From Wollongong to California: Investigating surf culture and the surfboard industry

As part of a recent trip to the US attending and presenting at the world's largest geographers conference (AAG), I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a week in southern California researching local surf culture and surfboard industry. As part of an examination into changes enveloping the surfboard market I was able to link up with three well known American shapers: Tim from Bessell Surfboards, Terry from Senate Surfboards and Greg from Sauritch Surfboards.

I spent an entire day with each business observing the fabrication process for their boards, asking questions about skill development, evolution of the local industry and chatting about surf culture in general. In parallel with my research in Wollongong, I found that surfboard making in California is undergoing widespread change away from hand shaping towards computer profiling. This is most definitely an international shift, placing great pressure on smaller, locally operated surfboard makers who have traditionally worked only with their hands.

Most of these tensions relate to economies of scale and the ability for local businesses to 'tap' into export markets in emerging surfing countries in Asia, Europe and South America. A skilled hand shaper can produce eight boards or so per week, while a computer-profiling machine can punch out 150 or more. 

Hand shaping is very labour intensive and skills are developed over an entire career. The software controlling the profiling machines only requires the boards dimensions for it to work, taking barely 15 minutes to do a board. Each of the three local California businesses had much in common with the workshops I am researching here in Wollongong; similar numbers of workers employed, similar workshop layouts, same specialised tools for shaping, similar stories of informal skill development and vented disappointment at the direction of the surf industry in general.

So with a mountain of interview transcripts, photos and diary notes I have more than enough 'new' information for my PhD thesis. Over the next few months I will be writing the results of my work into a journal article (maybe two) and chapter for my thesis. I will post these up once their drafted for those interested to have read of. Until then here are some pics of my time with the California surfboard makers. 

Attachment(click to download)
Meeting the guys from Terry Senate' workshop in San Clemente, California.132.27 KB
Terry Senate 121.98 KB
Tim Bessell at work on shaping a rail83.93 KB
Tim cutting the blank103.33 KB
Greg Sauritch showing me where the creative process begins...with a blank114.71 KB
Greg making sure the board is symmetrical89.22 KB
Final minute touches to the rails83.93 KB
The San Clemente Pier, a favourite local surf spot150.21 KB