Josh Martin hand-shapes surfboards from polyurethane foam, EPS foam [the foam you see in TV packaging], balsa wood, and giant sequoia wood that fell in storms and has been legally harvested. Hobbyist surfers and professional competitors, such as Rachael Tilly, order custom-made boards from Josh's shop - Martin Shapes.
Shaping runs in his family. His father, Terry Martin, is a legend in the surfing world. He hand-shaped roughly 80,000 boards in his lifetime and made a living just from shaping boards. When his father started shaping, they used drawknives to rough shape the board. These days, Josh says that about 95% of the boards sold today are mass produced from CNC machines and computers. Here is his story.
The Human Machine
I don’t use CNC equipment or a computer. Everything is handheld. I do use power tools but I use it with my hands. The guys who used drawknives would say using a planer is cheating, but in today’s standards it would be considered a hand-shaped surfboard.
I started shaping boards in 1986. In 1988, I got an order from JC Penny to build these display board. It was less than half of what I would normally get paid at that time to build a board. I was really hesitant about taking the job, but when I asked my dad what he thought about it, he said that I should take the job. “You have to make 650 of these and they all have to be the same. You’ll develop and a system and an approach to replicating a surfboard. The shaping tool will be an extension of your arm. You’ll basically learn how to be a human machine and just replicate stuff."
I took the job and was grumpy about it, but I completed the order. I was 19 years old. Now, when I come down here, it’s just really fun [huge grin on his face]. The planer is a part of me. Am I systematic? Am I artistic? This is an example of being really artistic [as he points to an atypical board called a "hot curl"]. There is no other surfboard like that. I made that yesterday. I wouldn’t be able to do this efficiently if I didn’t have those good systems and habits in place. It allows me to have the freedom to be artistic in my approach. So the two come together.
This board doesn’t have a motor. The surf is the motor. Once you buy the surfboard, it’s free. The ocean’s free. The waves are free. You get to go out participate in nature, with the energy and the ocean. The wind and the water traveled from the other side of the world. You see the wave being pushed toward you, and you turn around, propel yourself and catch and participate with this energy… and it’s all free. When you make a good shape, that has a lot of shape, they fit down in the wave and you can really feel it catch the wave root of energy. It’s just a really fun way to experience... God’s creation.
It’s not so much about the product and shape. It’s about the person. I get all these different people and they have all these different experiences. Like there's Rachael Tilly who loves to compete. There are doctors who like to surf. And other people just like to be free from responsibilities and just travel. You get all these walks of life.
To me shaping is just a connection point for the people.
I’ve had people ask me, “What about Costco? They sell those Wavestorm boards for really cheap, $100. Isn’t that competition? Isn’t that gonna put you out of business?” I go, “Nahhhh.” They might sell a hundred of those boards down there and two or three of those people fall in love with surfing and eventually, they come to me. [laughs] To me, they’re just advertising, really. And again, it comes back to the people.
What do you think it takes to be a surfboard shaper?
I think you have to be the kind of a person that likes to create. There are people that take their car into the mechanic to be fixed. Then there are people who like fix it themselves. I’m the type of person who’d fix their own car. I’m interested in how it works, why it works the way it does. But then, I also see other people with a different personality type and it works for them. For me, I like to build stuff. I build shift knobs and jewelry with any leftover resin I have laying around. I made chopsticks out of the sequoia after hollowing out a board. I don’t like to waste anything.
As I hung around the shop, waiting for Josh to finish planing the board, a customer came by. I said, "You can go ahead," as if I was letting him go ahead of me in line to see Josh. This older gentleman with a white curly beard (maybe he's a Santa Claus of surfing!) leaned over to me and said, "You don't disturb an artist at work." Ah, of course. We both waited until the planer was silenced to chat with Josh. While we were waiting, Santa told me all about the board he had ordered from Josh - the hot curl.