One Kook's Safari > Shape matters

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 Brian Wynn at his shop in Egg Harbor Township says he has probably shaped a few thousand boards so far. Brian Wynn at his shop in Egg Harbor Township says he has probably shaped a few thousand boards so far.

Every element of a board makes a difference in the ride

Back in the days when missionaries were chastising the Hawaiians to stop wasting all that time playing in the waves, there was only one material for surfboards: wood.

Keep in mind that those Hawaiian riders, who were keeping alive an ancient Polynesian pastime, didn’t even have fins on their boards. They were skilled boat builders – I mean, I’d imagine they’d have to be – so they understood float and currents and how materials move in the water. But what they were riding was dramatically different from the surfboard you can grab off the rack these days.

The fin wasn’t added until the 1930s, reportedly by Tom Blake in Waikiki, using the skeg from an old speedboat.

These days the waves are the same, but the materials in the surfboards are dramatically different. Some people continue to shape wooden surfboards (many of them are just lovely) and there are a few bamboo models commercially available. On the other end of the spectrum, Hydroflex has introduced a carbon fiber board. The company plans on offering a model for $1,500. There are also soft boards that are a little safer for beginners, but we’ll leave them aside for now.

But for the most part, the boards you’re going to see in the waves will have a foam core coated in fiberglass, often with a lightweight piece of wood running up the middle for strength, known as a stringer.

The body of the board will either be epoxy or poly. Epoxy boards are made with a hard resin over a core of expanded polystyrene, a very lightweight foam material. The brand name building material Styrofoam is made from a kind of polystyrene. So are those clamshell containers for leftovers that environmentalists so loathe.

Poly boards, made from a polyester resin, are the most common kind of shaped surfboard. The buoyant resin is then glassed, or coated in fiberglass.

The epoxy is both lighter and stronger, said local shaper Brian Wynn, but they’re also more rigid and more expensive. You are more likely to snap an epoxy board.

The choice comes down to your budget, and what you want to do with your board. It turns out there are a lot of choices to make, and each one will have an impact on how the board behaves in the wave.

Taking a break on a sunny morning near his backyard shop in Egg Harbor Township, Wynn was happy to talk boards while customers trickled in to collect their custom orders. He also has some boards at Heritage shops and a couple of others, but said he has been careful not to grow the business too fast and let the quality drop. He has one full-time employee and another working part time over the summer. It’s not like he can train a shaper in an afternoon, he said.

“There’s not a lot of skilled labor around,” Wynn said. “If I had a lot of shops I would probably go belly up.”

Most of his customers have a pretty good idea of what they want, he said, but he’ll work with them on choosing a board based on their size and body type, skills, what waves they want to catch and other factors.

Aside from deciding on a longboard or shortboard (or something in between), there are a lot of variables, and each one comes with compromises. Every element of the shaping affects performance.

Too much rocker, or the amount of curve in the bottom of the board, will slow you down paddling, but too little and you can’t make that bottom turn. A narrower board will move faster, but you sacrifice float and stability. Wynn said one of the biggest mistakes he sees is boards without enough float for their riders, which he said will hurt their surfing.

Still, just about any board will work, he said. Think about bodysurfing: The human body is not exactly hydrodynamic, but it will catch a wave, he said. The idea is to get the board that will best suit the waves you’re riding and your style.

Most of us end up buying the one we can afford. That’s usually a factory-shaped board from somewhere very, very far away.  A signed Brian Wynn custom board. A signed Brian Wynn custom board.

“It’s a cheap way to get into the sport. I can’t really say I blame them,” Wynn said.

If you keep surfing, though, you’re eventually going to want a custom board. In some circles, there’s a stigma to riding a mass-produced board.

“And besides, there’s definitely something to be said for an American-made product,” he said.

Wynn’s boards have been all over the world, but most of his customers are locals.

“A lot of my clients do a lot of traveling, so they kind of find their way around,” Wynn said.

Like most shapers, Wynn started out shaping boards for himself and his friends.

“I was kind of at a crossroads in my life. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said. Boards were his passion. “Basically I didn’t have anything tying me down. I drove out West.”

He ended up spending years working as a shaper in San Diego, learning the trade, before eventually coming home and launching his own business.

New shapers are cropping up all the time, Wynn said, adding, “a lot of them have T-shirts and stickers before they have five boards under their belts.”

He said it takes shaping about a thousand boards to really know what you’re doing. He said he is not sure how many he has done, but estimates it’s more than 2,000 at this point. And he said he is still learning all the time.

Now there are numerous tutorials for learning shapers available online, but Wynn said that when he started, most shapers had to find someone to learn from, or else try to figure it out. The blanks shapers start with are more or less surfboard-shaped to begin with, he said, but he suggested a poorly shaped board will hold back your surfing.

Wynn’s boards start at about $500; the price is based on size, materials, color and other factors.

He has a website, wynnsurfboards.com, and said the best way to reach him is through email, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . 


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