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A Brief History of (Self) Shaping


We asked for suggestions on our first blog topic and one of the first we received, which seemed too fitting to pass up, was a history of shaping.


The first shaper, of course, had to come before the first surfer, but unsurprisingly in the world of surf (before Instagram...) neither of these "firsts" are accurately documented and are therefore a matter of debate. It's commonly believed that surfing originated in Hawaii or one of the other many Polynesian islands, first documented by the (in)famous Capt. James Cook's crew on their voyage to Tahiti (1768-1771). However, some would argue that the earliest documentation of "men riding waves" goes back as early as 1000BC, to Peruvians using the waves to bring their fishing boats back into shore.


Regardless of which camp you choose, the fact remains that those earliest surf-vessels were made of wood and carved -- rather roughly by todays standards-- into surfable shapes by hand, presumably with simple metal and/or stone tools. It was most common for each surfer to harvest their own tree and then to carve it into their own design (within the limitations of the social hierarchy, which limited peasants to shorter bodyboard-like crafts leaving the 16+ foot stand-up longboards of those days to the king).


Upon the traveling "white-man's" discovery of surfing, the new recreational activity started to spread outward, geographically, from Polynesia with astoundingly far reaches (President Teddy Roosevelt even got into it!), which inherently raised the demand for surfboards and shapers. Many shapers began selling to friends and then their local communities as their work became more popular. In economic terms, demand was much higher than supply in these days, so the heavy wooden boards were tough to come by, leading to new shapers rising in each community as surfing began to spread there. It was most common for shapers to open a surf shop (that stocked more surfboards than T-shirts if you can believe that..) with a show-room in the front and a surfboard factory out back.


In the 1930's much lighter balsa wood became a shaper's preferred choice of material versus the 90-100+ lb. hardwood boards of the past (koa, wiliwili, and redwood were the common options previously). Advances in technology that came as a result of the second World War then lead to the first fiberglass surfboard in 1946. This first board was surprisingly a completely hollow shell except for a wooded frame, the the first foam-core "sandwich construction" surfboard came shortly after in 1949.


It astounds me that this is true, but that 1949 sandwich construction of foam encased in a fiberglass shell is still the industry standard nearly 70 years later. The ultra-light foam replaced wood as the material that a shaper would carve into a finished product, which vastly simplified the shaping process and greatly progressed surfing as a result. Shapers could carve through the material with less force, which allowed faster, easier, and more precise production that led to fairly rapid diversification of surfboard design in the following decades. Boards got (and are still getting) shorter and shorter, leading to famous designs like fish, stingers, Pipeline gun tube-shooters, and ultimately the high-performance boards we're so used to seeing today.


While shaping has progressed through many seasons, materials, styles, and technological advances (we'll talk about machine shapes another time (-__-) ), many things have remained the same. At it's core, shaping is a craftsman using his tools to design and build something that will evoke a positive feeling and provide many ecstatic moments for it's end-user. Surf culture in almost every surfing town has largely been defined by the local shaper in that he studied the local waves and decided to give the local people the ability to ride those waves most effectively.


I think there's a deep beauty in that; somehow having a personal connection to the board that you're using to surf your local break seems to enhance the entire experience. That experience isn't as common as it used to be, but those who know it and appreciate it can't let it go, and I certainly don't intend to let that disappear.

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