In red barns, garages and small shops, local craftsmen carry on the tradition of handmade surfboards
Speed is everything when it comes to a quality shortboard, said Bob Martin, a Dickinson resident renowned for crafting surfboards.
“A quick turn, it’s all about that,” Martin said. “When you put it on its rail in a curve, it should feel like stepping on a gas pedal.”
Martin has manufactured boards since he was 19 years old. He started shaping because of a girl, he said. Martin’s would-be girlfriend in 1969 had a younger brother who was desperate for a shortboard but had no money. To impress the girl, Martin acquired an old longboard at a time when they were going out of fashion in favor of the quicker, shorter versions.
Martin stripped the board of its fiberglass, then reshaped it into a shorter version. He had read about how to do it, and it worked.
Martin soon shaped boards for all his friends and got offered a job by Doug’s Surfboards, which later was called Doug’s Surf and Dive Shop in Galveston, and which has since gone out of business. The owner told Martin he wasn’t hired for his skill, but because the shop had an order of 100 boards that needed shaping. Martin isn’t certain he shaped all those boards that summer, but he knows he learned enough to strike out on his own, he said.
Martin has shaped boards for more than 35 years now. In the 1980s, he owned a surfboard label called Hurricane and ran his own production crew, but has since sold the trading rights. These days, he refers to himself as a retired shaper who wasn’t able to give it up. A red barn off FM 517 in Dickinson is his workshop, which is more reminiscent of a Budweiser commercial stage set than a surfboard shaper’s lair. But the sticky-sweet fumes of fiberglass cloth saturated with resin emanates from the open doors. Martin produces about five boards a month. They’re all tailored to his clients’ requests.
Martin doesn’t promote is work. But people know about him and his boards.
“It’s all word-of-mouth or Facebook,” Martin said about finding clients.
Martin has various seasoned surfers testing designs for him. The shaping process is an art, said Tasha Rivard, a Galveston surfer who tries out boards for Martin. After a rough shape has been cut from a block of expanded polystyrene, it’s gradually formed and smoothed with a hot wire cutter and sanding devices. A wooden stringer is placed in the middle of the board as an I-beam for rigidity. Once the shape is formed to satisfaction, it’s covered with fiberglass. Logos and designs printed on rice paper are laminated into the fiberglass.
A few months ago, Martin adapted digital drawing programs for his computer to work on ideas that before he tested by trial and error on a board. Now a client can sit with him in front of the computer screen to make adjustments, instead of watching Martin shape for hours.
“Once you find a design that works, you stick with it,” Martin said. “But there’s always room for improvement.”
Good surfers do best with boards about the length of their bodies, Martin said. Martin shapes anything from 5-foot to 11-foot longboards that are ideal for learning or enjoying the often sluggish waves in Galveston.
“If you can surf in Galveston, you can surf anywhere,” Martin said.
Martin is among several notable surfboard shapers in a factory-built world.
For his 12th birthday, Texas City-based surfboard shaper Mat Wyatt asked his father for a surfboard. Wyatt got to choose one from James Fulbright, who owns Strictly Hardcore Surf Specialties in Galveston at 37th Street and Avenue R.
Wyatt decided right out of high school to become a professional shaper. He learned by watching others on the job. To raise money to buy shaping equipment, he first produced a line of T-shirts bearing his label’s name, Rise Surf Co. When he sold enough shirts, he got started with machinery. Until last month, he worked out of his island garage and sold boards and accessories from his shop on 21st Street North in Texas City.
Last month, he moved his shaping equipment into his shop, which will allow him better operating hours, said Wyatt, who also is a full-time firefighter with the Texas City Fire Department.
Wyatt wants to exclusively sell his own surfboard designs this summer. The surfing community is very supportive of local shapers, he said.
“I learned by trial and error, so my garage is fairly full with error boards,” Wyatt said.
It takes Wyatt between four to six weeks to complete a board from scratch. Eventually, Wyatt would like to shape paddle boards as well, an alternative for bad-wave days. He also sells skateboards he designed and shaped himself.
“I’m not trying to create the best board ever, as that is impossible, but the board that works best for the surfer,” Wyatt said.
James Fulbright, the man Wyatt got his first board from, has been in the shaping business for more than 30 years and doesn’t plan to quit any time soon.
Fulbright’s store, Strictly Hardcore Surf Specialties, is off the beaten tourist path in Galveston. Fulbright likes the idea of having a neighborhood store, because it reminds people of times when the local surf shop was part of the community, he said.
Visitors can watch Fulbright work in the back section of his shop. Fulbright started out as a dealer of used surfboards and made repairs in his own garage. The garage became a workshop and soon a business. Fulbright has been a shaper since 1985.
A seasoned surfer himself, he now takes advantage of semiretirement and hops a plane to Mexico on any given day, if the waves are better there. Chances are, if his shop is closed, Fulbright is surfing. The sign on his shop’s door says: “Closed when surf is good.”