Interview with Surfboard Shaper Tom Wegener
Tom Wegener is one of surfing’s most important figures. If you know your surf culture, you’ll be aware that Tom has been featured in and contributed to the biggest surfing magazines in the world. Having been featured in countless surf movies, Tom’s innovative designs and theories help make surfing what it is today.
Needless to say that Tom is somewhat of a hero of ours here at Passenger and when he agreed to give us an interview, to say we were delighted would be an understatement. Here’s what Tom had to say about surfboard shaping and his current thoughts on the surfing industry.
Can you tell us what first inspired you to become a surfboard shaper?
I was inspired to become a shaper because where I grew up, in Palos Verdes, California, there were lots of shapers. Most of the kids made their own boards. It was just a cool thing to do. I made my own in 9th grade and then started making some for my friends.
You started out making custom foam surfboards. Can you tell us a bit about the transformation of your work over the years?
In the beginning I made surfboards because it was fun. Then I started making longboards because there was nobody making new ones in the early 1980’s. You could get a sixties longboard for $20 but if you wanted a new, lighter one, you had to make it yourself. Most of my shaping was to make boards that were not for sale anywhere else - to develop designs. This followed through to the wood boards and the alaias. It’s always fun to make new boards.
You’ve become known for shaping your surfboards from paulownia trees (among other materials), what is it about this particular wood that has had such an impact on the way you design boards?
In the year 2000, I found that paulownia wood doesn’t suck up seawater. This was mind blowing! It’s light, very easy to sand and shape, inexpensive, grown on local plantations, and the best wood for making surfboards. I couldn’t believe how good this wood was for surfboards! I also found that the new, yellow, polyurethane foaming glue was much better than the clumsy, toxic epoxies for bonding wood. The paulownia wood and polyurethane glue opened the door for a new generation of surfboard builders as well as for the rebirth of the Hawaiian alaia.
In 2009, you were named ‘Shaper of the Year’ by Surfing Magazine and more recently in 2012; you were awarded The Sunshine Coast Smart Glossie Award for your factory known as ‘the creation plantation’. How much do these accolades mean to you as a surfboard shaper?
The accolades mean a lot to me and I’m sure it’s the same for other shapers. The projects that receive the awards are generally adventurous and the value is usually in the experiences and the friends that are made along the way. They generally don’t result in making money. The awards are recognition for a good job, which is actually more important than money. I hope to help support the awards and encourage others to innovate. The community is behind you, though you often don’t know it when you’re busting your guts and losing your shirt pursuing an idea.
You’re currently taking a sabbatical from shaping and you’re studying for a PHD in the Sustainability of the Surfboard Industry in Queensland. What was your inspiration behind taking on this challenge?
I am soooo happy to be working on this PhD. It’s about the sustainability of small manufacturing in Australia with a focus on the surfboard industry. I am enrolled in the Sustainability Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast. My inspiration for doing this was that I wanted to understand the place of the artisan in a globalised world.
If the surfboard artisan (one who hand makes surfboards with vast knowledge and skill) cannot find a place in the Australian economy, what chance does any other small manufacturer have? Is small manufacturing dead in Australia? Surfboard artisans have been a dying breed in Australia and I was worried that they may disappear altogether. There’s very little financial reward in making surfboards and doing it is economically irrational.
However, the surfboard artisan values things other than just money. This is overlooked in our capitalist society and by our accountants. However, it’s the basis for the overall, long-term success of the surfboard industry. It’s what keeps it going through the down times and what keeps the innovations flowing. It’s at the heart of surfing culture as well as the larger surf industry, which affects many other parts of the Australian economy. Many small manufacturing businesses have moved overseas but the surfboard artisan is still working in Australia and is wealthy in most every way - other than financially.
How is the course going? How has studying sustainability in the surfboard industry changed the way you view the sport and your approach to shaping?
Pursuing the PhD and looking at the surfboard industry from a distance has helped me realize that integrity is the highest value. Making the best board we can and treating the customer well is the proper approach for doing business. Trying to make boards in mass and competing on price points is not the way to survive as a surfboard maker. It’s about focusing on making the best, not the most. It’s about talking to customers and working on innovations. When I look at the top surfboard makers, these are the qualities I find.
On your website, when speaking about your sabbatical you say that ‘the local surfboard industry is forgetting more than it is learning’ and that the culture of designing may be lost. Can you share some more of your thoughts on this?
I believe that surfing has become too much of a sport and less of an art form and a lifestyle in the past few decades. Judging rides in the context of pre-designated manoeuvres stifles innovative surfing and surfboard design. I’m so happy that the hipsters have largely broken the contest mentality and brought some freshness to surf boards and culture. Another movement away from the contests came with the alaia and finless revolutions.
The surfboard artisans are at the foundations of these movements. This is innovation at work. This is the result of active surfboard artisans. I am hoping that new surfboard movements keep sprouting up and keep surfing alive and growing. A big part of moving forward is knowing the past. There’s so much that we can learn from surfing’s thousands of years of history.
When will your PHD course be complete? Do you have any future plans afterwards?
After my PhD, I don’t have any definite plans. My only priority is to pass all I have learned to the next generation. The older I get the more I marvel at the value of surfing.