An out-of-town board shaper’s smooth lines make waves
Story By Caleb O’Brien
Photography by Trevor Gordon
“People usually don’t know what they like, but they know what they hate.”
Ryan Lovelace bought his first surfboard at a garage sale in the Pacific Northwest when he was 8 or 9 years old, purchased with $100 in coins gleaned from his father’s voluminous change jar.
About a decade later, he shaped his first board out in California on his 19th birthday. He’d grown up hanging around his dad’s print shop, where if someone wanted something, they had to built it. He was too naïve to know better and too poor to buy a new board. When Lovelace learned that a friend had made a board, he thought, “Well, son of a bitch, if you made one, I bet I could do it.”
Turns out he could. Ten years on, Lovelace’s boards are coveted by surf fiends the world over; he shapes 500 boards a year and can’t keep up with orders.
Lovelace crafts his boards by hand from start to finish, guided by intuition, practice and an ethos of individual mastery and attention to detail. But young as he is, he’s in the minority these days. Most surfboards now are machine-shaped, Lovelace says: boring, distant, sterile.
His process starts with a rough surfboard blank: two big foam panels glued to either side of a stringer, the thin rib of wood running down a surfboard’s midline. Lovelace hews out a coarse shape with a saw, then logs long hours with the sander, the plane, the rasp—rounding edges, fine-tuning the shape, finding the true board inside the blank. In the sanding bay, ringed by raw surfboards stacked like smooth porcelain totems, white powder gathers on Lovelace’s skin and hair, collects around his ankles like driven snow, like sand, like sea foam.
Next comes glassing. He rolls out a long sheet of fiberglass over the foam, saturates it, lets it cure, then lays a coat on the other side, each layer wrapped around the board’s rails. Here, Lovelace gives the boards their color: vibrant swathes, drizzled pigments, inlaid fabrics. His process for this step is improvisational, guided only by the customer’s loosest preferences. “People usually don’t know what they like, but they know what they hate,” he says, so Lovelace asks what colors they abhor and avoids them. It seems to work: When a customer sees a board for the first time, they’re usually pretty fired up, Lovelace says. And finally, a few more coats to sand and gloss before the surfboard tastes the ocean.
There are those who think they can create the perfect board with equations to solve its geometry. Lovelace has a friend in that camp, and so they arranged a competition: the friend draws a line by math, Lovelace draws by feel. “We always come up with the same fucking thing, within a 32nd of an inch,” Lovelace says. “I realized it’s all true; it’s just how you come to that point.” If you see a line and follow it, cool. If you need an equation to get there, groovy. “That’s the way you make your art.”
And although he shapes boards where luck and opportunity take him—Portugal, Jersey, Italy, France, Bali, Australia, Hawaii—Lovelace has cast his lot with Santa Barbara, with its world-class right hand point breaks. Two days before we spoke, he signed the lease to a retail space that will house his new project: a surfboard store specializing in quality equipment and surfboard expertise.
Santa Barbara is a proving ground for surfers and shapers, a consistent test track and epicenter of innovation. If you can hack it here, you’re made.
“Santa Barbara in particular, the waves are either dead flat or really good,” Lovelace says. “It’s kind of the same way with the surfers and the shapers that come out of here. They disappear… or they’re regarded as some of the best in the world.”