The Change of Shapes in Canada
A story behind a new face and shapes in the growing industry of Canadian surfing.
Words & Photos – Peter Thicke
The first surfboard I remember using was memorable but not something that helped me progress or enjoy surfing all that much. Picture a young Hawaiian shaper bent over a foam blank in the early eighties, carving that foam sculpture to be 6’6” long, 18” wide, and about three inches thick, with heavily glassed in fins and a tail pointed enough to take an eye out. The board was built with purpose, spurred by visions of flying through the inside bowl of some picturesque reef pass. Somehow that board made it to Vancouver Island and into my Dad’s hands, who passed it on to me in my teenage years. I thought it was great at the time, but I had no real understanding that the board was made for those fabled tropical isles and not for the mushy dumpers spilling onto the beaches around Tofino.
Since then, I’ve owned a lot more surfboards. Some have come straight off the rack, and others were made for me according to what I thought I needed (but somehow always resembled what was trendy at the time). For whatever reason, I’ve always felt pretty good about the custom ones and thought they were better boards, though I can’t be certain there is any truth to this and it may well be that I like seeing my own name on the bottom of the deck and nothing more. Still, whether real or perceived, there is a lot to be said for putting some thought into what’s under your feet out in the water – or at least asking the advice of someone who spends their days mulling these things over.
With that in the back of my head, I went to pay a visit to the Smith-Western shaping bay on a recent bright winter afternoon. The approach to the shop isn’t what you might expect. Like most in Tofino, Brady Smith, Smith-Western shaper extraordinaire, has had to make do with what space he could find. This one happens to be in the back half of a residential garage that he converted to suit his purposes. The rest of the house is occupied by a plethora of local surfers, so having a built-in production shaping bay doesn’t raise any concerns from the residents.
I met Brady at the end of the driveway. We shook hands, the dust mask he was wearing shaking around his neck. Covered with fine foam from head to toe and wearing an old pair of basketball shorts, a baggy t-shirt, and crocs covered in fiberglass resin, he looked a bit like a high school jock who got loose in the art room. Standard shaping attire. After a brief hello and the requisite small-talk about Tofino housing with the crew hanging out front of the house, we headed around back to take a look at the space and chat about making boards by hand at the end of the road.
There has been a noticeable shift in the variety of surfboards on the west coast of Canada over the last couple years. Looking around the lineup on any given day, it’s not uncommon to see logs, mid-lengths, eggs, fish, and any combination of fins you can imagine. A far cry from the army of 5’10 shred sticks that dominated the view short years ago. Though more established surfing locales have a long and rich history of shaping and experimentation with board design, and despite the fact that there have been shapers and surfers on the BC coast for decades, there seems to be a newfound acceptance of different board shapes and the possibilities they represent with the younger generation of Vancouver Island surfers huffing around the waves these days.
Brady is one of the shapers helping get those different boards under their feet, though it wasn’t the waves that first drew him to the coast. “I follow the pretty standard story”, he says when I ask how he ended up here. “Grew up in Ontario and came out west to snowboard, and made my way to Tofino from there.”
Despite having the pedigree to become a case study Tofino surfer, it took him a while to warm up to the idea.
“I didn’t really think I liked surfing at first. I was on a trip to Portugal and went for a surf and didn’t have a good time. I was over it and figured surfing wasn’t for me, that I’d stick with snowboarding. But then I went to Supertubos and saw what it looked like when someone was ripping, and kind of got it at that point. I wanted to surf more after that”.
Returning to Tofino after Portugal, he found himself employed at Stefan Aftanas’s shaping bay, fixing dings and learning the basics.
“I wasn’t directly taught about shaping there – I was mostly fixing dings and sanding out finished boards. But Stefan has a lot of information to share if you listen and think about what he is laying in front of you. There’s shaping in everything you do with a board, from glassing to ding repair. You just have to pay attention.”
After a couple years, he took off on another trip and, upon coming home, decided to start his own ding repair business, calling it Ding Daddy. Smith – Western was born out of that original venture. Though he often still fixes dings, he now has shaped an impressive variety of boards for a number of customers. The focus is on handmade boards that perform well at the local breaks.
The shop is tiny but functional. The shaping room measures less than 10 feet on the diagonal, making shaping longboards awkward. Despite that, Brady has made boards that have maxed out the space for happy customers. A second room has a glassing setup along with office supplies and a storage corner, completing everything necessary to churn out boards to order in a compact environment. Yet the space feels bigger than it is, perhaps a testament to Brady’s laid-back demeanor as much as interior design sensibilities, and it doesn’t seem like it has held him back in any meaningful way.
We sit and chat a bit more about the state of surfing, how he thinks as a shaper, board design, and the relationship between surfer and shaper. Brady is pensive, pausing before his responses. It’s clear he’s spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff, but it can be hard to talk about without resorting to clichés or aloofness. At the end of the day, treading into the muddy waters of opinion and theory are less important than making a good board.
“Shaping has definitely changed the way that I think in the water. I spend less time studying waves and more time studying boards, watching the way they ride and thinking about boards that would work for specific people”.
The relationship between a surfer and shaper is something that comes up numerous times as we talk. He mentions that is it one of the most important parts of maximizing the enjoyment that can be had while surfing. When we get to talking about the difference between a fully hand-shaped board vs. one from a CNC machine, Brady seems ambivalent, listing out pros and cons of both approach. What comes across as more significant than shaping methodology is being able to communicate an idea about a board, and he mentions a couple of his favourite surfers to shape for because of their detailed feedback and understanding of how the board is working for them.
It’s those relationships that have allowed him to understand what is really happening when he shaves off that extra bit of foam or carves a concave deeper, adjustments that result in a better board.
I ask Brady if he has any shapers that he looks up to or who’s work he studies and he grins.
“There’s not really anyone in particular – I just study boards. I like to look at the …Lost boards though. Matt Biolos has lots of good information he’s shared online. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
We step into the shaping bay to take a look at what he’s got on the go. On the racks is a board in progress for local surfer and photographer Keenan Bush. It’s a classic looking fish, with a big swallow tail and two fins placed close to either rail, but with an added twist: a deep, severe concave running down the center of the rear bottom quarter of the board.
“Keenan wanted to add that detail”, Brady explains while pointing to the neat crevice he has carved into the blank.
The idea is simple enough – by creating a channel for the water to run through, the board will have far more hold than a typical twin-keel fish. Not something you’d see on most off-the-rack boards, but a detail Brady is keen to incorporate and get some feedback on.
We chat a while longer until I realized I’ve way overstayed the amount of time I told Brady this would take. He doesn’t seem to mind. Work hasn’t been super busy lately, he admits, which means more time to surf and hang. Not a bad problem to have during the swell season.
I turn to leave after saying goodbye and pop out of the dark blue shaping room, back behind the house. Standing in the late afternoon sun, it starts feeling like it might be high time I ordered myself a new board. My first instinct after that is to ogle boards at the local shops (I know I’m not the only one with that pastime), but I think back to Brady’s comment about the benefits of having a relationship with a shaper. There’s no doubt that there are many fine board builders in the world, but how many are there that ride the same waves you do and don’t mind chatting away a Sunday afternoon about it? And what would a board made for you by someone with that experience allow you to feel on those waves?
A little thought experiment I had a go at on my way home was to pull back all the preconceived ideas I had about surfing, trying to imagine what different feelings I could have riding a wave. Letting go of what you or someone else has always ridden is a challenge, but if familiarity breeds contempt then it might be worth trying as you move through the surfing side of your life. It’s that idea that keeps us all coming back to try another wave, or another board, or another set of fins – that keeps us surfing. Surfing is interesting.
And if having the ability to ride waves in your own interesting way on equipment custom made for that purpose by guys like Brady is becoming more and more available to the average joe in a place as far removed from the mainstream as ours, then now seems like an awful good time to be surfing in Canada.