Check Out My Wood!

How a carpentry-challenged nonsurfer built a classic wooden longboard with his own kook hands.

Graduates of Grain's longboard class    

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 England–based 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 can—despite 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 it—who 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 scratch—as opposed to starting with the blanks used in foam boards, which are premade and leave only the shaping step to builders—they 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.

If all goes well, your product will look like a surfboard, but it won't perform like one until you complete stage two: shaping. Here you round and smooth, using unforgivingly sharp hand tools—like spokeshaves and block planes—and an assortment of sandpapers to sculpt, finish, and tweak.

Anderson said that as long as I paid attention, I'd do fine. He mentioned that a mother and her teenage daughter had recently emerged from a weeklong class with a fabulously glassy longboard. Before the workshop, they didn't surf and they didn't build. I could think of no better reference.

GRAIN'S BUILDERS boost our confidence in the crucial opening days. The homey setting helps. The shop sits on a farm property with cows next door, dogs coming and going, and local surfers with names like Dug, Dickie, and Power Mike dropping by. The lounge features a long hardwood bar, an oozy collection of curb-found furniture, and a coffee table strewn with surf magazines. The workshop is airily laid out with partitioned areas devoted to shaping, milling, sanding, and glassing. The vibe is New England B&B meets Oahu.

"People really seem to like it here," shrugs the stubby, bristle-haired LaVecchia, 42. Laid-back and unflappable, LaVecchia is affectionately known as Grain's "chief thinker and tinkerer." Anderson runs the group talks and is the more organized and extroverted of the two. Throughout the week, he encourages all of us, especially our French-speaking classmate Yves, whose progress he characterizes as "fantastique!" and "incroyable!"

During the initial workshop tour, LaVecchia shows us a half-finished hollow surfboard. The deck isn't on it, and from above it looks like a skeletal creature with a spine and spanning ribs. This building style, he explains, was the first modern design upheaval in surfboard construction, replacing solid wood boards in the early 1930s, only to be replaced in later decades by foam-and-plastic ones, which were easier to mass-produce.

The model, guts exposed, becomes our guide. Over the next three days, we happily toil eight to ten hours straight, framing at waist-high work stands. Sloane Angell, a twenty-something go-getter who works at a Manhattan networking firm, just rips along—cutting away excess cedar with a bayonet-size draw knife to make the rough form of his board, gluing and clamping the internal frame pieces, bending twiggy side-rail strips with a hot iron and a wet cloth. I handle the same tasks like my 80-year-old mother handles the mouse on her PC—tightly, tentatively, and with deep distrust.

The first few days are exhausting but fun. Mike tells me to relax and work with the grain. Brad sweeps by regularly, never alarmed but always ready with a "Hey, mind if I jump in here?" Yves finds a word or two in his limited English vocab to keep me afloat. "Bad," he says, running his hand along the unevenly and inexpertly planed side of my board. "Good," he says, stroking his own.

There are, fortunately, regular respites. On the third day, we decide to take a midafternoon foray to Cow Beach, a local surf spot. "C'mon, it's sunny," urges John, a part-time Grain builder who's helping the group. "The water's like 70."

Never mind that it's overcast and the water's like 35—going for it, we're beginning to realize, is part of the Grain experience. I put on a thick wetsuit, borrow a zippy bodyboard, and have the time of my life. During one unforgettable ride, I kick in, catch a head-high wave, and am propelled so blindingly fast and far that I surface thinking I'm on another beach.

Whether the goal of our outing is to break the ice or motivate us for the final board-building push, it works. Back in the shop, Mike tells a story about how it felt to ride his first handmade board. "It was insane," he says. "I didn't really know what to expect, right? But then I got out there in the lineup, and you see the nose bobbing up in front of you, and you're like, I made this myself!"

We can't wait for the moment. Unfortunately, some of us are closer than others.

DECK DAY, USUALLY the fourth or fifth of the workshop, is a high point, since we're putting beautiful lids on our open boards. We've handpicked our planks and glued them together, like panels on a door, creating individual designs that say something about who we are. My planks are things of libertine beauty. They're dark, with a sinuous grain pattern. I might be a 48-year-old guy who eats a micro­waved bagel every morning, but my board doesn't have to say that. "Arty," Brad says when he surveys my deck.

Deck Day feels like a barn raising, with the entire class gathered to share in the triumph of an improbable creation. I'm first up, but when we arch the deck over the frame with heavy-duty clamps, I hear a crack. A middle plank is splitting near the nose. My classmates look horrified. I'm just frozen, watching my perfect board tear apart in front of my eyes.

Brad and Mike save the day, using clamps and glue to close the opening. The next day, amazingly, the wood is almost spotlessly knit together. The scar left behind doesn't bother me; nor do my board's other imperfections. For one thing, it's shorter than the standard nine-foot longboard, because I screwed up and took my boards from the "eight-foot" bin. My board's truncated shape—squared off at the tail—will give it plenty of back-end flotation, which will help in catching waves. It isn't the most current of designs, but it's not unheard of. Back in the day, shapers dubbed boards like mine "magic carpets."

As we near the end, we start the process of true shaping. This is a hallowed task in the surf world, one that integrates the soul of a poet with the dexterity of a surgeon. Not possessing either, I muddle through. The goal is to use planes, multiple grits of sandpaper, and faith to create a soft, seamless line where the deck and "rails," or edges, intersect. The rails go a long way in determining how a board performs. Knifey rails release water and keep the board planing above it. Round rails, typical of beginner boards, draw water over the deck and suck the board into the wave.

In these finishing stages, guided by feel, we work and wander. On the camp's next-to-last morning, I'm outside, with pungent cedar dust and sunshine swirling about, when I rub my hand for the millionth time across the grain and realize that the flat deck and round rails have seamlessly merged. This is my magic moment: Two have become one.

The last day, we finish up, celebrating with a lobster lunch and a group photo of beaming board builders next to their towering creations. "I'm gonna come find you to see that thing in the water," promises Sloane, watching me carry my board to my car. His is perfect—two feet longer, with an elegant pintail—but I like mine better. And whether or not the "magic carpet" lives up to its namesake, I know two things: I'll surf it no matter what, and I won't forget the feeling when I swept my hand across the board and felt something damn close to perfection.

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