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Surfboard maker paddles on

In a business dominated by big manufacturers, a craftsman continues a long tradition.

November 05, 2008|Robert J. Lopez | Lopez is a Times staff writer.

Eyeing the foam plank in front of him, Guy Okazaki envisions the lines and angles that help a surfboard glide across the face of a wave. He then begins shaping the sides -- first with a heavy electric grinder, then with a plane.

Two hours later, he's hand-sanding his creation, which now resembles a sleek, 6-foot-long, high-performance surfboard.

For more than 30 years, Okazaki has earned a living making surfboards in Venice. He learned the craft as a boy watching his father and two friends -- surfing legends Dewey Weber and Harold Iggy -- shape heavy longboards in an abandoned garage near Venice Beach.

Okazaki began making boards for his personal use. He never thought his hobby would become his career.

"If I made a board for myself, I knew I had to make two because my friends would want to borrow it," said Okazaki, 60. "It just went nuts from there."

At a time when a growing number of surfboards are shaped by machines or are made overseas, Okazaki is a throwback to an era when surfers hung out with their local shapers, dreaming up a design for a board suited to their wave-riding skills.

To be sure, that still occurs. But surfboard making has become highly commercialized and is now dominated by large manufacturers such as Channel Islands Surfboards, based in Santa Barbara.

In 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, retail surfboard sales in the U.S. totaled $190.4 million, according to a report by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., which compiles the data every two years.

Given the economic hard times nationwide, industry insiders are expecting the 2008 figures to be considerably lower.

"Guys like Channel Islands have a brand name," said association President Sean Smith. "If you're not one of those guys right now, it's going to be very tough."

Okazaki, who shapes boards in a small shop in Venice, agreed that the weak economy has hurt business. A few years ago, he made 1,000 boards a year. This year, he said, he'll turn out half that number.

But he's optimistic.

"It all goes in cycles," he said, likening the current environment to that of the early 1990s, when California was in the throes of a recession.

"The whole essence of being American is that we've been innovators," he added. "To me, that's the story. I think guys like myself are going to survive because we innovate and can give you the latest state-of-the-art boards."

Such boards, he said, are preferred by more serious surfers. His customers have included professional wave riders and enthusiasts such as the late former Times Publisher Otis Chandler.

Okazaki's boards are also sold at surf shops in Venice and Santa Monica, as well as on the East Coast.

Scott Anderson, a surfboard shaper from the Venice-Santa Monica area, said the competition has been stiff from overseas markets. Chinese-made boards can be bought for about $200. In contrast, boards the same size by Anderson or Okazaki run about $500.

The cheaper boards are attractive to beginners, but Anderson agrees that innovation and quality will win out in the long run.

"It's like a race car driver going to buy a Hyundai at the dealer," he said. "I don't think so."

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robert.lopez@latimes.com

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latimes.com/california

A video of surfboard maker Guy Okazaki's work is available online.

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