Vern Jackson handcrafted his first surfboard as a wave-mad teenager in his mother’s back-yard chicken coop.
Twenty-five years may have passed since his first clumsy foray into shaping, but the 41-year-old still has a passion for sculpting boards.
The only thing that has changed is the quality. Mr Jackson estimates he has produced about 5500 boards over the past quarter of a century.
With many Canberrans hitting the waves for a surf this summer, chances are many of the boards were designed and crafted by Jackson.
Despite tales of territorial surfers protecting their local breaks, Jackson says he has no qualms doing business with landlocked Canberrans.
In fact, he says Canberrans were among his best customers.
The Canberra Times visited his Ulladulla factory to see first-hand the work that goes into producing the equipment for one of Australia’s favourite coastal pastimes.
Much like Jackson’s progression from his early experiments, surfboard shaping has evolved from a cottage industry into big business since its humble beginnings in the mid-20th century. Previously, shapers slaved away, first at wood and then foam, with hand tools to create a handful of boards a week.
But now, specialist surfboard shaping machines can carve up to 20 boards a day out of foam blocks.
The software programs and hardware mean a board can be designed and cut to within 1/100th of a millimetre, improving replication and uniformity.
New materials such as stronger resins, carbon fibre reinforcement and foams have also taken a foothold in the industry. While some old timers crave the old days of back-yard operations, Jackson says the rise of the machines has been good both for business and quality.
“People want to come back and get a board that is the same or better than their last and if their new board isn’t as good as their old board then they won’t come back,” he says. “It’s a choice, you can either hand-shape one good board a day ... or finish six good boards a day using a machine.
“I’ve hand-shaped five to six boards a day at a factory in Byron Bay and they were terrible.” But that doesn’t mean technology is sucking the soul out of the industry.
The collapse of Queensland super-factory BASE Surfboards was a lesson to shapers, Mr Jackson says.
“It’s going back to a cottage industry, it’s just too hard to go big.’’
The small-operator business model is good news for wave hunters seeking a relationship with their shaper. Mr Jackson actively encourages interaction with his customers.
“People just need to tell me where they’re at, what they want and where they ride.”