. I was connected to the power lines. I actually heated up so much I was burning.”
For three months he was told by doctors in a local hospital he’d lose his left leg. He’d just wave them away. In the months following his return home, premature attempts to surf again landed him back in hospital on numerous occasions. Every time Stump would arrive home, he’d head straight back to the beach and crawl to the water’s edge with his board. Locals said he looked like a turtle slowly moving down the dunes and into the surf.
The times he wasn’t in the water were far more complicated. To go with his limp and disfigured foot and severed tendons in one hand, his mind was scrambled. Life became clouded by a debilitating combination of intense physical pain, an addiction to painkillers and a period of depression and anxiety. At one point he came very close to killing himself. Listlessness set in. For all the manual jobs his skills qualified him to do, his body wouldn’t allow him to complete full days of work, yet he balked at asking for help. “I didn’t want welfare help,” he says. “I thought they should give it to a more unfortunate person than me.”
One day, close to a meandering decade on from the accident, Stump sat on the floor of the workshop – a gift to himself after the accident as he slowly attempted to return from the brink. His plan had been to start a new business venture restoring antiques, but something else nagged at him. He’d already spent so many of his years making surfboards – the bug he’d caught as an eight-year-old peering over the fence of a neighbour in bayside Brighton, where a group of men compressed a piece of foam to make their own Malibu board.
Antiques and timber contaminate surfboards. As soon as brown timber dust flies around a room it ceases to be a place in which surfboards can be shaped and glassed. In that moment Stump knew the workshop would be used for either one thing or the other. Inspired but still unable to work from a standing position, he lowered his surfboard-shaping equipment to floor level and resolved that he would craft himself one perfect board. “I thought, if I don’t have a go at this and I die, I’ll be angry that I never gave it a go,” he says.
“Making surfboards was just a case of making myself do something so that my kids could see that their Dad got up each day and did some work. I could have gone the other way.”
That first surfboard led to a second, then a third and fourth, and Stump’s plight started feeling like a strange blessing. Another surfer would spot someone shredding local waves on one of his boards and turn up at the door. Out of nowhere, Stump had 40 customers on his books as word spread about what he was doing. The street started filling with cars, and Stump’s pockets with money.
“I used to drag myself down on my arse sometimes,” he laughs, slightly amazed by his unlikely resurrection. “Then I did 400 boards one year, on my own. Once you get to that level, you’re in the industry.”
Thinking back across his career, Stump says he never had the ego to even call himself a “board maker”, and that to keep improving and pushing himself in this solitary pursuit he’s settled on being a perfectionist.
“I’m never happy with any board that goes out, but I’m trying.”