George Gall grew up blocks from the water in Ocean Beach body surfing and riding inflatable mats. Today the third generation board shaper runs Plus One Surfboards.
Serge Dedina: You are a third generation shaper. You would think that the adversity that surfboard shapers face economically would have pushed you away from shaping. Why have you stuck with it at Plus One Surfboards?
George Gall: My grandfather made boards starting in the 1920s for himself and his friends. I don’t know that he made any for money, plus the number of surfers was not that many, so his income came from other sources. He was a bit of an artist, I was told he did graphic/sculpting work on buildings in Balboa Park, worked at the Navy Aircraft Rework Facility on North Island, and worked as a chauffeur/assistant for a prominent San Diego family, the Luces.
I only remember my dad having one foam/glass surfboard and they only had their own boards for surfing and abalone diving. So again there was not a lot of economic pressure to make a living from surfboard building, which is probably why I never heard any discouraging parental words to not shape boards.
Likewise, I had other careers. I went to college and got degrees in mechanical engineering and then mathematics. All the while I made boards, I kind of thought I was going to go the full corporate route, and I did, working for the Space Systems Division of General Dynamics on the rocket program that launched payloads like Cassini, the GPS array and military payloads for the Air Force and CIA.
Then the big change for me happened, wanting to surf more again, I took a big chance and changed careers. I became a high school math and computer science teacher and worked in Chula Vista. This opened me up for summers off, perfect for surfing and travel, and making even more boards.
I was busy to the point of surfing less and working more. Not for the money as much as wanting to make good boards and to stoke people on them. I enjoy it.
Dedina: Is San Diego a good place to be a shaper?
Gall: This is a double-edged sword. Southern California has always been the pre-internet hotbed for innovation and the active lifestyle. This means lots of board makers come here to establish credibility and all the major ingredients: the blank makers, resin and glass suppliers had set up shop near San Diego.
It is good to be a shaper in San Diego, for many reasons: cred, leading edge, testing and close to media to share designs and do business. San Diego is a bad place to be a shaper because there are so many shapers trying to do the same thing, thus the market becomes a bit saturated at times, and the price and profit for boards is probably the lowest in the world outside of China.
San Diego can be an aggressive market due to pro surfers wanting sponsorships and low-ball pricing. Access to materials to home builders has an influence on killing the margin needed to make a living from surfboard building.
Dedina: It seems like there is more support for local shapers from the industry and the media. Does that translate to greater sales? Has it helped at all?
Gall: There has been a huge shift from the mindset of pre-2005. Gone are the days of shaping 40, 50, 60 of the same board over and over. Supplanting this is the desire for fresh designs. This paradigm shift has brought the spotlight on “alternate” designs, on new ideas, and thus local shapers.
This translates into different sales, depending upon which side of the threshold the shaper is working. If they were once doing 300 boards a week of the same design, the rise of the local shaper counters their effort. If the shaper is one of the local brands, then yes, they are going to feel an increase in demand, if their designs are good.
However, the local shaper hits a ceiling because there are other local shapers on either side of the shaper’s “territory.” If that shaper has a good share of a particular coastal stretch, then that shaper usually does well, just servicing that business model.
As the territory expands, then the shaper is no longer perceived as a “local shaper” requiring a morph of the public image. In my book, the board has to work, it has to be fun, and the business will come.
Dedina: What are the trends you see for surfers and the type of boards they are riding right now. What are the hot shapes?
Gall: Experimentation. The average surfer has seen the iconic top surfers trying “new stuff.” With this permission slip, the average surfers are cleansing themselves of the “one-design” constraint of the last 20 years. With this experimenting there will be successes, which will manifest larger quantized jumps in better designs than the small incremental refinements of the old designs.
With this greater design mutation, it is assured you will see greater, more noticeable progress in surfboard design; the door is now open wide, pushed by newfound creativity and also financial reasons. In a way, it is good to see this wide array being tried in the water. Along with this, we are seeing surfing change, less “clonish” with different styles and approaches.
On the other hand, imagine being a surfer who finally gets the hundreds of dollars together to get a new board who must make a decision to go with a “known” design, usually reinforced as a “model,” which implies more credibility to a board, or to take an expensive gamble on an unknown concept that might result in being stuck with it for a while, having to get rid of it, and having to endure criticism from peers–the all-stagnating peer imperative.
Dedina: Is the economic incentive to use more sustainable or “green” materials there yet?
Gall: We are still on the uphill side of sustainable boards at the leading edge of performance surfing. I often wake up wanting to go in the shop and build something that was grown or was from something used previously for another purpose, so it would not be a waste.
Everyone in my family built wooden boards and that weighs on me, especially now. The big difficulty is educating the buying surfer to understand that purchasing a sustainable board is much more than just getting another board to ride.
Seeing the big picture offers a satisfaction, and to some a fulfilling duty, to make a responsible surfboard purchase. We are trying new materials all the time and are in contact with many of those dedicated to finding the coming viable solutions. I do not think there is a surfer out there who would be opposed to owning and riding a surfboard that was 100 percent green. The constraints right now seem to be cost, durability, performance and convenience.
Dedina: What can the surf industry and even the surf media do to promote having surfers work with local shapers? Could local shapers work together more effectively to create a trade association to promote the art of shaping and buying handcrafted surfboards?
Gall: Most of the push is word of mouth. The push is being felt the strongest where it matters the most: in the water. But whether at the local break, or big contest, or daredevil surf spot, the credibility of the shaper is in how the board works in the water. In most cases there is a core group or core surfer who is devoted to a particular board concept.
The shaper needs to be dedicated to listening to the surfer, produce the dream into a reality, and maybe answer the phone every once in a while. Reputation is, or should be, made by the merits of the shaper. The modern “word of mouth” is social media.
I get more and more boards ordered on an Internet-only basis, and it is working. In fact I am seeing less errors on orders since we have written histories on boards and idea development. This has actually made my workload easier and a little less stressful.
Another thing I see happening post-2005 (blanks) and post-2007 (economy) is that the remaining shapers have had to pull up their stakes and regroup. It is now common to see five or six shapers have their boards made under the same roof. At Plus One we have six to eight shapers who will come in to do their work, all of their own brand.
This strategy is a good starting point to go to the next level which is to promote the trade. Shapers are more networked together now than ever before. We have tribute shows and a semblance of a trade show open to the public. A trade association would strengthen the small local shapers and give them a voice and a channel to improve what they make.
- Donald Takayama, 68, skilled surfer, legendary board shaper (utsandiego.com)