Surfer Yarns: Jim Banks On A Lifetime Spent Shaping Surfboards
True Tales From Lives Spent in the Shaping Bay
COASTALWATCH | JIM BANKS SURFBOARDS
Breaking The Rules
There is so much to learn about surfboard designs, it’s a wealth of knowledge that can take a lifetime to learn. As a surfboard builder, you slowly build your knowledge base, working it out bit by bit. I think I’m probably a slow learner because it’s taken me more than 40 years to understand surfboard design like I do now.
Surfboard design is an endless maze of twists and turns, blind corners and dead ends, and generally it’s a long slow process of crawlingly your way through it. Many times I wish I’d had a design mentor passing knowledge onto me, sidestepping the decades of trial and error, of slowly building up a knowledge base of what does and doesn't work. But knowing me, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway… there always seems to be a little voice in my head whispering that I have to do it my way.
Of course when a shaper first starts, it's all about the plan shape, swallow tails, pintails, square tails etc., but then after a while, you start to notice things; like some rails just feel better than others, that if you make the tail too thick, the board spins out too easy (more of a single fin thing), that if you get the the tail rocker just right, the board feels like magic... and then some boards go so much better than others and you have no idea why.
And so as the decades go by, you slowly build up a knowledge base, building templates for plan shapes, templates for rocker, templates for rails, even templates for bottom contours. As you learn by trial and error, how to get your tools to recreate these curves accurately and with the least amount of time spent in the salt mine.
Because as as romantic as shaping surfboards seems, think about it for a second, the salt mine, the holy grail of surfboard building, the shaping room. The small dark stuffy room (especially pre air-con days) with flourescent lights that burn your eyes, and the dust that gets in your eyes, and your hair, and your lungs.
The fine dust chokes you and get’s in your eyes, to seep out later that night while you sleep. The coarse dust grates on your skin, a scratchy, irritating, chemical laden dust that's sticking to the sweat that's building up on your arms and legs because it's hot, and you're just wearing a t-shirt and shorts. And your arms and legs are aching from walking endlessly up and down the length of a board for up to ten hours a day sometimes while you hold a five to ten kilogram electric planer at arms length out in front of you. A planer that’s relentlessly screaming in your faces as it spews out dust, getting heavier as the hours go by.
And you can't really breathe properly, because of the paper dust mask that's covering your face, so you get a better mask, but it’s heavy and sweaty, and so then you get an air pump system, and now you have this huge clumsy helmet and an air pump strapped to your back. And your ears and skull are starting to hurt from the ear muffs that are clamped over them, a slow steady pressure that's biting into the thin flesh covering your skull. A skull that's now getting foggy from the lack of quality air to breathe and the relentless screaming of the planer, and the amount of concentration it's taking to not make a mistake, while trying to carve beautiful flowing curves from the lumps and bumps in the twisted, misshapen piece of foam that they're calling a surfboard blank.
And some days you don’t notice any of this, because you’re so focused on trying to build a better surfboard, trying new curves or refining existing ones. And some days are great, where everything just flows together and it seems relatively easy. And then there’s the other days when you have to fight the blank the whole way, and the rails are being a bitch, refusing to pull into the curve you want to feel, and that bump or twist that was in the blank keeps reappearing, no matter how many times you knock it down.
So, you dream of being a shaper? But seriously how many days of that do you honestly think you could handle? Two or three, four or five, a week maybe?
Myself, I did 25 years of handshaping blanks from scratch. Hell, in the early days under my parents house in Cronulla, I used to start with cutting the blank in half and gluing the plywood stringer in with my dad.
And then along comes CAD designing and you immediately see a solution to controlling the unavoidable innaccuracy of hand shaping. At first you don't even think about how much of the dirty work it's going to take care of. All you can see is this opportunity to create beautiful flowing curves that you can tweak incrementally and have a record of every one. And so you start all over, building a digital collection of templates, curves, contours, rails etc..
But guess what? CAD designing ain't easy, because now you're trying to see things on an 11", or if you got smart quick, 20" something screen. And then you see the first boards coming off the cutting machine and realise that it's far worse than you thought it was. And so you start spending hundreds of hours working on the screen, fighting and battling the program to get it to create the curves you want to see, and then those hundreds of hours turn into thousands and as you incrementally start to notice things... things you hadn't noticed before.
And just like the tricks and techniques you learnt with the electric planer and the surform and sandpaper, you start to learn tricks and techniques with the CAD program so that you're not fighting it anymore, and you learn to let it help you create, bend and flow curves that create beautiful, gliding, pieces of foam and fibreglass. Curves that you can recreate over and over, that can be so easily adjusted to suit a customers specific needs. And now you have a record of every board you make and you make a folder, putting the magic ones in a special folder, that you constantly refer back to as you evolve the designs.
And you reach a point where you now have a massive storehouse of knowledge that knows just how much to tuck the rail, just how hard to make that edge, just how deep to make that concave, just where to apex the curve so that board feels like a million dollars. And you get to figure that you've got it pretty much sorted...
But then along comes something that goes completely against all your hard earned storehouse of knowledge... something that all your knowledge tells you it shouldn't work.
Sometimes it's really in your face, like the original twin keel fishes with their lack of rocker, crazy wide tail and ridiculously long base fins stuck right at the back of the tail. Everything you’ve learnt tells you that it shouldn’t work, but you borrow a buddy's and discover it’s the most fun you’ve had on a surfboard for a long time. And then sometimes it's really subtle, like a 3mm increase in the rocker to increase manoeuvrability, but discover that the increased rocker actually goes faster than the flatter rocker. Or you move the fins forward to loosen up a board but then actually find for that particular design, it makes the board stiffer...
And so armed with this vast storehouse of knowledge, you continue with your obsessive compulsion to create a better board, which has been the only thing that's kept you going all these years. All the time knowing that even with all this knowledge, that you have spent a lifetime of collecting, every now and then you’re going to have to go against it and break the rules....
Because you never know, you might just create something that does something completely unexpected...
Footnote: And to all those still working in some noisy, dirty factory, or stinking hot roof on a summer’s day, or dull, lifeless office, day after day, trying to feed your dreams or your family and make ends meet,… my hat goes off to you, I’ve done the hard yards and I know what it’s like… and i wish there was a better option for you, i really do...
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