Finding soul in the shape

Times Staff Writer

SCULPTORS have an ability to see a work of art hidden inside an amorphous block of stone. Terry Martin has that X-ray vision. Only his medium is rigid foam, and inside each slab is a surfboard waiting to be liberated.

On this day, Martin is studying a rectangle of polyurethane in his Dana Point workshop. It's a cramped closet redolent of resin, with deep-blue walls and slits of fluorescent light that cast the white foam in sharp relief.

"I like to sneak up on it like a detective," the 69-year-old said. He grabs a dull handsaw he has owned since 1963 and starts cutting. "People don't understand what goes into making a surfboard. It's not something that can just be pumped out of a machine. Where's the soul in that?"

Martin is making a 9-foot-6-inch longboard. He puts on protective earphones and fires up an electric planer that's as heavy as a dumbbell, a Skil 100 model favored by surfboard shapers that was discontinued long ago.

He glides back and forth along the block, his fingers adjusting the depth of the planer's blade with each pass, his sandaled feet performing a dance so that he is always applying the proper pressure. Then it's on to a series of ever-finer sheets of sandpaper and wire netting. With his barrel chest and thick white beard, Martin is Santa moving through a blizzard of foam dust.

Over the next hour, a surfboard takes form like a ship emerging from a foggy harbor.

Martin estimates he has hand-shaped more than 50,000 surfboards over the last 55 years. He's a legend in the tightknit fraternity of the world's master shapers, men who learned their craft through long apprenticeships.

He's also an endangered species.

The custom hand-shaped surfboard is a Southern California icon as integral to the region's culture as palm trees are to its skyline. But some fear the craft is fading as mass production and a flood of imports revolutionize surfboards in ways not seen since the 1950s, when polyurethane replaced wood as the primary building material.

A decade ago, an estimated 80% of surfboards sold in the United States were completely hand-shaped. Today, it's estimated that less than 20% are hewed by hand -- some suspect far less.

"It's becoming a lost art," Martin said.

Surfing is steeped in tradition and the mystique of secret surf spots, once-in-a-lifetime waves and magic boards. A surfboard imbued with the touch of its shaper is the conduit between a rider and nature.

"The whole culture of surfing is based around the handmade board and the relationship between the surfer and the shaper," said Surfer's Journal publisher Steve Pezman, an avid surfer and student of the sport's history. "The sport is losing a component of its charm."

MARTIN was 14 when he made his first board out of redwood and balsa salvaged from a San Diego lumberyard's scrap heap. The 10-foot-6-inch board was far lighter and more maneuverable than the heavy battleships most guys rode in 1952. Word got around, and Martin started making them in his father's garage.

After high school, Martin worked in construction, shipbuilding and as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman. Bored, he gravitated back to making surfboards. But with a wife and a child, he needed a steady income.

In 1963, he begged Hobie Alter, Orange County's pioneering surf shop owner, to hire him as a shaper. Alter taught him how to work the Skil 100 in the same cramped workshop where Martin shapes boards today.

The movie "Gidget" had pushed surfing from the fringe into the mainstream, turning the era's best shapers into businessmen with eponymous brands known to nonsurfers: Hobie, Greg Noll, Dale Velzy and Dewey Weber. The demand for surfboards soared, and Martin became part of a stable of California shapers who pumped out board after board and influenced the next generation of craftsmen.

Martin developed a system over the years, a Zen-like philosophy that perfection is achieved through simplicity and repetition. The less a surfboard is shaped, the better shaped it will be.

"A shaper isn't afraid to attack. They're not crossing their fingers hoping they get it right. They know they're going to get it right," Martin said. "A lot of shapers won't teach. They don't want people knowing what they know. I've done a lot of teaching. I've got a good system."

For decades, the surfboard business was dominated by hundreds of small and medium-size companies that adhered to such a philosophy. But globalization is changing the industry as much as "Gidget" did.

In the 1990s, Santa Cruz-based Surftech made waves by going to Thailand to factory-produce a surfboard that was a sandwich of expanded polystyrene, PVC sheet foam, fiberglass and epoxy. The boards are lightweight and durable, but their plastic feel led traditionalists to deride them as soulless "pop-outs."

Eventually, many of surfing's legendary shapers warmed to the idea -- and the money -- and licensed their names and designs to Surftech. Other surfboard makers followed suit and moved overseas to take advantage of new materials and cheap labor.

Surfboard imports topped $29 million last year, more than four times the amount in 2004, when U.S. customs officials began counting. Nearly 30% of surfboards sold in the United States are made overseas -- from sleek carbon fiber models to traditional foam boards hand-shaped by Chinese workers who have never seen an ocean.

"There will never be another Terry Martin in the United States," said Matt Biolos, co-founder of San Clemente-based Lost Enterprises. "That's not to say that there won't be one overseas."

Biolos hired an attorney who succeeded in pushing the government to track imports. Now, he is among those who want tariffs on imported traditional foam boards that are sold here for less than they can be made domestically.

"It's destroying an industry that was developed right here in Southern California," he said. "All I want is fair trade. We're a bitchin little culture, and we deserve to be protected."

Yet Biolos is more pragmatist than protectionist. Last year, he joined the parade overseas. Made in Vietnam, his Placebo line of molded plastic boards sports a cartoon robot giving birth to a surfboard -- a subtle joke.

"It's a different product," he said, explaining the difference. "That product is not made in the U.S.A."

But what is being made domestically today is likely emerging, close to its final form, from the jaws of a milling machine.

Machine-cut boards have been around for decades. But in the last few years, they have all but overtaken the industry. A proliferation of design software and lower-cost foam cutters have allowed even small surfboard makers to amp up production without increasing labor costs.

"It's a cutthroat world. This is a business," said Ian Wright, who machine-cuts his Aftermath surfboards in a Gardena warehouse and works as a consultant for a company that sells a shaping machine. "The machine doesn't argue with you, it's not going to be stepping out for a cigarette break -- it's just going to cut."

Wright, a 40-year-old South Africa native, was trained as a hand-shaper and has made thousands of boards using the tools of the artisan. Now the work is done on a dust-covered computer that shows a three-dimensional image of a surfboard cut into 120 slices that Wright moves with a mouse.

"This is like me looking down at the surface of a board in a shaping room. I can do whatever I want with this thing," he said. "This is so much cooler. I can give the public what they want over and over and over again.... You hear all this stuff about how [the cutting machine] takes the soul out of the process. I say, 'You're being too romantic.' "

THE world's top professional surfers agree. Most if not all of them ride customized boards replicated time and again to exact specifications on a machine. (Pezman switched to a Surftech board because its buoyancy compensates for his being 65.)

Biolos, 37, is proud he was taught how to make surfboards the traditional way. His nom de guerre in the shaping bay is Mayhem. "I'm probably among the last generation of hand-shapers," he said, acknowledging that finishing off a machine-cut board requires far less skill. "It's not very rewarding work."

Yet he is resigned to the fact that to keep up with competitors, hand-shaping will be consigned to nostalgic hobbyists and a few artisans.

"It'll be like losing a language. But that happens every day in the world, doesn't it?" he said. "In fact, the less of it that does exist, the more money it will mean for the guys who remain."

That would certainly be a change. Shapers have always suffered for their art. The hours are long, the pay lousy. They're exposed to toxic substances. It is physically demanding piecework, and even the best-known craftsmen pocket less than $100 a board.

"If I'm making $30,000, I'm having a good year. And I'm supposed to be at the top of my profession," said Midget Smith, a well-known San Clemente shaper who apprenticed under Martin as a teenager.

"My 24-year-old daughter makes more managing a coffee shop."

Smith, 55, has little saved for retirement and no health insurance. A bout of cancer a few years back nearly ruined him. Yet after working for a company producing machine-cut boards, Smith went back into business for himself hand-shaping, even though it gouged his income.

"There was no room for creativity," he said. "It felt like factory work."

Martin has worked as a "scrubber" too, and he says he caught flak after being quoted in a surfing magazine that "you could teach my wife how to do it."

Martin insists he meant no disrespect to anyone, least of all his wife. But the definition of what is meant by a handmade surfboard is blurring. After more than 50,000 boards, Martin was simply trying to set the record straight.

A customer who was a mathematician loosely calculated that Martin has walked from California to New York and back again to about Milwaukee making all those boards. He still works nearly every day, supplementing his Social Security by mowing foam.

"I'm having as much fun as I had in 1963," Martin said. "I love my job. How many people can say that?"

This year he was among the master shapers invited to make boards at an action sports industry convention in San Diego.

Amid the pulsing music, bikini-clad women and businesses hawking their wares, Martin danced alone in a windowed booth, retrieving a surfboard buried inside a slab of foam.

He was like a character in a snow globe, and a crowd of people squeezed together against the glass, jockeying for a good look.

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