Stu Kenson’s Passion for Making Surfboards

10225_101732346509928_6369969_nLongtime surfer Stu Kenson has always been one of San Diego’s most respected custom surfboard builders. The founder of Evening Glass, Stu has worked with Weber Surfboards, Rusty, and Joel Tudor and his own label Stu Kenson Surfboards.

Serge Dedina: When and where did you start surfing?

Stu Kenson: Doheny Beach, Orange County in 1970.

Dedina: How did you get started shaping?

Kenson: I did my first board during the summer of 1971.

I had an older mentor/friend that asked a few friends and myself if we wanted to make our own boards. I lived near Clark Foam, where at the time you could buy blanks direct from them. We could get a second quality blank for twelve dollars and a reject for less than that. Resin and cloth would run another twelve dollars or so. Shaped them with hand tools, surforms, and sandpaper. Made our own fins, which I had help on big time.

Sean Fowler with his SK quiver. Photo courtesy S. Fowler.

Sean Fowler with his SK quiver. Photo courtesy S. Fowler.

Dedina: Who inspired you when you started shaping and what shapers inspire you now?

Kenson: Making my own surfboard had a huge impact on me. The blanks at the time were very unrefined, bumpy and thick from end to end. It really took a great deal of talent to shape a good surfboard. I started doing ding repair at around 13 to 14 a years old and had access to many different boards. I would occasionally pick up broken and badly damaged boards for cheap. So pretty quickly I was able to try lots of different designs.

My surfboard collection grew from working in a surf shop. I spent just about every dollar I made on surfboards. Terry Martin was our in house shaper, and he could make anything you wanted, and I was able to try loads of different boards.

As far as who has influenced me, there are quite a few guys that made me some insane surfboards thru the years prior to my picking up the planer to build my own. Max McDonald, Jeff Mack, back in the day were really open to trying different things. We had a great time doing trippy boards that worked really well. Rusty Priesendorfer has been a huge influence. I probably learned more from him than anyone–incredible design knowledge, and great planer work.

When I decided to try and start shaping myself a few boards again in 1986 I had been getting boards from Dave Craig, which were some of the best boards I have ever had. I always sat in while he shaped my boards and told him I wanted to try and do a few. He hooked me up with a couple of templates and away I went.

Chris Russell on a SK longboard. Photo courtesy Jeff Wallis.

Chris Russell on a SK longboard. Photo courtesy Jeff Wallis.

Dedina: It seems like you were one of the early adopters of advanced materials such as carbon fiber. What types of material are you using for blanks and for glassing now?

Kenson: I had a team rider that wanted to try an epoxy style board so I shaped one for him and he loved it, so we started doing quite a few. At the same time Future Fins had come out with their Vector foil fins, which were made out of G10 fiberglass. They were very stiff with no flex, which was part of their design theory.

With these fins you were able to generate an extreme amount of drive and speed, which sometimes led to the surfboard breaking down due to the load that the fins put on the fin box and surfboard itself. At the time I was heavily involved with EPS/epoxy surfboards and looking into alternative glass/fabrics to build in additional performance into the boards we were building. We laid one up with carbon and it went unreal, in addition to it holding up really well. IB surfer Dave Parra had the first one.

The only problem with using advanced materials for surfboards is the cost. The fabrics we have used which included carbon and Kevlar are expensive, so they are not for every one. I am currently offering EPS/epoxy or Poly blank/ epoxy glassing, unless the customer prefers poly blank and Poly glassing.

The SK Pleasure Pig.

The SK Pleasure Pig.

Dedina: People rarely discuss the health aspects of shaping and glassing. Is that something you are worried about? Has the use of new less toxic or volatile materials reduced your health risk?

Kenson: As a kid I was always elbow deep in resin and solvents; not a good combination. I got much more serious about gloves and wearing a respirator when I got back into making surfboards in the early 80s. Years ago I participated in a study with a guy doing grad school research on dust produced from shaping surfboards. His findings were that it was not toxic as long as you took precautions, wore a mask and didn’t eat it.

Dedina: How has the evolution of social media allowed you to promote your business? Has it made it easier?

Kenson: I started with a web site, which went thru the process of constant design change, and it was fairly expensive to start with. It has progressed through blogs. Now I pretty much use Facebook to feature and promote my surfboards. It enables me to get new designs out as soon as I shape them.

Stu at work. Courtesy of Stu Kenson.

Stu at work. Courtesy of Stu Kenson.

Dedina: You always seem to be “pre-cutting edge” in what you are shaping—whether it was high-performance longboards,  SUPs, carbon fiber short boards, and now with the hybrid mini-Simmons and fishes.

How do you stay ahead of the game in order to anticipate what your clients want?

Kenson: I still get my time out in the water–when the powers that be don’t feel like destroying the beach–and have some of the best surfers–Sean Fowler, Chris Russell, Jason Ronis, Derek Dunfee, Mark Stone, Dave Parra and Bill Lerner–throughout San Diego riding my boards. I get bored riding the same old thing. I like to experiment with different materials and designs. I have a great crew of surfers and craftsmen that I work with, and we are constantly trying different things. Just trying to keep everything interesting.

Dedina: What are the shapes/designs surfers are into at the moment? And how do you test your designs and boards?

Kenson: The Pleasure Pig is one of my most popular small wave designs that I offer right now. I wanted to have a board that was easy to catch waves with, that had to be fast and very maneuverable. The board features a very wide template to accommodate quite a bit of volume, and a concave deck to keep the board very sensitive under feet.

Bottom design features a modified Bonzer concave in the tail, adding to the maneuverability and speed. I built the first one about four years ago and it went unreal in absolute junk, blown out summer surf, maybe knee high. A friend of mine saw me surf it and called it the “Pleasure Pig” and the name stuck.

Quads are also at the forefront right now. Many of the boards I make now have five fin boxes in them so you can tune your board better to the conditions. Quads are faster than tri fins, and sometimes that will make a huge difference

Sean Fowler test-driving a SK shape. Courtesy Sean Fowler.

Sean Fowler test-driving a SK shape. Courtesy Sean Fowler.

Dedina: Where do you think custom shaping is headed? 

Kenson: If you make good surfboards and believe in what you are doing, the possibilities are endless.

Dedina: With all the obstacles to making and selling custom surfboards, why do you continue?

Kenson: Some people worry about imported boards. That doesn’t concern me. I’m not building boards for that part of the market. I have always tried to be innovative with my surfboard designs. As long as I still enjoy what I do for a living, I won’t be ready for anything else just quite yet.

A custom SK paddleboard.

A custom SK paddleboard.

Tim Townsley and the Business of Crafting Surfboards

From my September 14, 2011, Imperial Beach Patch Column:

Back in 1993, Imperial Beach surfer Tim Townsley set up a surfboard factory, TNT Surfboards, in a big empty warehouse at the northern end of 13th Street, next to San Diego Bay. Back in the 1990s TNT was producing between 8-10 surfboards a day according to Imperial Beach Patch. Faced with an economic downturn, dramatic changes in the surfboard industry due to globalization and offshore production, and the development of the Bayshore Bike Village, Tim is closing the 13th Street factory down and looking for new space. The TNT factory has employed some of San Diego County’s elite surfboard shapers including Dave Craig, Jay Novak and Brett Bender. Tim still runs the TNT Surfboard Shop at 206 Palm Ave in Imperial Beach and is shaping boards through his own Townsley label.

Patch: How did you start TNT?

Tim Townsley: I started TNT Surfboards in the 1980’s. My employer at the time Tony Daleo of Star Glassing ran one of the original San Diego surfboard factories and decided to call it quits. When Tony dropped out I started a small glass shop in my mother-in-law’s garage on Ebony Avenue in Imperial Beach. I built boards for locals but other shapers from throughout San Diego County started contracting me to build for them well. Things just kind of blew up from there.

Patch: Who influenced you to get into the surfboard industry and start shaping?

Townsley: I started at the Star factory that was the starting point for many San Diego surfboard makers. Local shaper Brett Bender worked at the Star factory and he encouraged me to apply for an open position. A great deal of what I learned there is what made it possible to start my own shop.

Patch: Do you remember the first board you shaped?

Townsley: Over the years I’ve made thousands of surfboards for some of the world’s most well known shapers and some of the top surfing professionals. When I look back on it I’m astound by the numbers I’ve produced over the years. There were far too many to remember the first one I shaped.

Patch: How did the demise of Clark Foam in 2006 impact your business?

Townsley: TNT was producing thousands of surfboards a year when (Grubby) Clark quit.  Man, what a blow that was. If you can imagine trying to build a car without tires, that is what we were up against. We made it through that hard time.

Surfboard building has never been the same since.  Grubby Clark saw something coming the rest of us didn¹t. It has been a tough go ever since that day

Patch: How has the surfboard industry changed over the past few years?

Townsley: The industry has shrunk today compared to the heyday of the 80’s.The bigger shops have all quit or sold out to larger corporations who quickly moved their operations offshore to China

Patch: Why should surfers work with a local shaper?

Townsley: Buying local is important no matter what you purchase. Buying local stimulates the local economy.  When it comes to surfboards sure you can by a pop-out brand, but in my experience cheaper price usually means lower quality. Buying from your local board maker is going to typically yield a higher quality surfboard that will last and will perform better than your typical mass-produced import model. Board builders are not getting rich at this. It is hard work and you pour a lot of yourself into it both physically and mentally so when we see someone on a board made in China it is heartbreaking.

Patch: You are currently shaping under your own Townsley label. What types of boards are you shaping right now?

Townsley: I¹m going back to basics with the Townsley line–low entry rocker, flat bottom, with vee off the tail. This design is proven to be fast, responsive and it will hold in a tight spot. It worked for Tommy Curren in the 80’s and it works now. I think there are a lot of progressive designs out there but also a lot of gimmicks. It is important for surfers to develop a relationship with their local shaper and work with them over the long term.

Brett Bender’s Shaping Life

Brett Bender at work at the TNT factory in Imperial Beach.

From my Imperial Beach and Coronado Patch surfing column of Nov 15.

Brett Bender can be found most mornings surfing his modern longboard south of the Imperial Beach Pier. Brett’s son Noah is one the key members of the Imperial Beach Grom Squad, most of whom surf Brett’s ultra-modern and progressive Natural Selection custom shortboards.

Q: Why did you start shaping surfboards and when

A: I started shaping surfboards at the age of 14 in my mom’s garage, because the whole process fascinated me and I thought it would be fun to make money at something you love to do. At 19 I got a job airbrushing and shaping for Mitch’s in La Jolla, manufacturing them at Star Glassing at Brown Field.

I shaped for labels like Iron Cross, Dove, Airwaves and World Motion, Ezera, Marbella, Tony Staples, Bear, Gordon and Smith, Blue Water and others. The whole time I evolved my own Natural Selection Surfboards designs. I am also airbrushing at TNT and creating retro and 60’s style longboards in Japan. I airbrushed for shapers such as Rusty, Mike Hynson, Skip Frye, Nev Hyman and too many more to mention.

The heyday of surfboards for me was in the late 80s, early 90s when it seemed like everyone had lots of work before cheap imports from China and elsewhere and computer shaping machines.

Q: What shapers influenced you starting out and today?

A: When I started shaping I was interested in Ben Aipa’s shapes until Simon Anderson’s three-fin thruster came out. Simon was the man. I had the opportunity to work and learn from international shapers in the 80s and 90s including Almir Salazar, Paulo Cabral and Geraldo Rinaldi in Brazil, Grant Miller from Australia, Kim Purington and Steve Elliot from Hawaii. I learned their techniques and tricks of the trade.

Most of all, David Craig has influenced me the most because I have been watching him shape since I was a teenager and he is a true master of his craft.

Q: Where are you favorite places to surf?

A: I love surfing here at home in Imperial Beach. My favorite spots are point breaks like Byron Bay and Noosa Heads in Australia or Scorpion Bay, Mexico.

Q: What designs that you are working on?

A: Currently the boards I have been working on that have received excellent feedback have been shorter, wider and thicker using a modern version of the old fish blanks allowing for the extra volume with dialed-in modern rocker.

Q: What is happening with surfboard materials that are new and exciting?

A: All different board designs are being ordered in the epoxy medium, since they are lighter and more buoyant. Epoxy seems to be what a lot of people need because they love them. My favorite boards to make are actually 60s style with resin tints, traditional outlines and rails with modern high performance hidden in with lightness, bottom contours, step decks and a really good fin.

Q: Where did the collapse of Clark Foam leave the surfboard industry?

A: The collapse of Clark foam was devastating. Almost 50 years of experience gone, 100’s of rocker combinations, the special stringers, the famous molds all gone which were irreplaceable. Personally it was difficult because I do mostly handshapes. Dozens of blank companies popped-up only to quickly go out of business. A few good companies remain over five years later already.

Q: Is there a future for the small “handcrafted” surfboard shaper/manufacturer?

A: There is always a place for handshaped boards, the personalized custom board. But there will always be a place for the computer board, the highly evolved high performance shape that takes hours to achieve by hand and only takes minutes by computer.

Q: What it is about shaping that keeps you motivated?

A: The most rewarding thing about making surfboards is creating and surfing them with my son Noah whose love for the sport and interest in surfboard design has inspired me.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

Dan Mann and the Future of Surfboards

Dan Mann of Mannkine Surfboards. Photo: Mannkine Surfboards

This is from my Imperial Beach Patch Column of December 8, 2010

Dann Mann is the founder, owner and head shaper of Mannkine Surfboards. A longtime Coronado and Imperial Beach local, he is always one of the standouts in a lineup, whether he is on a shortboard, longboard or paddleboard racing.

Dan grew up in Maui where his dad Lance taught him to surf at the age of two. He moved to Coronado at the age of 10, competed professionally from 1994 to 2000. Dan started shaping Mannkine Surfboards in 1996. He has also shaped for Channel Islands, Rusty, Joel Tudor and Xanadu.

Until 2008, he worked as the head of Design, Research and Development for Firewire. Dan currently lives in Coronado with his wife Kara and children Lance and Lily. When he is not surfing IB and Nado, he loves to find waves in Australia and Mexico.

Q. Why did you start shaping surfboards and when?

A. I started shaping in 1996 because along with paddling a long distance, I feel it is something every surfer should do.

Q. What shapers influenced you starting out and currently?

A. Starting out, Mike Eaton and Stu Kenson.  Now, Matt Biolas and whoever it is that designed the Oracle trimeran

Q. What sort of designs are you are working on?

A. Right now there’s a board I call the Chum Lee for Mannkine. I did a similar design for Firewire called the Sweet Potato.  It is 6 to 8 inches shorter than the rider and is a 4 finner.  It changed my mind as to what really makes a surfboard work.

Q. How was it working on the new Firewire Taylor Jensen model?

A. It was cool.  Taylor was a good friend of my brother when they were five and up so I’ve known him a long time and like his surfing a lot.  He loves surfing and has an intense sense of what works and doesn’t work in his boards.

Q. Describe some of the innovative work you are doing on board design and development?

A. I feel like we are only now scratching the surface on what surfboards can and should be.  The first thing that needs to change is the process to make a board.   Processes need to change so surfboards can be made more cleanly (eco-friendly), easily and with more consistency so that surfers know what they are going to get when they buy it.  This will increase the surfboard’s value for surfers, inject more excitement and creativity into the industry and make it an inventive vibrant industry again.

Along with changes in surfboard manufacturing processes, we need to use more sophisticated materials in surfboards.  There’s nothing like the dynamics of riding a wave on a board, so the improvements made to surfboards needs to come from those who make them and more importantly, surf them.  I love my old PU boards with a wood stringer, but if we want to experience what a surfboard really can be, we have to use carbon fiber.

This doesn’t mean just make a board and have some sort of carbon somewhere on it.  The carbon needs to be the main force behind the structure and more importantly  the way the board is bending or flexing – the feel of the board. This is the difference between a magic board versus an OK one.

This must be done in a way that does not interfere with the shapers ability to design. I have spent most of my time since 2003 making boards with this sort of stuff in mind and have a patent on a technology I call ‘Incide’ technology that addresses these issues.

Q. Where did the collapse of Clark Foam leave the surfboard industry?

A. It left the industry scrambling in good ways, bad ways and every way in between.  Ultimately we are here (five years to the day!) with several other companies, occupying the void Clark left with essentially the same product with very little meaningful innovation. So, things are a bit flat in the industry.

Q. How do you test-drive your designs? Is it your own feedback or that of key surfers that matter?

A. I definitely love surfing my own designs and ideas but the best and most meaningful feedback comes from other surfers. I feel like the best ideas and interpretations come from the end users.

Q. Handmade vs. computer designed and machine shaped?

A. Depends on what the guy who orders the board is looking for. I find most guys are pretty serious about getting something they are REALLY going to like and for this I think you can’t say enough about a computer aided, properly designed, machine cut board.

Q. Is there a future for the small “handcrafted” surfboard shaper/manufacturer?

A. For sure. I think if young guys want to get into it they simply need to be better than the generation ahead of them. They will need to know about the ENTIRE board and board building process. They also will need to be more inventive and creative.  The big guys are definitely getting bigger though.

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