I'M NOT THE OBVIOUS candidate to design and build my own surfboard. I don't surf, and I'm not very good with tools, so I'm like a guy who can't play piano deciding to construct a two-story pipe organ. Knowing the distance between who I am and what I strangely want, I've signed up for an intensive, weeklong workshop offered by Grain Surfboards, a New Englandbased manufacturer of classic wooden waveriders. For $1,575, Grain's craftsmen will teach you how to make your own custom board, which they call "a totem to the past, a nod to the sport's noble roots."
I like that kind of talk. Still, as I look up at the blond and glassy totems lining the shop walls at Grain's rustic headquarters, in the coastal town of York, Maine, each seems to be saying the same thing: "Not in your lifetime."
My fellow students seem like a better fit. During lunchtime introductions around a large dining table in the "builders' lounge," Christopher Angell, an organic-candy-bar maker from Solana Beach, California, says he surfs every day. Duncan Regonini, a firefighter from York, started surfing when his wife suggested it as a joint hobby, to which he replied, "Are you shittin' me?" Yves Vachey, a Parisian, was on his way home from a boatbuilding class in Annapolis, Maryland, when he saw his first Grain surfboard in a shop window. "I thought to myself, I must build that," he says.
And then there's me. As I confess to the four other campers and Grain's two co-owners, I'm still trying to figure out why I felt the need to come here. Partly it's because I want to build something nice, to prove I candespite a barnful of half-assed projects back home that say I can't. And I want to find a path into a sport that, up until now, I've resisted. More and more, guys I used to ride bikes with are absent, gone surfing. My kids surf. So do my basketball buddies. I live only minutes from a nice little Massachusetts break. But I've balked, just a wee bit unsettled by factors like my age (late forties), frigid water, and body-fracturing waves. And yet in the weeks before my arrival in York, I came to a simple, time-honored understanding: If I build itwho knows?maybe I'll surf.
GRAIN OWNERS Mike LaVecchia and Brad Anderson don't seem put off by my backdoor approach. As surfboard makers go, they're pretty unconventional themselves, thanks to their location (palm-tree-free Maine), their backgrounds (New England boatbuilding), and their choice to use wood, not foam, as a construction material.
Because their surfboards are made from scratchas opposed to starting with the blanks used in foam boards, which are premade and leave only the shaping step to buildersthey take far longer to put together and cost more, roughly $1,800 versus $1,200. The guys got started selling boards commercially in 2005, around the time industry giant Clark Foam shut down, which helped goose a growing trend toward using alternative materials, including regional wood species like northeastern cedar and Hawaiian bamboo.
Grain boards are decked with northern white cedar harvested in Maine, shaped using traditional hand tools, and glassed with an epoxy that doesn't emit volatile organic compounds. In 2006, Grain started distributing its Home Grown DIY kits, which cost between $520 and $770 and come with a 170-page manual and all the materials you need to make a wooden board. In 2008 they held the first of their weeklong workshops.
When I called ahead, Anderson, 48, was adamant that even a man of my modest talents could succeed. He outlined the two basic stages of board construction. The first, which usually takes three days, is creating the board's rough form. To get started, you choose planks and wood strips from Grain's in-shop bins, glue and clamp the wood to a simple, pre-made structural frame, and then pray like hell that everything holds and your creation doesn't splinter, warp, or crack.