09 May Wooden Surfboards
Mike and Brad have been running Grain Surfboards for 10 years, both bringing a unique set of ingredients that shaped one of the most ecologically sustainable surfboard producer of the present time. There is a big chance your current board was crafted using loads of unhealthy chemicals. You are lucky if it is not headed for the landfill within a few years – longevity is not a goal of most surfboard manufacturers. This creates enough pollution to break the bond between the nature and the surfers. Grain offers the alternative to be conscious about keeping surfing clean.
Following their philosophy of using less, and having a smaller impact on the planet, Grain sources sustainably managed cedar wood, which grows faster than its consumption. For glassing, they use organic epoxy resin that is substantially healthier than polyester resin, decreasing the amount of harmful chemicals both in the shop and the overall environment.
The art of glassing. Nolan Collins pouring it on a custom 9’ Root.
Photography: Nick Lavecchia
The sense for lowering environmental footprint seems quite significant at Grain as, once in a while, they go figure out what to do with the pile of wood rests that gradually rises from the production, utilizing it for hand planes, body boards and skateboards.
The only thing that terrifies us is how the hell are we going to reproduce this formula around the globe, while keeping all the fabulousness.
We wanted to find out more about Grain’s philosophy and current wood boards position on the market and Brad generously agreed to hand out his opinion. Read on.
What was your idea behind starting Grain Surfboards? What is your vision?
Initially, Grain was started by my partner Mike LaVecchia in his basement – he didn’t really have a vision of forming a company at that time, just the pure desire to connect with the process of designing and building his own board. As boat builders we were both drawn to woodworking, though I was quite separately in my own basement thinking about the environmentally responsible ways I might re-purpose old boards by stripping them and reshaping the foam. We discovered each other shortly after Mike realized that other surfers would see value in boards made of wood, and there was a pent-up desire among surfers to get involved in building their own as well. Once we were working together, we melded the environmental consciousness I was focused on with the community/connection aspect that was motivating Mike, and all the other values that underpin our effort just naturally flowed out of our pursuit of those fundamental goals. Of course, surfing great boards that we could say that we built ourselves was a common factor that’s always driven us. So we imagined great-performing boards of wood, environmentally focused, with a community of friends gathered around the effort to propagate the feeling of building your own.
Who or what do you take inspiration from?
Mike worked at Burton Snowboards for many years when it was just starting out, and he’s always been motivated by the collaborative environment that was fostered there. As a result, all of our employees are not only involved in helping us to drive Grain’s choices, but also we encourage them to fully own their place in our team. Essentially every employee is his or her own department head. Thanks to Mike’s emphasis on participation, we have a tremendously invested and involved group of people working with us who care enormously about our customers’ experience with what we offer. My principle inspiration comes from the value of great design, and I propagate that through our efforts by developing CAD systems, helping our employees to improve the ways that we do things, and generally over-analyzing everything that we do. Both of us are driven by the desire to produce only the highest quality stuff that we possibly can, and finding ways to make best use of the most local and sustainable materials we can find. We’d also both say that we’re inspired by our customers – the pure excitement and enthusiasm that they display when working on – and especially when they’ve finished – a board that grows into something beautiful because they built it.
Why do you think wooden surfboards have always been here, however more on the “fancy” path and not as high-performance tools used by professionals in competitions?
For a long time, wooden surfboards were just not comparable in most ways to the foam boards that entered the mainstream sixty years ago. It was only when a few people started resurrecting the hollow construction pioneered by Tom Blake in the 1930’s with the significant difference of employing modern materials and techniques that allowed us to emulate the shapes that had evolved over the sixty years of foam-board rapid-prototyping. Before that, surfboard design moved slowly and no one thought to capitalize – in wood – on all the amazing improvements in design that happened between 1950 and 2005. But we’re proud to have been among those first resurrectors, and prouder still that we’ve developed techniques that have allowed us to build some of the most challenging shapes that are a simple matter to create from a block of foam, but an engineering achievement when built around a frame with a mere quarter-inch of wood skin to work with. Grain has only been working – and working intensely – for ten years on emulating the best and most challenging of modern surfboard shapes, and we don’t think it’s impossible that this path will lead us to a high-performance, super-sustainable surfboard that could be used in certain competitions. But even if that’s true, the reality is that – given the millions of surfers our there – almost none of them compete. We don’t believe in the marketing strategy that requires us to show our boards being surfed in competition just to prove their worth to the millions of every-day surfers out there, so the fact that wood isn’t seen in competition heats is of no real importance to us. The actual fact is that our boards surf excellently and seasoned surfers of all ages and styles regularly freak out on what a great surfing experience they have on them. That’s more than enough for us.
Ben McBrien built the first kit board Grain ever offered, the 5’10 Waka. Here he is on it’s maiden voyage in Alaskan waters.
Photography: Nick Lavecchia
What has to shift regarding production or surfers’ mindset to see more wooden boards in high profile competitions?
Look, surfboards are like cars. Some are race-cars tuned to perfection at exorbitant cost and some are week-ender sports cars and some are just a great driving experience that their owners can enjoy as daily drivers. Trying to say that all surfboards need to meet the standards of a competition race-car doesn’t make alot of sense. If we weren’t so busy giving the best surf experience we can to people that surf for the fun of it, we might take the time to build a specialty board just so we can take out an ad with a famous team-surfer killing it at the triple. But that’s just not a priority. What would it take to see wood in high profile competition? Mostly the desire to chase the tail of a somewhat insincere product positioning that gives people the impression that they have to have the same race-car that a highly skilled pro uses. We’d have to change our dedication and focus away from the regular-guy/regular-gal surfer and toward a more mercenary product-placement strategy.
In the current handcrafted wooden surfboard industry, do you see such desire for wooden surfboards to become more widely used?
It’s already happening. Though we don’t imagine that we’ll see a world where surfers will have a quiver entirely of wood, it’s certainly doable. Almost no one at Grain even owns a foam board anymore and no one seems to miss them. Once people surf a well-made and well-designed wood board, they want one. And that’s no mystery – the properties of a wood board built on a frame give an entirely different feeling than surfing blocks of glassed foam. There is something about the semi-monocoque construction that causes the stresses and flex to be distributed throughout the skin and not by the monolithic block of glass-encased foam that surfers have become used to. Certain boards benefit from additional weight – a feature that’s not valued by many surfers that have been indoctrinated to the competition-board mantra that lighter is always better. Add to that the life-time longevity of a wood board and the incredible ding-resistance that they offer, and they suddenly appear to be a great dollar-for-dollar value as well. So though it takes time for the surf culture to catch up to these benefits, it can be only a matter of time until a surfer gets a chance to surf wood and sees for him or herself why they want one.
Let’s speak more about performance; has someone out there already been able to make a wooden board with the same or better performance factors than traditional foam blanks?
Just hearing this question makes me cringe. It’s proof-positive that surfers don’t have enough experience actually surfing a well-made/well-designed wooden board to be able to ask the right question. Which is too bad because it means that our own preconceptions are keeping us from being able to have a great surfing experience that – not for nothing – steps lighter on the planet and lasts longer than a “traditional” foam board. A better question might be “given the excellent surfing qualities that wood boards can provide to surfers, why don’t more surfers seek out the experience of getting on one, and at the same time give themselves the opportunity to move past the environmental disaster that they’re participating in by purchasing foam boards?”. But to answer the question as posed: it’s “yes, regularly”. The answer to the right question is that surfers for a long time have been overly conservative, choose the path most traveled, and are making assumptions about wood boards that are not necessarily true.
Class in session on the farm.
Photography: Nick Lavecchia
If now all surfboard production goes wood, do you think the industry can stay sustainable to provide worldwide demand?
I don’t know anyone that’s proposing that all surfboards should be made of any one material. The explosion of experimentation that’s occurred since Clark Foam was closed down (a victim of its own environmental transgressions) has not only been exciting to participate in, it’s a great sign that innovation isn’t dead and that there are many, many ways to think creatively about sustainable surf craft. Even Grain – who is known for our connection to wood – experiments regularly with non-wood eco-materials and will continue to do so. That said, we would also never claim that the use of wood constitutes a de facto sustainable practice or even make the claim that we have a 100% sustainable construction method. The concept of sustainability is not binary – it’s a continuum of performance against (ideally) increasingly stringent standards. The idea of pursuing a sustainable activity is not necessarily to reach sustainability but to strive to be more and more sustainable with each passing day when measured against whatever set of valid standards are being employed.
What are your hopes for the future of wooden surfboards?
Real simple: that more and more surfers get the chance to feel how they perform, take the opportunity to build one themselves, and that we can make our own boards at increasingly high levels of craftsmanship, more sustainable, more available, and push the design potential to the max.
What is the single greatest lesson you’ve learned from setting up your own business?
Mike and I learn every day – it’s one of the great rewards of running a values-based business connected to so many people. It may seem like copping out on the question, but there’s no lesson we can point to that has had greater value to us than most of the others. And truth be told, when your business reflects your values it’s very difficult to separate what you already care about from the amazing things that come out of running a business the way we do. But maybe that’s the answer to the question: Grain Surfboards has validated for us the truth that building your business around something important to you, something for which you have real passion, and sharing that with all the genuine feeling you have for it will provide endless rewards.
Grain lineup on the farm in Maine.
Photography: Nick Lavecchia
We are grateful to Brad, for answering our questions and pulling our head out of our bottom, after we only got our feet wet in wooden boards industry and rushed to write about it.
All photography credits: Nick Lavecchia