It’s about time for a new surfboard. My old one is fine, but like most great pastimes surfing marries physical enjoyment with the collector’s impulse. Good surfboards are objets d’art and a pleasure to own.
Shopping for a surfboard, however, isn’t as much fun as it used to be.
As a machine, the surfboard has changed very little in the 200 years since European explorers first saw Hawaiians riding waves. Its dimensions have remained fairly constant since antiquity: between about 6′ and 11′ long and about 28″ wide.
The material used to make boards, on the other hand, has changed. In ancient times, boards were carved from wood. In the 1930s surfers discovered that they could use light-weight balsa, and later dense polymer foam, coated in fiberglass. Today epoxy resin is sometimes used as a sealant.
That aside, today’s surfboards are remarkably similar to those from the distant past. If you went back in time and handed a modern board to a surfer from the court of King Kamehameha, he would have known exactly what to do with it.
Likewise, the economics of the surfboard remained constant for a very long time. Until the early 1990s, surfboards were made by A Guy at the Beach. In any locale where surfers congregated, a few would become interested in building boards. These “shapers” were artisans, usually looking to sell just enough boards to support their own surf habit.
It doesn’t diminish the shaper’s art to note that making surfboards has always has been a low-intensity industry with a low skill barrier and almost no start-up costs. You can teach yourself to shape a surfboard in your garage for $200. And while you might not be as good as a professional shaper, his economics and manufacturing process will differ very little from yours.
Because of that, the industry has some peculiarities. In most cases, if you seek out a shaper and tell him exactly what you want, he’ll make a custom board for less than you would pay in the store because (1) he was going to make a board anyway, but for an uncertain prospective client, and (2) you are cutting out the middleman. (Once you ride a custom board, made by a shaper who’s fitting it not just to your body but also to the waves at your beach, you’ll never go back to prêt-à-surfer.)
Another oddity is that surfboards are a hyper-local good. Because they’re so big, shipping can easily add more than 30 percent to the cost. As a result, most boards are sold near where they’re made. The shaper literally drives his wares to the local surf shop, where they’re sold on consignment. As a result, surfboards are one of the few products that have been relatively immune to the influence of the Internet.
They have not, however, been immune to globalization. In the ’60s, when Gidget, the Beach Boys, and the surf craze hit America, a few companies took to mass-producing surfboards. These factory-made creations were known as “pop-out” boards. Pop-outs remained a marginal part of the industry until early this decade, when companies realized they could radically cut production costs by making pop-outs overseas.
Foreign pop-out boards are easy to spot in surf shops because they’re roughly half the price of boards made by local shapers. They’re also junk.
Today, however, some companies have begun making hand-shaped boards in Asia. A “master shaper”—that is, an American surfer who knows what he’s doing—supervises a shop full of workers who have, in all likelihood, never surfed a day in their lives and are being paid in rice and beads.
The production costs are so low that these boards can be shipped to shops all over America and still sell for a fraction of the price of boards made by local shapers.
These foreign boards have been quite successful: Today they account for nearly 40 percent of the 600,000 surfboards sold annually in America. And sooner or later, they’re going to drive the Guys at the Beach out of business.
There’s no crying in capitalism, of course; two cheers for the free market and all that. But my selfish concern is that if the two or three Guys at My Particular Beach close up shop, then the product I want—a board custom-made for me and the waves on my little stretch of North Carolina coast—won’t be more expensive. It won’t be available at all. Not that there’s anything to be done. The dialectical materialism of the Walmart school spares no one, not even surfers.
The lesson, I suppose, is that I ought to order my new board now, before it’s too late. Actually, I should probably get two. Just to be safe.
Jonathan V. Last