Ca­reer change led to craft­ing pad­dle­boards

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Pam LeBlanc

A sprin­kling of saw­dust on the back of a busi­ness suit started it all, in a way.

Tony Smith, who’d grown up build­ing stuff with his brother — model rock­ets, re­mote-con­trol cars, bows and ar­rows — had in­vested nearly a decade into a ca­reer in fi­nance when he re­al­ized what he re­ally wanted to do was cre­ate some­thing with his hands.

“One day the of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tor said, ‘You have saw­dust on the back of your suit.’ I knew it was time to make a de­ci­sion,” Smith says, walk­ing past a rack of pad­dle­boards in var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion at his Jarvis Boards work­shop on Burleson Road, where san­ders whir and the air smells of glue. “I didn’t make any­thing, and I missed mak­ing things.”

Smith, the 34-year-old son of a Hous­ton con­struc­tion com­pany busi­ness owner, stud­ied fi­nance at Trin­ity Univer­sity in San An­to­nio. He moved to Austin in 2005 be­cause he liked the out­door life­style here. Look­ing for some­thing to bal­ance out the hec­tic na­ture of his job, one day he or­dered a how-to guide and set to work build­ing a wooden ca­noe in the garage of his home in Bar­ton Hills. He fin­ished the boat, it floated, and he pad­dled it around Lady Bird Lake, rev­el­ing in early morn­ing sun­rises and evening quiet on the wa­ter.

But then he needed a new project to tackle. He’d no­ticed the flood of stand-up pad­dle­boards glid­ing up and down the lake and de­cided to make one of those next, with­out a guide­book or in­struc­tion man­ual this time.

That first board came out heavy and awk­ward, so he made an­other. And an­other. And some­where along the way, as he be­gan to per­fect his craft, peo­ple walk­ing past his house on their way to the Bar­ton Creek green­belt took no­tice. They stopped to ask ques­tions, and one even asked Smith to build him his own stand-up pad­dle­board.

Smith, 34, didn’t re­al­ize it then, but a com­pany was born.

As or­ders stacked up, Smith rented a 3,200-square-foot work­shop off Burleson Road. He spent time there after work, on week­ends and dur­ing his lunch hour, when he’d slip away to shape, sand and pol­ish his glossy boards.

In March 2016, a day after he re­turned from lunch wear­ing a smat­ter­ing of saw­dust, Smith quit his job in fi­nance and made pad­dle­boards his full-time busi­ness. Today, Jarvis Boards (the name comes from Smith’s mid­dle name) em­ploys four full-time work­ers and ships boards to cus­tomers as far away as Canada, Aus­tralia, Nicaragua and Sin­ga­pore. They’ve turned out about 400 sleek, aero­dy­namic-look­ing boards, with wood grain that swirls like the foamed milk on a latte.

“We’re not mak­ing these en masse. It’s a unique niche,” Smith says. “They are works of art in the sense in that no two pieces are ever go­ing to

be the same; each piece of wood has its own grain and pat­tern, and each one is num­bered and signed by the per­son who makes it. I don’t like to lean on that too heav­ily, though, be­cause they are very much func­tional and meant to be used as pad­dle­boards.”

Jarvis Boards are shaped by hand from sheets of paulow­nia wood, which is sim­i­lar to bam­boo but has a higher strength-toweight ra­tio. A spine of darker ma­hogany bi­sects the top side of the board, which is laid over a core of re­cy­cled foam, and strips of cedar cap each end. It takes a month or so to piece, glue, cut, sand, buff, pol­ish and cus­tom­ize each board, which weighs be­tween 26 and 28 pounds. That’s heav­ier than some of the high­end car­bon fiber boards avail­able today, but not as heavy as many of the plas­tic mod­els.

Only about 10 per­cent of the boards, which are sold on­line, stay in Austin. The rest are shipped around the world. They sell for be­tween $1,700 and $2,300 — up to twice the cost of mass-pro­duced plas­tic boards, most of which are made in Tai­wan. The wooden boards, Smith says, are more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, be­cause they’re built mostly of wood in­stead of plas­tic. Even the resin that coats the boards is made of re­cy­cled bio­ma­te­rial.

“A lot of cus­tomers just want unique­ness,” Smith says. “Just the stoke of get­ting new peo­ple into the sport is ex­cit­ing.”

In a back room, a cloud of saw­dust rises around Ivan Scott and Rick Bragg, who wear pro­tec­tive masks as they sand a pair of boards.

It might seem odd that a pad­dle­board com­pany is based in a city with no surf, and no waves other than the ones kicked out by pass­ing boats on the nearby lakes. But the stand-up pad­dle­board scene in Austin is hot, thanks to a cli­mate that makes pad­dling pos­si­ble all year round.

“Peo­ple as­sume it’s sea­sonal, but fall and win­ter are best be­cause it’s cooler and there’s a lot less peo­ple out there,” Smith says.

He still pad­dle­boards sev­eral times a week, head­ing out on Bar­ton Creek or Lady Bird Lake as the sun rises, or in the evening, after the rental shops have closed. It helps him es­cape the buzz of life and plot what comes next for Jarvis Boards, which con­tin­ues to grow.

In 2018, he plans to add surf­boards to the lineup. He may even­tu­ally open deal­er­ships, and he’s con­sid­er­ing of­fer­ing trips so peo­ple can share the ex­pe­ri­ence of stand-up pad­dling. He’s also think­ing of sell­ing make-yourown wooden SUP kits.

Today, he says, it’s not just the sat­is­fac­tion of cre­at­ing a prod­uct from hand that in­spires him. It’s get­ting to know the cus­tomers, and hear­ing the sto­ries be­hind how they use the boards he makes.

With that, he brushes the saw­dust off his shirt.


Tony Smith, owner of Jarvis Boards, pad­dles on Bar­ton Creek to Lady Bird Lake on July 26.

Tony Smith, owner of Jarvis Boards, laughs dur­ing an in­ter­view in his com­pany’s work­shop July 25.

Ivan Scott works epoxy onto a rail of a pad­dle­board at Jarvis Boards’ work­shop July 25. The com­pany hand­crafts wooden stand-up pad­dle­boards and ships them around the globe.


Tony Smith, owner of Jarvis Boards, works on a pad­dle­board July 25. The com­pany hand­crafts wooden stand-up pad­dle­boards and ships them around the globe.

Tony Smith, the owner of Jarvis Boards, pad­dles on Bar­ton Creek to Lady Bird Lake on July 26.

Ivan Scott takes a mea­sure­ment to cen­ter the Jarvis Boards logo on a pad­dle­board at the com­pany’s work­shop July 25. Scott lost part of his right mid­dle fin­ger to a ta­ble saw while con­struct­ing houses.

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