Anyone who has done it will agree that riding a surfboard is a magical thing (when you’re not punching sharks in the face). Whether you’re being pushed into ankle-high white water that is barely crumbling or hurling yourself over the ledge on a massive mountain of a wave like those at Teahupo'o in Tahiti, the sensation of standing on your feet as the natural power of the ocean propels you is one of those ineffable experiences that instantly makes you crave more. (Pro tip: to read a writer better than me describe the experience, check out William Finnegan’s Pulitzer-winning memoir Barbarian Days.)
Because of the unique nature of that experience, the men who craft the boards that deliver that feeling are the subjects of Svengali-like reverence. As with just about everything, modern technology has altered the way surfboards are produced. Architectural CAD designs are sent to computer-controlled machines that can spit out a board in a matter of minutes. But the best surfboards are still made by hand by individuals who, with a subtle pass of a sander or a plane, deliver boards that are custom suited to particular riding style or a particular wave. At its core a surfboard is a combination of foam, wood, fiberglass, and resin. But when a surfer gets a board that performs exactly how he wants it to, it becomes what is affectionately referred to as a “magic board.”
As a result, a strong bond is formed between surfer and shaper. Many surfers stick with the same shaper for decades. When the relationship is working, the shaper can translate a surfer’s opaque request for a board that is “looser” into concrete designs. The shaper is equal parts artist and scientist, blending a knowledge of hydrodynamics with an innate feel for how a board should look as it traces lines across a wave’s face.
The best shapers blend function with a beautiful form, creating boards that look good enough to be displayed on a wall but are expressly built to be ridden. That’s what the five shapers below do, and it’s why they’ve fostered such a strong loyalty among the surfers who ride their boards.
Andreini has been shaping boards for more than 45 years, and his shapes have stood the test of time because of the elegant way they carve and glide across the water. He’s also surfed with George Greenough—a semi-mythical figure known both for his progressive riding style and meticulous study of board design—who later inspired Andreini’s popular single-fin Vaquero. Developed in the late 1980s, it’s still one of the most beautiful boards around today, on or off the water.
The first surfboards ever ridden were made of wood. Based in San Francisco, Hess has continued that tradition but incorporates more modern designs into his shapes. He applies lessons learned building sustainable homes to his surfboard shapes, where he uses reclaimed and environmentally-friendly materials as often as possible. Looking at one of Hess’s boards elicits the same feeling as seeing a beautiful piece of handcrafted wooden furniture. The boards seem to tell a story. That you get to add to that story by surfing them makes it even better.
Caro has always been fascinated by patterns in nature and tries to shape boards with a natural design. He began shaping in 2002 and spent time learning under Marc Andreini and other renowned boardmakers. He is perhaps best known for his retro fish shapes—shorter and wider boards that can work in a variety of different waves—but is constantly evolving and tinkering his designs, going so far as to create boards out of carbon fiber.
Many shapers have a niche, but Christenson is the rare polymath who is as adept at creating high-performance boards for world tour surfers as he is at making big wave guns and down-the-line longboards. The 43-year-old has been shaping almost as long as he’s been surfing and has applied his design philosophy to other boardsports, collaborating with big mountain rider Jeremy Jones on a range of snowboards that are built to surf the snow.
Meyerhoffer is more than just a surfboard shaper. A trained industrial designer, he has worked at Apple and Porsche and is a founder of the keyless entry startup Latch. Meyerhoffer began experimenting with new surfboard shapes in 2000 and his creations look unlike any other surfboard you’ve ever seen. The shapes aren’t just unusual for unusual’s sake. While many were skeptical of the hourglass designs, surfers who have ridden the boards can’t help but be enamored by them.