After four long days, the class celebrates with their finished boards. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
The first men and women to ride froth-tipped waves off the coast of Hawaii and other Polynesian Islands did so on planks of wood.
They were heavy and difficult to handle, but these early surfers laid the foundations for a sport now embraced worldwide and dominated on the professional circuit by Australians.
Modern advancements have seen wood phased out in favour of plastic and foam surfboards, valued for their light weight and flexibility.
However, a growing body of surfers still pine for boards reminiscent of those from decades ago.
In a small sunbathed workshop in suburban Brisbane, a group gathers to lovingly handcraft their own wooden boards.
“I thought wooden boards were something that left the planet in the ’60s and didn’t belong in this era or this time,” Stuart Bywater, a woodworker and furniture restorer, said.
“They just ride differently.”
Stuart Bywater (right) has turned a passion into a career. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Mr Bywater was 13 when he rode his first wave.
More than 30 years later he has turned that passion into a career and teaches others to make boards.
“A lot of people don’t make things in their day-to-day or in their life,” he said.
“They’ll sit at a computer and write things or make documents but actually have nothing physical and substantial after that.”
The first challenge of his four-day intensive class is getting his students to forget about their mobile phones and focus on the task at hand.
“As soon as they get in the habit of just putting the phone away and focusing on what we’re doing, they tend to enjoy it a lot more,” Mr Bywater said.
“I encourage people that they do actually have the skill if they go slowly.
“People who rush in tend to miss some of those finer points.”
Art of shaping organic lines
But even for his students with woodworking experience, shaping the organic lines of a surfboard can pose a challenge.
“The first board I glued up was an absolute nightmare,” Mr Bywater said.
“It was the worst glue up in my life and I’ve been doing woodwork for over 30 years.”
Student Glenn Cameron concentrates on smoothing his rails. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
The first step building a surfboard is assembling its internal ribs. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Brisbane design and technology teacher Glenn Cameron said making his first board was a real test of his skills.
“Everything we do is square and straight,” Mr Cameron said, during a break from sanding his board.
“That real organic shape that comes through surfboards is something that’s quite challenging, particularly curves turning into other curves.
“That’s why Stuart’s trained eye is a really good thing to learn from.”
The class starts out with thin paulownia “ribs and rails” — the names given to the skeleton of wood pieces that form the inner structures of the board.
“It’s very much like a fish skeleton or an aeroplane wing,” Mr Bywater said.
Actually, the man who designed the first hollow surfboard is said to have picked up a few ideas from an aeronautical engineer during the process.
Wooden ribs and rails form the skeleton of the surfboard. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
The pieces are then carefully nailed and glued together to form the board’s shape and large panels of wood are glued together and left to dry to form the skins.
Some have pinstripes of western red cedar in hues of red or dark brown; others break up large sections of creamy paulownia with a pink-tinged wood.
Each board design is named after famous Australian Olympic swimmers — Rose, Dawn, Gould and Perkins.
“I’m a bit of a sucker for our summer Olympics and very proud of being Australian,” Mr Bywater said.
Hard work and hand tools
Michael Wheelaghan travelled from Sydney to make his own surfboard, a nine-foot Dawn.
He said he had a passion for surfing but almost no woodworking experience.
“I’m an IT worker by trade so all I do all day is work in an office,” he said.
“It’s been a few days of sore joints and sore arms but nothing too bad.”
Even coffee is ignored as the class painstakingly planes the ribs and rails of their boards. (ABC Radio Brisbane)
Dawn is a broad long board which, according to Mr Wheelaghan, would be easier to surf.
He said the board would take pride of place next to his other foam boards because he was the one who made it.
“I think there’s something about the materials that you use that connects you back to the early history of surfing,” he said.
Many of the students make their boards with a particular break in mind.
Mr Bywater said he expected most of them would be ridden often once completed, but a few of his students would consider them too precious to use.
Freshly glued skins are put in a vacuum bag to draw out all of the air. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
The boards sleep in their vacuum bags overnight before they’re shaped and sanded some more. (Supplied: Stuart Bywater)
Pride in the hand-crafted
Like meat at the supermarket, the boards reach their final form by being put into a plastic sleeve and having the air sucked out.
It makes the fibreglass-lined skins stick to the glue-coated edges of the frame.
Miles of packing tape is then strapped around the board to keep the joins tight before it’s bagged and sealed overnight.
The surfers spend their final day shaping the smooth curved lines and sanding any rough edges in anticipation of the final glassing and addition of fins to help steer on the waves.
To wax or not to wax is something each participant contemplates during the course.
Once glassed, the natural, muted colours of boards take on a new appearance.
They look slick, like the veneer on an acoustic guitar, and the pink, red and brown tones become rich and dark.
Sanding is the final step before the boards are glassed. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Mr Bywater said the first surf was often the most difficult.
“The biggest problem while going to the beach with one of the boards is that you get stopped quite regularly,” he said.
“Everyone’s going, ‘Where did you get that from? That’s really nice’.”
At different times surfers have attempted to reignite interest in wooden surfboards.
Today, Mr Bywater suspects their sustainability credentials — he only uses plantation-grown timber — is what draws people in to workshops like his.
“In the last 15 years there’s been a bigger revival with our environmental issues,” he said.
“If we have lots of storms, you tend to see rubbish out in the water which is pretty disappointing.
“It’s nice to make something, ride it and know it’s timber.”