Terry Martin shaped his first surfboard in his San Diego garage as a junior high school student in 1952. He has been riding that wave ever since.
Martin, now 58, is a shaper for Stewart Surfboards in San Clemente and an important cog in the multimillion-dollar surfing industry. He estimates he has created 30,000 surfboards since 1963, when he began working professionally.
"There are no seasons in this business anymore. It's all year 'round," said Martin, who lives with his family in Capistrano Beach. "They'd like you to work eight days a week."
Martin does his board shaping in a cramped cave of a work space in the deep reaches of the bustling Stewart shop on South El Camino Real, not far from the famed surfing areas of Cotton's Point, Trestles and San Onofre.
His skills and longevity have made him a respected name in a trade little known outside the surfing world. Professional surfers tend to get the cash and the glory while most shapers, although revered by those who ride their boards, toil in relative obscurity.
"A handful of the shapers have made names for themselves, but I'm more interested in the satisfaction of doing it, satisfying the customer and myself, personally," said Martin, who works daily alongside Herbie Fletcher, Mickey Munoz and Phil Edwards--all noted shapers who first won their fame as surfers. "I love doing what I do."
The master shaper is the artist, the sculptor, the first tradesman in a surfboard production line. He is the one who takes a rectangular block of manufactured foam from a factory machine and carves it into a functioning vehicle for riding waves. It is a trade that is still performed mostly by hand, requiring few tools: A handsaw, power planes, hand planes and sanding blocks.
"I wanted to create. I knew I wanted to be a part of this industry and I . . . wanted to work with a form," Martin said. "You have glassers, laminators, hot coaters and polishers in this business. I'm in there making the thing they work to."
Lightweight foam is the material of choice today, but the early shapers used balsa wood and redwood for their surfboards. A continuing quest for a lighter material had Martin experimenting with oddities such as cactus, yucca and century plants for surfboards.
"It was a matter of always thinking, 'What would happen? What could you use that wouldn't be so heavy?' " Martin said. "To take somebody's trash and make a surfboard out of it, that's a gas."
Martin's professional career took off when he walked into the old Hobie Surfboard shop on Coast Highway in Dana Point in 1963 and informed Hobie Alter that he was a shaper and was available. Alter hired the persistent Martin a few months later. Martin wound up working for Hobie, one of the industry's early giants, for 20 years.
"I figured if it was possible to make a living at it, I'm going with the biggest one," Martin said. "I packed my wife and son up in a car one day and drove up to Dana Point from San Diego and just walked into the shop. I said, "Hobie, come here" and I walked out to show him a board I had made. He followed me. I didn't think he would. I told him, 'If you hire me, I'll be one of your best.' "
In the years since, the industry has grown beyond anyone's expectations, said Martin, who has traveled as far as Japan, where surfing is booming, to shape boards. He figures he shapes 1,200 to 1,500 boards a year.
"It's not just the East Coast and West Coast, it's international. We get orders from Italy, Spain, even from Vietnam."
But the sport has not become so big that the term "custom" has been lost, Martin said. He's happy to talk to a buyer directly about what he wants in his surfboard, just as he always does with professional surfers.
"I have pros who have been riding my boards for years. You develop a trust. They come in and are right there when I'm making their board. We just have a jam session. We work together until they get what they want. That's rewarding. The day-to-day stock production, that keeps you in shape for doing this operation with a pro surfer," Martin said.
Unlike many shapers, Martin surfs only rarely, because a motorcycle accident in his youth left him with a permanently scarred ankle. So he has to speak with surfers to generate his shaping ideas.
"I talk to the surfers quite a bit. I always pump them for what works and what doesn't. I rely on a lot of feedback," he said.
But his ultimate satisfaction comes from the living that shaping has provided him. Martin has been able to live by the beach with his family, and his wife has never had to work.
"I take this seriously. If you don't master what you are doing, you don't enjoy it very much. I've gotten so it's a piece of cake for me. If you are not working mentally, you don't get tired physically. That's how I like it. I can work every day."
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Profile: Terry Martin
Residence: Capistrano Beach
Family: Wife, Candy, two sons and a daughter
Education: Point Loma High School graduate
Began shaping surfboards: 1952
Number of boards shaped: Estimated 30,000
Activity: Member of the House-to-House Christian Fellowship of San Clemente
Attitude: "My satisfaction doesn't come from going out there and seeing someone with a board that's got my name on it. It's from doing what I do best, and that this makes my family happy . . . and then going home and not having to think about this place [work]. That's what makes me happy."
Source: Terry Martin; Researched by LEN HALL / Los Angeles Times