Birdwell Blog

The Roots of the Surfboard
Dazzling Blue #86

The shaper—the handshaper—measures the dimensions, traces the template(s), saws out the plan shape, shimmies back and forth with a planer, bends low to check curve, mows more foam, moves on to Surform, sanding block, turns blank on side, mows and Surforms and sands some more. He does this everyday for years, decades. Eventually he is as much shaped by the surfboard as he is the surfboard shaper.
            I observed this with my lifelong shaper Al Merrick. His posture, his shoulders, his forearms, his hands—he was the physical embodiment of 10,000 boards. And his boards were not just the product of his hands but also his ideas, his philosophies, his faith, his life ethos.


            We typically don’t think about this when a surfer flies across a wave. We don’t think that those lines, that rail work, the ratio of speed to maneuverability is the result of a collaboration, a pact even, between surfer and vision of shaper.
            Let’s trace it back to the ancient Polynesians. Dark-skinned, loin cloth-clad man, call him Kawika, roams tropical forest in search of sacred wave craft. If he’s visionary, if he’s centuries ahead of his time, he does not chop down that wiliwili or koa tree, he finds a felled one. He drags it back to his beachfront canoe shed, carves it with a stone adze and coral head. When it feels just right—to his palm, under his arm—he stains it with mud and finishes it with a coat of kukui nut oil. He paddles it out, catches a wave, and that glide is uniquely his own. It’s the result of his strokes, his aesthetic, his vision.
            On the surface, the wiliwili or koa is just a tree reaching skyward. But beneath it are roots reaching back to the origins. The surfboard began with a seed sprouting in the soil. Then came the thumbprints.

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