Hollow Board Building on the Edge of the Atlantic - Surfer's Path

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Hollow Board Building on the Edge of the Atlantic

Words and images by: Paul Jensen

Before I really get started, here is a bit of background: I have been building Hollow Wooden Surfboards for several years. I have a website www.hollowsurfboards.com that, among other things, has a “How To” section. People contact me all the time and I get them on their way to building their own boards…

Last summer I get this e-mail…

From: Ben Johnson www.bensboats.com

Sent: Sunday, July 16, 2006 12:44 AM

To: hollowsurfboards@comcast.net

Subject: Surfboards what else?

Dear Paul,

We run a boat building school in the west of Ireland. Would you like to come to Ireland to teach a course?

Thanks,

Ben Johnson

Hmmmmmm… Let’s think about this for a minute. Go to Ireland to teach a class? Ireland, always green. Ireland, famous for it’s honest to the earth people. Ireland, a land of points, reefs, bays and beaches. Ireland, open to the raw swells of the Atlantic.

Ireland, the next place I’m getting my passport stamped!

Over the next few months, details of how the course would work were laid out, travel arrangements were made and the waiting began. The workshop was to happen over the three day Bank Holiday weekend in May of 2007.

The workshop would be a first for me. I have been building hollow wood boards since 2001, and have built sixteen of them for myself since then. I helped a friend build one, but never taught a class; never really “taught” anyone anything. My real job is as a high-end finish carpenter, without employees. My expectations for high quality results are one of my defining personal characteristics; I have little patience for incompetence. It’s just who I am, no apologies offered.

With that in mind, I had unspoken doubts about how I was going to show up to twenty absolutely unknown surfers and non-surfers, with who-knows-what kind of tool experience, all of whom will be talking with an accent, how to build a highly complicated, visually stunning, high performance surfboard…in three days. It takes me (who has the process down) forty hours to get a board to the point of glassing…and I have three days. Another defining characteristic of mine is the fortunate ability to get results. I see this class as that kind of challenge: Me against Time…

The class was scheduled for May 5th, 6th, and 7th. My plan was to get to Ireland a week early to pre-build some board parts that were necessary for the class. Like I said, it takes weeks to build one, and I did not have that kind of time.

In fact, prior to coming over, I packed a box filled with pre-cut components, to save that oh so precious class time. That box was sent to New Jersey, to a log-home company that was shipping to my host in Ireland a huge load of lumber for a project he was starting; we could save a hefty trans-Atlantic charge doing it that way. A good time saving plan, eh…

Once the big lumber load got to Ireland, however, it was quarantined until it could be heat treated to kill any possible pests within the container. Ben e-mailed me a week before I arrived, warning me of the circumstances. My stuff was totally off limits–no softening of the rules for a Yank. All that time I spent pre-cutting parts was for naught. Sigh…time for Plan B…

Once I was in Ireland, it was time to implement Plan B. I would use Ben’s shop and start from scratch, still pre-building what I needed for the class. The Balleyvaughn Boatworks workshop is generous in size and well-lit, equipped with most of the things I needed to build the boards for the class. What I was going to pre-build were a “Gluing Jig”, a basic inner frame, and a “Deck Skin.” Sounds easy enough, and it should not take too long. I will work in the morning and surf all afternoon. Hey–I’m on a working vacation!

However, once I got into Ben’s shop and took inventory of his tools, I realized it lacked the one basic tool that is the heart of my system: a table saw. I thought I would make-do with a hand held Skil Saw, and then if that wasn’t up to the task, I would use his band saw. As I later discovered, neither could do what I needed: cut wood into thin, narrow pieces. The clock to start the class was ticking, a fact that I could not afford to ignore. I could do nothing to push back that start time. Time was my foe, and Time does not know how to stop. Throw in the fact I was also still getting over jet lag, and it is hardly what anyone would call a fair fight.

Once I accepted my dilemma, I refined my plan, allowing a limited amount of time to finish each task. Gotta have a plan. Day one was to build what I call a “Gluing Jig,” a form used to hold together two pieces of thin wood while the glue between them sets. The Gluing Jig looks like two templates of a surfboard with short blocks of wood between them. Holes are drilled for clamps that hold the wood while the glue sets. Building it is simple: cut out the curved pieces of plywood, drill the holes, cut some 4” blocks of wood, and screw it all together. Simple, should take an hour, two at most…

In the shop, I find a good piece of ¼” plywood, trace out the shape and cut it out with a sharp knife I brought from home. Nothing like doing it old school. Next, I find some scrap wood and with a hand-held Skil Saw cut the 4” blocks. So far, it is just like home, except the voices on the shop radio have Irish accents. How quaint! And why don’t they give the weather forecast with the temperatures in Fahrenheit? The music was better than all right, even thought Johnny Cash did seem way out of place…

Back to the process: time to screw the 4” blocks between the plywood. OK, I find a box of screws, cool… Now where is a screwdriver? No, not a rare, specialty surgical tool—I just need a simple #2 Phillips screwdriver. I have a dozen in my shop, at least one in my kitchen at home, a couple in my office drawer. Heck, I even have one under the seat of my bicycle! Nevertheless, this boat shop does not have a screwdriver, and I looked EVERYWHERE, for over an hour, through every tool bin and under every rag. My fight against Time is getting real, and Time has just hit me with a punch to the jaw. However, my Plan B has a counterpunch: I will just hammer the screws in. Take that, Time! The judges score-card shows the first round is even, but Jensen is looking nervous.

Next, I need to make the frame parts: A Stringer and Cross Ribs. I need thin plywood, a knife, and time, about another hour or two. I am in my zone on this one. The frame parts were cut out and made into the basic frame in just over an hour. Advantage: Jensen.

With a little breathing room, in my battle against Time, my next step is to use the gluing form to make what will be the inner rails for the board. Two or three pieces of thin plywood, coated with glue, and clamped to the surfboard shaped form. Once the glue dries, the wood retains the curves, and then it is attached to the Stringer and Cross Ribs that I just cut out. Once again, I cut the thin plywood with a knife, though I wish I had a table saw to do it. The saw would have taken me a minute to cut all the strips; using a knife and finding a straight edge took me an hour. Time moves ahead…

At the end of the first day of prep work, I’m about where I want to be, but I’m mentally fatigued–partially from jet lag, but mostly from trying to find what I need, and having to adapt to a shop and tools that are similar yet distinctly foreign. And don’t get me started on 220 volt tools! I walk away tired, still confident, but with a nagging feeling that tomorrow Time is going to sucker punch me…

Jet lag has me on a way different schedule than if I was home. I am out the door here at 6:30 in the morning, and falling asleep at 2:00 AM. I feel rested enough in the morning, but I also know that to overdraw rest from my body will involve a serious overdraft, one that will be due and payable upon demand. Time doesn’t fight fair…it doesn’t have to.

Continued on page two…

Back at the shop, my battle against Time resumes. The class is only a few days away and I still have a ton of stuff to do. Today I will get the sample frame fully assembled. I need to dry fit the Stringer and Ribs and put the Inner Rails together with those parts. Next, I’ll glue-in some small blocks of wood that will serve as guide strips for a small router which is to follow, to trim away excess rail material and leave me with a completed frame. Easy. Back at home in my shop it should take a couple of hours. But I’m not in my shop; the simplest thing–like making those thin router guide strips–takes me nearly two hours, using tools that were not designed to do that which I was asking them. In my shop, it would have taken 5 minutes, tops. Time takes a huge advantage. Worse, it has me cursing my situation and exposing my doubts that I will be ready for the class.

At the end of the day, with the frame finally completed, I limp away, knowing that Time is kicking my ass. I still have a lot to do and am feeling increasingly tired. Tomorrow, my unrelenting enemy, Time, will be coming at me with a vengeance; tomorrow I must build the Deck Skin…

After another night with a mere four hours sleep, I make another thirty minute walk up the road. The walk is always gorgeous, in an understated way. Soon enough I’m back in the shop ready to give it my best. But today I must have access to a Table Saw and a Planer. Without that happening, I know I can’t teach the class the way I want to, and I’m fully prepared to cancel the class. I will not embarrass myself and be unprepared. On top of the physical fatigue that has been slowing me down, Time is messing with my head—Doubt grows. But there is hope…

Ben’s brother has a shop (yes, THAT is a shop) with a table saw, and a planer. The only problem is it’s three miles away, and I’m without wheels; I’m not going to walk that far carrying a stack of wood. No way. This is 2007 after all. Time just chop-blocked me to the ground…

But to my relief, a ride is offered to me and my wood. I am not out for the count just yet! Time, get back to your corner, I am still up for a fight… Once at the other shop, I fire up the three-phase diesel generator, get the saw blades spinning, and the planer blades whirring. Once the power is shut off, I’m back in the game…

A ride back up the hill has me once again in the shop making progress. Taping wood strips together, mixing epoxy, cutting fiberglass cloth, and squeegeeing resin–I’m getting my second wind. Look out Time, I’m now in this fight to win!

So, that evening I leave the shop with things as they should be, and throw in a little time-saving trick to make things easier later on. I will introduce some rocker to the Deck Skin–a board clamped under it and a weight (not shown above) on top of it–and it’s golden. I leave the shop almost gloating that I can sense my victory over my nemesis, Time…

After another short night’s sleep and a seemingly longer walk up the hill, I am back in the shop. I am now confident that the class will happen. However, Time has been cruel once again. The beautiful laminated panel over which I fought Time for has gone askew. One clamp slipped and the weight on the deck caused the wood strips to separate, leaving their ends not monolithically together, but more like fingers spread apart. I want to break something. I want to cry. I knew I could fix it, but am set back emotionally nonetheless. What else could possibly go wrong?! Oh, the way things were going I could easily think of a dozen. After three hours of delicate surgery spent repairing the damage and then completely re-glassing the panel, I am drained, and it’s not even noon. My plan of spending the “prep-week” with a little work and a lot of surfing was out the window. What made it worse was the fact the surf had been very good all week.

The weather here in Ireland for the previous five weeks had been warm and without rain, not typical for early spring. The swells this week were long-interval, and the winds consistently offshore, with air temperatures in the high 60’s (that’s Fahrenheit, mind you).

Without a board, all I could do at this point was mentally surf it. And vow to return later, with Time on my side…

Offshore winds and head high surf were the reality at this reef break…

Oh well, there’s always the week after the class. For now, I was in a no-holds-barred death-match against Time. Compounding my dilemma is the tightening in my throat, with sore throat on the immediate horizon. Time—that merciless enemy—is now demanding payment on that rest I should have had deposited long ago; the interest due looks painful. Fortunately I had all my tools, materials and pre-built parts ready for the class, which starts the next morning. The only question is, will I be ready?

The day of the class started even earlier than the previous ones. My wife and daughter were coming in from the States, and I needed to be at the airport an hour away, to pick them up at 6:00AM. Fortunately, that went off without a hitch; we got a rental car and headed to where the class would be held.

The class took place in Doolin, a small coastal village right on the Atlantic. This is the view from the window of the community hall where I am leading the class. Ruins of an ancient church and a cemetery of equal antiquity. This is the kind of stuff you see every mile or two around here, not at all atypical.

Before the class started, I noticed that there was a lot more tightness in my throat, and I was starting a persistent dry hacking cough. Time, here to collect on my rest debt just won’t leave me alone! Please, please, please let me get through the next three days without collapsing. I promise I will get more rest after the class is over, but come on! Give me a break and cut me some slack…

Continued on page three…

Inside the Doolin Community Center, the seventeen participants of the workshop slowly wandered in. I made a brief introduction, and then they each shared their name, where they were from, their hopes for what they’d get out of the class, their surfing and board building experience, stuff like that.

They ranged from Graham at fourteen—the youngest in the class, a super stoked and bright lad, Ireland’s future master shaper, no doubt in my mind…You can just see it in his eyes— to Paul, our most experienced lad, an über-stoked forty-three year old environmental scientist.

Mixed in were twenty and thirty-somethings, of both genders, with surfing experience from none to decades. Some had never held a surfboard, others had shaped one-hundred-fifty. Wow, talk about diverse! Now please remember I am in Ireland, a land of not just one accent, but many. I—with ears punished by tools, wind, water and Time—had to listen so closely, practically reading lips, to fully understand what was being said, not to mention the fact that they all are soft spoken. The little things like understanding simple conversation become minor stress factors. And I sure don’t need any more stress. By now my throat feels like I have been swallowing cacti, and my voice is practically gone. But I have to fight through this and give these people what they came for, even if it cripples me. Which it might…or worse…

Time for the class to start. As I said at the top, I’ve developed this Hollow Surfboard process, and written a one-hundred-page manual on how to build these boards; I know this stuff. I have countless words in my head just waiting to come out. I want to explain everything I know to these seventeen eager participants. All the theory and all the tricks. Yet when I’m standing over a board, ready to start the workshop, with a dead quiet room and seventeen pairs of eyes looking at me to “show them the way,” I develop a logjam of words that won’t let a single word out. Sure, it only lasted five seconds, but it felt like forever. So I just looked at the board, and let it tell its story of how it came to be. Once I got out of the way, and let the board talk, it came easy. Or at least that’s how it felt to me…

The first step in the process was to trace a template onto a piece of plywood. The seventeen were circled around the worktable, watching exactly how I was going to do it. I put pen to paper / plywood, pulled the pen a few inches and thought: “What am I doing here. Am I going to spend all three days showing them how this happens, or am I going to get out of the way and let them do it?” I turned to the closest person to me and handed off the felt pen, as though it was a relay baton. They then traced for a foot or so, and then passed the baton to the next person. And so the weekend went…whew!

As a group, they had fun and found new ways to do things, not better or worse, just different. That was great to see—an evolutionary process, not rigid, but adaptable. This picture really reflects the whole vibe of the class… Paradoxically, the process is complicated, yet simple and intuitive. The group was quick to understand, they asked great questions, and worked together beautifully. Show them how and get out of their way…

By midday of the first day, my voice was nearly gone, not to come back fully until a couple days after the class, yet I was able to squeak out the steps to building the boards, and answer every question anyone had.

It was so very rewarding to see the collaborative attitude everyone had about the board. You just know they all see this as “their board.” How easy is it to teach anyone something when with such an attitude? Absurdly easy!

Three days from the start, the board we started on day one is ready to be final shaped, but the class is officially over. We got a lot further than I expected, considering it takes me about thirty hours to get to this point; our class was “in session” for less than eighteen. Looking at this final result, I think they understand the process!They were pretty proud of their result, and they should be.

In the end, after a difficult week of prep work filled with frustration and doubt, with Time trying hard to defeat me by keeping me from the surf, stressing me out, and wreaking havoc on my body, yet after it was all said-and-done, I am claiming a complete and undisputed victory. The process was taught, everyone learned how to build their own boards and I survived. Story over. Nap time….

Paul

PS…After I got back to the States, I got this e-mail from one of the guys in the class:


“I’d always been interested in the idea of making my own surfboards since I started surfing but never really knew how or where to begin. Then I heard about the workshop and thought, that’s perfect.


I liked the sense of history (Paul’s boards echo Tom Blake’s Hollow “Cigar” Paddle-Boards of the 1930’s), innovative use of materials (wood, cork, etc), and creativity involved in building boards in this way (Paul’s approach allows for the construction of a multitude of different shapes from classic longboard, to retro single or twin fin designs, to modern thruster, or even experimental shapes).

The class itself was excellent (due in no small part to the great mix of people), with participants from all walks of life, and ranging in all ages, united by surfing. The format of the workshop was great and allowed plenty of scope for “hands-on” participation, discussion (design issues), and problem solving/trouble shooting (construction techniques).

There was talk of doing something similar next year. I really hope it happens and that 2007 will prove to have been the first of many to come. I for one am stoked to have been part of this experience and would recommend it to anyone (surfer or non-surfer) with a creative itch.

Who knows? Perhaps, it’s spawned a whole new chapter in Irish Surfboard creation!

Well, at least for me it has, and I’m starting with an Eight Foot Mal!

Alex, Surfer, Co. Waterford, Ireland.”

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