The Feeling of History

BY Cory Mac Pherson

The very first waveriders in Hawaii didnt hang ten on sleek foam surfboards. Those early boards were made of wood carefully carved from wiliwili ula and koa trees. Today shapers and board-makers around the world create boards made primarily of polyurethane or polystyrene foam covered with layers of fiberglass cloth and polyester or epoxy resin. Despite these advances in design and construction there are some shapers like Ian Balding who are still tied to the ancient tradition. “These wood boards have been ridden for years. Thats how surfing originally started on wood surfboards in Hawaii in the 1800s ” Balding says. “When youre riding a wood board theres definitely a feeling of history behind it.”

During an eight-day surfing trip to the Galapagos Islands eight years ago the tour guide told Balding about a local shaper who made wood surfboards. Balding had an interest in the craft and wanted to meet the man. A meeting was arranged and the guy gave him a wood board to try out for the day. Thats all the time it took for Balding to fall in love. When he returned to the states he immediately ordered four blanks (large hollowed-out blocks of wood) from the Galapagos shaper.

Wood surfboard making is all about precision. Balding prefers to use balsa tree wood because of surfings long history with balsa boards which are known to be heavier and best for choppy conditions. He also prefers using balsa wood for longboards. “They catch waves really well and they ride a lot better ” Balding says.

Although Balding usually orders blanks from a friend in Ecuador occasionally he will order rough-cut lumber and mill the wood into a blank himself. This part of the process alone can take 16 hours.

To create his own blank Balding takes 4-inch x 6-inch blocks of balsa lines them up and cuts them a little wider than the finished surfboard will be. He uses the same process for the stringers which are made of red cedar or redwood and provide strength as well as additional color to the design of the board.

The wood at this point is uneven so Balding has to cut and smooth all four sides of each block of wood ensuring that they will line up neatly. After he finishes he draws the rocker (the overall curve from the tip of the nose to the tail) into one of the pieces and cuts it out with a band saw. He uses this block as a template to draw and cut into each of the other blocks of wood.

Next he lines up all of the blocks of wood and draws an outline of the shape of the board onto the unglued blank. Each block is individually cut with a bandsaw to the dimensions of the outline.

In order for the board to be as light as possible Balding chambers out the insides of each piece of wood which involves the same process of outlining making a template and then cutting. At the end of this process the boards will be hollow ready to be lined up and then glued together.

After the boards are glued Balding spends at least 20 additional hours carefully shaping and fiberglassing the board. The results are a functioning work of art.

“The finished product is my favorite part ” Balding explains. “After eight years of making them they keep getting better with every one I finish.”

After making a board Balding takes it into the ocean and judges whether or not it accomplishes what he designed it to do. The results? “I pretty much have most of the design elements down as far as what I want the board to do and then making it do that through the actual shaping ” Balding says.

He also prefers wood boards because “people are looking for a greener product to ride in the water. We surf in a natural environment; its nice to be able to surf on something that is a renewable resource.”

Balding learned carpentry from his father who learned it from his father. He plans to continue expanding the range of his craft from surfboards and longboards to stand-up paddleboards body boards wakeboards and whatever else he can think of. One thing that wont change is his loyalty to wood. “Its a beautiful feeling you get from wood ” he says “its so natural.”