Master Craftsman: Jay Novak and the Art of Surfboard Shaping

From my Imperial Beach Patch column of July 13, 2011.

Jay Novak at work.

When I first started surfing in 1977, I immediately became aware of Jay Novak of Novak Surfboard Designs through his incredibly stylish and tube-savvy surfing and the fact that he along with Mike Richardson and Dave Craig was part of IB’s elite group of master surfboard shapers. Jay is still shaping and surfing in IB and around the world. I’m lucky to have him shape my surfboards, which are among the best I’ve ever surfed. Jay’s innovative and groundbreaking quad surfboard from 1980 is on display at the Imperial Beach Surfboard Museum at Dempsey Holder Surfboard Safety Center. Jay recently also had one of his surfboards featured on the cover of Surfer Magazine.

Patch: When did you start shaping?

Jay Novak surfing in Imperial Beach

Jay Novak: I started shaping in high school in the 1970’s. At that time surfboard design was going through a major period of change. In 1968 the first shortboards were used, all but replacing 9-foot and longer boards. But the issue with the new more sensitive and maneuverable boards was that no one had figured out exactly what design features made a board surf well. Therefore many different shapes and sizes of boards were used. Anything from 8-foot V bottoms ( they looked like cut off 9 footers) to 7 1/2 foot by 18″ Hawaiian influenced single fins to 5 1/2 foot  twin fins with wide tails.  And everything in between. It took years and many different ideas to reach a bit of a design standard.

Patch: What is the history of the quad you shaped that is on display at the Dempsey Holder Safety Center?

Novak quiver.

Novak: The quad board in the IB Surf Museum is my personal board from 1980. It was one of my favorite boards ever. This board was also the model for the Imperial Beach Outdoor Surfboard Museum – the red metal outline sculptures- at Seacoast and Palm. I was surfing pretty well at the time, at least surfing pretty often. Most of my customers wanted twin fins, although maybe 25 % of my orders were quads . The 3-fin Simon Anderson era was right around the corner. I thought the twins were a little too sensitive and harder to control backside.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Wallis.

Changing to 4-fins seemed to correct these issues. I was one of the last to switch to 3-fins as I thought they were slower and not as free to turn as the twins or quads. Remember the boards of this era were thick and had less rocker. It would be quite a few years until boards thinned out and performance took a leap forward. I also remember I could tell how many fins were on a board by the way it worked in the water.

Patch: What is your relationship with AKA Surfboards?

Novak: I have been shaping for AKA (based in Encinitas) for 6 years now. The company has shown quite a bit of growth to the point now where we send boards all over the world, have high profile team riders and are known throughout the world.

Peter Devries on the June 2011 cover of Surfer Magazine surfing a Jay Novak AKA surfboard

The June issue of Surfer Magazine featured Peter Devries one of the AKA crew on the cover. This is a big deal in the surf industry! I have been shaping for Peter for five years. He is Canada’s best known pro surfer (Serge’s note: I surfed with Peter in Canada-he shreds!). Working with surfers like Peter to get boards “just right” forces me to keep current, lose any complacency and the end result is a better board for all my customers.

Patch: How do you use computers in your shaping?

Novak:I shape about 75% of the AKA boards with computer assistance, versus maybe 50/50 of my total workload. The computer allows an exact duplicate of a board to be shaped. Besides saving time, we are increasingly asked to shape a particular “model” of board, moving away from a custom shape for an individual.

For example AKA has 18 models and I can change size and dimensions on all of these models up or down for each customer’s needs and get a perfect result. Although I really feel creative when I hand shape a board from start to finish there is a place for both and the end result should be the same. I have always kept detailed records of the boards I have shaped.

Patch: What is the state of surfing in Southern California today?

Me on my 6'6" Novak quad at Barra de la Cruz in Oaxaca. One of the best surfboards I've ever owned.

Novak: I think that surfing today in Southern California has progressed greatly in the past few years. I am nothing if not a surf observer. About 350 days a year I start my day by walking to the beach and looking at the waves, hoping it will be good enough to motivate me.

About 10 years ago I observed that surfers were using boards that were either too small or too big. The 9-foot longboards had become popular but these boards were not meant to be used everyday. Especially here in IB where the waves can on occasion break shallow and hard. Better to use them when the surf is head high or less. The short boards of the time were narrow and had low volume, making them suited for larger waves with more power.

Patch: What kind of surfboards work for IB?

Novak: Things to consider when surfing in IB. What kind of surf do we have in this area? Average size shoulder high? Not particularly good? Something inbetween the 2 extremes of long and short should work when surfing in IB.

I am glad that it has again become fashionable to ride short boards that have added width and thickness. This has certainly helped the average surfer to get more rides with better results. I personally enjoy egg shapes in the 6 1/2 to 8 foot size and small 4-fin fish shapes. Of course I will ride my 9-footer often and my short board when the conditions are better.

In the last three weeks I have surfed a different board each time I went in the water, hoping to choose the right one for each different day. The surfboards of today are better than ever. It is easier to learn as well as quicker to become an accomplished rider. Perhaps that is why there are so many good surfers now.

Remembering Gromhood

I started surfing at the age of 13 in 1977. My Hemlock Avenue neighbor Harry Hildebrand hooked me up with Radical Roy who sold me a 6’11 no-name winger-rounded pin single fin for thirteen dollars. Harry sold me a beavertail wetsuit for four dollars.

Seventeen dollars was a lot of money back then.

After I bought my board, I would ride my bike down to the beach and spend the day off of Elm Street. There I met Donny Dominguez who seemed to know more about surfing than I did and was the proud owner of an electric purple Richard Jolie pintail.

Everyday at the beach was an adventure.

When school started I stared surfing with Jim Dodds, Marty Stone, Bobby Maupin, Chris Patterson, Tim Hannan, Greg Parman, Larry Crauswell, Tim Sweeney, John Arnold, and Dan Mehlos as well as with Donny.

My first trip to real Baja with my dad and Tim Hannan back in the epic X-mas break of 1978.

Greg, who was in the ninth grade, was a real surfer. He had an effortless style, could pull of laybacks at the snap of a finger, and was one of San Diego County’s best groms. He had a Christmas color winger swallow single-fin (a Sunset?).

Greg was cool and we were all trying to be cool. But the minute we hit the water, none of that mattered. All we wanted to do was surf. Every day. All day.

I still do.

Later in high school I met the real surfers-Tim Decker, Barry Palmatier, Lindy Dalmas, Bill Johnson, Mark Ganderton, and Randy Garvin–who all ripped and seemed to know everything about surfing. They manned the surfer bench that freshman were not allowed to sit at.

If we were lucky they found a place in their surfmobiles for us on surf trips to Baja and the Cliffs. It seemed like sometimes half of the IB surfer population could be found at Baja Malibu or the K-38’s parking lot.

Back in the late 70s, there was no surf forecast. No one had a clue when waves were coming. We just showed up at the beach everyday and hoped for the best.

Of course my first years of surfing were epic El Nino surf years. In 77-78 the surf pumped non-stop. So did 79-80 when the giant surf destroyed the Imperial Beach Pier. The Sloughs broke way outside.

On my first outing there with the grom squad we got pushed south of the rivermouth, but somehow scratched back to the outside.

Out in the IB lineup I met the guys who defined IB surfing—Mark and Glen Gould, Kelly Kraus, Dave Parra, Radical Roy, Randy Coutts, Aaron Chang, Mark Stone, Jim Sullivan, the Carroll brothers, Jim and Bobby Barber, Richard Abrams, Pat McClosky, Coco, Bobby Spitzer, the Smith brothers, and Richard Cacnindin among other. Dempsey Holder was always around the beach. Dave Craig, Mike Richardson and Jay Novak were the shapers of choice for IB surfers (back when IB surfers only rode boards shaped by local shapers). Aaron Chang was just starting his career as a surf photographer (I remember his first slideshow at the IB library where his mom was a librarian).

Occassionally a surf movie–Going Surfing, Five Summer Stories—would play at the Palm Theater and the entire South Bay surfing population would turn out.

It was awesome.

Jim Knox was our first high school surf coach and took us to Baja on surf trips. His brother Jeff had just finished grad school at UCLA and moved back to IB. I met Jeff and his wife Mercedes on my second surf to Baja back in 1979 with my dad and Jim Dodds.

Back then no one had any money. All we had was stoke.

Today everything has changed. But the most important things haven’t.

We are still lucky that we get to surf and share the stoke with lifelong friends and all the groms who are just like we were.

Perpetually stoked.

My New Surfboard: The Jay Novak Quad Squashtail– 80s Retro

My new custom Novak Surf Designs squashtail quad. 80s colors!

Just picked up a new board from Jay Novak of Novak Surf Designs. It is a 6’6″ x 2″ 3/4 x 21 3/8. This is really an old school squashtail template-the type of Simon Anderson designs I fell in love with when Thrusters first came out in the early 80s.


I’ve been riding Jay’s squashtail quads for close to 3 years, and he has helped me really get the shape I want dialed in.EPS foam along with Epoxy really helps me on the flotation and the key for me is width + thickness. I’m a big guy at 6’4″ and 201lbs so the extra flotation is key, especially with a full suit on.

I have another very similar 7’0″ shaped by Jay. It works incredibly well in bigger surf, especially waves with big open faces. I’m looking forward to surfing this one in Baja.

I’m also a big believer in color. And all my boards right now are either electric 80s colors (think Potz!!!) or a cool 70s era forest green and yellow. I have the Futures Rusty quad fins in this one. Hope they work well. Experimenting with correct fin size is key to getting the quad dialed in.

I don’t know anything about surfboard design. I know what I like and what works. Luckily I have Jay to work with who knows how I surf and can work with me to experiment and get these right. That is the key to having boards work correctly. You have to work with an experienced shaper who really knows how you surf.


Novak Designs quad. These are the Futures Rusty quad fins.

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