Published on October 27th, 2017 | by nowhere man0
Man versus Machine:
Man versus Machine: The romance of the hand shape as opposed to the reality of
It’s safe to say that opinion is born of perspective. Whether that perspective is born from ignorance for example or from a place of experience, respective opinions are bound to differ. That being the case the hand shaper’s opinion is likely slanted via a perspective gained while creating surfboards by hand shaping them. It’s only natural for somebody in this position to be of the opinion that hand shaping is the only way to go.
You will often find the 100% hand shape claim a point of difference in social media posts, for example. Only this morning I saw an Instagram post by a young creative shaper I admire and follow. The post contained a photo of a surfboard showroom with a window into an adjoining shaping bay with a caption to the effect that looking through that window was the only way to guarantee your stuff is hand shaped. Clearly a view that shaping machines are not cool! Surfing is a very “touchy feely” pastime and emotively charged words go a long way in capturing our imaginations and in turn opening our wallets.
In the case of a shaper that designs their surfboards in a specialised surfboard design programme which is then cut on a machine, the perspective will be quite different. Interestingly very few shapers openly push the use of computers and machines as a way to win you over. An exception being, Channel Islands Surfboards South Africa installed an APS 3000 shaping machine behind glass for all to see in a shopping mall in Durban. Technology out in the open.
Clearly there is a chasm of perspective difference between two human beings when one shaper hand shapes every board and wouldn’t dream of using a machine for fear of selling out and another shaper who has spent years learning the language of numerically controlled machines and software programs who wouldn’t dream of shaping a board by hand, deeming it an inefficient way of producing a shaped board which by the very nature of it’s creative process has limitations when it comes to meaningful design progression. Sounds harsh? Please read on.
Like most things in life there is a lot more going on when you start to dig a little deeper. In terms of surfboard manufacturing, hand tools were used exclusively until the electric planer became the tool of choice in the 1950’s. Another electric tool was likely already in use at the time being that of the electric router’ used in conjunction with a profile jig (sometimes also referred to as a profile machine). Other machines such as pantographs were subsequently developed to copy and replicate boards in multiples. Computer controlled shaping machines didn’t come about until much later. The first was invented by Michel Barland in France and was in use in Europe by 1984. Globally though, hand shaping was more the norm until Miki Langenbach developed his APS3000 machine in the early 2000’s. Advances in design software, coupled with its ease of availability is really the key to the widespread adoption of this technology.
Meanwhile, shapers around the world had become skilled in the art of accurately sculpturing surfboards in double quick time using a hand held electric planer, as well as self made sanding blocks and a fairly minimal kit of hand tools. Physical stamina played a big part. It’s not too hard to imagine someone that has spent 40 years or more perfecting their technique, skill and knowledge proudly standing behind their life’s work and declaring: “100% hand made”. The same goes for the glassers, sanders and other veterans of the surfboard industry. After all the work is hard, the hours long, the pay shit, the conditions either dusty or fumy and often both. Interestingly there are those that feel their work is at its best when design software and CNC machines are involved. Behind it is a solid foundation built on years of hand shaping and record keeping, not to mention a mountain of knowledge and experience gained. Embracers of technology see the main benefits in being free from the constraints of manual labour, free to design and create its brains over brawn.
Then there’s those that hand shape all their custom boards but have some examples scanned and cut on machines so as to be able to supply stock boards for sale. These shapers are making use of the existence of shaping machines without using design software. In other words they are hand shapers using a machine cutting service to expand their production. Prior to the availability of machines, hand shapers used other hand shapers to ghost shape extra boards as a way to expand their production.
In some cases there was an army of shapers behind the scenes producing big name brands in large numbers. There have also been a small number of super human shapers that have invested time in developing a method for speed and accurately to shape large numbers of
surfboards on a daily basis. These individuals are sometimes referred to as human shaping machines because their shaping output is consistently so much higher than their contemporaries. Perhaps the best known examples of this would be Californian shapers Phil Becker and Terry Martin.
More recently and on an ever increasing basis is a new kind of player into the mix.
That of the tech savvy guy often with little or no actual hands on shaping experience who using generic board files as a base with which to design surfboards in software packages and have them machine shaped at a surfboard cutting service. While they may be tech savvy they have little or no experience, no overheads or factory infrastructure. There’s a new breed of back yard surfboard builder on the loose using computer skills to design and market their brand.
In 1975 I turned 15 years old and already had a couple of years of free form hand shaping under my belt. In 1975 Pink Floyd released a now famous album by the name of Wish You Were Here and one song that seemed to fill my head was “Welcome to the machine” I remember wondering at the time just exactly what was this “machine” and being slightly daunted by the implication of this “machine” being
part of my destiny. From that time on I went through life watching out for “the machine” and this may well have been part of the conditioning that led me to where I am now. My personal perspective comes about after shaping thousands of surfboards by hand then thousands using a profiler and around the same number using a surfboard shaping machine. Regardless of the method employed, I’m using my hands, my heart, my soul and my integrity. Now approaching my 60 th year I ponder how my current perspective may change with the passing of time as I’m sure will be the case of our young foot loose and fancy free hand shaper from the afore mentioned Instagram post. Lastly, when it comes to perspectives I also wonder if reading this will have changed yours? Maybe Roger Waters should have the last word … “Welcome to the machine”.