This June, we pay our aptly tribute to the sun, sea and sand, while daydreaming about riding some waves. The ecstasy of surfing is a personal experience that no adjectives in the dictionary could satisfactorily describe. What’s better than surfing though? Surfing on a board that you create from scratch with your hands. Few have the privilege to experience that and Tien is one of them.
To be more specific, Tien makes hollow wooden surfboards. This old-school craft encompasses his love for woodworking, experimenting and surfing. As we checked out his little workshop space in his humble flat, he filled us in on making surfboards, his passion for surfing and working with his hands.
Nookmag (N): First and foremost, why wooden surfboards? What sparked off the interest?
Tien (T): I have always tinkered. As a kid, I played around with skateboards, bicycles, model airplanes…taking apart stuff and trying to put it back together. I would be changing it all up and trying to improve or customise things. Surfing started late for me. It wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered the joy of riding waves. At that stage, I had been skateboarding, windsurfing and wakeboarding. Exploring the surfboards that I rode was a natural extension of the sport, just like trying different boards, fin configurations and fixing up damaged boards. I never really got into shaping (surf industry term for building a fiberglass surfboard) because the process of constructing fiberglass polyester (PU) surfboard is messy, toxic and generally unpleasant. Wooden surfboards are nothing new. The whole thing started with solid wooden planks and progressed to hollow boards and balsa chambered boards. When plastic was invented, it was cheaper, lighter and faster. PU and epoxy boards are more or less the industry standard these days.
A few years back I saw a hollow wooden board and it intrigued me. I considered buying it to try but decided not to until I found more information about it. I found a wealth of information after searching online. The short version of the story is that I enrolled for a wooden surfboard class with Grain in Maine. It was a two-week class and the experience from that opened up an opportunity for me to combine two loves of mine – woodworking and surfboards.
N: Tell us more about the process of building a hollow wooden board.
T: It starts from scratch and it took me awhile to learn everything. It begins from an idea in my head about the board I want to build. From there, I design the internal ribs and stringers using on the computer. Sourcing wood for the boards can be easy if I buy pre-cut lumber off-the-shelf but what’s more challenging is sorting out recycled or unique lumber in its raw state and cutting it down. The actual duration of building a board can be as quick as two weeks but if you consider the whole process from the start and finishing it with epoxy, it can take two to three months per board. All my boards are tested in the surf and tweaked.
N: In this age of technology, how are wooden surfboards relevant and adored?
T: Wooden surfboards are different from PU and epoxy boards. They ride different, feel different and look different. To me, they feel alive and look beautiful. What makes each board special is the idea that it is made with wood and built with detail and love, unlike mass produced plastic surfboards. Having said that, there is still a place for PU boards. I still ride them. The modern performance surfboard has evolved to a very precise craft. On certain waves and conditions, it’s hard to beat a very well-shaped PU surfboard. My ambition is to build a wooden surfboard that can match that.
If you take into account the cost and more importantly, the time taken to build a hollow wooden surfboard, you’ll understand why it is not the industry standard but I have faith. There are a few brave individuals out there who are experimenting with other possibilities and greener alternatives. In time, I hope to see a change.
The whole recycling thing got me thinking about going green with surfing. The industry started out with wood, went into plastic and never looked back. The reason we never looked back is because the industry has formed it that way. I’ve tried shaping boards. A regular PU board with foam would take a shaper about 30 to 40 minutes. Less experienced shapers would probably take a couple of hours. Someone else would continue glassing it. If you order a surfboard today, it’s possible to be done in 24 hours. That’s how quick it is. In a factory assembly line, it’s even faster. They’re pumping out mass produced boards in China and Thailand. But surfers are fussy in a way. They want high-performance; some want custom boards; some still believe in handmade boards done by an actual person. Designing a board on the computer is also part of the industry standard. Traditionally, it was a guy in a room shaping a piece of foam using a ruler to measure and all that. Now, they place a shaped board in a machine that laser-measures it and refines it. The shape and specifications goes back to the computer and they use these details, they can mass produce the board anywhere in the world.
N: Chasing waves epitomises the spirit of being free and fearless. How can you relate to that?
T: Surfing is a very personal experience for me. It’s my hobby, sport, lifestyle and addiction. Yes, when I started, I was hooked and sometimes I wish I could re-live that feeling of catching my first wave. Some of my best memories are learning to surf in small and windy waves with my good friends in Malaysia. I have surfed mostly in Indonesia, Maldives and Australia and have also visited California, Fiji, Cornwall and Sri Lanka. They were all good. But the sport has changed and sometimes, it can get crowded out at sea. Frustration would set in due to the combination of surf conditions and the crowds. It’s also because my expectations are too high at times.
The feeling of building my own surfboard and then riding it is an experience that I still hunger for. Every board that I finish and take out to sea gives me that sense of anticipation. If it works well, I’d get a very strong sense of satisfaction. Even surfboards that don’t work are beneficial as I learn from the mistakes. The only way to be sure if anything would work on a surfboard is to build it and try it. Quite a few innovations in our sport were results of “accidents” in the shaping bay and individuals who thought outside the box and tried something different.
N: What other craft do you indulge in?
T: I also customise motorcycles – an expensive indulgence. I build skateboards, cigar box guitars and other small items. I play a little guitar and banjo. I have two beautiful dogs that love to swim. I’m also very lucky to have a beautiful wife, Cheryl, who probably surfs better than I do and shares the same love for the ocean.
N: What’s the significance of working with your hands?
T: Hand crafted boards will always be different. Most people like things that are hand crafted because they are individualistic. For me, I enjoy the whole process of it. I also enjoy the care and the workmanship that can be seen in the board. Most wooden surfboards are handmade to a certain extent. Most foam surfboards are machined and then hand-finished.
Computer-shaped boards have really exact measurements. The left and right are symmetrical – they are exactly the same. Hand-shaped boards are slightly off. But an experienced shaper once told me that the water doesn’t know if a board is slightly off by 1cm or 0.5cm.
N: What has the ocean taught you?
T: Naturally, because that’s our playground, it will always teach you to cherish the ocean. Most of us would be more conscious about the environment and the ocean. There’s nothing more unpleasant than paddling out in dirty polluted waters, which I have done many times. One of the joys when you paddle out is that you leave all your problems behind – it’s cliché but it’s true. Most of the time, it’s fun. There’s another side of surfing that I enjoy is when the surf gets bigger and more challenging, and you get the adrenaline rush. It does make you feel very small. It feels like you’re a little toothpick in boiling water and you’re scrambling to get past the wave because you don’t want to get held down or smashed. At that moment, you’re living the moment. You’re not thinking of your problems and you get humbled. I enjoy that sometimes. When you get out of the water, you feel happy that you’ve achieved something. When you’re exposed to the elements like big waves, strong currents and storms, it teaches you to respect Mother Nature and powers of the ocean.
The on-going problem with pollution still saddens me sometimes. How people mistreat the ocean by throwing rubbish in there, overfishing, rampant development…