Most surfboard shapers have big things on their minds: Big waves. Big boards. Big rides.
Malcolm Wilson, who has shaped hundreds of boards, has made his big splash by thinking small.
Other shapers take an 11-foot polyurethane foam blank, slice it a bit here and there and create one new board. Wilson takes that same blank and "butchers it up like a cow" to create about 50 precise, 15-inch replicas of historic surfboards.
The butchering notwithstanding, replicas require more work than shaping real surfboards, says Wilson, 42.
In his garage workshop in Capistrano Beach, Wilson builds surfboards that will never be used to catch the big one but are sought after by collectors around the world.
The boards, in collections ranging from five to 12 models, sell for about $3,000 to customers in the U.S., Asia, Europe and South America.
"It can take as much as 100 hours of work per collection," Wilson says, "if I'm lucky and don't break a board or mess up the hot coat. The board can snap, or you're polishing it and it slips out of your fingers and it bashes against the wall. I learned these things the hard way."
The models are built at a scale of 1 1/2 inches to 1 foot. The complex graphics, often as small as a sixteenth of an inch, are done by hand. After the fourth or fifth coat of resin, Wilson does the painting and lettering, then seals them with final coats. Each board requires at least seven coats of resin. Trickiest of all, Wilson says, is matching the specifications of the real boards, down to the length, shape, color and structural details.
Finally, the models are mounted in mahogany frames built by Wilson's identical twin, Duncan, a landscape designer in San Clemente.
Wilson has made about 130 surfboard collections since he began in 1992; he has a backlog of nearly 50 orders, some 16 months of work.
Some sets honor the life's output of surfing's most respected board shapers, including Greg Noll, Dale Velzy, Bing Copeland and Hap Jacobs. Others trace the evolution of surfboards, from the original Hawaiian redwood, koa or breadfruit boards to modern tri-fin thrusters.
Each collection is signed by the original shaper.
"I pay a royalty to the shaper. We're partners because they like my work," Wilson says. "I'll look at their original boards and take measurements. Or sometimes all that's left is photographs. So Velzy will describe how the rails were, and I'll show him the finished model and he'll say it looks good, or it's too fat, or whatever. I show the shaper [the model] before I put the resin on it, so if I have to thin it out I can."
Lately there has been no need.
"When he comes by with a new batch, I don't have to look at 'em," says Velzy, of San Clemente. "He's a hell of a craftsman and copies my boards down to a T. When I'm shaping boards he sometimes comes and looks over my shoulder. At first I was leery because he did a couple [of models] that are really nice, and I thought he'd fall off the wagon and turn out some [poor] ones. But he hasn't."
If Wilson's models represent his fastidious artist's mind, his workshop reflects his surfer's soul.
Lovingly cluttered, it smells of resin and almost breathes with the detritus of the surfer's life, the childhood surfboards, new boards, photos, souvenirs and sketches that hang from the rafters like stalactites. Spilling into the cramped walking space are chisels, saws, works-in-progress, magazines, books and a large helping of miscellaneous.
All this in an 7-by-10-foot room. But Wilson wouldn't have it any other way. "People always get a kick out of my workshop. Some people are really amazed by it.
"It's nice working here, just me, myself and I, no worries about making excuses for someone else's mistakes."
The workshop is both boon and bane.
"My cats come in here and will start chasing a moth across my stack of surfboards, and the next thing I know they're dancing around on my models," says Wilson, who maintains a philosophical attitude about such setbacks.
"Or I'll get my final gloss coat on, and a visitor will pick it up and say, 'Oh, that's pretty. Oh, that's sticky.' "
Wilson has made models since he was a kid, but says that even now, when he tells people he makes models for a living, "they picture me building the plastic Wolfman kit."
Growing up in San Clemente, Wilson was a city lifeguard, surfer and competitive swimmer.
Encouraged in modeling by his father, Ron, also a model builder, Wilson worked as a magazine production artist after quitting art studies at San Diego State in the mid-'70s. He went on to work at Theme Design in Irvine, learning mold-making and building models of theme park rides.
Later he began selling model yachts but quit--"too many people were making model yachts."
Now he has fulfilled two life goals: to be self-employed and to work at home.
With time out for surfing and playing with his sons, ages 5 and 8, Wilson won't be rushed. And though he works 14-hour days, distractions break up the labor. Surfer friends drop by regularly; the boys need to be picked up at school, and there's surfing at Doheny or San Onofre.
In addition to the surfboard collections, Wilson is building foot-square dioramas of famous surf breaks, including Killer Dana, Windansea, Steamers Lane and Rincon. He sculpts in clay to make a silicone mold for multiple castings. After they're painted, Wilson adds palm trees and crowds of millimeter-tall people (including Waldo, for the keen-eyed) on the sand.
A favorite pet project is a model set tracing his own boards and other watercraft through the years.
"It'll have my first board, which was a Ziffy board, the Styrofoam things that couldn't hurt anybody," Wilson says. "Then a bodyboard, a raft--blue and yellow, with a rope--and a pair of Duck Feet. Then a Dick Brewer mini-gun, and my 9-6 Hobie."
With his laid-back demeanor and Polynesian wardrobe, Wilson could be mistaken for lackadaisical. In fact, he says, he's a perfectionist.
"You have to have that desire. I think my work today is better compared to five years ago--I don't think there's an artist out there who doesn't cringe at early work--but the work is pretty. I have a strong conscience that keeps my work moving in the right direction."