The Ultimate Stoke

Independent longboard shapers ride a small wave to the big time

Photo by Jeanne RiceAfter a generation of innovation, a few surfers are deciding they want no part of the skinny, concave, hard-to-ride shortboards that have become the industry standard. They're going back out to the garage, where surfing started, and they're making longboards, which are what we rode before some slide-rule jockey invented the shortboard.

Two of the disgruntled are Mike Bruno and Ben Butkiewicz of Orange.

These guys didn't invent surfing—some Hawaiian did, centuries ago. They didn't reinvent it, like stellar boarder Duke Kahanamoku in the early 20th Century. And they didn't popularize it like Kathy Kohner Zuckerman and Bill Jensen—Gidget and Moondoggie, respectively—in the 1950s.

Bruno and Butkiewicz, who met less than a year ago and became fast friends, are living surfing as it was 40 years ago—reliving it, basically. They're part of a slowly growing back-to-the-basics trend in surfing.

Working in a makeshift shed they fashioned from information wrestled away from other cautious, taciturn shapers (secrets are zealously guarded), the two young men are learning to shape their own longboards.

"I've always wanted to shape boards. I got into the sport—and I really got into it," said Bruno, 36, as he drives us over to meet Butkiewicz at the men's shed. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to surf all day and then shape boards?'"

That's exactly what Bruno is doing: he lives with his mother in a condo they own and works 40 hours per week at Trader Joe's so he can spend his free time surfing or shaping. Butkiewicz is slightly more encumbered by life's trappings: he's married, has a house and works in the freight business with his dad.

Yet both men mark time until they can shape again.

"It's fun," Butkiewicz, 26, said when I met him. "It's the whole lifestyle."

It's not about the money; when they do occasionally sell a board, they charge around $300 to cover costs—not the $700 or so you'll pay at any of Orange County's finer surf shops. And so far, Bruno and Butkiewicz have made less than 50 boards combined. Surf lore holds that you must make at least 100 boards before you master the craft—but some in the industry say the true number should be far higher. They also say you can save a lot of money shaping boards—but they know that's not why these guys are doing it.

"People started finding out, 'Hey, I can go out in crappy surf on a longboard and still have fun.' It brought back in people who had surfed in the '60s and '70s. Now it's gone to this retro thing, where people are riding longboards and boards from the '70s," says surfboard blank seller Brad Nadell of Westminster's Foam E-Z. "Garage guys like to make boards like that."

Longboards are easy to make; they have gentle side curves and shallow concavities that are simple to trace and shape with sanders and scrapers. They're also docile in the water, unlike shortboards, whose thin, sharp noses and dramatically arched profiles make them faster but more unstable—and tough to fashion.

Shortboards still rule the majority of surfing contests, however—and likely will never be unseated. Likewise, independent shapers scarcely register on the industry's radar. Its latest move has been to farm out shaping to anonymous factories in Taiwan. Consumer costs drop, of course, but Butkiewicz and Bruno say the Taiwanese boards ride like petrified wood—part of the reason they started shaping in the first place.

The other part, they tell me in their plywood shack, where I'm dazzled by the fluorescent lights they use to gauge their work, is the fun. As much fun as they say shaping is—and I agree 'cause I've done my own bodywork, basically shaping a car—watching somebody else ride a board you made is better.

"Even better than that is seeing your friend come screaming down the wave on the nose," Butkiewicz said.

Bruno interrupted: "It's the ultimate stoke."

Interested in acquiring a hand-shaped board? Mike Bruno can be reached at (714) 325-9837; Need supplies? Foam E-Z has what you need to make a surfboard. It's at 6341 Industry Way, Ste. I, Westminster, (714) 896-8233; www.foamez.com.

tdouglas@ocweekly.com

 
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