The Storyboard

05 . 10 . 11

A “One Tree” Collaborative Wooden Surfboard Story by James Otter and Mat Arney.


One Tree. One Surfboard. One Story.

How do you do something new and different when it seems that everything’s been done before?

With the advent of composite material technology trickling out of military aerospace developments during World War Two, foam and fibrerglass were introduced to surfboard shapers who found it easier to shape and allowed them to meet the demand of the post-Gidget boom in surfing, effectively ending the era of redwood, balsa and skin and frame wooden surfboards.

But despite the dominance of polyurethane foam over the past 60 years, wooden surfboards have been ever present; residing in the shadows of surfboard production and built by craftsmen for the sheer sake of creating and working with timber rather than the relative ease of foam. Craftsmanship and a sense of history taking precedence over high performance.

Surfers and paddlers have been crafting hollow skin and frame wooden boards since Tom Blake first experimented with the concept in the mid 1920’s. Nicknamed the “cigar-box” by the Waikiki beach boys their long, boxy and awkward shapes were utilized for long distance paddling and pre-fin wave riding quickly becoming the standard lifesaving equipment across the United States. Surfer’s started to experiment with making their own boards and illustrated instructions appeared in “Boy’s Own” and “Popular Science and Mechanics” style magazines throughout the 1930’s.

James Otter is a designer and maker of bespoke furniture and wooden surfboards who’s been searching for a way to remain faithful to the time honoured tradition of his craft whilst satisfying his creative desire to refine and improve.

The answer came to him during a walk in the woods.  James uses minimal amounts of traditional hardwoods in his boards – offcuts from a local kitchen and flooring company used in the rails and for decorative stringers and inlays to provide pattern and contrast as well as extra strength.  The majority of the timber that he uses however is locally grown and harvested Western Red Cedar from forests within the county limits of Cornwall where he lives in the far South West of the UK.  On a visit to the forestry to see where his material grew and talk with the foresters who harvest it, the idea for a lifecycle surfboard was born.

Could a surfboard be built with a Western Red Cedar, producing every element of the board from a single tree (or part of a single tree) and to follow that timber from tree to sea; from the moment it crashes to earth to the moment it splashes in the ocean?

And so it is that James finds himself sitting on a freshly cut tree trunk beside the banks of the River Tamar that separates Cornwall from the neighbouring county of Devon, watching Simon weave his specialist machine through the woodland selectively felling and stripping trees.  Two of them are working here, felling by hand using chainsaws and machine clearing an area of mature woodland and thinning another. 

It looks brutal and destructive, but environmentally it is simply careful and caring management; too many trees means overcrowding and competition for nutrients and sunlight with the result that no trees fully prosper so individuals are selectively removed to allow others to grow tall and strong and reach their full potential.  Likewise, mature trees are felled to make way for new.  Trees are stripped of their foliage and cut into industry standard lengths before being lifted onto the back of a lorry for delivery to local saw mills.

The saw mill that James uses is close to his home in mid-Cornwall, just around the corner in fact, and happens to be his former employer when he worked there for a time sharpening the teeth on the enormous band-saw blades.  The saw mill is a noisy cacophony of squealing blades and clunking machinery as large seasoned logs are moved around the mill on conveyor belts and cut into planks before being stacked outside.  Making square or rectangular shapes out of circular objects (in this case planks out of logs) necessitates cutting off the corners and throughout any production process using wood, an average of around 30% of the original tree is lost to sawdust as thick saw blades and thicknessing planers remove material in the quest for uniformity and 90 degree angles.

James eyes each plank for trueness and selects planks with straight, knot free grain but definition that will allow him to “book match” the deck and bottom panels creating a mirror image grain pattern on either side of the stringer.

From the saw mill James and his chosen planks return to his workshop in the corner of a barn on a farm that sits on the cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean.

The workshop is just like that of many other woodworkers; James shares it with the farmer and the farmer’s son who turns bowls there, it is panelled in chipboard that reflect a warm orangey glow with tools hanging or outlined on the walls and when a shaft of sunlight strikes through the skylight window in the roof, soft clouds of sawdust are illuminated hanging and swirling in the air.  One end of the workshop is given over to racks of timber and a selection of completed and work-in-progress wooden surfboards, including one destined to be raffled off for Surfers Against Sewage.  The Storyboard will be the same shape as this SAS board.

The invention, mass production, and easy availability of plywood helped to popularize skin and frame wooden surfboards, and plywood has always been the principle core material so to maintain the “one” principle behind this latest board James had to set about making his own plywood.  Planks were ripped into thinner planks, thicknessed then repeatedly pushed through a drum sander to achieve uniform thinness and a perfect finish.  They were then laid up with each layer’s grain in a perpendicular direction to that of the last. 

This painstaking process gave away James’ perfectionism as he made micro-adjustments with his block plane to ensure that the pieces making up the middle veneer were perfectly butt jointed, so much so that the joints were damn near invisible.  This hard work would then be hidden beneath another layer never to be seen but bad joints could mean voids in the plywood making it weak.  It seems that in this modern age plywood is taken for granted.  Anybody who has tried to make their own can tell you that.

There are currently five surfboards in the Otter Surfboards range, all higher volume shapes such as single fins, eggs and retro fishes whose outline and style of surfing is more suited to the increased weight and glide of wood.  Soon to be exploring the possibilities of longboards, James has been spending some time recently drawing up some new shapes on his computer.

The templates for the internal skeletons of these boards are all designed on a CAD programme (Computer Aided Design) so that they can be replicated easily and can be cut using a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) router at the touch of a button.  For the storyboard the idea was floated to substitute the circular holes cut in each rib that reduce weight and facilitate airflow throughout the board with letter shaped holes instead.  Each rib could hold the line of a poem, ten of the thirteen ribs forming a short sonnet telling the story of the board.

This was the moment that James was able to indulge the designer in him, solving the problem of how to achieve this.  The most obvious machine to use to cut such intricate holes was a CNC laser cutter, but finding one capable of the task at hand proved easier said than done.  Having exhausted all laser cutting options he returned to the CNC router that he ordinarily uses and experimented with the smallest cutting piece on a variety of different fonts. Too often though the soft grain of the cedar tore out and splintered on some of the more intricate letters leading him to the final solution of engraving the letters and drilling small, out of sight ventilation holes.  Problem solved.

The stringer and ribs were engraved and cut out then assembled into the frame of the board, somewhat resembling the skeleton of a fish left on a plate.  It had been a long road to get here already, the time taken to make and engrave home-made plywood matching the duration that it would ordinarily take to make an entire surfboard.

Planks are then planed, matched and glued together, held in place with sash cramps and weights ready to become the bottom and deck panels.

Rail strips are made by ripping down planks into thin lengths and then pushing them through a table router to give them bead and cove edges as used in boatbuilding that will interlock around a curve to form a smooth rail.

James then glues the frame onto the bottom panel of the board, clamping it onto a special adjustable bench that sets the rocker, before starting to build up the rails, one long strip at a time.

With wooden surfboard building, as in boat building, you can it seems never ever have too many clamps.  Slices of drainage pipe are used to exert extra pressure forming the rail strips to the curves of the board (profile and rocker) and slowly but surely, layer by layer, the rails grow towards the deck.

The bottom is blended into the rails and the rail profile shaped by hand with a chisel, block plane and a sanding block; not dissimilar in process to modern foam surfboard shaping.  It is here that the storyboard pauses.

Decking over and laminating the board would hide the story engraved into it’s internal structure, so before that happens and it becomes another wooden surfboard to those who see it being carried down the beach, it is being hung on display in an exhibition.  Accompanying the board so far will be the photographic lifecycle of the storyboard, all fittingly framed using offcuts and unrequired ends of the Western Red Cedar planks that were used to create the surfboard.  Entirely.

One tree, one surfboard, one story.

The storyboard was constructed entirely using timber from a single tree grown in Cornwall.  The tree pictured being felled was not that used for the storyboard due to time restrictions of seasoning the timber, but instead timber from a single tree in the same woodland was selected at the sawmill and carried through the project.

James Otter is a designer and maker of wooden surfboards, founding Otter Surfboards in 2012, based in Porthtowan, Cornwall.

Mat Arney is a photographer, writer and “Mat-of-all-trades”, running Hailer, a content creation company just up the road in St Agnes, Cornwall.

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