Isle man continues rare craft in a changing industry
The first surfboard James Fulbright ever saw almost became a coffee table, a sacrilegious degradation to a man who has devoted his life to crafting the vessels.
His uncle bought it brand new from a Houston shop in 1967, about the same time Fulbright took his first ride on his 10th birthday along the Galveston seawall. It sparked an awakening; swelling waves of energy picked him up, and euphoria set in like a drug.
“It’s almost like walking on water,” Fulbright said. “Before you do it, your brain says you can’t stand up in water.”
The addiction grew stronger, and Fulbright was hooked by high school. That’s when he got word of his uncle’s plan to sell the board to a dentist, who wanted to cut it up and build a table. He worked at a dental lab all summer to save the board from damnation.
Probably worth thousands of dollars, the longboard now stands tall in Strictly Hardcore Surf Specialities, on the corner of 37th Street and Avenue R in Galveston, where Fulbright crafts custom boards out of his shop.
Walls are lined with boards, shirts and other surf trinkets — the highest quality stuff, friends say. But tucked in a corner is a dusty shop with an open window to watch Fulbright measure and cut excess from blanks, the bulky foam blocks craftsmen transform to create a sleeker surfboard. It’s a dying tradition; boards are mostly mass-produced in overseas factories these days.
California-based Clark Foam, which produced an estimated 90 percent of blanks in the U.S. market, abruptly ceased all production in December 2005. Owner Gordon “Grubby” Clark reportedly destroyed his molds and equipment, alluding to problems with environmental regulators targeting his polyurethane-foam chemicals. It created a vacuum in the industry, eventually filled by factory-made boards with model names like vehicles on an assembly line.
But Fulbright’s small shop prevailed. He dropped out of Texas A&M University after four years of pursuing a degree in architecture, a decision his family didn’t like, but one he needed to make.
“All surfers, once they get hooked on surfing, they want to do anything in their power to stay in surfing, to make a living out of surfing,” Fulbright said.
In surfing hot spots such as Hawaii or California, known for massive waves, it’s possible to go professional. But in Texas, with the smaller waves typically measured by body part — knee-high or waist-high, for example — another route is required. After working in a shop and getting laid off during the slow winter season, Fulbright in 1985 decided to open his own shop repairing dings — the common dents and scuffs found on boards. The shop grew organically with a grass roots following.
“James has stayed really true to where those roots are,” longtime friend and Beach Patrol Chief Peter Davis said. “I think he’s got a following that stays true to him because he only has the best, rather than newest or cheapest style.”
Besides crafting newer styles such as shortboards — Fulbright said they’re not as useful as longboards in the small Texas surf, but kids see them in magazines. He also recreates customers’ boards from generations past. Meticulously measuring, outlining with self-created templates and cutting the foam blanks is a labor-intensive process, Fulbright said. But he’s only had one lesson in the art.
“It’s kind of like surfing,” Fulbright said. “Somebody can give you the generalized thing, but they can’t hold the tools for you. You have to learn to surf on your own after that first lesson.”
And Fulbright, 57, still does his fair share of surfing, traveling around the world during the winter, when Texas waters cool down. But he’s not searching for the tallest wave, only the most consistent and steady one of highest quality. Fulbright is from a traditional generation of surfers, not in it for competition but the style, Davis said. The same could be said of his craftsmanship.
“I don’t want to say we’re going to be dinosaurs and irrelevant because I think we’ll always be able to build some specialty things,” Fulbright said. “But it’s kind of steering in a different direction. I’m just going to ride it out.”