SHAPE SHIFTER the custom shape experience with Roger Hall
Your next Board and how to make sure it’s your best yet - A story about working with your shaper and the path to understanding your equipment.
Ring Ring went the phone, on the other end was Jon asking me if I could order him a Pink Density blank as he wanted to get a new board underway for summer. Jon always asked for Pink as it is the colour coding that depicts the lightest of the light in polyurethane surfboard blanks and he likes his boards light. After I told Jon that I had already ordered him a Pink blank (I had a hunch) the conversation swung to appointment times, which day would suit to come out and talk about the design of his new board. The next day! Jon arrived bright and early, I had already pulled out all his previous board orders from his file and I was keen to see what direction we would be taking his custom shapes this time. Jon asked if he could bring his last two boards in for us to refer to, this I encouraged as what Jon would have to say about these too boards would be all important to the design decisions we would soon be making. At this stage I still had no real idea what Jon had on his mind. We discussed the boards at length, Jon articulating the feeling of riding the boards while I translated via my shapers brain into everyday language which I would then voice openly to see if my translation was correct. We had a mutual understanding through this process as I would explain the reasons behind Jon’s feedback as it related to the physical form of the boards that lay before us. I used the boards themselves as well as my shaping notes so that we had two ways of understanding his boards. The first being the visual connection to the 3 dimensional shape which we could look at with our eyes and also feel and explore with our hands, a straight edge and various measuring tools. On the other hand the shaping notes clarified, confirmed and compared both boards using an extensive vocabulary of written words and measured numbers. These detailed record sheets gave us information that we could not see from looking at the boards yet gave us further visualisation through our minds eye. With all this information I could enable Jon to understand more about what he already had and empower him to open the dialogue of what he might be after. By the time he did this we were both pretty much immersed in the hydrodynamics of the particular style of boards that Jon rides. It’s important to note at this stage that 1) Jon is a very good surfer and 2) the types of boards that Jon rides are exclusive to him and I don’t make his style of board for anybody else. Jon’s an individual and he had come for a customised and personalised board shaped just for him. I asked Jon what he had in mind for the impending new order, his reply was he had a couple of ideas but wanted to know what I thought about them rather than saying that he wanted me to just go ahead and do it. His first idea was unexpected and seemingly a departure from the safety of the last five shapes. John had always had small rounded tails and while there were variations from board to board they were in the end still small and rounded tails. Jon’s words hung in the air along with the faint smell of resin and a percentage of surfboard dust. “What about a chopped square?” he had asked. I paused while I gathered my thoughts and partly also to ponder on what may be the reason behind the change. While Jon stood awaiting my response, my thoughts swirled back in time over decades of shaping different tail shapes. I was remembering times of having been fairly set in my opinion of certain shapes and also times of exposure to the thoughts and voicings of others as well as random lessons learnt from serendipity and revelations gifted up through the soles of my feet whilst riding waves. I was thinking about the theories and the realities of experiencing how tail shapes actually work, in real terms. I thought about the contradictions that exist in design and the rules that don’t always apply when unforeseen exceptions pop up. Jon remained silent, the expression on his face unchanged as I began to speak. My explanation of how a chop square performs came in the form of a lengthy history lesson as I recalled a time when most of the boards we shaped were in fact chopped squares and how there had been a shift in power from Aussie dominance in competition to the American push with Tom Curran leading the charge. Previously design had been well and truly based around the success of Australian surfers riding boards shaped by Australian shapers. Once the Americans got a foot hold in the winners circle things started to change as did the shapes of the boards as the Australians and indeed the world took notice of the evolving American designs. I relayed a conversation that I once had with Australian designer Bob Mctavish 20 years or so ago about the very subject of tail shape. Bob had done an in depth study it seemed on the boards the Americans like Tom and Kelly where riding. Bob had been working on a bold business venture to replicate the boards that World Titles were won on. The boards were called “Pro Circuit Boards”. At this point I felt I needed to let Jon know that I was still on track to answer his question hinting that my story would provide a rich tapestry of information from which a conclusion would be drawn. Bob’s focus was on the engine room of the surfboard, that part between the surfer’s feet where downward pressure is both added and subtracted. The rest of the board is potentially a hindrance, the main point being about anything behind the surfers back foot needing to be non dominant, neutral, i.e. no corners containing volume or area that the surfer would first have to overpower before the surfboard obeyed a command and hence fractionally affecting the speed, angle of attack and timing of an executed manoeuvre. Bob’s rationale was invaluable to me when I started to design and shape tow boards back in 2000. The surfer’s feet are strapped into the engine room section of the board which is why tow boards quickly dropped in length and width from the first versions. Tow surfers would find it difficult to exert influence over a surfboard that extended forward, behind and sideways from their foot position. Long and wide would dominate and inhibit the surfer’s ability to control the board especially at speed. I felt it important to continue with my background story before we really got stuck into the decision making process around Jon’s tail as my gut was telling me that we both would need the “big” picture to reason and “feel” our way through to the conclusion. We needed two votes in favour or two votes against. I forged ahead with my tale of how the thruster/modern surfboard was an Aussie invention which changed the course of design but how the Americans had refined and mastered the concept to the point that they now surfed better on it and where the Aussies had at first lead were now well and truly following. I went on to say how the chop square disappeared from design for many years and only really began to reappear with the recent
"I asked Jon what he had in mind for the impending new order, his reply was he had a couple of ideas but wanted to know what I thought about them rather than saying that he wanted me to just go ahead and do it."
wave of open minded design that’s occurring on a global basis. I also wanted Jon to understand that while Bob’s reasoning made perfect sense the fact that some of my favourite boards back in the 1980’s had been chopped squares had remained a little confusing and a personal revelation that came from riding an experimental prototype of a short Mini Simmons with a very wide chop square around 10 years ago was pretty much an “in ya face” experience of speed and sharp cornering that not just bent Bob’s book of rules but smashed them to smithereens. My Mini Simmons prototype wasn’t really on the radar back when Bob and I had that conversation and so in design terms is outside of the box with regards to the context of Bob’s wisdom. The Mini Simmons being very short meant the engine room was exactly under my feet with my back foot directly over the quad fin cluster and my front foot directly over the accelerator peddle. Hence the hard corners and exaggerated area of the tail was easily overpowered by my back foot pressure. Once that wide tail was submerged it would quickly push back once the foot pressure came off serving to accelerate the board and rider through the turn. Exciting stuff that chopped square! Back to the present application as it related to Jon’s new board and Bob’s rule book would apply especially given that a chopped square in this case would be further back from the influence of pressure that Jon could exert. I suggested to Jon that in keeping with the well proven outline and overall tail area we could add a small chopped square as an enhancer, a positive engagement device with a subtlety that would be unlikely to cause any negatives. We had two votes! The chopped square would stay. Our conversation moved to details of concave depths, the amount and shape of Vee as well as edge placement. No history lesson required. Once we had the details of Jon’s new shape nailed down and clearly detailed on his order form we moved to our third means of visualisation: a computer screen. I brought up the design file of Jon’s current board and copied it as the start point to his new board with its all important D.N.A intact. I then made all the relevant changes as discussed and agreed upon back in the showroom and Jon could see his new board come to life before his eyes. “It’s like shaping through a microscope!” he exclaimed. At the conclusion of the process Jon thanked me for my time and input and I could tell he appreciated the process that had occurred since his arrival earlier that morning and he went away knowing exactly what to expect in his freshly ordered custom. Sometime earlier, a few weeks in fact, I was down on the ground alongside my van waxing my board in readiness for some wave time. A van pulled up and Manuel jumped out in anticipation of a surf check and we struck up a conversation. At first we talked about the surf then the conversation swung to one of my design articles in this very magazine. It’s always good to get feedback and in return I asked Manuel what he would like to read about in my next article. There was a lengthy pause and then the reply came: “How about whether to buy custom or off the rack?” Well if you have read this far you will probably have already gained a sense of the value of custom ordering! But is it for you? I would have to be biased after spending most of my life designing and shaping custom surfboards and I believe in what I do. My advice would almost always be to form a long term relationship with your shaper, they are experts in what they do and can guide you to the right board whether it’s a custom or one from their racks that’s a good fit for you. Remember that custom encompasses all aspects of a surfboard from shape through its construction to colours and finish. The thing about shapers is that you can bet they’re driven by passion to the craft and commitment to their beliefs rather than the money they will make from closing the deal. Support your Kiwi Board Builders Cheers, Roger.