Welcome to the 16th episode of the second series of our podcast!
Today with us, from San Diego, California, the legendary shaper Hank Warner.
Let’s discover more about his career (since 1967), surfboards, shaping and much more!
You can find this episode in all major podcast platforms (Itunes, Spotify, YouTube and many others) or read the interview below (please forgive us of mistakes while transcribing)
TTOS: Aloha Hank, welcome to the show, where are you today?
I’m in San Diego, California.
TTOS: What is the most important thing in surfing?
I think the most important thing in surfing right now, is preserving the culture that was created in surfing, such as handcrafted surfboards, proper etiquette in the water and respect for the legends and people that helped to create the sport and the industry.
TTOS: If I have to ask you about what is the most important thing in shaping, what would you tell me?
Well, for me, the most important thing in shaping is to actually give the customer what they’re seeking, wheter they know for sure or not….always listen to them, find out where they’re going, look at where they’ve been.
I always ask to see what they are riding, even if they say they don’t like it, at least I have a reference point as to where not to go for them. The most important part is to really keep them stoked on surfing by giving them a surfboard that betters their experience.
I always think, if you’re asking somebody for directions, to get somewhere, it’s always good to ask somebody that’s been there before, he will tell you how to get there faster.
In my 60 something years of shaping and in the surf culture, I’ve been down most paths, so at least, I can tell them from experience where they’re going.
TTOS: Do you think this is achievable only through experience as shaper or it can be done if you are a surfer that shapes his own surfboards?
As a shaper, I have to get to know the client and the style they always surf, and then, I believe, a great shaper is always able to produce a magic surfboard for a surfer…. a surfboard that will really improve him/her.
Each surfer is an individual, we all surf in different ways, we have different experience levels and we all want to accomplish certain things, whether they want to be able to stand up quicker or catch the wave sooner, or doing radical maneuvers….
The shaper has to kinda knowing what they’re aiming to have by virtue when they surfing in order to provide them the best board.
At the other hand, a younger surfer that shapes boards can make boards that he can ride really well or she can ride really well, but still it’s the customer’s experience, not your experience what works.
I always think that most surfboards, even if they have proper flotation and outlines for where they want to ride are not perfect…..it’s just like driving someone else’s car, you can step on their breaks and it feels different than your own car until you get used to it.
For this reason, most of the people are adapting to the boards, while I believe that it is so important to listen to what the customer is seeking in a new surfboard.
TTOS: Listening to the customer is so important and you, most probably, you have listened to so many of them as I read over internet that you shaped over 30,000 boards in your career, an amazing number….
That was good to the extent that in Gordon & Smith, in the late seventies and eighties, I was doing over a hundred a month, I got a lot of practice on the science of how to break down a blank and to get to where I wanted to make it.
Some shapers can only shape one particular way, they’ve got a formula that they follow, but, you know, I think that if you’re doing customs boards, you have to be pretty flexible to change because, for instance, the eight boards I’m doing this week are all different sizes, different age groups, different genders and all different weights with all different surfing ability…..you really need to know how to kind of steer it through all that, you know what I mean?
TTOS: Definitively, what was the first surfboard that you ever shaped?
I remember that one!
When I was 10 or 11, I was able to go into a surfboard factory with my future brother-In-Law Billy Caster who married my sister and, in 1960, he had a factory, so I could be there and watch people shaping boards. Just by virtue of living in Pacific Beach I could watch Mike Kenson or Billy Caster shaping, I had a lot of experience at watching great shapers …
After about six or seven years, I wanted to do it on my own because boards were changing to the shorter boards and there wasn’t really any definite way to make a short board at that time, that was the transition from longboards to short-boards.
That was a perfect time to start trying to learn how to shape, first just to make the board even, and then how to make a design the way you want it.
The first board I made was like a six/0 , I put a reverse fin on it, It was a single fin with a heart diamond tail. I could ride it, but it definitely wasn’t an advanced surfboard at the time.
TTOS: That’s a great memory! What, in your opinion, was the defining moment of your career?
In 1970, I traveled to Australia, I just turned 21, I’d already seen people shaping surfboards by then as I was working at the G&S factory in Grenola.
Their boards (the Australians) were a lot different than the Californian or the Hawaii boards.
While I was there, I shaped one board for myself and it turned out that the sander was there (his name was Kirby), he said “all right, I’ll take one of those”. That was my first custom order to actually try to duplicate my board.
Only five years ago, I was in Noosa, Australia speaking to Dave Wilson, who was the laminator at the factory at the time and I asked him about the sander “Kirby”, he told me that he had passed away, but that his son, Josh Kerr was doing well on the tour. I was happy to find out that my first custom order was for the father of a professional surfer in the circuit, Josh Kerr.
When I came back from Australia in 71, it was when the surfboard industry was pretty depressed, all the major surfboard factories couldn’t really produce a board cheap enough to avoid that people would make them on their own by just buying the materials, they all tried to make a low-cost board.
I got hired by Billy Caster to shape those boards, that kinda got me going and in 1972/3, I used to be a carpenter in the day and a shaper at night, but in 73 it became my only occupation, I’ve only just shaped surfboards since 1973 is a job.
TTOS: I guess there is a sense of accomplishment if you are able to shape for different generations of surfers, father to gran father, grandson…..
Oh yes! There are people that come in and, for instance, in the last 15 years, everyone’s gone for the retro age trying to duplicate boards pre- tri-fin.
Well, I still have templates from the seventies and the eighties and they were great at the time, it’s pretty easy for me to put down on a blank those outlines, while young shapers are trying to recapture that, kind of creating it from what they think it looked like or what they perceive boards were like….
I’ve actually got the templates that were really good at the time to just lay down the lines….we get grandpa’s grandsons, granddaughters, all kinds of different people that come down through the years and you build a clientele of loyal customers.
It’s pretty good being, kind of in the retired age, but still wanting to work every day and to have a clientele that, without advertising, comes to you and you still have plenty of work….
TTOS: Amazing! If you had to choose the best achievement of your career, which one would you pick?
I would say two things, the first was working at Gordon & Smith where the production was like 200 boards a week under the tutelage of Paul Mc Gary, who was a great shaper, but he was also the production manager. He taught me so many things about how to break down a surfboard, kind of the science of surfboard building.
That has helped me a lot in not spending all day to shape a board, do it quickly, that was kind of a way to give yourself a raise to shape a board quicker for the same price and get it right there.
The second thing was in 1977, being hooked up with Terry Fitzgerald, who at the time, was probably the most soulful surfer in the world, made his own boards and rode all kinds of waves and he had a unique surfboard design. He gave me all his templates and show me his designs and that kind of put me on the radar of a lot of advanced surfers that want to have some boards like in the Kerry Fitzgerald’s quiver.
TTOS: In your career you, as we said before, shaped over 30,000 surfboard, and, I’m guessing you received also some weird requests in term of shaping surfboard, unusual surfboards, right?
I’ve had some unusual request, I’ve shaped arch for legless surfers, shaped boards for disabled surfers or surfers that had different needs like their weight distribution so the boards were differently distributed….that’s one thing that’s always a challenge.
The other thing is people would come and ask a particular type of surfboard that I thought was kind of on the weird side. I would ask them to justify why they’re seeking that particular design and if they come up with an answer that definitely defines that’s what they want, then it’s something I would do, but a lot of times, they’re kind of gone the wrong way, so I can kind of steer to something that’s a little bit more different to what they were seeking.
TTOS: At the end is your name on the surfboard and a surfboard is also your legacy in a certain way, right?
I’ve had people go: “Oh, I saw one of your boards, you would shape a six/0 board for me…”.
And I would say: “whose board did you see?” they tell me, they saw a guy that weighed 250 pounds with a six/0. I say, well, of course, that board was not for you, it was made for a guy that weighs a hundred pounds more than you….
Sometimes people just see your name on a board and they kind of label you if that’s the type of surfboard you make. In my shop, I have all kinds of different sizes shapes on when people come in, they can visually look at what I’ve done, all different. They know that I’m flexible enough to do anything, not just one, one way.
TTOS: What is your favorite board to shape today? do you have a favorite one or for you all of them are somehow the same?
Well, you know, it’s kind of like in bowling, you can only own a 300 game, you can always see for the perfect score in bowling.
Each surfboard is its own, you know, you’re trying to get a hundred percent of it correct.
Every board is pretty much my favorite to shape because it’s a new challenge, it’s not monotonous or routine and just going through the motions…
Lately I’ve taken a mini Simmons design that was kind of recreated in the San Diego and kind of turned it into what I call a “power hole”, which is a board that’s displaced and wide like a mini Simmons, but a lot more maneuverable with the fin set up and the tail outline to make it more all around friendly for all different conditions.
Cause in San Diego, we have point waves, reef waves gateways, Jedi ways, high tide spots, low tide spot. So you want to board this a little bit more all around and then like say just a mini Simmons, I’ve kind of adapted, that is my latest board that I’m been working on the most and they usually come out really short between five and six foot.
TTOS: If you had to give one advice, a suggestion to a young shaper which, which would that be?
Well, probably just to learn how to be consistent in what you’re shaping so that when you want to alter something, you are altering it off as something that’s kind of consistently the same, in that way, you can tell the difference between the former board and the newer board.
Luckily, new shapers now, the blanks and the machines can make the board so close, you’re really left, not really creating something out of a blank, the rockers are already in there and it’s pretty easy to do it….
When I started, it was just a big square block of foam and you could tell each shapers personalities, how they carved those blanks into their boards, you could tell who shaped the board.
Now, a majority of the boards come out with you so much the same, cause the blanks are all pretty much standardized, but the rocker patterns, the thickness distribution, depending on what Lynx board and stellar board you’re making…. they’re a little bit ahead of the game than when most people started back in the early days of shaping boards…
“just realize that in surfboard shaping you’ll never bowl a 300 game”, you’re always seeking to better and better, so just keep improving and pay attention to what you’re doing and go from there.
TTOS: Definitely, I agree, consistency is the key of the game. I also think consistency is what guarantees you the clientele, because they know that what they buy it has value….
Well, the customer nowadays that have been surfing for years and years and years, they know what they want sothey’ll come in with a surfboard and say “I want it a little thicker, and I want it a little centered, or I want less rocker or more long rocker”.
Unless you can actually get to square one with what they have and then alter that, you’re not really going to give them the change that they’re seeking.
The consistency helps the ability to replicate something you’ve done and then alter it based on what the customer’s asking to change in those new boards
TTOS: And then boards that are made by computer are a totally different ball game right?
Well, the thing about computers….there are a couple of factors:
If you want to create a board over and over and over again, that’s exactly the same, computer shape is a pretty good way to go.
However, in my situation, I really never shaped the exact same board in a month, so it would be ludicrous should be to have that many different kinds of files on a computer can, every board is going be different. And it’s really hard to change a board a blank has been computerized because the way the machine is, if you try to make it shorter, it’s really hard to kind of blend it all back in.
The thing I find a computer shaping is to me, it’s kind of like somebody that goes fishing, it throws a big net out and catches way more fish than you can consume.
I just think that it’s not fair for some of these big companies to just make so many of their boards in the market, cause they can reproduce them on a machine where they should just make boards for the customer’s demands.
That way “there’s enough fish in the sea for everyone”, they make a career, you know, make you have a job.
I’m not anti-computer, cause there are some designs that I do that need that consistency from old models, but it’s not something I would do every day.
TTOS: Maybe there should be less surfboards around, but of higher quality…..
Well, the quality is there, but it’s just kind of “make the boards for the consumers as they ask for it”.
Back in the day, when the computers started coming on in the eighties, I was just one little guy shaping surfboards and I would sell six boards to a dealer 3000 miles away.
It’s because they would ask one big company to make 12 boards and would get eight boards, they’d asked another big company for 15 boards and get 10 boards….It has six from me and they would get them as well, they would also sell my boards
When computers came along, they’d asked the one big company for 12 boards and they get 20 and ask another company for 8 boards and get 12….so then, they’re like: “well, we’ve got all these boards, we don’t need for that little guy”. They kind of cut into my market….
When they were able to flood the market with the highly advertised brands it just kind of cut out stuff that guys like myself …. low volume, handcrafted, you know, one board at a time kind of consciousness.
TTOS: What are your future projects? Is there something particularly are working on?
Well, I’ve been doing a lot of EPS boards…it’s extruded polystyrene for lightness and working on some of those…
At 70 years old, it’s just mostly going to work for about three hours a day, four day a week, going to the gym to stay in shape and make one board at a time.
People ask me how’s business and we always say, well, “I’m not doing as many boards as I can do, but I’m doing more boards than I’d like to do”.
I’d like to just keep it simple, not make people wait, servicing them right away.
Some people say: “it took eight months to get a board from one particular shaper” well, I try to do it on a weekly basis.
I answer everyone by the week, star them and finish them that week.
At the most, it’s about 10 boards a week, but it averages about four to six boards a week, which is pretty comfortable…..
Like this, I can keep track of the boards in the shop, because, when you’re just making so many, like off the computer, you don’t know where they’ve all done and where they are at, what state, if some have color, they take longer and they get lost in the shuffle or some get done too quickly and you don’t have the ones that go with them.
My future plan is just to keep low inventory and make every board count for each individual surfer…
TTOS: We go back to the consistency, right?
I like, these days, to keep the production low, keep a very high quality and leave clients happy. I think that’s the most important thing.
TTOS: we’re going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes out to your mind….
The best surfboard you have ever ridden….
I would say the one that Skip Frye he made for me in 1969, it was a six/eight Frye egg.
TTOS: favorite shaper….
I’ve got three or four people that I deal with all the time, Wayne Rich, Bob Pittson and Stu Kenson.
Those guys are my go-to guys for info, but I’d have to say my favorite shaper is Skip Frye because he’s so consistent, so focused on just doing what he does and not worrying about anybody else’s designs…
TTOS: personal question, your favorite song.
My favorite song is really not a song, it’s an instrumental piece.
1964, Paul Butterfield Blues Band “East-West” features Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield on the guitars.
It’s about 15 minutes long and whenever I really need to get some energy going, I turn that on full blast.
I can’t believe that song was recorded 50 some odd years ago…..
TTOS: Your favorite surf spot
Over the years, I’ve surfed a lot of places, but I think I’ve had the most fun at San Miguel in Baja California. That was a place you could drive to, sleep on the beach, get up and surf, when it was good, it was a very good wave, easy to ride. That’s probably my favorite spot I’ve ever surfed. Nowadays, a Pacific Beach point right down from my house, I like that in the winter time when it breaks, it’s still a wave that’s pretty localized….not too many people cause they’re afraid of the locals, quote unquote, and I have the most fun there now.
TTOS: Your favorite surfer?
I’d have to go back to Terry Fitzgerald and what he did surfing-wise, soulful lines and style-wise.
TTOS: The last question is little bit unusual, has nothing to do with surf or shaping, we want to know your best relationship advice….
best relationship advice is to realize that it’s a learning experience and when you come up against a brick wall, your gut feeling is to bail out and seek a new experience, but you gotta realize that you’re going to run into the same thing again with another person.
It’s better to just keep the history going and learn and compromise, be flexible with the person you’re with and at least, you know, that it’s just getting more and more fine-tuned instead of starting all over with the new relationship. I’ve been with my wife 27 years and I plan on doing it until the day I die.
TTOS: It’s commitment, it’s something that is very rare, but it’s so powerful.
When you’re younger and you come up against something you know, you, you want to just sort of run from it and go someplace else. But when you get older, you realize all that’s going to happen is you’re going to run into the same thing someplace else, so you might as well try to live through it and grow as a person.
TTOS: Definitively! You can also apply this commitment to shaping surfboards….
As we said before to hape a board it takes commitment, time, patience and if you shape them via computer it’s easier, much easier, but maybe it takes less commitment….
And for all those hand shapers, the commitment is also very, very helpful, essential actually.
Every surfer is looking for that magic board, that’s why you get a new surf board.
If you get a computerized board, they’re all going to be the same, If it wasn’t magic, you’re just recreating the un-magic over and over.
You’re always hopeful that the next board you get is going to be that magic board and so that’s kind of the mystique of hand shaping, especially for the customer.
What they’re looking for is that magic board and hopefully, it’s inside that blank that you’re using to make their board.