Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Artisan of the Month: Keoki Surf Boards

Shape Up: Keoki Surf Boards
By Jesse Szymanski

This month we found a surfboard shaper in my old stomping ground, Honolulu Hawaii, who’s been making surfboards for 18 years. Keoki Ching, owner and founder of Keoki Surfboards, grew up in surfing family that also shaped their own boards.

“My father and his brothers used to shape their own boards as they were growing up in Oahu. As I was getting more and more into surfing I got curious to do as my father and uncles had done, shape and surf their own boards. So really I think I did it for the experience and personal satisfaction of making something for myself,” he said.

Hand shaping surfboards has been a tradition in the Hawaiian Islands since the arrival of the ancient Polynesians, constantly improving wave riding for surfers, many of whom don’t realize the time and effort put forth into their finished product.

“Few people understand the amount of labor that goes into making a proper surfboard to Hawaii standards,” he explained.

“People have often asked, 'how much will it cost if I order two surfboards?' (expecting a big discount)  To which I've responded, 'it would cost twice as much, because that would be twice as much labor involved.'  People have to remember that there are seven to eight people involved in the production of any given surfboard, and each person has their special step,” he said.

With a degree in molecular biology, Ching took on surfboard shaping with a scientific approach, embracing CAD to help him perfect his designs.

“Technology has helped us with repeatability.  Surfboard CAD technology has helped us make repeat surfboards.  Hand shaped surfboards, no matter how hard we try to repeat what we've done before, are always going to have subtle differences between boards.  This is just a fact of the surfboard shaping industry. Technology has allowed us to make absolutely accurate differences in a previous design. We've been able to fine-tune our designs with repeatability. CAD technology has become a valuable tool to surfboard shapers worldwide for these reasons,” Ching said.

With the majority of surfboards being shaped overseas in mass-manufactured factories, people like Ching are holding onto a passionate and perfected art that is certainly an endangered craft in our consumer-based society.

If you’ve ever surfed or lived in Hawaii then you know that every surf-break is unique to itself and those who ride them take the design and functionality of their boards seriously, with each one in the quiver offering variations that help for a better ride.

Much like our efforts in great production here at DODOcase, Keoki Surfboards has a hands-on team dedicated to creating great boards.
“I work with amazing craftsmen in our shop. Each surfboard that comes out of our shop is a team effort of some of the top surfboard-building individuals in Hawaii. We can provide a better product if I only focus on the shape, the laminator focuses on laminating only, the air-brusher specializes in airbrushing, the sander in sanding.” Ching explained.

Surfing is a soul thing folks, with a whole lot of heart put into the shaping of a great board and Hawaii is steeped in a small community of skilled craftmen.

“By tradition surfboard shaping has been a secretive art, so many shapers keep to themselves.  Our community is small though, so most of the guys all know each other.  Though there is no formal association, I think I've noticed a little more camaraderie amongst the local Hawaii shapers. We call each other when we need to, we do help each other out as we've realized we're all in the same boat,” he said.

The same boat there in is one apart from the companies who mass-manufacture over-seas, with less attention to the individual and more put on turning out a product. And while CAD has helped Keoki Surfboards improve on design it has also given way to heavy competition.

“The problem with surfboard CAD technology is that it has allowed the mass manufacture of surfboards internationally, which has helped our industry reach a saturation point much quicker.  As it stands our industry is absolutely saturated, meaning our supply has finally met our demand.  Market saturation has driven surfboard prices down, making our industry less profitable,” he explained.

This is true for anyone who has been to the islands and seen the overwhelming host of shops, teams, companies and logos everywhere. Having so many different boards and shapers to choose from, the market is flooded with all sorts of styles and designs. What sets Keoki Surfboards apart is the one-on-one customer attention they put into each board as other companies continue to outsource.

“I think it is safe to say that the market is saturated.  Many companies have been falling through the cracks in the past few years, so it is actually a good way for our industry to sort itself out. The companies that are surviving are the ones that are remaining true to their core philosophy,” Ching stresses.

While hand-shaping is an endangered art in this day and age. It is up to people like Keoki Ching to keep the spirit and craftsmanship of hand shaping alive. Having worked as a consultant at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Ching has had access to the most ancient of surfboards in their collection, giving him both ideas and inspiration to preserve the past while shaping the future board by board.