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Crafting your perfect surfboard

by Boardcave on August 5, 2015

A look at Hand Shaping and the use of CNC machines

The Purity of the Craft

There have long been debates over the purity of surfboard shaping, really ever since the electric hand planer was introduced.

The electric hand planer (like the coveted Skill 100, Clark modified Hitachi, the Accurate Planer) was originally designed as a tool mostly used for truing up and hanging doors, or other flat areas like floors, table tops and decks.

I am sure the original purists were gawking at the fact that the newer breed were using an electric tool that makes the job easier and more accurate all together, instead of keeping it pure and all made with non-electric hand tools and elbow grease.

As production demands grow for brands, people have needed to adapt and explore new tools that can make their job easier and more efficient.

What’s the old phrase – “work smarter, not harder”. Well, it is a similar case today with the CNC shaping machine.

Here’s the thing though, you still have to be a skilled shaper by hand to finish a board that was cut on a machine.

fresh off the machine but far from finished
Want to make your own board? This one is fresh off the machine, but still far from finished.

Go Ahead, Make Your Own

The biggest misconception about using these machines is that anyone can go and “pop-out” boards on a whim. This in turn would hurt the surf industry as we know it, taking jobs away from the craftsmen that have put hard earned years into their practice.

Sure, anyone CAN do it but the reality is, you still have to have a close understanding of how and why certain boards and design principles work. You have to understand these principles and theories, and you have to be able to shape… and shape at a high level if you are doing this for a living.

If you have never tried it, go design a board on a CAD file and see how it really turns out when it comes out of the machine. It is a lot harder than you think, and then you still have to finish shape it to perfection and glass it (which is a whole other level in itself).

max stewart hands on at eye symmetry
Max Stewart of Eye Symmetry getting hands on with one of his board models.

Machine Assisted, Hand Shaped

The majority of the detailed shaping comes after a board has been ‘roughed out’. Basically this is the stage that a machine cut gets you too, as opposed to taking an electric planer to the blank and roughing it out by hand.

It’s just saving the shaper a little bit of time, as well as ensuring he can get better results when duplicating certain models.

The majority of shapers (not all, but a lot of them) who are coveted as master hand shapers, may still use the machine for their production schedule.

They will spend their time hand shaping a new model until it is tweaked and dialed in to where they want it. The creative aspect of shaping the new model is done by hand. After this process they may have the board scanned or, manually enter all the dimensions needed into a CAD file so they can duplicate the board as closely as possible for all their customers and team riders.

This comes as a benefit for both the shapers and the customers riding their boards.

a bunch of fresh lost surfboards
A stack of Lost Surfboards ready to go.

Never Lose that Magic Stick

If you happen to break that magic whip you’ve had for years, you may want the exact same board again. With your shaper utilizing the CNC machine, you CAN have that magic board again, and for the rest of your surfing life.

If your shaper only shapes by hand, chances are they are good enough to get it really close but it may not be exactly like that magic board. With the CNC, they can be sure they are duplicating that board for you as well as saving them time.

But please note, most shapers that have been doing it for a while are good enough to duplicate a board only by hand… and on the flip side, a machine cut board can also end up slightly different time to time due to the majority of the work being in the hand finishing the fine detail like rails, bottom contours, etc.

darren handley and mick fanning with dhd boards
Darren and Mick at Pipeline with a fresh set of custom DHD Surfboard models that were refined and made especially for the event.

Added Reference Points

Another benefit of CNC machines is the increased use of Volume as a surfboard parameter.

If you pay attention to what volumes seem to work for you for certain boards, you can refine each new board a little more to suit your needs. You may want two boards of the same model, but tweak the volume and foam distribution to handle different waves if needed.

Like we mentioned in our “Are you surfing the wrong board” article, pro surfers can feel the difference within up to a half liter change in volume. This comes in especially handy for them when they surf around the world in a variety of waves. Knowing a surfer’s ideal volume helps to make those small adjustments in a board to maximize the potential for each individual wave they are going to surf.

shaping a panda surfboards model
A Panda Surfboards model getting some extra attention.

Your shaper can live a long fruitful life

The machine has to been seen as just another tool for a shaper, it is not replacing the shaper or shaping skills by any means. It actually can help make a shaper become more well-rounded in their approach as well. They have to learn how to design or tweak a good board in a CAD program, only adding to their skill set.

To add to that, using a CNC machine actually helps with the longevity of a shapers career. As they get older, lugging the electric planer over blank after blank can take a serious toll on a shaper’s shoulders, elbows and backs.

Always appreciate however, that the majority of shapers who use the machine have put in years and thousands of boards shaped by hand before they adapted to using a machine.

matt hurworth glassing in the bay
Matt Hurworth during the glassing process working on one of his MH Surfboards models.

Machines with Morals

Another controversy over the machine has been the possibility and ease of one shaper copying another’s design. It was feared that someone could easily get a hold of your master file and start pumping out the exact same board that you have spent so much time developing.

In reality, there is nothing stopping a hand shaper from doing the same thing, and the CNC machine doesn’t have a mind of its own, so it still comes down to the integrity of the shapers themselves.

al emery inspecting his board models
Al Emery making sure all of his board models are up to the Emery Surfboards high standards. Read our Q and A with Al Emery here.

Hand Crafted

Using a CAD program and CNC machine does not mean your boards are in the category of the cheap “pop-out” boards you find at some big box chain retailers. The term “Hand Crafted” still applies with boards still requiring the majority of work to be extremely hands-on across all different surfboard blank types. So, there is still plenty of fine craftsmanship that goes into each and every board.

Yes, it does allow a shaper to ramp up their production levels, but the skills required to finish shape, refine and glass the board is still where the majority of the work lies. The machine is not the enemy to the surf industry, it is just another tool shapers can use that is a little too big to fit in their tool box.


What do you think about hand shaping and the use of new technologies? Join the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Make sure you check out the Board Engine to find a range of boards all made in Australia by professional shapers at the top of their crafts. Email [email protected] with your details for a detailed report of board recommendations for you.







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