Surfboard ‘Shaper’ Bucks Tide of Change
This being February, it’s the slowest time of the year for Bruce Jones.
He’s perched in front of a computer screen in his walk-up Sunset Beach surf shop, pecking out packing labels for out-of-town shipments, while a salesclerk stands by to greet the customers who amble in every 10 or 20 minutes.
A few months from now you won’t be able to move in Jones’ store because of the crush of the summertime surfing crowd. Some come in because PCH funnels them past the shop on their way to Huntington Beach, Newport and points south; some because among local cognoscenti of the sport, Bruce Jones is surfboards.
From spring through fall, the 60-year-old Jones sells $1 million worth of his boards and other paraphernalia from this 1,200-square-foot space. About 30% of Bruce Jones Surfboards Inc.'s core business is the custom market -- patrons asking for just the right board for their height, weight, style, skill and even their favorite location.
As board making becomes more mechanized and global -- the first Asian imports have appeared on American beaches -- Jones figures that business will only improve for “shapers” (to use the preferred term for board makers) who can still make a custom model.
Until a few years ago, the quintessential shapers were people like Jones, craftsmen who served a regional clientele out of their own shops and gave their boards a distinctive personality and “soul.” It was hard to go national: Although the raw materials were cheap, so much time and labor went into every board that economies of scale were hard to come by.
“The margins on surfboards have always been ridiculously small,” says Matt Warshaw, author of the “Encyclopedia of Surfing.” “There aren’t many shops that could stay afloat on surfboard sales; they’d make their money from clothes, wetsuits, magazines and video.”
Recently, that has changed. Foam blanks are shaped by computer, expanding manufacturing capacity dramatically. Jones’ annual output has doubled to about 1,000 boards, thanks to the trend. Once-regional brand names such as Channel Islands Surfboards, based in Santa Barbara and owned by the shaper Al Merrick, have blossomed into nationwide suppliers.
Jones was never much interested in going that route. “I came out of the ‘60s a bit of a minimalist,” he says. “I could have started much bigger, but stuck to small. The margins on retail surfboards are thin enough; if you sell wholesale you can sell more, but then you get into maintaining accounts, slow payers and shipping damage.”
Jones grew up with the Southern California surfing culture. In 1960, “right after ‘Gidget,’ ” he recalls, a friend invited him to drive to the beach with the words, “I’ve got the board if you’ve got the gas money.” Jones was instantly hooked. Every summer he and his friends would rent a house at Laguna or San Clemente to surf, earning money with jobs at Clark Foam, a Laguna Niguel manufacturer of polyurethane blanks for surfboards. (It’s still the dominant supplier.)
Soon Jones was working for Hobie Alter, the pioneering surfboard entrepreneur, making stringers, the strips of wood that run down the centerlines of surfboards to give them rigidity. He learned shaping -- that is, the art of investing polyurethane slabs with the form and soul that turn them into surfboards -- from Hobie as well as such other famous figures as Gordie Duane and Bob “Ole” Olson.
Business was in Jones’ blood: In 1923, his grandfather founded Jones Lumber, a South Los Angeles institution still run by his brothers. So in 1973 he struck out on his own, buying Ole’s Sunset Beach shop. He also rented a workshop in a Costa Mesa industrial park, where he and a staff (which at one time numbered eight) could shape foam, paint it, and laminate it in fiberglass and resin without neighbors to complain about the fumes and dust.
Jones still spends four hours a day at the workshop, working with one other shaper and an artist, but ships the painted blanks to a friend in Santa Ana who applies the layers of fiberglass and resin finishing.
As surfer and manufacturer Jones has had a beachfront vantage point for every trend in surfing since the ‘60s. When he started, longboards -- the 9-to-12-foot ovoid offerings of the “Gidget” era -- were all that existed. Around 1968, they were abruptly supplanted by more maneuverable shortboards, which surfers started making by hand in their garages by sawing off the ends of foam blanks.
“The style and design trend of that time was open minds, no holds barred,” Jones told me. “People would try anything.” Boards got shorter and thinner, and sprouted fishtails and swallowtails. The longboard was obsolete -- until the mid-'90s, when it came back almost as suddenly as it left.
There were fads too. When windsurfing was big, Jones built sailboards -- although he lost a lot of his regular customers, surfers being freethinking about the design of anything that can be termed a “surfboard,” but not about surfboard wannabes. Windsurfing stalled in the ‘90s. Jones managed to shed his
inventory ahead of the crash and returned to his main business.
The latest new thing is the epoxy surfboard, which is molded from a form instead of built up from a core. These are relatively light and durable and lend themselves to mass production, which has set some surfing purists’ teeth on edge. Jones now carries an inventory of six kinds of epoxy boards made in China, based on blanks he supplied and carrying his name. Epoxy boards account for 10% of his business, and he expects that percentage to grow.
If there’s a standard criticism of the epoxy models, it’s that they lack the soul of the products of shapers such as Jones who still put their hands on every board.
As Warshaw says: “There’s something special about walking into a shop where the guy who’s there is the guy who’s made all the boards in it. If that disappears it’ll be a sad day.”
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You
can reach Michael Hiltzik at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.