It is 4:45 am, not even close to dawn. The air is crisp and cold dew covers every outdoor surface. Gary Larson is awake, drinking coffee… lots of cream, lots of sugar. Before the sky shows it’s first shades of purple, he is staring down at the solitary black line at the bottom of a pool. Four mornings a week, like clock work, Gary is in the water at Saddleback College. Anyone who swims knows, mentally, it is only you against yourself. The loudest roar of a crowd can’t be heard over the sound of your own strokes. The discipline and self motivation required to get into an outdoor pool that early says much about Gary’s character. It also serves a a glimpse into his heart as a shaper.
I treat shaping as a hobby not a job.
At 15, after sweeping the floors in Steve Boehne’s shaping room for a while, he crafted his first board. “The first board.. it took about 5 hours. I finished it, signed it, picked it up, put it back down and broke it in half, and put it in the dumpster. Not because I was angry… I knew I could do better; I didn’t want anyone to see it.” His dissatisfaction with his first effort, and his desire to live up to his self imposed expectations, served him well. He went on to become a full time production shaper for Infinity. 4 boards a day 9:30-6. Working alongside Larry Cobb, Ryan Engle, Steve Boehne and his son Dan Boehne. At that time, it was Steve and Dan who had the greatest influence on Gary’s work. “Seeing Dan shape, watching him make these contemporary shortboards… then being able to see Steve as an incredible longboard shaper, a throwback.. having that dichotomy, it is what makes me shape today.. it was that influence.”
There is not a board that I don’t like to make.
Working at Infinity, he would volunteer to shape anything and everything. Shortboards, longboards, prone paddleboards, balsa… whatever was on the order card, he would learn to make it. Always self motivating to do better, even though his name rarely appears in a swirling signature down the stringer. He never wanted to get bored in the shaping room. He didn’t want to be considered someone who could only make one kind of board. Where as, most of us want to find our comfort zone and stay in it, Gary is the opposite, he likes to stretch his limits. To this day his curiosity and desire is present “I love seeing other shapers boards… especially the ones my friends call magic.. how the edges are tucked under, fin placement, rocker flow… minor nuances that only someone who looks at boards everyday would see.”
The day after Clark Foam closed I went out and bought 3 big blocks of EPS foam to shape 3 prone paddleboards. I wanted to keep shaping, so I made prone to keep going.
The shaping room…
Looking into Gary’s shaping room today, you see a man peacefully going about his work. Barefooted and wearing headphones, the only noise in the room is the sound of tools on foam. Streaming into his ears isn’t what you would think… not music.. always something that catches his curiosity. A favorite is This American Life, but any debate across the spectrum; economic, scientific or political will do, but never music. As a rule, Gary’s shaping room door is closed. If he could lock it, he would. He is in his world when he shapes. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to talk to you, he will talk to you all day about subjects like clouds and the weather, and he would tell you that, yes, in fact, tides can be explained. But in the room, he likes to go about his business uninterrupted. You can’t blame him for not wanting to stop and chat throughout the day, shapers are paid by the board, not by the hour.
A lifelong love of learning lead Gary to a Masters degree. “I really loved grad school. The idea of presenting ideas and thoughts and having them so highly critiqued appealed to me. The misconception of school is ‘what did your degree get you?’ it is not about how much money my degree gets me, but am I getting everything out of it that I should. Am I interacting enough with like minded people...?”
Our conversation meanders through Gary’s life, interesting tid bits of information pop up… like his brief month long stint as a valet right after the closure of Clark Foam. A certain multi-time World Tour Champion needed his car parked, after getting it down to the garage, Gary and an unnamed friend removed all the boards from the car, laid them all out in the garage and meticulously inspected each one. Always learning, even when the surfing business was at a halt, and his future was uncertain.
We bring the conversation back to the making of a stock board. How do you start a board for a yet unnamed rider? “I start by looking at the destination.. if it is an Uncle Buck headed for Dana Point, I start thinking it is going to be surfed at SanO. Then I think of the wave and how the average surfer in the water would ride it… when I started surfing, I just wanted to surf and get waves…. when I make a stock board, I don’t think of surfers like Bucky Barry or Tyler Warren… I think about the average guy or girl in the water and make it for them.” When you think back to that first off the rack board that you loved, it was in fact designed just for you. The stock shapers already saw you riding the wave, they already knew what break you were going to surf at… they knew it was for you before you ever walked into the shop.
If I only could make one board, I would make a 3 stringer traditional longboard with 50 50 rails, no hard edge, all curves... pleasing to the eye.
Coming to work for Hobie in 2005 (the year Clark Foam closed) was a huge moment for Gary. “Just working with Terry Martin.. because I look up to him… I was so nervous to shape right next to him, literally, right next to him… I said as few words as possible to him. Part of it was being nervous, I didn’t want to come off the wrong way; more of it was, I saw him and still see him as the greatest surfboard shaper ever.” Hobie itself is overwhelming for some of us that come to work here in any capacity. Truly, when you go in for your interview, you walk by not only the iconic board from the Endless Summer, but under some of Hobie Alter’s most masterful creations. “The history of the label, you don’t want to let anyone down… you are so focused on doing the best, while you are thinking of all the names that have come before you… not many labels are like Hobie, there is a tradition of hand shaping surfboards, plenty of labels have been around forever, but there is something about it… globally; sailboats, kayaks, all of it, it humbles you.” As it should.
A surfboard is a piece of plastic. That is all it is. We provide the soul. Always have. Whether you make it or just ride it. -Sam George
“If I see a board that I shaped and it is yellow, dinged up and ridden into the ground… it makes me happy. I don’t shape things to sit, they are supposed to be in the water, it is why shapers do what they do.” Gary Larson.