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Crafting your perfect surfboard

by Boardcave on August 6, 2015

A look at Hand Shaping vs using a CNC machine

The Purity of the Craft

I am sure the debate over the purity of surfboard shaping has been going on continuously probably since the electric hand planer was introduced. There must have been guys sitting in their garage bickering about how the “soul” of a surfboard gets lost when people started using electric tools to do the work where elbow grease, sweat and a few block planes were your shaping tool quiver.

Dale Velzy's tools of the trade
Tools of the trade of legendary Dale Velzy.

The electric hand planer (like the coveted Skill 100, Clark modified Hitachi, the Accurate Planer) was not invented for surfboard shaping. Originally, they were designed as a tool to take the place of block planes, mostly used for truing up and hanging doors, or other flat areas like floors, table tops and decks.

As production demands began to grow for shapers, they had to look for more efficient tools to help get the job done faster and more accurate. In any industry, people have to adapt and explore new tools and ideas that can make their job easier and more efficient.

In today’s world, the CNC shaping machine is that fast and efficient tool, made use by the majority of shapers worldwide. An old phrase that comes to mind – “work smarter, not harder” – holds weight no matter what your job entails.

Here’s the thing with the CNC and CAD programs though, you still have to be a skilled shaper by hand to know how to design a good board on a computer and finish one that was cut on a machine.

fresh off the machine but far from finished
Fresh off the machine, but still a long way from finished. Surf Prescriptions Jeff “Doc” Lausch starting to work his magic.

Go Ahead, Make Your Own

One of the biggest fears about the machine, is that anyone can go and “pop-out” boards on a whim. And that this in turn could hurt the industry as we know it, taking jobs away from the craftsmen that have dedicated years into their practice.

Sure, anyone CAN do it, just like anyone CAN get a blank and some tools and hack their own board out. But in reality, you still have to have an understanding of how and why boards and design principles work. You have to know these principles and theories, and you have to be able to hand shape at a high level to get even a decent design out of a CAD file and a machine cut not including understanding different surfboard constructions available.

plenty of hands on work at chemistry surfboards
Plenty of “hands on” skill required by the boys at Chemistry Surfboards.

If you have never played around with a CAD file, go download a free program like Shape3D, design a board and see how it really turns out when it comes out of the machine. It is a lot harder than you think. But you’re not done there, you still have to finish shape it to perfection where the majority of skill comes into play and glass it (which is a whole other level in itself).

Machine Assisted, Hand Shaped

Now, most of the detailed shaping comes after a board has been ‘roughed out’. This is the stage that a machine cut will get you too, as opposed to taking an electric planer and doing it by hand.

It saves shapers a little bit of time, and helps to ensure that they can get better results when duplicating certain models.

You will be surprised by the number of shapers you think are “hand only” shapers. Most of them (not all, but most of them) who are coveted as master hand shapers, may still use the machine for their production schedule.

creativity of matt parker
Matt Parker of Album Surfboards knows how to get creative with his hands and CAD designs.

They may spend their time hand shaping and creating a new model until it is dialed in to where they want it. So the creative aspect of shaping the new model is still done by hand for many shapers. After this they can have the board scanned, or the can manually enter all the dimensions needed into a CAD file.

Other shapers (still with a deep knowledge and experience with shaping by hand) learn how to design boards using the CAD program, have it cut and finish it by hand. Either way, the creative process and “soul” of the board is still there, and they can now duplicate models for the team riders and customers.

This comes as a benefit for both the shapers and the customers riding their boards.

Never Lose that Magic Stick

If you happen to break that magic whip you’ve had for years, you may want the exact same board again. With your shaper utilizing the CNC machine, you CAN have that magic board again, and for the rest of your surfing life.

If your shaper only shapes by hand, chances are they are good enough to get it really close but it may not be exactly like that magic board. With the CNC, they can be sure they are duplicating that board for you as well as saving them time.

But please note, most shapers that have been doing it for a while are good enough to duplicate a board only by hand… and on the flip side, a machine cut board can also end up slightly different time to time due to the majority of the work being in the hand finishing the fine detail like rails, bottom contours, etc.

Added Reference Points

Another benefit of CNC machines is the increased use of volumes as surfboard parameter.

mick fanning and darren handley work out magic sticks
Mick Fanning and Darren Handley of DHD Surfboards constantly refining Mick’s favorite boards.

If you pay attention to what volumes seem to work for you for certain boards, you can refine each new board a little more to suit your needs. You may want two boards of the same model, but tweak the volume and foam distribution to handle different waves if needed.

Like we mentioned in our “Are you surfing the wrong board” article, pro surfers can feel the difference within up to a half liter change in volume. This comes in especially handy for them when they surf around the world in a variety of waves. Knowing a surfer’s ideal volume helps to make those small adjustments in a board to maximize the potential for each individual wave they are going to surf.

Your shaper can live a long fruitful life

The machine has to been seen as just another tool for a shaper, it is not replacing the shaper or shaping skills by any means. It actually can help make a shaper become more well-rounded in their approach as well. They have to learn how to design or tweak a good board in a CAD program, only adding to their skill set.

customization going down at canvas surfboards
Custom concave’s and artwork going down at Canvas Surfboards.

To add to that, using a CNC machine actually helps with the longevity of a shapers career. As they get older, lugging the electric planer over blank after blank can take a serious toll on a shaper’s shoulders, elbows and backs.

Always appreciate however, that the majority of shapers who use the machine have put in years and thousands of boards shaped by hand before they adapted to using a machine.

Machines with Morals

Another controversy over the machine has been the possibility and ease of one shaper copying another’s design. It was feared that someone could easily get a hold of your master file and start pumping out the exact same board that you have spent so much time developing.

In reality, there is nothing stopping a hand shaper from doing the same thing, and the CNC machine doesn’t have a mind of its own, so it still comes down to the integrity of the shapers themselves.

machines don't shape channels
Timmy Patterson knows that the machine can’t do channels.

Hand Crafted

Using a CAD program and CNC machine does not mean your boards are in the category of the cheap “pop-out” boards you find at some big box chain retailers. The term “Hand Crafted” still applies with boards still requiring the majority of work to be extremely hands-on. So, there is still plenty of fine craftsmanship that goes into each and every board.

Yes, it does allow a shaper to ramp up their production levels, but the skills required to finish shape, refine and glass the board is still where the majority of the work lies. The machine is not the enemy to the surf industry, it is just another tool shapers can use that is a little too big to fit in their tool box.

precision cutting at nation surfboards
Ryan Engle of Nation Surfboards owns his own machine ensuring he is “hands on” in every board he produces.

What do you think about hand shaping and the use of new technologies? Join the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Make sure you check out the Board Engine to find a range of boards all manufactured in the USA by professional shapers at the top of their crafts. Email service@boardcave.com with your details for a detailed report of board recommendations for you.

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