In the back of his Ventura surf shop, Stan Fujii stepped away from the foam plank he had been sculpting and eyed the shadows that a row of fluorescent lights were casting on the long, white slab.
He already had shaved off several inches of polyurethane with an electric plane, a grinding motion that left his bare arms and legs coated in a fine powder. The deeper cuts he made had sent large chips spewing to the floor, where they collected like mounds of shredded coconut.
But as Fujii peered out over a surgical mask, his gaze was set on what remained: the emerging lines of a new surfboard, one that the 36-year-old craftsman hoped would ride atop local waves with the same artistry that he had lent to thousands of boards before it.
"There are a lot of shapers who can shape surfboards, but there are very few who can put the soul in it," said Fujii, a shaper since 1970. "It's like a love situation. There's nothing tangible or quantitative. All the things just come together in a combination that's magical to you."
Keeping Art Alive
About a dozen others like Fujii, in small workshops along the Ventura County coast, are keeping alive this handcrafted art of transforming foam boards into the stuff of California's most romanticized sport.
Like builders of fine musical instruments, their products are almost always customized to the needs of their customers, so much that a shaper will want to know a surfer's height, weight, surfing style and the kind of waves he is most likely to seek.
But unlike a symphony-caliber violin, a good board can be had for about $300, a price that allows even fledgling surfers to tote around a custom-made, expertly designed model.
"Surfboard shapers are the gurus of the sport," said Sam George, senior editor of the San Clemente-based Surfing Magazine. "They are the most influential and indispensable people. Good shapers in an area take on almost mythical proportions."
Take Allen Main, a 35-year-old Ventura shaper, who has been sculpting boards for nearly 20 years, most recently under the "Breezin" label. His devoted following includes Davey Miller, who at 27 is the highest-ranking professional surfer ever to hail from Ventura County.
Boards Are 'Magic'
"I've never ridden boards that are magic the way his are," said Miller, who lives in Ventura but spends half the year hunting Hawaii's largest waves. "His boards can do no wrong. When I ride them, they're a part of me."
Or there's Steve Huerta, 37, of Oxnard, who has been shaping for about 12 years and has his own "Huerta" label. One of his best surfers, Don Solomon, a top amateur competitor in the state, said he wouldn't ride anything else.
"They're really positive and flowing," said the 18-year-old Solomon, a high school senior in Thousand Oaks. "I like the way they feel when I take off on a wave. They let me be really fluid and do radical maneuvers."
And Fujii, who tends to specialize in older designs for the area's veteran surfers, can claim followers like Mike Smith, 40, who has been riding the shaper's boards for more than 15 years.
"We surf together. He knows me," said Smith, president of Smith Oil Co. in Ventura. "I don't have to even go in the shop. He just says, 'I know what you need.' "
The making of a surfboard, a process that can range from 10 days to several weeks, begins with the polyurethane-based slabs known to shapers as "blanks." Purchased almost exclusively from the South Laguna firm of Clark Foam Products, the blanks come in about 50 styles and lengths intended to approximate the dimensions of the finished board.
Each shaper, however, has his own ideas about how much foam should be shaved off and where. While most use templates to help them consistently produce some standard design features, the final cuts are always judgment calls that only the eye and the heart can guide.
Those decisions may affect the lengthwise arc of the board's belly, or "rocker," the degree of angle, or "V-depth," found sideways along the bottom or the sharpness of the board's edges, or "rails."
Translated into the realities of surf and swell, such factors will give a board the looseness it needs to skate across the small, fast waves of Silverstrand, the stability to hold its own on a big, sloping wave near Surfer's Point or the edge to carve back and forth across any swell's face.
Once shaped, most of the boards are sent to be finished by a specialist, who adds a coat of fiberglass and hard, clear resin.
"You're looking for every measurement to be in harmony with everything," said Fujii, owner of the Ventura Surf Shop. "But you cannot put down measurements and say, 'That's going to be a magic board.' It's a very momentary thing. It's an XYZ factor."
By contrast, the predecessors of today's boards were as simple as ABC. Carved from giant redwood slabs in the 1950s, surfing's dinosaurs sometimes measured as long as 12 feet and weighed in at 80 pounds.