Grant Newby - Wooden Surfboards

When did you get your first surfboard?
I grew up in New Zealand and learned to surf with good family friends who owned a sports shop, so we all had foamies. The first stand up surfboard that I remember using was a Dunlop pig-shaped board, which I later on inherited . It took two of us to carry it down the beach. My dad thought it was easier to cut a metre out of the guts of it so he doweled it together with some broomstick handles and fiberglassed a ribbon around the middle. I reckon it was about 9'6 to start with and I think it ended up with about a 7 foot Dunlop pig.

How old were you then?
I'm guessing I was about 10 or 12.

And what drew you to surfing?
Like most places in New Zealand where I grew up was not far from the coast , we lived 8 miles away. We spent a lot of time at the beach and our family had a launch that we would spend our holidays on and the water was always near by.

What do you love about surfing?
I just love being on the ocean, I love fishing and I love scuba diving. I find surfing is just a great way to unwind. When I’m surfing I don't think about anything else really, I just love the feeling and the energy of catching a wave. Even when I’ve been injured surfing , I would never say I’d had a bad surf, It's always been a great experience.

Do you have any particular wave that stands out as being your most memorable wave?
I surf at Currumbin Alley on the Gold Coast most of the time. When we have our normal swells in winter I’ve had waves from the point right across to Lacey’s, which has to be a 400 meter ride. It’s tiring when you've got to paddle all the way back to the point, so after about four or five times of those you know you have had a great day. It's not crowded in winter, we get glassy light offshore winds down the valley and in the afternoons there’s a little bit more of a northerly build up and away you go. So yeah, it's just fantastic, I surf there most of the time because it’s very predictable, there's always a wave of some kind.

Have you done much surf traveling?
No, only Hawaii. I'm 6'3" and 120 kilos so I would need a big board to travel with which would just be a pain in the bum. I figured I am lucky to live on the Gold Coast and between Noosa and Byron there’s a lot of very good surf breaks. To go to all of that effort of humping a longboard overseas doesn't really enthuse me that much.

How did you get started building boards?
Well, I'm always building things and I looked at building an old-school-kook box Tom Blake type surfboard as a project. When I started investigating, I thought if I was going to go to all that effort, I might make something a bit more modern. I found Paul Jensen from Washington State about 10 years ago. The first surfboard I ever shaped or built was actually an 8 foot plywood fish with cork rails, hollow board. A wooden surfboard is probably the hardest one to build, so that was a bit of a challenge but I just loved it and felt really enthused.

How long did it take you?
About four months. It was very challenging because at that stage I didn't know anybody who had built a wooden surfboard. I was nutting it out all by myself which was very challenging, but rewarding.

Had you shaped any fiberglass boards before?
No, I'd never tried to build a board of any sort before.

Have you shaped any fiberglass surfboards now?
Oh, yeah. I have a go at hand shaping boards. Not fiberglassing, just shaping. I work as a production manager at an advertising agency, so I sit in front of a computer all day, so I enjoy designing boards with Aku Shaper.  It’s a great way of dreaming up new ideas without having to commit to actually doing it . I have great admiration for people who do hand shape and I'd dearly love to think that one day I’d have enough time to do that on a regular basis. It’s a real art and something you need to put a lot of time and effort into. I enjoy designing them on the computer and I pretty regularly design and make boards for other people.

How many boards would you do in a year?
Between 20 and 30.

Do you sell them or for yourself?
Both. I sell them and I have quite a quiver for myself. That’s wooden and fiberglass ones.

What sort of education have you had?
I grew up in a small town , Dargaville , in the North Island of New Zealand with a population of 5,000 people so I just went to high school there. Then I did a three-year Diploma of Graphic Design in Auckland in the 70s and then worked as an art director in advertising agencies before I moved to Australia in 1980. I've been working as a production manager for the last 22 years for the same company here on the Gold Coast. I have also worked on the Great Barrier Reef for three and a half years as a dive guide on Heron Island. And I've done quite a few different things along the way.

And what does your job involve on a day to day basis?
I organize and run our art studio. I quote jobs and have contact with outside suppliers, we do anything from signage to printing and producing TV commercials. We're the largest full service advertising agency on the Gold Coast with 14 staff. We mostly sub-specialize in real estate, hotels, resorts, golf courses, house and land packages anywhere between Cairns and Melbourne.

Any desire to build boards full time?
I don't think anybody makes too much money out of making surfboards so I won't quit my day job but I really enjoy the challenge of building them, for sure.

How did the idea come about to start up the Alley Fish Fry?
I'd read about the Fish Fry in Oceanside in California, and as it turned out, we were planning a trip to the States. At the end of that trip we went to Oceanside where I met Scott Bass and Sean Mattison who were the instigators of that event. That was about 8 years ago and I thought it was a great concept so when I came back I suggested to Jackie that we organize one here. I got a hold of them to see if they thought it was okay and as it turned out I had about six or eight Americans come out the first year and it has grown from there.

It was kind of topical then because the Fish was having a revival. It was a unique middle ground between the shortboards and longboards. The event had a place and was pretty unique in the surf industry. It was designed to celebrate a particular shape but it really became the only environment where shapers were the point of focus and could come together. It's something that's very rare in the surf industry, as you know. It took a little while for shapers to come around to the realization but it really was about them and an opportunity to experiment and showcase their skills and what they were doing, so yeah, it has become a very unique event.

I think it may well have run its course now which if fine. It has been great to be involved with such a great group of innovative shapers getting together who were willing to open up and show what they were about. I think it certainly helped with the spread of the influence of shorter , wider boards and quad fins and things like that.

Did the wooden surfboard day come out of that as well?
Yeah, it did, really and it was a natural progression. I had an interest in wooden surfboards and found there was a growing interest worldwide and a real lack of knowledge of how to go about it. Most people have a whole lot of questions and there weren't too many answers available. It has gone through a very experimental phase. The difference with the wooden surfboard is that if you change one component, it affects the whole outcome. So getting the balance right between materials and strength and weight is a real challenge. It’s human nature that most people put an awful lot of work into building a wooden surfboard and don't want it to snap first up, so they end up with very over built wooden surfboards. I think we've sort of come a bit beyond that now. A nice aspect of all of this is that most of us are pretty willing to share our experiences and assist each other, which is why my blog has become quite popular with over 600,000 pages viewed. I get emails and questions from people all the time who use it as a resource.

Why do you run these events?
Because I think there's a need. Where else do these people get together? It's pretty amazing when you can say, let's meet in the park at Currumbin Alley and people come from overseas, with a bloody great stack of surfboards and a girlfriend and they've never been to Australia before. You boil it down and that’s a fair bit of enthusiasm and support. I think there's also a lot of mutual respect amongst each amongst wooden board builders. For somebody to bring a board along to the gathering and put it on the ground and say well, mate, that's my effort and I'm proud of what I've done, because there's an awful lot of soul searching going into building your first board. Before they're through building the first one, most people are already planning the next one because it's a real journey and a challenge for most people. There's so many things to learn and consider. When you go to build a board, whether you're shaping foam or wood, you've got to design it first, so you're challenged by all of those things that you've talked about but never really considered. So it's quite a challenge. There are also many different ways and methods of building a wooden board.

Are there any particular wooden board builders you feel are at the top of their game, producing some amazing work?
Definitely Roger Hall from SurfLine Surfboards in New Zealand.  He's outstanding, he makes beautiful wooden boards, but he's a very innovative shaper in his own right. Every board he makes is a custom order, which makes him pretty unique. Also, John Cherry in San Diego, he makes beautiful wooden boards. There's more and more out there but those guys definitely stand out as having done it for a fair while, they make beautiful boards also mix some really nice timbers together.

And what do you think of the wooden board kits? Have you built any from a kit?
I have never built a board from a kit but I've hand drawn and mocked up plans on butchers paper and done it that way which is like buying a kit. Then I have done them in the computer and had them laser cut out and CNC cut out. The kit is another way to learn, and there's some great classes around as well. Using kits to find out the ins and outs and what's involved in building a board is a great way to learn what is involved. So many people have so many questions. The interesting thing is that most people who haven't built a wooden board are intrigued by what's inside. About 70% of the time, building a wooden surfboard with a frame kit is all about the internal structure which has to be really good because it effects the outcome and yet you'll never see again, you know what I mean? So it's quite a challenge.

There's lot of different ways of doing it, there's lots of different ways of achieving a really nice outcome and some people get very technical on it. You can glue up a block of balsa wood or paulownia and chamber it out and shape it .They're all going to be different.

I get people from different parts of the world who want to build a wooden surfboard and don't live by the sea and have no intention of ever surfing it, they just want to build it as a shape to stick on the wall as a beautiful piece of art.

How have your board building technics developed over time?
My progression was that I used to build plywood framed ones, with plywood skins. I have used cork rail , foam rails and experimented with different materials and glues. I soon realized that the surfboard design part of my background was probably lacking. So by using AKU shaper software, I have used it as a tool to assist me with thinking about my design so I would be happier with the outcome. I designed boards and then had them CNC cut out and built frames. Even doing it that way, though they're highly accurate, it was still quite time consuming.

Now what I use is a polystyrene core, and then I vacuum bag the paulownia over the polystyrene core, just using polyurethane glue. I came across the idea of using lanolin on the outside of the Paulownia because Paulownia is pretty waterproof in salt water as it is. By using the lanolin to nourish the timber and to add waterproofingI found that when it hits salt water, it's sticky, it's stickier than any wax you've ever used and you don't need to wax the board. That's something new that I came across just 18 months ago. I've made a lot of boards that way now and it sort of blows people away to surf on a piece of raw timber.

Firewire approached me and they have bought that idea off me and have started their new range of boards called Timbertek. They vacuum bag Paulownia to their styrene core , although they use a lot lighter weight styrene core than what I do. They couldn't get their head around the lanolin on the outside. Some one in their American office thought that, if somebody's paddling around on this thing that smells like a sheep maybe they’ll get eaten by a shark, so they use entropy epoxy resin on the outside and they just paint that on so they actually don't use any fiberglass cloth on the outside. And they use that to toughen the Paulownia, and also to seal it, and then you can wax it so it's a bit more marketable shall we say. It’s been a bit of a revelation for a lot of people too, for me to get paid a royalty by a big company like that who could have just used my idea anyway, so it was very much a good will payment. It was nice to be recognized for something I came up with in the garage at home.

Career wise, any changes ahead?
Yeah, look, you know. I'm 57 now, or very soon to be. I'm comfortable with what I'm doing. I enjoy my job and building boards is a great outlet for me. 

What do you love most about building boards?
I have lots of ideas and I like the thought of doing something with those ideas rather than dreaming about it and seeing somebody else do it. Because of the way that I build these boards now, I've got it down to a pretty good system. I have simplified it as much as I can and so I can custom build a board to whatever people want. Definitely the construction methods suits a board with a flatter rocker and I don't really make high performance short boards, I'll leave that to somebody like Firewire to do. I’ve built logs and made a lot of mini Simmons and boards along that line. I think that the wood and the styrene and everything floating and giving you the great buoyancy suits the style board that just gets up and flies on top of the water.

It's never really had many negative outcomes for me because there's plenty of people out there that I now know who are willing to give these sorts of boards a go. I get great feedback and it's just a matter of having open minded people who are willing to take the board at face value and give it a go. I never write the dimensions on a board. If it feels good , just ride it , don’t pre judge it. Just have fun.

Where can we find you online? 



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Posted by: Troy Roennfeldt, on August 1, 2013
Categories: Interviews