The Way a Surf board Should Be
â€œI decided on pale planks for the center and darker strips for the flanks, with one-inch strips of red cedar between for accent.â€?
UST GETTING THERE WAS A PLEASURE. As I headed inland away from the Maine Turnpike early on a Sunday morning in May, dew glinting off the young leaves, I was increasingly enchanted by the rolling fields and well-kept farm houses and glimpses of salt marsh through the trees. Brixham Hill Road popped up on the left, and a quarter mile down, tucked between an 1800s farmhouse, a white clapboard barn, and brown and white cows lolling under an apple tree in a bright-green pasture, I found the building that houses Grain Surfboards, creators of what are likely the most beautiful and thoughtfully made surfboards in the world.
grain Those who can,teach.
BY MARIE MALIN
I HAD COME TO GRAIN to build my own wooden surfboard. If you’d told me six months before that I’d be doing so, I would have looked at you cockeyed—save for the maple clock I made in shop class 20 years ago, which never worked yet is still hanging above the stove at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, I’d never done a scrap of fine woodworking. But Grain’s instructors don’t doubt for a moment that anyone can do it, and so their students do. A not particularly talented yet nonetheless determined surfer, I’ve accrued a variety of boards over the years. There’s something
“They don’t tell you how addictive it is.”
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“I’m stirred when I lift a board and look down the length of the bottom...”
about a surfboard that makes my heart beat faster. I can’t really say why; I’m just stirred when I lift a board by the tail and look down the length of the bottom at the concaves and vees; when I step back to see the rocker; when, eyes closed, I run my hands down the curving rails. Surfboards have always been more art than gear to me, but nothing I’ve ever seen compares to the boards that Grain makes. Grain’s hollow boards are made with Maine-grown northern white cedar using not only traditional boatbuilding techniques but also traditional surfboard-building techniques. While most of the boards we see today are made from fiberglass and foam, a fairly recent combination, all boards before World War II were wooden. Add 3-D computer-assisted design and innovative construction to these traditional techniques and you have surfboards that are strong, smooth, fast, and absolutely gorgeous. But there’s more to them than that. Grain doesn’t build just surfboards. They build community.
“Grain’s instructors don’t doubt for a minute that anyone can build a board.”
Grain doesn’t build just surfboards. They build community.
AFTER STANDING OUTSIDE for a while, mugs of steaming coffee in hand, chatting as cows mooed and farm dogs came to sniff out us new folks, two other surfers and I settled into the funky, comfortable chairs in Grain’s common area. Brad Anderson, co-owner of Grain and our instructor for the week, gave us some background on the company and an overview of what the next seven days would look like. Today we’d be gluing the keel and frame to the bottom planks and learning how to bend wood with steam. Monday and Tuesday we would build up the rails—edges—of the board and start in on the nose and tail blocks. Wednesday we’d rough-shape the rails, Thursday install the top planks, Friday fair the deck and sand the rail seams, and Saturday, the last day, refine the final shape. MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS
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Wing Goodale(2) Marie Malin (2 at left)
Needless to say, we were itching to get into the shop and start our boards, but then Michael Specker walked in with breakfast. Owner of nearby Brixham Hill General Store, a surfer and California transplant, he would be making us breakfast and lunch each day. The information packet we received from Grain a few weeks before class had mentioned that we would be getting “near gourmet” meals; Michael’s local ingredients and fresh combinations added up to that and then some. Happy and dazed from poached eggs with salsa verde, home fries, and split-and-toasted blueberry muffins, we hit the shop. THE FIRST THING that strikes you when you enter the shop is the smell. Simultaneously sharp and sweet, the pleasant fragrance of northern white cedar permeates everything. And then your senses register everything else: bright illustrations by a surf artist on the wall, reggae on the radio, myriad planes and saws and gleaming edge tools, shelves with long cedar rail strips and planks, and stands holding surfboards in various stages of completion. The rapport among our group developed immediately, thanks in large part to Brad’s entertaining stories gleaned from years at sea and other adventures. My classmates included an outdoor sports store manager from Pennsylvania and a radiologist from Maine. People come from all over the world to build boards at Grain; while I was there I also met a married couple from New Jersey and a man from Sweden who were finishing up their boards from a previous class. Brad led us to our stands and explained how to attach the frames to the keel and then glue the resulting framework to the bottom planks. I was uncertain how I was going to turn the pile of wood in front of me into a surfboard, but I was game to try. Bantering subsided as we focused intently on measuring, marking, and eyeballing down the keel to make sure it was perfectly straight. After the keel and frames were piped with marine adhesive and care-
“Sharp and sweet, the pleasant fragrance of northern white cedar permeates everything.”
fully set in place on the bottom planks, we worked in pairs to hold everything tightly with a strongback over each frame while the adhesive set. After an incredible lunch and a demo on how to bend wood with steam, I was amazed to see we were almost done for the day. DAY TWO. We removed the strongbacks and started in on the rails, and the vague shape of a surfboard started to emerge. After gluing a chine log—a long strip of squared-off cedar—to the bottom planks to determine the lengthwise curve of the rails, we started gluing, stacking, and clamping along the length of the board the
quarter-inch bead-and-cove rail strips that Grain mills in-house. While the glue dried, we set about making and installing blocking for extra strength in the nose and tail of the board. A variety of people trickled in and out, making deliveries, picking up kits, exploring the shop. It’s hard for visitors not to linger; the Grain crew is so friendly, and no matter what they’re doing, they always make time to show newcomers around. MY CLASSMATES AND I were sitting around the big table in the common area munching on house-roasted turkey sandwiches with aioli, listening to Mike LaVecchia tell the story of how
“Grain’s hollow boards are made using not only traditional boatbuilding techniques but also traditional surfboardbuilding techniques.”
Grain came to be. “It was kind of meant to be,” he said. It was the winter of 2005, and Mike had recently moved to Maine from Vermont, where he had headed up the construction of an 88-foot wooden canal schooner for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Before that he had operated a day-sailing business on Lake Champlain. Mike started messing about in the basement of his house in York Beach, trying to figure out how to build a wooden surfboard. It was a natural progression; he loved surfing and had experience building wooden snowboards and boats. Friends and local surfers were intrigued, but Grain Surfboards was not even a distant thought. “I was just between jobs, playing around,” he said. Then came the mysterious closure of Clark Foam, the company that manufactured foam blanks for most of the world’s surfboards. Suddenly the guy building wooden surfboards in his basement in Maine caught some media attention, and Mike found himself with several orders.
It wasn’t quite enough to make a living, so Mike continued to take boat jobs when he could, helping out local builders and using his Captain’s license to deliver vessels. In 2006 he took a job helping to refit and deliver a ferry from Cape Cod to San Francisco. Held up in Panama for several weeks, Mike’s crew learned about his passion for building wooden surfboards and urged him to return to Maine and follow it. When Mike got home, he rented a shop and shortly thereafter met Brad Anderson, a jack-of-all-trades who quickly became integral to what had become Grain Surfboards. In addition to building custom boards, they began to offer complete kits, which were an instant success. A year after the expanding business moved to its current location, thanks to a request from the WoodenBoat School, Grain began offering board-building classes. The one-man shop that had grown into a talented, enthusiastic group dedicated to creating beautiful surfboards was now teaching others how to create them, too.
DAY THREE. We hit the shop running. We had to get 10 rail strips on by the end of the day and glue up planks for the board’s deck. Building up the rails was hard work—my right arm was starting to protest from applying and removing spring clamp after spring clamp—so I was relishing a break to pick out my cedar top planks. Ranging from four to six inches wide, the top planks are milled in-house in book-matched pairs. It’s like opening a present when you unfold a pair and get your first look at the color and figuring of the wood inside. Some of the cedar is light and subtle, some is darker with moody whorls and knots. Part of Grain’s ethos is to waste as little wood as possible; a knot or hole isn’t a reason to throw a plank away but rather a chance to have a cool-looking feature on your board. Filled with epoxy, the hole left after a knot is removed won’t compromise the board in the least. After pulling out, arranging, walking around, squinting at, and rearranging
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GR AIN:THE WAY A SURFBOARD SHOULD BE every pair of planks in the shop, I decided on pale planks for the center and darker planks for the flanks, with oneinch strips of red cedar between for accent. The combination was beautiful. “And it’ll be even more beautiful when it’s glassed,” Brad promised. DAY FOUR. They don’t tell you how addictive it is. Pulling a spokeshave down the curving wooden rails of a surfboard is one of the most sensual and riveting actions there is, not unlike riding a wave itself. You don’t have to think about it exactly, but it demands complete concentration; it’s not strenuous, but you must use your entire body. We were shaving down the “lands,” the part of the rails that come up over the frames, so the top planks would have a flat surface to adhere to. Getting my head around the concept of lands and transition lines was a challenge, but Brad explained and drew diagrams and showed me different boards until the light bulb went on.
The real challenge was learning to listen to my medium. Wood speaks to you, tells you what it wants you to do. If you’re holding the spokeshave at the wrong angle or pulling against the grain, you know right away. Get everything right, though, and the wood is happy to yield to your vision. So enraptured was I by the spokeshave that I committed the common mistake of taking one of the lands down too far. Brad assured me it wasn’t a problem. “It’s wood,” he said. “We can fix it.” BRAD ANDERSON refers to himself as crusty, but it doesn’t take more than a minute to realize that passion and vision are at the core of this former boatbuilder, merchant seaman, teacher, computer consultant, and social activist. Seven years ago, curious about the wooden surfboard builder he kept hearing about, Brad called Mike and asked if he could stop by. “We hung out in Mike’s basement for hours, talking,” Brad said. “I could see how much heart he was bringing to it, how much enthusiasm—
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and I could see what it could become if he wanted it to.” In addition to being the principal designer and the business manager, Brad is official keeper of Grain’s mission. “We may seem to be a loose, laid-back group of surfers,” he said, “but we’re very deliberate and careful about what we do. We’re always checking in to see if our practices match our values.” Grain’s ten or so employees represent a range of age and experience, but all of them share a passion for not only surfing but also the belief that people can live more sustainably without compromising quality of life. In fact, after a week of eating local food and using hand tools and riding waves on a handcrafted work of wooden art, I’d argue that living a little more sustainably can increase one’s quality of life. This ethos is a magnet for like-minded people, and indeed the Grain community extends far beyond the walls of the modest shop. As of this writing, there are approximately 1,300 Grain boards in the world,
some built from kits and in classes, some custom built by the company. Students come from as far as Norway, Japan, and Portugal to build boards; a kit was recently sent to Dubai. In addition, the company has started taking classes on the road, first to San Francisco, then to Portland, Oregon. Grain’s students and customers don’t just take their boards and leave, never to be heard from again. They want to stay connected. They send pictures and follow Grain’s Internet blog and make the trek to Maine in September for Grain’s annual gathering, complete with music, a bonfire, surf films, and, this past year, an art show and exhibits from some of the surf industry’s innovators. And— like me—they come back for more classes. After my class in May I purchased a kit, intending to make a second board at home—but home building wasn’t the same. I realized that the class was more than building a board; it was about laughing and telling stories and eating together and sharing the stoke of surfing. I signed up for another. “This place comes alive when there’s a class,” Mike said. “Making boards is great, but in the end it’s all about the people.” ONCE WE GOT the top planks on, days five and six flew by in a giddy blur of spokeshaving and sanding. Our piles of wood had become surfboards. Day Seven. Our last day together was warm and sunny so we took our boards on their stands outside to refine their shape and give everything a final sanding. We signed our boards and carried them through the pasture—laughing and dodging cow pies—to a hay cart for a class photo. As I gathered my things from the shop, I took one last look around. It struck me that there was virtually no waste from our week. We repurposed our wood scraps into blocking. The shavings from planing had become animal bedding. Our apple cores were in the compost pile. This repurposing is intentional, a key part of Grain’s mission. Building a surfboard can’t be done without any environmental impact, but the crew never stops thinking about how they can lessen 48
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their footprint while improving their boards—limiting electricity, employing hand tools, using a lower-emissions epoxy, even using a urethane sealer that’s a by-product of cheese making. Grain doesn’t make a show of their dedication to sustainability or use it as a marketing hook; it’s simply who they are. Their dedication to quality and beauty speaks for itself when you see and hold one of their gleaming boards—and when you ride one. I WAS SMILING like a goof when I pulled up to my regular surf spot outside of Portland. The waves were waist high and clean, and I couldn’t wait to get out in them. I carried my 5'8" board down to the beach. Like a little kid I skipped to the water and splashed in up to my knees. I set the board on the water. It bobbed like a tiny boat. I climbed on. It floated me impressively well for such a short craft. I started paddling. The nose slid easily under the whitewater. I got out beyond the impact zone and waited for a set of waves. It came. I saw the wave I wanted. I paddled. The wave picked me up. I stood, dropped in, turned back up the face—and experienced the final element of what makes a Grain surfboard so special. “IT’S ALMOST LIKE the board is alive,” I told Brad a few weeks later when I stopped by Grain for a visit. He nodded knowingly and told me about an e-mail he received from a customer on the West Coast who had just taken delivery of his new custom-made Grain board. “It’s on the couch next to me,” the man wrote, “and it’s like there’s a person in the room with me.” “Yes, a Grain surfboard is an object,” Brad said, “but something is built into it, grown into it. Everything we’re about is in the board in some way.” He broke into a grin. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe it vibrates somehow.” ✮ Marie Malin lives (and surfs) in southern Maine. This is the first in a projected series of hands-on stories. FOR MORE INFORMATION Grain Surfboards, 60 Brixham Road, York, ME 03909. 207-457-5313; www.grainsurfboards.com www.maineboats.com
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From Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Issue 119. A wooden surfboard is a melding of beauty and performance BY MARIE MALIN