Welcome to the 1st episode of our special series called “Legends”, we will features amazing guests that contributed to make the history of surfing.
Today with us from Idaho is the legendary shaper Bing Copeland.
We discussed with him the early days with Velzy and Greg Noll, how he contributed to the sport, legendary surfboards model and much more!
You can find the episode in all major podcast platforms or read the transcribed version of the podcast, here in our The Temple of Surf webpage
TTOS: Aloha Mr. Bing welcome to the show, where are you today?
I'm in the mountains of Idaho, specifically “Sun valley”, Idaho a resorts town. Not that I ski anymore, but this is where I am… today we have about three feet of snow outside and about 35 degrees….
TTOS: I'm sure you have a great place over there! Today we are going to talk about so many things course about your incredible history and I'm sure you will share with me and with the audience, some great stories, but the first question that I have for you is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing?
Well, I would say to be friendly with your surfing companions and anybody else in the water… Today, the way it is crowded makes it more difficult, but, in my days, there was so few of us in the water, it was pretty easy to be friends with everybody around you…. I'd say just be friendly.
TTOS: I think is so important, I guess the friendships that we all make in the water are there to last forever, right?
Most of them, you can find really true friends in the water among surfers, of course, if somebody is upset it's difficult to be friend, but I would say most of the time, those are the friendship that are the more dear to me, at least
When I was growing up, there were so few people surfing that it was very rare that there was a difficulty with another
TTOS: Exactly, actually you were all there to protect each other, if something was happening…
I grew up with Greg Noll, both of us started in 1949 at the Manhattan Beach pier in California and, you know, we've been competitors and we've been good friends, all of our lives… it's sad that he is gone now.
TTOS: Actually, you read my mind because I wanted to ask you, what is the best memory that you have of that time with surfing with Greg?
Oh, there are so many, I couldn't say, I would say surfing the first day at Waimea Bay perhaps would be one. Another one was when we were surfing, when we were very young, at Ventura, it was a day with overhead waves…. we were on Simmons boards, this was before even Velzy was building boards.
I remember paddling out to the brakes and Greg was swimming in with his board, of course he didn't have a leash in those days so he lost it, he goes, “help me get me outta here!”, I put him on my board and we paddled back to get his board, but he was scared that day….the famous Greg Noll was scared.
TTOS: Oh my God, it happens also to the best right? To get scared some days…..
TTOS: I think also of the age, it played an important role in that, right? You were kids, as you said….
There were so many things, we were both young, I think I was 13, Greg was a year younger than I, and, since we were the only two young guys surfing at Manhattan Beach, we had a lot of fun experiences together during that period.
TTOS: You are talking about surfboards and of course, at that time, the surfboards that that you and all the rest of the guys had, were heavy, right? What was your first proper surfboard? Do you remember that board?
My very first surfboard was a paddle board that my father made in the garage, out of plywood, all hollow, the fishtail didn't have a stand on it. I went down in front of my house and tried it and I was just falling off and sliding around and it was going sideways. I came in, kind of discouraged, I was walking up the beach, take the board home, and the lifeguard saw me and he walked over and he said, you know, if you put some wax on the top of that, you won't slide around so much and if you put a fin on the back, maybe it won't go sideways…. I went home and with my rector set angle irons, and a piece of masonite, I made a fin and my mother gave me a candle and I rubbed the candle on the deck. I went down, back down the next day and it worked better, I remember I finally caught wave and stood up. The board was, you know, by then filling up with water and getting heavy… it wasn't that good, but that was my very first board.
TTOS: You started early into making surfboards, because you took something that your father made and you tried to perfect it, to make it work….
My father had a hardware store, he was pretty handy with his hands and I learned a lot from him as far as fixing things and just using my hand tools.
TTOS: It comes from that time, the fact that, at a certain point, you decided to shape your own surfboards?
Well, you know, I didn't really think about shaping my own surfboard for a long time because I was growing up with Velzy, when he started building boards that was right about 1950, when he opened a shop. I would hang out in his shop and I would help, I would cut, he would draw the templates on the boards and I'd stand up on him and use the big old saw and saw the templates out. He taught me how to not go across the lines and all that kind of stuff. I learned a lot just hanging around watching, but, I never really thought about shaping my own board until 1959, something like that.
Until that year, I was in the coast guard in Hawaii and when I was off duty, we would surf at Ala Moana and the Yacht Harbor. We got friends with a yacht owner and he asked us when we got out of the coast guard, asked us simply wanted to go sailing around the world with him.
We said, “sure”, after two years in the coast guard, we spent the next year on the yacht sailing to the islands, visiting Samoa and Bora Bora…. we ended up in 1959, just about Christmas time in Auckland, New Zealand. We met some guys on the dock there and they said there was some surf on the other side, on the Tasman side.
They drove us over there and we had our balsa Velzy boards with us at this time….we actually introduced modern day surfboards in New Zealand that year!
When we went out surfing first of all, they told us, “our waves are very dangerous”, we'll send a couple boys out on surf keys to make sure you're okay. We paddled out and surf looked pretty good! We paddled out and we and we turned turtle, you know, to go under some white water and this and that. When we got out the guys were shocked! in the sixties they were having trouble getting through the six foot waves, you know?
We rode four or five waves, playing around kind of showing off, you know, surfing next to each other, going behind and stuff like that.
When we came back these New Zealand guys had to try our boards, we saw a need for surfboards there. And since we hung around at the shop, we had the experience to make boards, so we found some materials and all we could find was and epoxy resin for the fiberglass…. it was kind of difficult to make them, and we were fairly crude on the first ones, but we shaped them right there at the surf club on the beach. We made probably, you know, eight or 10 boards for the guys before time to go back to California….
That's where I started my lifetime job!
TTOS: That's a great start! Actually the great thing is that you were traveling the world as a coast guard officer, but you were traveling in amazing places back then, it's a fantastic experience!. When you end up doing nine boards for the local guys, you end up also doing some business! Quite successful trip!
It was a wonderful experience, it really was, you know, pretty good for your ego to go into a beach where nobody's seen surfing like ours and then, suddenly, you're their heroes! And the girls liked our American accent….
TTOS: That was a total hundred percent score! Perfect trip.
It was pretty, pretty good for a couple of 21 year olds.
You know, at that time, there were only a handful of girls down at the beach, very few surfing…
I'm really impressed today, in our sales shop in California, probably 40% of the boards are sold out to women!
TTOS: It's fantastic! It keeps up your legacy and transforms it into a different kind of consumers! If we jump forward of today Bing name is managed by Matt Calvani and his wife, right?
Yeah, Matt, and Margaret,
TTOS: How does, in your opinion, your legacy live in Bing today?
Well, you know, you have to think about the period when the short boards came in, in the early seventies…. they came in and kind of basically, ruined the business for us major manufacturers… Jacobs, Noll, Webber and myself. We all basically quit because there wasn't enough business…. Some of the older surfers didn't wanna go into shortboard, a lot of those guys just quit surfing, our sales base went so far down….. it was also during the drug era and in the hippie era, it was cool for “backyard builders” to build their own boards and no label boards and this and that. It was difficult for us to run a real commercial business, I had a factory, you know, we all had factories and, and we had overhead and this and that.
When the sales dropped, we all quit, we all went fishing deep sea commercial fishing. I moved to Idaho at that time, 1974 and went into another business. It was for another 10 or 15 years that we didn't really, none of us, we weren't commercial at that point. It wasn't until late nineties, I guess, early 2000 that the interest started coming back into longboarding. That's when I ran into Matt Calvani on the beach in Mexico where I had a house. He mentioned that he would like to build my boards again. I answered that Mike Eaton was building my boards in San Diego, but I would ask him and I did it on my next trip back to San Diego….
Mike said, sure, tell him to come on down, I give him all this stuff and he can go on with it….that's how Matt started together with Margaret.
I later found our that Matt, he had been shaping for Jacobs and that he was a good shaper. I was excited that he wanted to bring back the Bing brand.
So he did! In this last 20, some years that we've been together. He and Margaret both have become like family to me, we have a wonderful relationship and it's really enjoyable.
TTOS: Amazing! the boards are just amazing! They were amazing in the past and they're still amazing today!
Matt, you know, he was interested in the boards of the past and, he recreated some of the same boards, improving this and that. He had a good grasp of my era, it worked out real well.
TTOS: In your in your life, you met a lot of surfers, was there a meeting with one of them that was particularly meaningful for you?
I would have to say Velzy!
Velzy was like my mentor, I learned a lot from him, in fact, I went from 13/14 years old with him up until we were old. He was more like a father image, although he had such a great personality; I learned things from him that, you know, my father would have not teached me probably.
TTOS: Among all the models that you shaped back then, was there a particular one that you really liked more than the others? I know that they are kind of all like your sons, but was there a particular model that you are really liked?
Well, probably, our most successful one would be the one that I liked the most and because I really did enjoy the board and that was the David Nuuhiwa nose rider, with a concave nose and kicking tail. The way we built it, actually, it was designed by Donald Takayama and myself…. Donald was shaping for me at the time. In fact, he brought David in and said “let's make him a model too” . At that point I had two models that Takayama was making … a nose rider was a board that just worked, worked really well. I mean, it wasn't the fastest board in the world, but as far as nose riding and turning and it just was a fun and easy board to ride….
TTOS: I had the opportunity to interview David, he was such la different surfer out there, like rock and roll lifestyle, cars…..
Oh yeah, he was a little difficult to handle at times, but we got along fine….
TTOS: I started the interview asking you what was the most important thing in surfing? If I had to ask you the same, but for shaping, what would you answer me?
I think consistency more than anything. As far as we had the David Nuuhiwa model, I had like four different shapers shaping because we had so many orders. I had like four different guys shaping the same model, each guy kind of had his own technique, his own, this and that. Basically the boards didn't come out as consistent, the shapes, they were all good, but they were different, one guy would have had a little thin rail or a little this or a little that. I think the advent of the shaping machine really solved the problem of keeping the models consistent. We didn't have 'em in my days, we didn't have machine, we didn't use them.
TTOS: It's called “craftmanship” right? Craftmanship also means that everything is the same, but a little different. I like it actually in that way, myself, you know?
Well, yeah, yeah, you know, a lot of people would say, no… the machine is creating perfection,
The work of the shaper, especially in custom orders, is important, especially to the good surfers that know what they want when they come in and stand by you while you're shaping the board.
That was my favorite of things to do, was to make boards for some of our team members and friends and people that wanted me to shape their boards. I didn't like production shaping. I didn't like going in and shaping five boards every day that were just gonna be an inventory. I enjoyed, you know, one on one with a guy and, and talking to him and, and building the board for him…..that was fun, but production shaping was a job, even if it wasn't as much fun as an individual.
TTOS: at the end shaping is a business, is about numbers….
You know, when we were doing 40 boards per day, I really didn't have time to shape, I was so busy making sure all the materials were coming, all the tools were working and people were showing up on time…. you know, just running the business. I really didn't have time to shape much I did on occasion for people that wanted me to, and what I really enjoyed was designing new models, that was fun as opposed to doing production.
TTOS: Okay, so you are more into the design…..
Yeah, that was more my deal.
TTOS: What is your best memory of Donald Takayama?
He's a good craftsman, his shaping style was a little different, he made his rails a little sharper than the rest of us did. He had a style, but he was very consistent in his shaping and he always was good, but he was not fast. When he was working with me, he shaped every Donald Takayama board we made, we didn't have anybody else shaping his models.
TTOS: Reading about you all over the internet, people are referring to you as a legend. Do you consider yourself one?
Oh, You know, looking back on it and the whole history, perhaps we were legends… like Greg and I and Hobie, all these guys were all legends, but in the small world of surfing, I guess we are considered legends. None of us really ever felt that way ourselves personally.
At the time we had no idea what we were doing, we were just a bunch of fun hogs having a good time.
TTOS: in your opinion, what is, was the defining moment of your career?
I would say the mid-sixties, when we could sell a lot, the wholesaling had just opened up on the east coast and, and we all could sell as many boards as we could make. It was just a good time, it was crazy and it was fun and it wasn't very stressful because the only stress was getting enough more out. I would say that's the most defining time for me was the mid sixties when, when surfing was just exploding everywhere
TTOS: we're gonna finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind.
The best surfboard that you ever ridden
It's hard to say all of them, I would say my favorite surfboard was the David Nuuhiwa lightweight that I enjoyed so much riding on
TTOS: Your favorite shaper of all time…
It's hard to say, I would say Velzy
TTOS: personal question, your favorite song…
I'm not really a guy that's into a lot of music, but I enjoy Hawaiian music, Hawaiian slack, guitar, music. I played slack guitar for a while and that was that's my favorite music to listen to.
TTOS: Your favorite surf spot
Favorite surf spot would have to be a left, I think I've had probably as much fun at the Redondo break water in California on a good day.
TTOS: Your favorite surfer of full time?
You know, he never rode my boards, but I would say Mike Doyle would be my favorite surfer, not only for his surfing, but his lifestyle and his personality.
TTOS: the last question is a little bit unusual, is not about surfing or shaping, but I ask everybody here on this show, I like to know your best relationship advice.
Well, to get along with each other to understand each other, to help each other, to love each other. Me and my wife, we were married for 59 years…. I think ours worked out pretty well, we had three great children and six great grandchildren.