Man vs. Machine: The Master Hand Shapers of Encinitas

December 13, 2011, Judd

The closure six years ago of Clark Foam—the Orange County-based business that supplied over 90 percent of polyurethane foam surfboard blanks to the surfing world—combined with the economic recession have led to challenging times for some of Encinitas’ most well-known and experienced board shapers.

Although the price has leveled back down a bit for foam blanks—closer to pre-2006 levels—the higher cost still eats into shaper’s profit margins.

An even harder obstacle to overcome is the economy. Most surfers no longer have the free spending cash to buy a brand new custom board, which costs typically at least a couple of hundred bucks more than buying a used board on Craigslist or at a garage sale.

Another challenge for local master shapers—who have shaped thousands of boards by hand—is that large board manufacturers glut the board shops with machine-made replicas.

Since the mid to late 1980s, machines have been able to scan board dimensions and robotically cut the blanks. For any surfboard-crafting business serious about making a living and keeping up with demand, machines are a necessity.

Some shapers view shaping machines with contempt; others view them simply as another means to an end. However, there are still some master shapers who shape strictly by hand.

One of them, Greg Sauritch, has been shaping since 1967.

“I started shaping my own boards because I couldn’t afford to buy my own,” says Sauritch. He is standing in his garage, which has a shaping horse to stand a board on, but this is not where he practices his craft. He does so in Oceanside—fortuitously, his shaping bay is located right next door to a foam supply company.

Sauritch began shaping for Newport Beach-based Russel Surfboards in 1970, when he was 18 years old. Since then, he has also shaped for Rip Curl and Rusty but has been on his own since the late 1980s, right around the time shaping software came into existence. Sauritch also sponsored local surf legend Rob Machado before the pro signed with Al Merrick’s Channel Islands label.

“I like the symmetry and the soul of a hand-shaped board,” says Sauritch, an Encinitas resident for almost 40 years. “But, if I were doing 20 boards a week, I’d probably use the shaping machine. When you’re producing large volumes of boards, that’s the way to go.”

Naturally, Sauritch isn’t entirely convinced that machine-made boards are superior.

“Machines definitely don’t take the human error out of the equation,” he says. “Especially if the machine is trying to replicate a board that has slightly different dimensions than the model, the machine can leave a little bubble on the deck.”

Sauritch also says he has gotten feedback from pros claiming that each board produced by machine from an original hand-shaped model could ride differently each time.

“The theory that machines create consistency every time … I’m not buying it,” he says.

According to Sauritch, foam blanks are now geared toward meeting the supply of companies that shape with the machine.

“When they make foam nowadays, they make it thicker so the shaping machine has more room for error. This makes it much harder for a hand shaper to whittle down the nose and tail,” he says. “It’s a dying art.”

Steve Clark has a shaping bay on “Surfboard Hill” on Westlake Street, just off Encinitas Boulevard, and is another well-known local custom shaper. He contracts for Rainbow Surfboards and Channin but still welcomes custom orders that he shapes by hand.

For Clark, recent times have been especially challenging.

“The last two years have been the slowest in the history of custom board shaping,” he says. “I’ve had to sell some of my possessions just to make ends meet.”

Business has been a total 180-degree turnaround. “A few years ago, I hardly had the time to keep up with the demand,” he says.

Hand shapers like Clark also have to compete with cheaper-made, so-called “Pop Outs”—essentially plastic boards often made overseas in countries like China and Thailand.

But Clark doesn’t think that computer-generated boards have ruined surfing. “The computer is not evil; it’s just another tool, but hopefully there’ll be a new generation of master hand shapers,” says Clark, who caters to older, less flexible surfers who require thicker and wider boards.

Mike Slingerland started shaping for Hansen’s Surfboards in 1968. He used to make anywhere from five to 12 boards per week, but this year, he says, business is very slow.

“It’s been tough scratching a living,” says Slingerland, who is especially skeptical of boards sold in large retail outlets.

“If you go to Costco, chances are you’ll see a Chinese-made board modeled on a design that was stolen and made with substandard materials,” he says. “There are some local shops that carry Chinese-produced boards.”

Slingerland has been in business 42 years and welcomes contract work from surfboard companies and, of course, orders from individual surfers. He doesn’t have a website, but says he has an answering machine.

“Give me a call (760-436-7477) to set up an appointment. Bring your boards over and let me see what you’re riding,” he says.

These three shapers are certainly not the only local shapers with decades of experience—Encinitas Patch will profile other local shapers in weeks to come—but they do constitute a rare breed of master craftsmen.

Support your local shaper—if you have the money.

See the original article for more pics.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.