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DESIGN : Woodwork and Waves : Scott Dunning creates elaborate inlays to blend with high-tech surfboard materials.

August 04, 1995|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The surfboards that clutter this small Topanga Canyon workshop appear to have survived from a lost era. Their decks gleam with koa wood, the stuff of Hawaiian royalty. And the man who presides over them, polishing, fussing, has something of the ancients in his countenance. Not just his gray beard and deep-set eyes. A frown creases his face. He says: "Either I've found peace in my life or I'm a burned-out hippy from the '60s."

Closer inspection reveals his handiwork to be more than an anachronism, more than the tinkering of a lost soul. The sleek hulls and fins of these watercraft are formed from Kevlar and carbon. In a soft voice, Scott Dunning speaks of the energy-flex characteristics of extruded polystyrene.

"What we have here," he says, "is an integration of Old World craftsmanship with new-age technology."

In other words, these surfboards seek to incorporate beauty and performance. These artworks are meant to bust off the lip of an angry wave.

The notion is not revolutionary. Other board-shapers have experimented with hybrids. Dunning, for his part, takes the process a step further by using aerospace materials. And he has committed 15 years to the pursuit.

Only recently have these Topanga Wooden Sticks begun to sell--for as much as $1,500--mostly to friends. But Dunning's dedication puts him in good stead with the surfing community. Longboard magazine recently dubbed him a "latter-day surfing Gepetto." Even if some surfers view his creations with skepticism, this is a subculture that values commitment.

"He hasn't met with a ton of success but he's kept at it," says Robbie Dick, a respected shaper who lives down the canyon. "And what he does is quite incredible. It's art."

*

From the beginning, at surfing's point of origin in Oceania, board-shaping was considered sacred. Eighteenth-Century Hawaiians placed red kumu fish at the base of a selected koa or wiliwili tree, according to "Surfing, the Ultimate Pleasure," a history of the sport written in 1984 by Leonard Lueras. After prayers, carvers hacked out a rough version of the board on site.

Boards continued to be made of various woods, including redwood and balsa, for decades after. World War II innovations gave the surfboard its current form: a polyurethane core covered in fiberglass. Modern boards are lighter and more maneuverable, and it is doubtful that many surfers would choose to return to the old ways. But the lore of the blessed wood remains. So, over the last 30 years, various shapers have sought to combine that aura with updated capabilities.

A carpenter by trade, Dunning stumbled upon this path in the late 1970s when, on a lark, Dick used hardwood veneer to decorate the top of a paddleboard.

"Scott really got his eye on that," says Amaury Scognamillo, who owns the Topanga Surf House, a tiny shop tucked beside the town's hardware store. "He decided to push the idea."

Like Dick, Dunning started with a paddleboard. Next, he took a ruined surfboard, shaved the fiberglass skin off and placed veneer against the foam. Subsequent experiments incorporated cherry and maple inlays in the shapes of sailing ships and dolphins.

There were plenty of mistakes along the way. Some boards did not surf well because of flaws in their shape. Others delaminated and became lumpy.

Friends helped. Dick offered hints on working with the polyurethane. Scognamillo suggested different fiberglass techniques. And an acquaintance named Sergio Toro, who worked at a Santa Monica aviation company, showed Dunning how to use high-tech materials to make the boards even lighter.

They substituted polystyrene for the traditional foam. Instead of wrapping this core in structural fiberglass, they tried Kevlar and carbon. And they used vacuum lamination to add tension to these composites and squeeze out excess resin, striving for a stiffer and more durable bond.

The cost of these materials and processes boosted the price tag on his boards to more than $1,000. Scognamillo says with a cringe: "How many surfers can afford that?" Again, it comes down to commitment. Dunning persevered.

*

These days, dozens of boards hang from the walls of Dunning's workshop. Some are for sale, others are personal treasures. "I enjoy this room so much," he says, finishing a bellyboard that will be shipped to a customer on the East Coast.

The woodwork is growing more intricate, with maple and cherry inlays that form pictures of island sunsets, whales and fairies. Dunning--given to waxing poetic about anything from the tides to freeway traffic--says: "Sitting out there on a piece of wood, in the ocean, there is something primal about it."

But the beauty of the wood, he frets, threatens to outshine practical application.

"These boards might look too pretty to surf," he says. "But it has to be more than art. It has to be more than history. Believe me, they ride."

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