Building boards

Yes, it’s entirely possible to create your own surfboard out of wood. Enjoy the Algarve visits surfboard builder José Antunes who takes DIY to the max, and then to the waves. He goes back to basics, spending up to 100 hours to build his eco-friendly creations. Plus: he gives workshops on how to build your own wooden board.

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine November 2016


Think making a wooden surfboard is something new? Quite the contrary. It’s how surfing started, with fishermen bringing their catch back to shore on a wooden plank, over 3,000 years ago in western Polynesia. The Hawaiians soon caught on, with sacred rituals surrounding the construction of their boards out of trees that grew on the island. Until the 1950s, nearly all surfboards were made of wood.

In the sixties, materials like polyurethane, polystyrene and expanded polystyrene (EPS) took over, which resulted in boards made out of foam and fibreglass. They were lighter, cheaper and the surfboards could be partly machine-made. Unfortunately, they’re also polluting and toxic. Which does seem a bit strange: enjoying the ocean on what’s basically a piece of plastic…

José Antunes (37), aka Zé, surfs on trees. Well, on parts of them: his Yoni Ecosurfboards are made of poplar, paulownia, cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) and agave, all grown in Portugal. Zé: “Depending on the size, I can make up to 20 surfboards out of one tree, up to 30 if it’s a poplar.” Zé doesn’t only cut down trees, he also plants them: at least one for every board he sells. The previous life of his boards is clearly recognisable: lines, knots, markings and darker patches which have come from fungus when the tree has died. His garage in Amoreira (no, not the beach in the Algarve, it’s between Obidos and Peniche in the Centro Region) is full of wood. Shavings and pulp on the ground, huge planks and half-finished boards next to drills and other machines. Below the workbenches lies a kid’s bike, belonging to his son Vicente.

When he was a teenager, Zé and his family moved to Amoreira, close to surf capital Peniche, were he got into surfing on a ‘normal’ board. “I bought my first board 20 years ago and it was really good. Nowadays though, it seems like things are made fast to break soon, so more replacements can be sold. When I was young, a surfboard lasted several years. Now, I have friends who need to buy two or even three new foam boards every year. Same goes for wetsuits and cars; old things last.” Six years ago, Zé decided to followed his passion for craftsmanship and build his first wooden surfboard. “That one wasn’t so good,” he admits. “Number 2 and 3 were better, but still, the first 20 weren’t good enough to sell.” At the time there were surfboard building courses available, mainly in the UK and USA, but they costed thousands of euros. Therefore Zé’s method was one of trial and error.

Meanwhile, he has made over 170 boards, perfecting his carpentry and lamination skills along the way. Still, each surfboard takes 60 to 100 hours of work. They’re completely customised. From the outline shape to the configuration of the fins and the type of wood, all depends on the needs of the surfer. “If I want to make a really light board, I’ll use agave. However, that isn’t very resistant, so I’ll combine it with paulownia for strength,” Zé explains. This technique can save up to half a kilo of weight, which might not seem much, but is definitely noticeable when dragging your board from van to beach. The entire process is eco-friendly: leftover wooden pieces are used to make fins and even smaller bits go on the compost heap.

Zé doesn’t only practise what he preaches when it comes to making surfboards. Helped by some friends, he has built his own house and the kindergarten next to it, Jardim Waldorf da Amoreira, where his girlfriend Ana teaches. There, the kids eat biological vegetables, which are grown in the adjacent garden according to biodynamic agricultural principles. The outside play area boasts a giant wooden fort, made, of course, by Zé. “I like working with my hands,” he smiles. “And with eco-friendly materials. I have four kids, so I think of their future. Everything is changing in the world, some things not for the better.” To get more people into environmental-friendly surfing, Zé gives Shape and Stay workshops, where participants learn how to build their own board. “It’s really nice; you see the process as well as the philosophy.”

These workshops begin by looking at the level of surfer, his or her experience, and the waves they usually surf. All these factors decide the shape and type of board. Making the board starts by gluing the bottom together, then putting the chosen wood on the table rocker and adjusting how fat the board should be in what area, by varying the height of the ribs. This thickness influences a lot. “A fat tail makes for more stability,” Zé explains, “whereas a not so fat tail makes the board easier to turn.” As for the nose: a fat one helps with catching waves, whereas a skinny nose makes it easier to duck dive. It’s all about getting the balance right – just like surfing itself is.

The ribs have hollow circles inside. Apart from making the board lighter, this is important for the air flow. “There’s about 30 litres of air inside a surfboard,” explains Zé. “When you leave the board in the sun, this air will expand.” Yoni surfboards all have an automatic valve allowing the air to escape. “Without it, the board would explode.” Seriously? “In the beginning, I worked with manual valves and lend a board to a friend. I told him not to leave it in the sun, so when he got out the sea, he stored it in his car and went for lunch. It became 50˚C inside the car; the air inside the board expanded, pushed the bottom round and wrecked the board…” With all ribs in place, it’s time to put reinforcement holes in for the fins, build the deck, and glue it all together. When pressure is applied for the shape, the outlines are cut and the rails (that’s surfboard-builder lingo for the sides) are built and glued. Some shaping, sanding and glassing with Epoxy Resin et voilà, it’s ready.

Those now running to their shed with this info to give it a go themselves should be warned: it’s harder than it looks on screen. Zé: “Building without advice isn’t easy; there are a lot of details you need to check. Little reinforcements next to the ribs are precious. Choosing the right wood is very important as well. Also, different types of wood have different density, which makes sanding complicated.” The end result, however, is durable. “Some of my boards are five years old and still look like new,” Zé says. “If you really take care of your board, it could last for 10 years or more.” Of the over 170 Yoni surfboards, up to now only one has broken. “It was for a German guy who wanted the lightest board possible, only made out of agave wood. I told him it wouldn’t be very resistant, but he wanted it anyway, like an experiment.”

Zé’s definitely one to experiment. Although his boards aren’t nearly as heavy as the old Hawaiians used (a Malibu 7’7 he made out of paulownia and agave earlier this year weighs 5.5 kilo), he has just created an even lighter version by using a cardboard honeycomb structure inside. Hanging in his lamination room, not yet finished, is a bamboo board he made during a kids workshop at the Sagres Surf Culture festival. “The children cut out the bamboo bits and we glued it together: great fun!” Although living up north, Zé can be found in the Algarve every two weeks, especially around Sagres and Lagos. He’s also likely to be catching waves at Arrifana beach. “I love the lifestyle there, and the surf culture. Here in Peniche are a lot of pro surfers and everything is very performance and competition orientated. In the Algarve, it seems, people are friendlier, more environmentally-minded and surf because they enjoy it. There are more classic surfers, just doing what they like.”

“Surfing on a wooden board is something else,” concludes Zé. “Technically, there isn’t that much difference. Wood isn’t as flexible as polyester, but you only notice that with manoeuvres or if there are little wind-waves on the water surface.” Also the wooden boards are more rigid, thus faster. The most important difference, for the board-builder at least, lies in the fact that it’s handmade. Zé: “Surfing is more than just a sport; it’s also meditation in nature. Being in the ocean on an eco-friendly board is pretty special. And being able to catch waves on a surfboard that I’ve built with my own hands makes me feel not only good, but also very proud.”


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine November 2016

Posted in Features, People.