The woodworker crafting surfboards in Cornwall
Turning a passion for surfing into a thriving business
AS A TEENAGER James Otter spent his weekends travelling from his home in Buckinghamshire to Cornwall to go surfing with his friends, and in 2009, after graduating from university, he moved there with his now wife, Liz. ‘We spent virtually every weekend there any way and de cide d to follow our hearts,’ says Otter, now 30.
He had planned to start a furniture business, but after reading an article in a surf magazine, he hit upon a new idea – making wooden surfboards. ‘It was a bit of a lightbulb moment and I thought, “I need to give this a go,”’ he recalls.
Compared to their foam equivalents, wooden surfboards are 30 per cent heavier and will take a bit more paddling to get them moving, but Otter insists that once up and riding, they have more momentum and glide – and crucially, they are more durable.
‘ Professional surfers tend to like more lightweight boards, but they’ll get through roughly 200 of them a year,’ explains Otter. ‘ We want ours to be passed down through the generations.’
His inspiration was his two grandfathers – one a woodworker and the other a farmer. ‘Grandad really cared about the land, so I make sure I know where the wood I use is coming from and that the forests are sustainably managed.’
Today, with help from three woodworkers, Otter makes up to 30 surfboards a year, each taking 80 hours to complete. Each b oard comprises a frame made of plywood, the bottom and top of which is covered with a ‘skin’ made of either cedar or poplar from Wiltshire. The bottom skin is 4mm whereas the top one is a little thicker, 6mm – ‘ because it ’s going to take the impact of people jumping up and down on it’, says Otter.
To make the board, Otter cuts a frame out of strips of plywood and glues it to the bottom skin. Thin strips of poplar are then glued along the edge of the frame to form the rails. Next, the top skin, or deck, is glued on top, then cut and filed into the correct shape using saws, rasps and sandpaper. Finally, to protect it from water damage, the surfboard is coated with bio epoxy resin and fibreglass.
Otter has started teaching others to build wooden boards at classes at his workshop. ‘It ’s so rewarding,’ he says. ‘You give the surfers confidence in their own abilities and you also know they’ll really care for their surfboards.’
Clockwise from top right James Otter with one of his boards; shaping the edge of a board; Otter in his workshop in Cornwall.