Rusty: 2008 Shaper of the Year

posted by / News / November 30, 2007

It’s official. Rusty Preisendorfer is SURFING Magazine’s 2008 Shaper of the Year. Not because he’s been building great boards since the ’60s. Not because he’s been essential to world champs like Peter Townend, Shaun Tomson and Mark Occhilupo. But because RIGHT NOW, Rusty is applying his decades of experience, his incredible relationship with pro surfers, and his pure joy for the art of creating surfboards to the vast array of options suddenly available to shapers in the post-Clark Foam revolution. As he says himself, “This is the greatest time ever to be shaping surfboards.” It really is. The field is wide open. The ideas are all over the map. And while creativity is king, it still takes a firm grounding in the practicality of surfboard construction — from complex hydrodynamics to basic economics — to make it work from the everyday surfer. And that’s Rusty in a nutshell. An artist with plenty of business experience. A grounded craftsman with the foundation of success to support wild experimentation. And, quiet simply, a surfer, and a great lover of surfboards. He is exactly the sort of godfather this evolutionary explosion needs to find its footing.

Congratulations, Rusty. And thank you.

You’ve probably already seen this interview in the mag. But every interview SURFING Mag runs is trimmed to fit in the space of that issue. Now and again, however, for the truly interested reader or the truly interesting subject, we like to allow you the chance to listen in on the entire conversation. So here it is. Uncut. Unedited. Unfiltered. The Rusty Preisendorfer “Shaper of the Year” interview. Surfboard lovers everywhere, enjoy. —Nathan Myers

SURFING MAGAZINE: DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST BOARD YOU SHAPED?

RUSTY PREISENDORFER: Yeah, around 1880 or something like that. When I started shaping it was just ripe for garage guys. I had a handful of friends who were all budding garage shapers. My first couple of boards were made at Charlie Ramsey’s house. He lived down at La Jolla shores and his parents had a chicken coop on their land. We evicted the chickens and turned it into a little surfboard factory. We had Mitch’s, and we could buy a second blank for $20, a gallon of resin for $5 and so on. I think I’d shape and glass the whole thing for $30. Meanwhile, the surfboards in shops had already gone from long to shorter, but the change was happening so fast that there was no real one particular direction in surfboard design that was right or cutting edge. You had Australian influences, Hawaiian influences, West Coast influences, even East Coast influences. So, board design was all over the place as guys were trying to make boards shorter and reinvent rocker and rails. And so it was ripe for garage shapers. The big guys were having a hard time reacting to get ‘em into shops in the old school way of thinking. And running a surfboard business just wasn’t working. So, it really nurtured that whole movement.

WERE YOU JUST EYEBALLING YOUR SHAPES AT THAT TIME?

Back then it was pretty limited in terms of numbers. We might measure the tail and nose a foot back, and rocker in the early days…it was pretty artistic.

Some guys had some rocker curves hidden away. Back then, it was such an art, the more established shapers didn’t want to let their bag of tricks out to just anybody. Even after I started shaping, I kept getting boards from other shapers ’cause I just wanted to learn. Dick Brewer was an early influence. I tried to get in the room with him a few times and he caught wind that I was an aspiring young shaper and he barred me. He built my boards, but I didn’t get to hang out and watch. But I got a job at G&S pretty early on.

WHAT SHAPERS WERE YOUR BIGGEST INFLUENCES EARLY ON?

Brewer and Diff and Hynson. Skip Fry when I started shaping at G&S in ’72. Some of the guys there were Skip Fry and Mike Hyson, John Holly and Hoy Reynolds, who now works here. Eaton showed up a few years later. Mike was a pretty influential shaper at that time, and he had a lot of good guys on his boards. So, I got to see the full spectrum. I’d go to Hawaii and check out al the Brewer and Gerry influenced shapes, then back in San Diego working with G&S. Skip was really influenced by the Australian guys with all their egg shapes and flatter rockers. 70/30 or {{{80}}}/20 rails. Completely different direction than the guys in Hawaii were going. I loved it all. I soaked it all in and wanted to be able to shape any of those types of boards. So, I spent a lot of time honing my skills as a craftsman so I was able to execute my ideas. I mean, if you don’t have good control of your tools, you’re struggling to make your vision come to life.

HOW LONG WERE YOU WITH G&S?

1972, 1973, ’74 was G&S. I took my first trip to Australia. Out of college in ’71, I did a couple hundred boards that I called Starlight Boards, with Eliot Raven. People might know him now from FlexDeck skateboard. Then I worked for G&S for three years. I spent a year in Australia living across from Kirra Point and just surfing my brains out. That’s when I met {{{Rabbit}}}. He was one of the first pros to get a board from me. He just fell in love with one of my 8-foot guns, he’d just won a Queensland Junior title and wanted to buy it off. Fond memories. That was the first big name guy to get one of my boards.

So, I came back with the notion of going into business for myself and I dreamed up this name Music Surfboards, ’cause everybody listens to music before you surf or after you surf. I did that for about a year or year and half, and I ended up at a shop called {{{Canyon}}} Glass. Then I went back to school for three years, finished up and got a degree in visual arts. By the time I was finishing up, the guy who owned Canyon, John Durwood, approached me and said, “Gimme all your shaping, and I’ll do all the glassing.” We combined work. So, we built the Canyon label together ’78 through ’85. I could rattle off all the names, but that’s when Occy started riding my boards. I was building boards for half the top 16. PT I’d met in ’72 at the world contest and we always stayed in touch. He referred Ian to me. I built Shaun Tomson models. Dave Parmenter got his first boards from me in ’83. It just started to snowball until ’84 and ’85, so many top riders were coming to me for boards, but I didn’t have an equity position. I just a contract shaper at Canyon. I was doing all the shaping. I was kind of a machine. I’d handshape five or six boards a day, there was even a period when I was airbrushing them too. So, I’d shape all day, airbrush in the evening, and somehow still find time in the evening to go out and be social.

TIMES LIKE CAN BE GOOD FOR YOU, BUT THEY’RE HARD, TOO.

I was really working hard. And because I didn’t own the business, I just decided to move on. It was kinda scary, ’cause I’d been there twice before. Once with Starlight, once with Music, but now I felt like I’d matured a lot and learned a lot about the business side of things. People knew who I was and there was a lot of good surfers on my boards. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.

I got married in ’84 and was thinking about kids. I always had pretty simple needs: drove the same old truck, paid a ${{{100}}} rent, and did the whole dirt-bag surfer thing for years. And that was fine for me. But wanting to get married and start a family, I realized I had a lot more responsibility. And the only way to get ahead like that was to go into business for myself and do a reasonable job at it. So, in July of ’85, I left Canyon and started the Rusty Label.

JUMPING TO THE PRESENT TENSE: CAN YOU GIVE SOME BACKGROUND WITH WHAT HAPPENED WITH RUSTY CLOTHING COMPANY OVER THE LAST YEAR?

I’d been pretty actively involved on the apparel side of things, at least from a marketing and sales standpoint. The old licensee jobs was the develop product and ship it, but over time it got more complicated than that. And, as an artist, I was being pulled away from what I love to do, which is shape. My contribution to the brand and the company is in that arena — I best serve the brand doing what I love to do. But I was getting pulled into the day-to-day stuff with the clothing and having to be involved, and over time it wasn’t that enjoyable. And I was missing the serenity of my shaping room and the feeling of fulfillment I get from making boards for people. Whether it’s friends or customers or our team guys.

So, about three or four years ago, I embarked on trying to simplify my life a little. Back away from the clothing side of it and focus more on the boards. After looking at a few different directions, I ended up just selling my controlling interest of the clothing side of things to our Australian licensee. It was nice because we’re all like-minded people. They all love to surf. And I just thought they’d be good custodians of the brand.

WHAT WAS THE SPARK WITH TRYING TO SIMPLIFY?

I guess part of it is turning 50 and having kids that were just about out of high school. My two kids were about to graduate and, aside from building boards, there was a lot of other things I wanted to do. More surf trips. When I was younger I used to do a lot of art, paint and draw. I took up golf late in life. So, just things like that. I was 50 and I’d been building boards for 60% of my adult life. And I’ll always build surfboards, that’s what I love to do. It was the other stuff that was starting to wear me out. So, I just said to myself, one by one, I’m going to peal away the anchors and focus on the good stuff.

SEEMS LIKE THE PLAN IS WORKING OUT WELL FOR YOU.

Yeah, I’m really in a pretty good place right now. Real happy with how things turned out on the apparel side of things. About two or three years ago, I think there was a perception out there that I was too busy or unavailable or unapproachable to shape boards for anyone except for maybe the elite or the team guys. That actually couldn’t be further form the truth. I went through a period, after years of shaping for the pros, where I was just having fun shaping boards for the bros, for my friends. And some of the other guys at the factory – Rick Hammond and Mike Russo, Terry Goldsmith and Hoy Reynolds, I do want to give them props. Bill Johnson used to work here, and before that John Carper – so we’ve always kind of approached it as a team here. I’ll always give these guys props, because they’re great shapers, too, and we’ve kinda handled all the responsibilities at the factory as a team. It’s fun. But, I think there was a perception that I was unavailable, unapproachable, or too busy, and I think that may have segued into, “Well, gee, does he still even shape?” At one point someone, as a joke, made me a hat that says, “Yes, I still shape.” So, during that cleansing and reinvention process, I started to get back into the trenches more and started working more with pros and team guys.

HAVING MADE BOARDS FOR FOUR DECADES, THE LAST COUPLE YEARS SEEM LIKE A REALLY BIG TURNING POINT FOR THE WHOLE INDUSTRY, BUT IS THAT A CYCLICAL EVENT?

When you’re immersed in it, you’re involved in making change day after day, so you don’t see it, but I think there have been a few big ones. Obviously, that winter of ’67/’68, when boards just went from long to short; you could see it in the magazines, one company doing ads for 9’0”s and another doing ads for 7’6” vee-bottoms. The transition was pretty rapid and pretty all-encompassing. I’d say another pivotal period was the introduction of the Thruster. And then from ’81 until a couple of years ago I think we just went through a process of refining and developing the Thruster. Tom Curren started dabbling in Fishes and alternatives boards, what, ten years ago, and got everyone off that generic 6’2” squash mindset and things started opening up a little bit. But I would say, no doubt, the Clark Foam closure was like a tipping point.

THE INDUSTRY WAS PRIMED FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN.


Rusty test pilot Josh Kerr

There’s no question there was some percolating going on pre-Clark closure, but — no pun intended — it was the catalyst. It catalyzed a lot of us. It definitely catalyzed me into going, “It’s time for a change. We need to look at new materials and new constructions.” I’d been wrestling in my mind for a couple years whether or not to go the Surftech route, ’cause I really thought that it was important to preserve the art and the tradition of the surfboard making in the US, because we love custom boards. We make custom boards. And we’re here for anybody and everybody who loves custom boards. Just watching the impact of the Asian imports changing the markets, a lot of us tried to fight it, but in the end the customer always has the final say.

SO, WHAT WAS YOUR SOLUTION?

All those things were weighing on a lot of us board builders. How do we keep ourselves unique? How do we grow? How do we evolve? Is polyurethane/polyester really the end of the road for surfboards? That’s like someone 80 years ago saying, “Wood is the only way.” I’d been dabbling, looking at multiple types of carbon fibers, molded boards, the Surftech-types of construction. I’d built EPS boards in the ‘80s, because of the wave pools. A lot of the sailboard guys can take a lot of credit for where we are today, because a long time ago they had to build a light, strong, durable boards. They figured it out 20 years ago and have been evolving it since.

BUT ARE ANY SAILBOARDS MADE IN THE U.S. ANYMORE?

No. But surfing’s different. I think there’s room for a lot of different business models. I honestly have a hard time finding good experienced craftsmen to help out. Not only from a shaping standpoint, but glassing, too. That’s even more daunting. I put ads on all the “help wanted” sites six or eight months ago trying to find some experienced epoxy glassers and I got one response. And that was a guy who didn’t have any experience, but he wanted to learn. Everyone loves to ride surfboards, but it’s a labor of love to make ‘em. It always has been and it still is.

THE WAY THINGS ARE GOING, THERE’S NOT REALLY MANY YOUNG SHAPERS COMING UP, ARE THERE?

The end game is so different than it was ten years ago. The whole industry has matured so much. Back when I was a young shaper, the romantic notion of shaping for top surfers, that was good enough. I never thought I’d own a house or a nice car, but to make a good surfboard or make boards for good surfers, that was happiness. But there are still some young shapers out there. I love talking to ‘em. Sometimes I’ll meet someone in the water. Some of ‘em are into longboard retro thing, some are into shortboards, some have a little niche… I think it’s a great time. In my 35 going on 40 years of shaping, this is the most exciting time I’ve ever experienced in terms of building boards. It’s not just my mind-set, it’s a collective mindset. There are so many people out there trying to develop new product. I’ve got people coming to me all the time with different cores, resins, skins, stringers, rods, structural stuff, suspension systems, not to mention the fin evolution that’s happened in the last five years.

LAST YEAR WE ASKED YOU WHAT YOU THOUGHT WOULD EMERGE FROM ALL THESE CHANGES AND YOU SAID YOU WERE IN A “WAIT AND SEE” MODE. IN YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT IS THE MOST VIABLE OPTION OF THE NEW MATERIALS WE’RE SEEING?

Clearly, the EPS/epoxy construction. When Clark closed, the first 24 hours were pretty traumatic. Everybody was calling everybody. We were so cold-cocked and so flipped out, the foam was still smoking and we were all calling each other going, “What are you gonna do? Where are you gonna get foam.” I’ve always had a great relationship with [25-year epoxy proponent] Greg Loehr, so when the shit hit the fan I got on the phone with Greg and said, “OK, let’s try this EPS thing again.” Now, I’m a newcomer in the EPS world. I am not laying claim to being an innovator or a pioneer. But we built some and we rode ‘em and the impact on how strong they were and how well they worked, I just said, “I have to get behind this. I have to believe in this.” I embraced it. Part of it was survival, but part of it was just that it really felt good.

HOW WERE OTHER PEOPLE’S REACTIONS TO THE CHANGE?

Well, the team riders, they’re always a bit hesitant to embrace a new feel, because they have the anxiety of having to perform in a heat the next day. But the average guy, 99.9% of them don’t want to go back to the old stuff. For the average guy in average conditions, it’s hard to beat the feel. It’s so light, durable and responsive. And to me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I believe the real future is in sandwich construction. And we can do custom composites. I think it’s good that [SURFING] recognized Stretch [2006 Shaper of the Year], ’cause he’s been doing this stuff for a while, and then Firewire got the nod last year. It just validates that that’s the direction we’re all going. I think in ten years when we look back, we’ll be saying that ’06 and ’07 was a pivotal time of change. You just don’t see guys on the golf course wood clubs or guys racing with steel bikes. Or skis. All these sports. And you got to give props to Randy [French, Surftech owner], too, for persevering. The original Surftech construction may not be what things are gonna look like in ten years, but we had to start somewhere. And that’s what brought that type of construction and awareness to the mass market and made people willing to change what they’re riding. And the one thing we’re battling right now is the stigma of the original type of construction. The upside is obviously strength and lightness, the downside is obviously lack of flex. And, in my mind, flex is one of the most crucial elements in a board’s performance.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Leave a Reply