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Finding soul in the shape

Terry Martin has been handcrafting surfboards since 1963. But as machines take over, the Dana Point legend fears the art is a dying wave.

July 03, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

SCULPTORS have an ability to see a work of art hidden inside an amorphous block of stone. Terry Martin has that X-ray vision. Only his medium is rigid foam, and inside each slab is a surfboard waiting to be liberated.

On this day, Martin is studying a rectangle of polyurethane in his Dana Point workshop. It's a cramped closet redolent of resin, with deep-blue walls and slits of fluorescent light that cast the white foam in sharp relief.

"I like to sneak up on it like a detective," the 69-year-old said. He grabs a dull handsaw he has owned since 1963 and starts cutting. "People don't understand what goes into making a surfboard. It's not something that can just be pumped out of a machine. Where's the soul in that?"

Martin is making a 9-foot-6-inch longboard. He puts on protective earphones and fires up an electric planer that's as heavy as a dumbbell, a Skil 100 model favored by surfboard shapers that was discontinued long ago.

He glides back and forth along the block, his fingers adjusting the depth of the planer's blade with each pass, his sandaled feet performing a dance so that he is always applying the proper pressure. Then it's on to a series of ever-finer sheets of sandpaper and wire netting. With his barrel chest and thick white beard, Martin is Santa moving through a blizzard of foam dust.

Over the next hour, a surfboard takes form like a ship emerging from a foggy harbor.

Martin estimates he has hand-shaped more than 50,000 surfboards over the last 55 years. He's a legend in the tightknit fraternity of the world's master shapers, men who learned their craft through long apprenticeships.

He's also an endangered species.

The custom hand-shaped surfboard is a Southern California icon as integral to the region's culture as palm trees are to its skyline. But some fear the craft is fading as mass production and a flood of imports revolutionize surfboards in ways not seen since the 1950s, when polyurethane replaced wood as the primary building material.

A decade ago, an estimated 80% of surfboards sold in the United States were completely hand-shaped. Today, it's estimated that less than 20% are hewed by hand -- some suspect far less.

"It's becoming a lost art," Martin said.

Surfing is steeped in tradition and the mystique of secret surf spots, once-in-a-lifetime waves and magic boards. A surfboard imbued with the touch of its shaper is the conduit between a rider and nature.

"The whole culture of surfing is based around the handmade board and the relationship between the surfer and the shaper," said Surfer's Journal publisher Steve Pezman, an avid surfer and student of the sport's history. "The sport is losing a component of its charm."

MARTIN was 14 when he made his first board out of redwood and balsa salvaged from a San Diego lumberyard's scrap heap. The 10-foot-6-inch board was far lighter and more maneuverable than the heavy battleships most guys rode in 1952. Word got around, and Martin started making them in his father's garage.

After high school, Martin worked in construction, shipbuilding and as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman. Bored, he gravitated back to making surfboards. But with a wife and a child, he needed a steady income.

In 1963, he begged Hobie Alter, Orange County's pioneering surf shop owner, to hire him as a shaper. Alter taught him how to work the Skil 100 in the same cramped workshop where Martin shapes boards today.

The movie "Gidget" had pushed surfing from the fringe into the mainstream, turning the era's best shapers into businessmen with eponymous brands known to nonsurfers: Hobie, Greg Noll, Dale Velzy and Dewey Weber. The demand for surfboards soared, and Martin became part of a stable of California shapers who pumped out board after board and influenced the next generation of craftsmen.

Martin developed a system over the years, a Zen-like philosophy that perfection is achieved through simplicity and repetition. The less a surfboard is shaped, the better shaped it will be.

"A shaper isn't afraid to attack. They're not crossing their fingers hoping they get it right. They know they're going to get it right," Martin said. "A lot of shapers won't teach. They don't want people knowing what they know. I've done a lot of teaching. I've got a good system."

For decades, the surfboard business was dominated by hundreds of small and medium-size companies that adhered to such a philosophy. But globalization is changing the industry as much as "Gidget" did.

In the 1990s, Santa Cruz-based Surftech made waves by going to Thailand to factory-produce a surfboard that was a sandwich of expanded polystyrene, PVC sheet foam, fiberglass and epoxy. The boards are lightweight and durable, but their plastic feel led traditionalists to deride them as soulless "pop-outs."

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